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Teel Time: Atlantic 10 basketball remains formidable after realignment

For all their disparate memberships and agendas, strengths and weaknesses, college sports conferences tend to operate on the same July 1-June 30 fiscal year. So the annual myriad realignment that plagues Division I and baffles fans became official last week.

The Atlantic 10 experienced considerable change, so let’s take stock of the league that calls Newport News’ City Center home.

George Mason, a 2006 Final Four revelation and two-time NCAA tournament team since, joined the A-10 from the Colonial Athletic Association, of which it was a charter member.

Four schools exited the A-10, Xavier and Butler for the new Big East, Temple to the old Big East, aka the American Athletic Conference, and Charlotte to Conference USA. Temple and Charlotte moved solely for football, a sport the A-10 does not sponsor.

Mason’s arrival and the four departures leave the A-10 with 13 schools for next season, seven of which have appeared in the NCAA tournament within the last five years. That group includes Dayton, LaSalle, St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis and the league’s three Virginia members: Richmond, VCU and George Mason.

VCU has advanced in three consecutive NCAA tournaments, including its 2011 Final Four, and with Butler and Xavier elsewhere, the Rams, entering only their second year in the A-10, have emerged as the conference’s signature men’s basketball program.

Coach Shaka Smart again resisted the lures of higher-profile gigs, and as long as VCU keeps him around Broad Street, the Rams figure to remain an A-10 cornerstone. Headlined by Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham, Smart and Co. certainly appear poised for a fourth straight NCAA run.

VCU already had an A-10 neighbor with Richmond – the teams split two games last season – but adding Mason gives the Rams and Spiders another natural rival. The Patriots last made the NCAAs in 2011, defeating Villanova and losing to No. 1 seed Ohio State, after which coach Jim Larranaga, the architect of Mason’s Final Four squad, left for the ACC’s Miami.

Larranaga’s successor, former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, is 46-25 in two subsequent seasons.

Now there’s no escaping that the four departures dinged the A-10, Charlotte the least, accessible airport and desirable market notwithstanding.

Temple’s glib coaches -- John Chaney followed by Fran Dunphy -- and consistent success were big assets. But the Owls needed one home for football and basketball, and the American Athletic was the best fit.

Snagging 2011 and ’12 national runner-up Butler from the Horizon League was a coup for the A-10, but the Bulldogs bailed after one season for the new Big East. Hard to blame them – the likes of Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s helped the Big East land a television deal far more lucrative than the A-10’s.

But hey, Butler was a short-timer, a summer fling neither party should regret. The Bulldogs won 27 games last season and advanced one round in the NCAAs, but after coach Brad Stevens’ stunning move to the NBA’s Boston Celtics, who knows if the program sustains.

Which brings us to Xavier. Last season’s uncharacteristic struggles (17-14) aside, the Musketeers are the A-10’s biggest loss. Xavier joined the A-10 in 1995 and has reached 11 of the last 13 NCAA tournaments, missing only in 2005 and ’12, while advancing to five Sweet 16s during the same span.

With 10 of its 16 teams among the top 100 on the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index, the A-10 last season boasted more depth than ever. Four of those schools are gone, but three top 50 remain in Saint Louis, VCU and LaSalle.

Moreover, reinforcements are en route. Southern Conference power Davidson joins the A-10 next July, returning the league to the Charlotte market and strengthening basketball. The Wildcats had Marquette stone-cold beaten in the 2013 NCAAs before losing 59-58 and further torching my bracket – I had Davidson in the Sweet 16 if memory serves.

Alas, none of this suggests the A-10 is safe from further poaching. If the all-private-school Big East decides to expand from 10 members, Saint Louis, Richmond and Dayton will be attractive.

Regardless, the A-10 should be formidable again next season. Saint Louis returns four starters, LaSalle four of its top five scorers, making both threats to VCU. Moreover, George Mason expects its top five scorers back.

Commissioner Bernadette McGlade speaks often about the A-10’s aim to be the nation’s premier basketball-centric conference, a distinction it clearly earned last season. Might the new Big East bypass the A-10?

Sure, but if so, figure on the A-10 ranking a close second.    

I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns.

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