Welcome Wagon: Four Teams Ready To Shine In Their New LeaguesPosted by Chris Johnson on November 8th, 2012
Christopher Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The most recent wave of conference realignment was set off by a desperate scrambling of high-major powers to elevate their statures in a changing (re: dying) BCS landscape. Inevitably, the movement shook the college hoops world, and while most of the changes either weakened conferences, ended rivalries, or both, some leagues were made better off from the frenzied switches. The biggest victim, so it has been said, was the Big East, whose long and fruitful marriage with Pittsburgh and Syracuse will cease to exist after this season. The main beneficiary was the A-10, with newcomers Butler and VCU entering the fold this season. There were plenty of other less heralded moves – from Northern Kentucky’s jaunt to the Atlantic Sun to Texas-San Antonio’s voyage to the crumbling WAC – but I’m singling out four schools who harbor bright short-term outlooks in their new stomping grounds. New environments typically guarantee unpredictability. For these four teams, there’s nothing unpredictable about their ability to compete at the top of their new leagues upon arrival.
VCU (Leaving: CAA — Joining: Atlantic 10)
Every college hoops coaching candidate hot list starts with two names: Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart. They are the pipe dream of any athletic director’s wildest coaching replacement desires, and both have spurned the power conference ranks on multiple occasions. We’ll get to Stevens’ squad a little bit later (Spoiler!), but there’s no question Smart’s team, which returns basically everyone of note besides guard Bradford Burgess, is poised to make a statement in its new home. Forget the fact that the A-10 will feature its strongest competitive lineup in years. Forget that VCU is entering a league where every game will require intense focus and execution just to avoid an upset. What Smart has built during his tenure – a consistent outfit with the stability to compete at the sport’s highest level on a yearly basis – is not going away, nor will it be swayed by one of the nation’s best collections of inter-conference strength.
VCU is not, as many speculated two seasons ago, a one-year Cinderella. The Rams are a mid-major in name only; they are as talented and as deep as most high-major ensembles in any conference. Now that I think of it, VCU is a perfect microcosm for the A-10: technically excluded from the Power Six denomination, but ripe with Tournament-bound teams and stars. Navigating that landscape will be a stark change of pace, even for a program conditioned to creating “havoc” in 40-minute samples, but VCU is no stranger to top-end competition. Last season’s Tournament run didn’t quite live up to the previous year’s Final Four appearance, but it’s worth remembering the Rams very nearly took out preseason AP No. 1 Indiana in the Third Rund. VCU is ready to join a league that offers formidable tests on a nightly basis. This season will reflect as much.
Missouri (Leaving: Big 12 — Joining: SEC)
As excited as I am to see Frank Haith’s uptempo offense clash with Kentucky’s normally suffocating defense and Florida’s motion-style offense with conference bragging rights on the line, Missouri’s decision goes down as the most disappointing of all the conference realignment moves. At least to me it does. Why? The Border War. The annual game with Kansas was about more than just standard conference enmity. The JayHawks and Tigers have a longstanding history of hatred dating back to the pre-Civil War days. The antagonism runs deep between these two fan bases, and the players embodied those sentiments on the floor. Barring a renewal of the rivalry in non-conference play, the Border War will be forever lost in the darkest annals of conference realignment. The good news is that Missouri has the chance to begin new hatred-infused relationships in its new league, and the process could start as early as this season.
For all the hype Kentucky is generating this preseason as conference front-runner and potential national championship contender – I don’t mean to dispute this hype, just to acknowledge its existence – Missouri has the pieces in place to spoil the Wildcats’ title defense. Haith will need to recalibrate his breakneck system with a largely new cast after losing key contributors from last year’s two-seed team (forwards Ricardo Ratliffe and Kim English, guards Matt Pressey and Marcus Denmon). The difficulty of that process cannot be overlooked. But Missouri will not grieve over a few key graduation-related departures. Haith ensured a steady flow of talent and continuity in his early years on the job by tapping the transfer market for players whose skill sets fit perfectly in his unique offense. Former Auburn swingman Keion Bell, former UConn big man and national championship veteran Alex Oriakhi, and Oregon import Jabari Brown, who will become eligible in January, will provide a massive infusion of natural talent. Kentucky received much of theirs the same by way of recruiting, only it’s nothing compared to the crop of blue-chippers coming to Lexington next season. If Missouri has designs on snatching a conference title early in its new league membership, there may be no better year than this one.
