Kent Bazemore (Getty Images)If VCU's departure this week was a punch to the gut for the CAA, then Old Dominion's exit is an even more crippling blow.
The Monarchs will announce Thursday afternoon that they're leaving for Conference USA in 2013, a decision that will soon leave the CAA without two of its three premier programs over the last decade. Adding to the anguish, the league will have just seven teams eligible to compete in its conference tournament next year unless it breaks with policy and allows Old Dominion to participate.
What the loss of Old Dominion and VCU means for the CAA is it will be difficult for the league to land multiple NCAA tournament bids for the foreseeable future. Unless an upper echelon CAA program like George Mason or Drexel radically upgrades its non-conference schedule and thrives against those top teams, the weakened league slate will make at-large bids an extreme long shot.
The CAA has said it will look into expansion to replace the ODU, VCU and Georgia State, but replacing programs of that caliber will not be easy. The best-case scenario might be adding Charleston and Davidson, two tradition-rich Southern Conference programs who in time might be able to contend in the CAA and help the league grow again.
Keeping Old Dominion would have made it far easier for the league to absorb the loss of VCU, but the Monarchs' football-driven dalliance with Conference USA apparently was too great an opportunity to pass up.
While Old Dominion's three-year-old football program has emerged quickly as a national contender at the FCS level, the Monarchs had no guarantee another FBS conference would make them an offer in five years if they chose to bypass this one. As a result, school officials eventually accepted it after a prolonged evaluation period, gambling that they can upgrade their infrastructure and facilities to prepare for the move sooner than expected.
"While the university was not actively seeking a change, recent events necessitated an earlier consideration of our future, and in particular, for our football program," Old Dominion president John R. Broderick said in the release. "C-USA's invitation provided the right opportunity at the right time to reclassify our football program and broaden the national footprint of our athletic program."
Old Dominion basketball won't have any problem competing right away in a watered-down Conference-USA, which is deeper than the league the Monarchs are leaving but not any stronger at the top.
With Memphis, Houston, SMU and Central Florida all bound for the Big East, Conference USA had to scramble to replace those teams. Adding FIU, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Charlotte and Texas-San Antonio creates a bloated jumbo-sized league that is still likely to struggle to produce more than one or two NCAA tournament bids more often than not.
Still, Old Dominion found a satisfactory home for basketball while its burgeoning football program attempts to make the transition to the sport's top level. That's a victory for the Monarchs and massive loss for the CAA.