CAA hoops on tenuous ground with sanctions looming

Academic sanctions and potential defections could give the

Colonial Athletic Association a drastically different look.

Two CAA schools – UNC Wilmington and Towson – are facing

Academic Progress Rate sanctions that could keep them out of the

men’s basketball tournament next season, and VCU, George Mason and

Old Dominion are talking behind closed doors about leaving the

conference.

”It’s all a little surreal,” CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said,

particularly since it’s coming only a year after the CAA was at its

high point. The league sent three teams to the NCAA tournament last

year and Virginia Commonwealth made a stunning Final Four run.

Yeager, who called a teleconference on March 26 to dismiss early

defection talk making the rounds on social networks as ”a

non-story,” said it’s not just Joe Fan doing the talking now.

”Obviously they’re having much more detailed campus discussions

than we did a couple weeks ago,” he said of VCU, George Mason and

Old Dominion. The schools have won eight of the last nine CAA

tournaments, and account for 13 of 16 NCAA bids since 2001.

Wilmington has the others.

Barring a change in NCAA guidelines regarding APR penalties,

Wilmington expects to miss next season’s tournament, senior

athletic director for communications Joe Browning said. The school

has had two APR appeals denied; the NCAA plans to announce its

sanctions in late June.

Towson is still waiting to hear on its appeal, athletic director

Mike Waddell said.

With Georgia State already having left the league for the Sun

Belt Conference, the loss of Towson and UNC Wilmington to APR

sanctions would leave the CAA with just nine teams eligible for

next year’s tourney.

Yeager hopes that’s as far as the attrition goes in the league’s

fight to stay relevant on the national basketball stage.

George Mason and VCU are interested in joining the Atlantic 10,

which became more attractive as a conference that will continue to

get multiple NCAA tournament bids with the addition of Butler.

Since Richmond left in 2001, the A-10 has received 18 at-large

NCAA bids, the CAA four.

And Old Dominion, with an upstart football program, a

20,000-seat stadium that routinely sells out and a basketball

program that has been near the top of the CAA for a decade or more,

has acknowledged it is assessing its affiliation, and believed to

be considering Conference-USA.

George Mason spokeswoman Maureen Nasser said the school has

acknowledged that is assessing its conference affiliation, but

would not comment further.

Yeager, whose conference also boasts the premier football league

in the Championship Subdivision, has worked the phones tirelessly,

but said even he doesn’t know what will happen.

”I’m the optimist that we’re ok, but who knows?” he said,

noting that the resignation of Big East Commissioner John Marinatto

on Monday is sure to fuel more questions about realignment.

”Watching what’s going on around the country, it’s crazy,”

Yeager said.

The possible departure by VCU, he said, is especially

surprising, because the cut of the CAA pie from NCAA tournament

revenue that VCU would be walking away from is large.

”Leaving on the front end of a Final Four payout, they could

leave as much as $5 million on the table,” he said, noting that

teams earn shares, or units, of the money based on what they did to

earn it for the league, and that those shares are credited for the

ensuing six years.

George Mason would get its final big payoff for its 2006 Final

Four run this year.

VCU also gets to play the league tournament down the street from

its campus, making every game a home game, but according to CAA

bylaws, when a team announces it is leaving, it forfeits that

money.

Though the possible loss of VCU is surprising to Yeager,

Richmond athletic director Jim Miller said it makes sense.

He and Richmond made the move to the Atlantic 10 for the 2001-02

season, only a few months after Miller was hired, and he said from

a basketball standpoint, moving to a better league with more

opportunities to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament was a

factor in the move.

And the Spiders walked away from the same home-city advantage

when they were in the CAA.

”I think any conference you’re in that’s going to be a one-bid

conference, that’s a big risk. I think Butler saw that this year.

Finished third and fell all the way to the CBI,” he said. ”You

don’t want to be in a situation where that whole thing depends on

that one weekend.”

Richmond’s success in a bigger league has kept pace, too. The

Spiders made three trips to the tournament in their last 12 seasons

in the CAA, and won twice, and have made three trips in their 12

years in the Atlantic 10, also winning twice.

The difference, Miller said, is that the slices of financial pie

are greater in a league that gets more bids, and the reward

larger.

Yeager, who has been through realignment before, said a mass

exodus would not be a death knell for the CAA.

”There was a lot of doomsday (talk) in 2000 when people were

leaving,” he said, noting that East Carolina and American left

with the Spiders. By the next season, the CAA had added Hofstra,

Delaware, Drexel and Towson, expanding its reach and hardly seeming

to miss a competitive beat.

”The last six or seven years has been better than it ever was

before,” Yeager said. Even if several teams jump to other leagues,

”I have confidence that we’re still going to award a championship,

we’re still sending someone to the NCAA tournament.

”It would be like you graduate an outstanding senior class, but

there’s somebody else coming in to pick up the slack.”