Belmont (Leaving: Atlantic Sun — Joining: Ohio Valley)
The OVC’s main attraction, Murray State, separated itself from the pack last season by running off 23 straight wins and dropping just one game before the NCAA Tournament. Its spot in the field never in any real doubt, the Racers blitzed their regular season slate with minimal fuss, witnessed the star turn of preseason AP All-America guard Isaiah Canaan and validated their national stature by going toe-to-toe with Jae Crowder and Marquette in one of last season’s most captivating bouts of up-tempo prowess and high-flying backcourt drama. This season, the path to a conference title offers a daunting roadblock. Belmont, who won 27 games and came within one point of upsetting Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium last season, can spoil Canaan’s National Player of the Year candidacy by taking the conference crown in its maiden season in the OVC. Divisional play will make its OVC debut in 2012-13, and Belmont is the odds-on favorite to finish atop the East despite losing Mick Hedgepath (9.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG) and Scott Saunders (10.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG), its top two scorers from last season. Hedgepath and Saunders gave Belmont a potent tandem on the low block, and their production will be sorely missed.
The Bruins’ guard situation is much more promising, with NBA prospect Kerron Johnson and All-Atlantic Sun guard Ian Clarke returning. Belmont can’t match Murray State in star power, but its backcourt duo is more than capable of challenging Canaan’s group on both ends of the floor. The Bruins enter the OVC riding an impressive wave of success, having won three consecutive Atlantic Sun titles. This leap in competition was a long time coming, and Belmont is ready to prove its worth as early as this season with another bid for a league crown. While the move wasn’t as notable as some of the other realignment swaps that enveloped it, Belmont’s jump is a significant step up. Beyond the obvious benefits in recruiting and schedule strength, the move brings some stability to Belmont’s sideline. Coach Rick Byrd, who along with Smart and Stevens continues to have his name pop up in coaching searches, will be more inclined to extend his 27-year stint in a preeminent mid-major league.
Butler (Leaving: Horizon — Joining: Atlantic 10)
Expecting another Final Four appearance would have been unfair, but I didn’t envision Butler missing the Tournament altogether – not after the defensive toughness it established over the previous two years, not after the resiliency it showed following the departure of Gordon Hayward, the unquestioned star and go-to scorer who keyed the first Final Four run in 2011. In hindsight, I probably overestimated the Bulldogs, because no matter how much we try and draw from postseason performance, using a previous year’s conference or NCAA Tournament run as a baseline predictor for the next season is never a sound method of judgment. Butler was going to take a step back sooner or later. The question now is whether it can regain that momentum (or even part of it) as they enter the most challenging season in its hoops history. This year’s A-10 – with Temple finishing off its tenure before jumping to the Big East, and with Butler and VCU coming aboard – is arguably the best top-to-bottom compilation of quality depth in league history. At the very least, I expect five teams to capture NCAA bids. After a one-year hiatus from the sport’s marquee postseason event, Butler will re enter the Tournament picture and return to its bracket-busting ways.
Last season was a painful transition year, particularly after two straight national final bouts, but it is not difficult to pinpoint what went wrong. Defensively, Butler was Butler – the stingy, disciplined outfit that over the past three years has disrupted some of the most efficient offenses in do-or-die postseason settings, the one that’s thrown countless office March Madness pools into utter disarray. That defining trait was very much intact, in spite of numerous crucial losses (Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack) at key positions. What ailed Butler was the offense, and more acutely three-point shooting, where the Bulldogs ranked #341 (there are 345 teams in Division I) in long-range field goal percentage. When you consider that abominable shooting rate, the arrivals of Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke – who hit 91 of his 208 three-point attempts with Arkansas in 2011 before sitting out the customary transfer year – and freshman Kellen Dunham, who is already being touted as one of the nation’s best pure shooters, seem like perfect specific fits for a specific problem. Adjusting to a more challenging league, both on the court and on the athletic department’s travel budget, may cause some early growing pains; that’s to be expected. The bottom line, though, is that Butler, much like travel partner VCU, is ready for a bigger challenge.
* A note to West Virginia fans: While I don’t doubt the Mountaineers will find success in the Big 12, I don’t envision their new league partnership going as smoothly in the beginning as in the long term. West Virginia is undergoing a rare transition year, and given the depth and talent inhabiting this year’s Big 12, it seems likely the Mountaineers will struggle to compete for a conference title. But that’s just this year! There’s little question Bob Huggins will have this team competing at the top of the league’s competitive totem pole sooner rather than later. It’s just that this season, without do-it-all forward Kevin Jones or big-shot point guard Truck Bryant, there could be some regression. Which is completely normal, even if Bob Huggins has done a remarkable job depriving you of win downturns since taking over in Morgantown. So cheer up, WVU Nation. The early forecast is stormy, but there are plenty of conference and NCAA Tournament achievements on the way. Besides, any struggles this season can be chalked up to “travel modifications” or “figuring out conference play” or any other common complaint fan bases use to justify bad seasons. Joining a new conference is hard. Teams lose when faced with new challenges. Because West Virginia’s recent history is largely absent of negative downturns, it’s difficult to swallow that harsh truth. The Mountaineers will continue their winning ways; it’s just that this season feels like it will veer from the norm.