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.