It has been 36 years since the inaugural Atlantic 10 Tournament, a multiday event that ended with the Norm Nixon–led Duquesne squad earning an NCAA Tournament bid. During the nearly four decades since, the conference — which at one point included Villanova, Rutgers, and Penn State — has held its men’s basketball postseason tourney in several different locales, ranging from Morgantown to Dayton and, most recently, Atlantic City. Now, though, the tournament has found a new home: Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where the conference also held its annual media day yesterday. And the move to Barclays, a big-time venue that serves as the home to an NBA team, contained a subtle statement: The term “mid-major” can no longer be applied to the Atlantic 10.
Since the A-10 will now be spending a few days each March in New York City, it is hard not to compare the league with the other conference whose tournament is held in town each year, the Big East. To casual college basketball observers, there is no comparison; the Big East is a monolith, consisting of some of the top programs in Division I and sending close to ten teams to the NCAAs annually. These are the same people who still refer to A-10 squads as “Cinderellas” whenever there is a postseason “upset.”
However, we are seeing a shift in the conference power standings. While schools like UConn and Georgetown are, for now, still under the Big East banner, the loss of Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Syracuse — starting next season, all three will be members of the ACC — is a blow. Attendance at Madison Square Garden, where the postseason tourney is held, will certainly take a hit — in past seasons, buying a game-day ticket at the Garden when Syracuse advances to the semifinals was a near impossibility. Syracuse and Pitt were two of the Big East’s earliest members, and their loss, especially, signifies a real crack in the conference.
At the same time, the A-10 is on an upswing. A recent partnership with ESPN means fourteen conference games will be televised on the World Wide Leader’s family of networks. (A larger number of games will be shown on the hard-to-find CBS Sports Network, as well as on the NBC Sports Network.) The multiyear deal also allows more airtime for the conference’s two newest members, VCU and Butler. It is a testament to the A-10’s depth that the addition of these two teams, which have been to three Final Fours in the past three seasons (and return essentially the same squads from the 2012 season), doesn’t impact the very top of the preseason coaches’ poll. Neither was ranked among the top two squads, and only the VCU was listed in the top five. The league has historically sent several teams to the NCAA Tournament, but with Butler and VCU in the fold, there’s a potential for ever more postseason selections. Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, UMass, La Salle, and Temple could all make the NCAA tournament in 2013, and after adding Butler and VCU to the mix, the A-10 possibly could have a half dozen or more teams dancing.
But back to the tournament in Brooklyn for a moment. Playing in an NBA arena might help boost the conference’s profile come March, but will fans actually travel to New York? According to Xavier coach Chris Mack, Barclays Center is “unreal” and possesses an “incredible atmosphere.” But when the tournament was held in Atlantic City, attendance figures were dependent on whether the Philly schools — St. Joe’s, Temple, or La Salle — were in the mix for the conference title. When they weren’t, Boardwalk Hall felt cavernous. And while the conference’s coaches yesterday were loathe to compare the two conferences on media day, local college hoops fans have the option of attending the still-more-prestigious Big East tournament at the Garden. (The tournaments will overlap for three days come March.) Saint Louis’s new coach, Jim Crews, does not believe attendance will be a bugbear. “The Atlantic 10 is one of the best conferences in the nation, so if people want to see good basketball, they will still come to Brooklyn,” he says. However, if fans don’t trek to downtown Brooklyn, the arena — which seats 18,200 spectators — will hardly provide the lively atmosphere Xavier coach Mack is dreaming of. (The A-10, of course, does have a team in New York City, but while Fordham isn’t likely to finish in the cellar this season, it’s unclear if Tom Pecora’s squad will advance to Barclays Center, as only twelve of the conference’s sixteen teams will qualify.)
So, could the A-10 really be eclipsing the Big East as the Northeast’s premier league? Dayton coach Archie Miller told Adam Zagoria of Zagsblog.com that he believes the excitement surrounding conference play could be more exciting than the Big East’s conference slate. At the very least, the conference is building buzz as the Big East is set to lose some. Said Jim Ferry of Duquesne to Zagoria: “There’s going to be a lot of people that, whether they’re disappointed in the direction that the Big East has gone, I know everybody’s really excited in the direction the Atlantic 10’s going right now.”