Butler can thrive in Atlantic 10 despite step up in competition

If anyone was still clinging to the charming yet antiquated notion of Butler as college basketball's little engine that could, Wednesday's announcement the Bulldogs are joining the Atlantic 10 should finally shatter that myth once and for all.

Ditching the backwaters of the Horizon League for a stronger, more high-profile league is a step up in class the program has been building toward since even before the first of its back-to-back national title game appearance in 2010 and 2011.

Yes, Butler will have to upgrade its facilities, increase its guarantee game budget and keep recruiting at a high level to annually contend in the Atlantic 10, but that evolution was already underway long before Wednesday's news conference.

Twenty-six percent of Butler's athletic budget was spent on men's basketball last season, a commitment comparable to the 31 percent Gonzaga currently allots. The school extended coveted coach Brad Stevens' contract through the 2021-22 season at a salary believed to be more than $1 million per year and is in the midst of giving historic Hinkle Fieldhouse a $25 million facelift.

On the recruiting front, Butler also has altered its approach since 2010. Stevens still puts a premium on finding high-character kids willing to adapt to his "Butler Way," yet the Bulldogs have also recruited more well-known talent that would have been outside their grasp before the notoriety the Final Four runs provided.

They were a finalist along with North Carolina and Indiana for Cody Zeller, one of the nation's top centers in the 2011 class. They landed Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke, a sharpshooter coveted by many elite programs. They signed top 100 prospect Kellen Dunham in the Class of 2012. And they secured a commitment from top 100 power forward Nolan Berry and have offers out to at least a trio of other even more highly ranked Class of 2013 recruits.

A new practice facility and more charter flights to games are conveniences that would certainly help Butler regularly compete for high-level prospects, but the move to the Atlantic 10 can only assist that. While travel costs will increase because of the distance between Butler and some of its new conference foes, greater TV exposure and ticket revenue from regular visits from the likes of Xavier, Dayton and Saint Louis will likely make up for that and more.

If Butler can withstand the increased competition, the advantages to the Atlantic 10 over the Horizon League are plentiful.

Whereas the Horizon League has seldom produced multiple NCAA tournament teams in its history, the Atlantic 10 has regularly put three or four teams into March Madness in recent years. That increased competition will allow Butler to pick and choose its spots in non-conference play rather than loading up its November and December schedule with every high-major it can find in an effort to give itself hope of an at-large bid.

Butler wasn't winning the Horizon League every year, so it's unrealistic to think the Bulldogs will finish in the top two of the Atlantic 10 each season either. But this was a logical next step for Butler in its evolution from underdog darling to national threat.

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