Six weeks after the first reports that VCU and George Mason were considering leaving the Colonial Athletic Association for the Atlantic 10, the two mid-major powers still appear to be weighing the pros and cons of such a move.
It's unclear what George Mason's and VCU's timetable is for making a decision, but here's a list of five questions administrators from both schools are likely considering during the process.
• Will the Atlantic 10 stay intact? Although the strength at the top of the Atlantic 10 makes it an upgrade over the CAA, the concern for George Mason and VCU is the league could be vulnerable to being raided as a result of the instability in the Big East. 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. Skim the cream off the top of the Atlantic 10, and the league suddenly doesn't look that much more appealing than the CAA.
• Is the increased competition a pro or con? The obvious advantage to Atlantic 10 over the CAA is the likelihood it annually earns three or four NCAA tournament bids. The CAA has generated momentum as a result of increased league-wide commitment to basketball in the wake of George Mason's 2006 Final Four run, yet it still has only produced four at-large bids since 2000, three of which came from Mason or VCU. League champ Drexel went 16-2 in the CAA yet was left out of the field of 68, whereas the Atlantic 10 produced four NCAA tournament teams last season alone. The only caveat is a top-three finish in the Atlantic 10 will not be easy. Say the upper-echelon of a new-look Atlantic 10 becomes Xavier, Dayton, Butler, Saint Louis, Richmond, George Mason and VCU. Even if the league annually produces four NCAA tournament teams, that means three from that group won't make it.
• Are the rivalries gained better than the ones lost? A move to the Atlantic 10 for George Mason and VCU would likely mark the end of both their longstanding rivalries with in-state foes James Madison and Old Dominion. Perhaps those games could still exist annually in non-league play, but hurt feelings from conference realignment have scuttled other rivalries in the past. On the other hand, both VCU and George Mason would gain natural geographic rivals in the Atlantic 10 in addition to one-another. VCU and city rival Richmond could potentially play twice a year instead of just once if the Atlantic 10 were to go to a two-division format. And Orange-line rival George Washington would be a natural annual opponent for George Mason.
• Which TV deal is more appealing? It would be easier to compare the pros and cons here if we knew the breakdown of how much each CAA and Atlantic 10 school was getting, but the revenue isn't the only factor here. The Atlantic 10 re-upped with ESPN last year, signing a two-year deal guaranteeing teams from the league will make at least 32 appearances on ESPN's family of networks each season. The CAA, on the other hand, broke away from ESPN in favor of the NBC Sports Network, gambling that being the top dog on a fledgling network would be more beneficial than being one of the numerous leagues on the World Wide Leader's airways. Again the money — and specifically the potential earnings from a new A-10 TV deal — is the most important factor here, but the difference in exposure from ESPN or NBC Sports Network is a factor too.
• What will Old Dominion do? Old Dominion's football-driven dalliance with Conference USA increases the pressure on George Mason and VCU to bolt because there's no question losing the Monarchs would significantly weaken the CAA. Without Old Dominion, it becomes all the more difficult for CAA teams to earn an at-large bid because the conference would lose one of its traditional powers. If Old Dominion is open to delaying its football sub-division dreams and VCU and George Mason were to stay, the potential for growth in the CAA remains intriguing. Maybe the league replaces Georgia State with Davidson and/or College of Charleston and continues to benefit from the increased spending of its upper and middle tier. Would that league be as strong as the current Atlantic 10 in five years? Probably not, but the gap would be closing.