Mark Schmidt had just completed his post-game news conference on Saturday when his attention immediately turned to the final seconds of Butler’s game against No. 1 ranked Indiana.
Butler is an Atlantic 10 Conference member now so Schmidt, the St. Bonaventure coach, has rooting interest and when Butler missed two chances to knock off the Hoosiers in regulation, Schmidt winced both times. But the way the landscape of college athletics is changing, who knows for how long Schmidt and the Bonnies will have a common interest with Butler and some of the other schools currently associated with the A-10?
What has long been rumored was made official Saturday when the seven colleges that don’t play FBS football — Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, DePaul, Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence — announced they were leaving the Big East Conference. The move could trigger another seismic shift in college sports, only this time it will have little to do with football.
ESPN.com reported last week that the outgoing Big East basketball-only schools will form a national Catholic conference which would include Atlantic 10 members Xavier, Saint Louis and Dayton, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s from the West Coast Conference and Creighton from the Missouri Valley.
Where this leaves St. Bonaventure and the A-10 is speculative but recent history suggests the newly formed league of Catholic schools will swoop in and poach at least three schools to help create a formidable 10-12 team conference. It would be surprising if the list didn’t include Butler, which eventually knocked off Indiana in overtime on Saturday, and made back-to-back national title game appearances in 2010 and ‘11.
“It could affect us,” said Schmidt after the Bonnies’ defeated Cleveland State on Saturday at the Reilly Center, 87-53. “I don’t know how it’s going to end up and hopefully we’ll know in the next week or so. It’s that whole Catholic Seven. How is it all going to take place? It’s all going to come down to money so I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”
What is certain is change is part of the ever-evolving culture of college athletics.
“It’s changing everything,” said Cleveland State coach Gary Waters, who plays in the Horizon League which once counted Butler as a member. “For us, we had one of the top 10 or top 12 leagues. Now with what’s happening you don’t know what’s going to happen. If the Atlantic 10 remains the way it is, I can’t see it is, and if they develop a Catholic League …”
None of this is a surprise to Waters, who began his coaching career in 1974. When he coached at Rutgers from 2001-06 he said there was talk of the Scarlet Knights leaving for the Big Ten as far back as 10 years ago. Rutgers and Maryland recently announced they are joining the Big Ten.
“One of the reasons why is the Big Ten looks for land-grant colleges,” he said. “[The Big Ten] wanted to have some connection on the East Coast and they felt that Penn State wasn’t giving them the full East. This is all about money, think about it. The football issue in the Big Ten, they went from $25 million to $35 million by adding those two teams. It’s all about money.”
And that could leave schoolos from basketball-only conferences scrambling for leagues with better financial footing. With Temple and Charlotte leaving the A-10 for the Big East and Conference USA, respectively, after this season the league appeared to steady the ship with the addition of Butler and VCU.
That also led to a more lucrative television contracts last summer with ESPN, CBS and NBC, and a move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the conference tournament in March. There was talk about inviting the Catholic Seven into the A-10 and becoming a 21-team conference but that has since died down.
When conference play begins after the New Year, it is expected to be the most competitive race in league history. So far, the league hasn’t disappointed. Heading into Saturday’s games, 13 teams are playing at a .500 level or better and Charlotte, Temple and La Salle are a combined 22-3.
Eleven teams rank in the top 100 according to RPIRatings.com while ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi currently projects four teams in the NCAA Tournament. The A-10 currently has 14 victories over opponents from BCS conferences, including Saint Joseph’s win over Notre Dame and Butler’s victories over North Carolina and Indiana.
“It’s a great conference,” Schmidt said. “The Atlantic 10, if nothing happens, it’s a great league. It’s one of the best leagues in the country. When we had Butler and VCU join, they played in three of the last four Final Fours. But who knows what’s going to happen?”