New Memberships in the A-10 and Mountain West: Can These Leagues Sustain Success?Posted by BHayes on October 10th, 2013
Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) is an RTC national columnist.
The tumult of conference realignment has hit few conferences harder than it has the Mountain West and Atlantic 10, but as we prepare to set sail on the 2013-14 season, both leagues again loom as the best college basketball has to offer outside the now “power seven” conferences. We touched on each league a little bit in yesterday’s Morning Five, but storylines abound in two leagues that have generated plenty of national buzz in recent years. Both are expected to maintain holds in the upper echelon of the mid-major hierarchy, but offseason membership changes have left things less certain than usual, especially in the A-10. The constant churn of programs jumping from conference to conference has left leagues in varying states of disarray, and 2013-14 finds both the Mountain West and Atlantic 10 at a crossroads. The challenges are different in each situation, but with the relatively uncertain future of today’s college basketball’s climate, another strong season in comparison with the high-majors would go a long ways towards stabilizing each of these traditionally strong conferences.
This season’s iteration of the Mountain West is bigger, but is it better? The preseason poll released Tuesday offered confirmation of the general consensus surrounding newcomers Utah State and San Jose State: Stew Morrill and the Aggies should be a factor in the top half of the conference, while the Spartans, despite their eye-catching new floor, are likely to be MW doormats. But even if Utah State matches or exceeds expectations in their conference debut, the conference as a whole will struggle to replicate the success of 2012-13 – those good old days when the MW was number one in conference RPI (no typo). The trio at the top of this year’s preseason poll all have a chance at replicating, or even improving upon, their successful campaigns of a year ago.
The return of preseason MW POY Kendall Williams and first teamer Alex Kirk has left New Mexico as the conference’s presumptive favorite: the Lobos earned all but one of 24 first place votes. A talented but overhauled UNLV squad scooped up that final first place vote, while Boise State’s return of nearly every key contributor earned the Broncos enough acclaim to tie for second with the Rebels in the poll. The Morning Five highlighted another talented San Diego State roster that sits behind those three teams in the eyes of the media, and let’s face it — it’s probably time we start giving Steve Fisher the benefit of the doubt – the Aztecs are an annual factor out west. But behind the Aztecs and Aggies (Utah State was picked to finish fifth) lies much of the intrigue in this year’s MW. A season ago, the four non-Tournament teams (Air Force, Wyoming, Fresno State and Nevada) were all extremely competitive, especially on their home floors. Their strength was a big reason for that heady conference RPI. This year’s bottom half again appears feisty, with a couple of teams – Nevada (#9) and Fresno State (#8) appearing especially undervalued in the preseason evaluations. Nobody – inside our outside the league — is expecting the MW to finish atop the conference RPI again this season. But another solid campaign, on the heels of that banner season of a year ago, would be awfully sound validation of a league unprepared to leave the national consciousness anytime soon.
The Atlantic 10 had membership drift in a different direction this offseason, as the 16-team league of last year will begin this go-around with just 13 members. Gone are traditional powers Xavier, Butler, and Temple (as well as Charlotte), leaving behind the mere skeleton of a league that sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Matching that bid total should prove difficult, but a talented, hungry VCU team that sits atop the preseason poll can at least offer conference supporters the dream of the best A-10 outfit since that magical St. Joseph’s team of 2004. Saint Louis was the only other team to garner first place votes in the poll; the return of the bulk of the Billikens’ nucleus should make them an NCAA team yet again. We also noted a potentially underrated La Salle team in the Morning Five, and considering the Explorers only lost Ramon Galloway from their Sweet Sixteen team of a year ago, expectations could (should?) easily be higher in Philadelphia. But here is where the league’s summer exodus may begin to really hurt. Little is certain when you look past those three teams at the top. Can Massachusetts or St. Joseph’s finally build win totals commensurate with their talent levels? Is either Dayton or Richmond ready to make the leap back into the league’s upper tier? Or can the sole league newcomer, George Mason, defy expectations and be a factor in year one in the conference? The offseason defections have left plenty of room for upward mobility in this conference – now it’s time to find out how many teams are capable of seizing that opportunity.
The A-10 and Mountain West have provided plenty of fine theater for hoops junkies over the years. They should once again offer an attractive distraction to the basketball being played in the power seven conferences, but with new faces in town and old friends departed for greener pastures, the pressure is on. It’s time for this season’s A-10 and Mountain West to prove that, like their predecessors, they are still very much a part of the national equation.