As exceptional as those seasons were, commissioner Bernadette McGlade believes 2012-13 could be stronger.
And she's right. Word Tuesday that Butler is joining the Newport News-based A-10 next season, a year ahead of schedule, gives the conference strength not only in numbers but also quality.
"The individual schools have traditionally built their (non-conference) schedules to be extremely competitive," McGlade said Wednesday, "because getting to the NCAA (tournament) for our schools, that are basketball-centric, that's like their bowl game. …
Indeed, of the 16 teams set to compete in the A-10 next season, only four were outside the top 130 of the Rating Percentage Index published at collegerpi.com on Selection Sunday. Nine were among the top 100, led by NCAA tournament qualifiers Temple, Saint Louis, VCU, Xavier andSt. Bonaventure.
Butler dipped last season, relegated to the College Basketball Invitational after reaching the 2010 and '11 national championship games. But that squad included only one significant senior, Ronald Nored, and coach Brad Stevens' bunch figured to enter next season as the Horizon League favorite.
Then the Bulldogs announced earlier this month that they were joining the A-10 in 2013-14. Then the Horizon contemplated banning Butler from conference tournaments during its lame-duck year, which would have precluded automatic qualification for NCAA postseason competition.
"It was very surprising," McGlade said. "Obviously they were presented some unanticipated restrictions that would have rendered them ineligible for championships … and they just felt like they couldn't do that to their coaches and student-athletes.
"They reached out to us last week and shared their, I guess I would say, distress. … We're about inclusion. Just think if you're a senior on one of those teams and you couldn't compete for a championship."
The same concern prompted VCU's immediate move from the Colonial Athletic Association to the A-10. Unlike the Horizon, CAA bylaws prohibit exiting schools from conference tournaments.
Like Butler, VCU is poised to be an instant A-10 contender. The Rams followed up their 2011 Final Four — they lost to Butler in a national semifinal — with a CAA championship and NCAA victory over Wichita State.
Most encouraging to VCU, coach Shaka Smart declined overtures from Illinois, Virginia Tech and perhaps others to remain with a team that expects to return everyone except All-CAA guard Bradford Burgess.
The A-10's 16-team alignment is temporary — Temple heads to the Big East, Charlotte back to Conference USA in 2013 — and pairs the A-10 with the Big East as college basketball's largest conference next season. No one expects the A-10 to approach the Big East's 11 NCAA tournament bids of 2011, but certainly the A-10 could exceed its high of five invitations, set in 1997 and '98.
Led by Massachusetts point guard Chaz Williams, six of the 10 players who made first- or second-team all-conference last season are expected back. Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus should return five of the top six scorers that helped the Billikens defeat Memphis in the NCAA tournament.
With non-conference games already finalized, McGlade said it's too late for the A-10 to expand next season's league schedule from 16 to 18 games. So teams will play one rival twice and the other 14 once, seven home and seven away.
Bank on VCU and Richmond clashing twice.
As the A-10 takes its basketball tournament to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., McGlade said she anticipates retaining a 12-team, four-day format, meaning four schools will not qualify next season.
The A-10's most well-rounded postseason performance was 1993, when Rhode Island and Massachusetts, then coached by John Calipari, reached the NCAA second round, George Washington made the Sweet 16, and Temple reached the Elite Eight, where the Owls fell to Michigan and Chris Webber.
In 2004, Xavier and Saint Joseph's represented the A-10 in regional finals. The Musketeers lost to Duke by three, the Hawks to Oklahoma State by two, denying the conference its first Final Four since UMass defeated Allen Iverson and Georgetown in the 1996 East Regional final, Iverson's last game as a collegian.
Those are the benchmarks the A-10 will attempt to surpass in 2012-13.
As McGlade said, "You're going to have to bring your A game every night."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun