Bruiser Flint tells the story that when he went recruiting not so long ago, his job was as much education as courtship. Kids, parents and coaches often didn't know Drexel and knew even less about the league in which it played.
All of that changed in 2006. That's when Drexel's Colonial Athletic Association partner, George Mason, made an improbable run to the Final Four, defeating three programs with NCAA championship pedigree along the way. Suddenly, the CAA had national cachet.
VCU remarkably duplicated George Mason's feat. The Rams defeated five teams from elite conferences, attracted legions of bandwagon jumpers and made a rock star out of young, effervescent coach Shaka Smart.
"I think last year is the thing that's going to put us on the national scene," Flint said. "Nationally, among writers and from basketball people's perspective, we were a league that had one or maybe two good teams. I think what VCU did was give us greater respect nationally.
"They were a team that finished (fourth) in our conference, got an at-large bid that a lot of people didn't think they deserved, and they go to the Final Four. So I think that let a lot of people know they play good basketball in that conference. It's not just a one-team league or a two-team league. They're going to have three or four good teams in that league every year."
VCU's run was the exclamation point on the most successful season in the CAA's 26 years. The conference landed three teams in the NCAA tournament for the first time. Two of them, VCU and George Mason, won tournament games. The third, CAA tournament champ Old Dominion, was unfortunately paired against eventual national finalist Butler, which won at the buzzer.
"The record speaks for itself when you have two Final Four teams," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "There was a certain amount of, was-one-a-fluke sentiment. It's a little harder to dismiss it as a fluke now. It really has solidified our position in the basketball world, once you get past the big six leagues. When you start talking about mid-majors and successful programs that aren't in those leagues, our teams are the ones that are usually cited, along with a few others."
Since 2006, CAA teams have won more NCAA tournament games (12) than they did in the conference's first 20 years (9). Even when they're one-and-done, league teams routinely are a tough out. Ten of their 14 NCAA tournament losses since 2001 have been by eight points or fewer.
Blaine Taylor, who enters his 11th season at Old Dominion, has taken the Monarchs to three NCAA tournaments and the NIT Final Four in the past seven years. The Montana native has a different perspective than most of his colleagues, having coached on both coasts and competed against Division I programs at various levels all over the country.
Taylor said that he was told by a TV analyst who saw an ODU-VCU game that the quality of play was at least as good, if not better, than an ACC and a Southeastern Conference game he had seen on that same trip.
"There's kind of a 'wow' factor about our league," said Taylor, whose teams have won at least 24 games in six of the past seven seasons. "People will fly in from the west and observe my teams, or they'll come in and watch us play one of the better teams in our league in front of a big crowd and they'll go, 'Wow, I had no idea how good your league is or how good your team is.' They see it on TV and they go, 'Wow,' and then they see it live they go, 'Double wow.' I think we have more of that going on."
The CAA's ascent has been a process encompassing multiple factors: administrative commitment; coaching; recruiting; scheduling; exposure.
"The presidents understand the importance of basketball," said Ron Bertovich, the conference's deputy commissioner for basketball. "Athletic directors hire good coaches. Good coaches recruit good players. And we're at the level where players normally stay four years or they're going to be fifth-year seniors, and when that cycle goes around, you're going to have a lot of upperclassmen, you're going to have a good team."
Bertovich, a former commissioner of the Atlantic 10 Conference, was hired in 2005 with the express purpose of elevating the league's basketball profile.
The year he came on board, which coincided with George Mason's Final Four run, CAA teams appeared in a total of 56 televised games. Eighteen of those were national games, fueled in part by the Patriots' five games in the NCAA tournament.
Since then, CAA teams have been in at least 100 televised games every season. Last season, conference teams appeared in 106 games, including postseason. This year's television package includes 75 games, which doesn't take into account additional regional TV broadcasts or games beyond the CAA tournament.
Bertovich also has worked closely with league coaches on scheduling. After studying years of NCAA at-large selections, he advises teams that are projected to be in the top four and that have legitimate NCAA aspirations to schedule 10 games against teams in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index, in order to boost their resumes.
When the league is as good as it was a year ago, with three teams in the top 31 and six in the top 90, reaching such a benchmark is easier. Otherwise, it's a bit of a crapshoot, since opponents, particularly non-league teams, can turn out to be better or worse than projected.
"For a long time, there was a perception throughout our league that it really doesn't matter what happens in the regular season," Yeager said. "Our lot in life was we were going to get one team in the NCAA — whoever wins the (league) tournament. So it doesn't matter who we schedule, it doesn't matter who we play, it doesn't matter how many we win. You just have to win three games in March. And now, that's all changed for the good."
CAA aims to build on VCU Final Four run and recent success
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