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An ESPN.com report on Monday stated that Butler is pursuing a possible move to the Atlantic-10 conference in all sports. In response to that report, Butler Athletic Director and former men's basketball coach Barry Collier told the Indianapolis Star, "all colleges are watching the ever changing landscape." Collier also noted that Butler's relationship with the Horizon League is strong.
Is anybody really surprised that there are whispers of a possible move by Butler? This is a college sports landscape where the Big East, a once powerful basketball conference, is forced to grab schools from the state of Texas. West Virginia is leaving the Big East for the the Big 12, a conference comprised of schools from the southwest. Geographically, most of it makes no sense.
Everything considered, it leaves leagues scrambling to stay alive. Temple will move to the Big East in 2013, and Butler would logically be the basketball power to replace the Owls in the A-10.
The first reaction from most Butler fans is overwhelming joy. It would give the Bulldogs a better conference schedule and limit the possibility for bad losses. A higher rated conference might improve recruiting, and it would give them a better chance to make the NCAA tournament year in and year out. Wouldn't it?
Not so fast.
In 2001, Richmond, one of the best mid-major programs at the time was the class of the Colonial Athletic Conference. In 2002, the Spiders jumped ship and moved to the A-10. Richmond has been to the NCAA tournament three times since the move. They just finished up a 16-16 campaign. They have become far from a basketball power in the 12 years since the move.
Hold on a second. Didn't Butler just finish an 11-7 season in the Horizon League? In a rebuilding year, that wasn't too bad, but it is not up to the newly formed Butler standard. One of the losses was to Green Bay. That can be compared to losing to George Washington, Charlotte, Fordham or Rhode Island in the A-10. Those would also be considered bad losses and certainly would not look good to a tournament selection committee.
The A-10 is a considered a superior conference to the Horizon League. That means the bottom of the league will be better just as the top of the league will.
Take a look at what Gonzaga has done. It has been to the NCAA tournament 13 years in a row from the WCC. The "Bulldogs of the west coast" have been courted a couple of times by the MWC and the WAC, but have stayed put. Their dominance has forced other teams to find ways to get better. Randy Bennett now has St. Marys in the top 25 every year, and just beat the Zags for the WCC Title this season. The addition of BYU to the WCC shows how much more attractive Gonzaga has made the league. It will be a perennial multi-bid league now.
The same could happen for the Horizon League. Detroit head coach Ray McCallum, a former Indiana assistant, is a great recruiter. Gary Waters and Cleveland State had a win this season over SEC tourney champ Vanderbilt and was receiving at large consideration, but struggled down the stretch due to injuries, and Milwaukee has shown signs of being an excellent program under Rob Jeter. Valparaiso, in just its fifth year in the league has already won a regular season title under head coach Bryce Drew.
Finally look at this years Atlantic 10. Eight teams won 20 games. That is a lot of games, but only three of those teams received at large bids to the NCAA tournament. Had St. Bonaventure not won the postseason tournament less than half of the leagues 20-win teams would not have made the field of 68. That shows little value in the argument for a stronger conference schedule. If the Bulldogs do make the transition to the A-10 they had better recruit because an Ohio road trip through Xavier and Dayton sounds a whole lot tougher than through Youngstown and Cleveland State.
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Would a move to the A-10 really put Butler in a better position as a basketball program?
The Bulldogs already play Xavier every year. Since Brad Stevens took over five seasons ago the Bulldogs have played non-conference games against Ohio State, Louisville, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Gonzaga, Stanford and Duke (they had multi-year contracts with most of those school). They have played in major preseason or Holiday tournaments every year but the past one, and will be in the Maui Invitational next season. Butler is a premier college basketball program, and a brand name that has proven it can schedule the bigger schools without the Atlantic-10.
All that being said, switching to the Atlantic-10 would be a big risk that could pay off in a big way. Xavier left the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, now the Horizon League, in the mid 90s for the Atlantic-10. They are always up for at large consideration and while they haven't been to the Final Four like Butler, they have gained the university recognition in other ways. Forbes magazine ranked the Musketeer men's basketball program as the 17th most valuable college basketball team in the country.
Does Butler really need the Atlantic-10? No. They've proven that and then some. Is there a chance it would better Butler's athletic department? Yes, but who knows what will happen to the A-10 once conference realignment is over.
Sure, it would increase revenue for the university, but think about the added expense of longer trips to Charlotte or Massachusetts.
We have entered a very precarious era in college sports. Recruiting violations, illegal benefits and conference realignment has totally changed the face of athletic departments across the country. But one of the few things that has stayed the same is the purity of the Butler basketball program since Barry Collier took over as head coach in 1989, then to Thad Maata, to Todd Lickliter and now Brad Stevens. There is something about Butler that works in the Horizon League. I don't care about how small or mediocre of a conference it is.
It just works.
Fourteen postseason appearances in 16 seasons with a 20-13 record, speaks for itself. Eleven of those were NCAA Tournaments with a 16-10 record. That speaks for itself too.
Butler has accomplished more than any other mid major basketball program for its school and athletic department in the past two decades. Why? Because they have done it the right way, and they should continue to do it the right way by remaining in the Horizon League.