VCU’s move to the Atlantic 10 is a risk the Rams had to take

Jeff Eisenberg

For anyone either unable or unwilling to endure the 20 minutes of administrative blather that accompanied VCU's announcement it's headed to the Atlantic 10, here's the gist of school president Michael Rao's justification for the decision.

He believes VCU has outgrown the CAA. He thinks VCU is prepared for a major step up in competition. And he expects the money generated by longterm success in the Atlantic 10 to outweigh the short-term costs of making the switch.

Ultimately that's the gamble the Rams are taking by making the leap next fall to the league generally considered to be the nation's best outside the power six.

Yes, they're forfeiting about $5 million in revenue from their 2011 Final Four appearance. Yes, they must pay $250,000 exit fee to the CAA and a $700,000 entrance fee to the A-10. Yes, they're driving up annual travel costs about $150,000 by trading a regional league for one with farther-flung programs. But those expenditures eventually will be worthwhile as long as the Atlantic 10's soon-to-be-negotiated TV deal is lucrative and VCU thrives in its new league the way Rao believes it can.

"Sometimes you have to focus on what's in the longterm best interest of your university," Rao said. "One of the things you have to consider is ... how much faith do you have in your ability to win? My faith is very, very high. I believe we will win, and therefore we will be able to do well. The expected returns are far greater than the short-term losses."

VCU will begin competing in the Atlantic 10 in the 2012-13 school year, a decision made out of concern that the CAA would render the Rams ineligible to participate in conference tournaments during their lame-duck season.

What the Atlantic 10 provides VCU basketball that the CAA can't is a league formidable enough to annually earn three or four NCAA tournament bids per year. The CAA has been on an upswing since George Mason's 2006 Final Four run, yet it's only received four at-large bids since 2000 and its league champ, Drexel, missed the NCAA tournament last season despite a gaudy 16-2 conference record.

VCU will have to out-duel the likes of Xavier, Dayton, Saint Louis and Butler to contend for league titles and NCAA tournament berths, but there's no evidence to suggest the Rams aren't capable of that.

Under coaches Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant, VCU made three appearances in the NCAA tournament in six years, notching an opening-round victory over Duke in 2007. The Rams have parlayed increased financial commitment and improved recruiting into even greater strides under current coach Shaka Smart, making the Final Four in 2011 and the round of 32 last season and cracking some early preseason top 25s for next year.

The move to the Atlantic 10 may mark the end of VCU's longstanding rivalries with Old Dominion and George Mason, but a potential two matchups a year with city rival Richmond should help soften the blow. Furthermore, Smart said in a statement that VCU plans "to maintain our key rivalries with CAA teams, now and in the future," suggesting the Rams will at least attempt to schedule the Patriots and Monarchs in annual non-league games.

"We are extremely excited by the opportunity to join the Atlantic 10 Conference," Smart said. "It is a phenomenal league, made up of programs with both rich traditions and recent track records of success."

Maybe the biggest risk in VCU's decision to leave the CAA is the league could be vulnerable to being raided. If the basketball schools in the Big East ever broke off and formed their own league, Xavier, Dayton and perhaps other Atlantic 10 schools would be obvious candidates to receive invitations from that league.

Still, in this age of conference realignment, few decisions are 100 percent safe.

VCU's move to the A-10 doesn't come without risks. But they were risks the Rams had to take.