CAA and Atlantic 10 On Equal Ground

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Colonial Athletic Association has spent nearly 20 years trying to accomplish a modest goal: send two teams to the NCAA tournament. The Atlantic 10's ambitions are somewhat grander. Commissioner Linda Bruno said yesterday that her conference aspires to be the seventh-best basketball conference in the country, after the six power conferences.

And yet when Atlantic 10 regular season champion George Washington faces CAA regular season champion UNC Wilmington tomorrow night, the teams will be representing conferences that suddenly appear more alike than different.

In each of the past two seasons, the CAA has ranked one spot ahead of the Atlantic 10 in the Rating Percentage Index. Both leagues sent just their automatic qualifier to last year's NCAA tournament. Both those teams received 12th seeds and both lost their first game. This year, both leagues will send two teams to the tournament, with their strongest representatives playing tomorrow night in Greensboro, N.C. That game will be the 20th between the leagues over the past two years; the lesser-known CAA is 11-8 in those games.

"I'm in an Atlantic 10 city; I got to go see a lot of those teams," said Drexel Coach Bruiser Flint, who formerly coached Atlantic 10 school Massachusetts. "Take GW out of the equation, and from top to bottom I thought we were better [this season], much better. They're going to get mad at me, but that's what I thought."

Bruno acknowledged that the past two seasons have not yielded the number of NCAA berths her league is accustomed to, but she denied that her league's reputation has slipped since 2004, when Saint Joseph's and Xavier were national quarterfinalists.

"People look at us with two teams in [the tournament] as a down year, and when you look at other leagues such as the Colonial, people are happy for them that they got two," she said. "Not that they're not a good conference, but we've always looked forward to getting two or three or four teams in the tournament. I think the perception of the Atlantic 10 is very different than some of the other non I-A conferences."

Atlantic 10 coaches said the quality of basketball in their league is as strong as it's ever been, but they readily admit concern over their postseason fate the past two seasons. Last year, GW won the regular season and tournament titles and received a 12th seed. This year, the Colonials went undefeated in the league and spent all of February ranked in the top 10 nationally. League coaches suggested they could contend for a No. 2 or 3 seed, and several expressed shock and disappointment at the No. 8 seed handed down by the tournament selection committee.

"I was kind of baffled when I saw their name appear as an eight seed, but I don't think it's a knock against the league at all," Saint Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli said. "The committee is human. Who is to say they wouldn't make a mistake? And unfortunately for our league and GW, maybe a mistake was made."

On top of the Colonials' disappointment, the league tournament champion, Xavier, received a No. 14 seed, the lowest in conference history. Coaches have suggested that league officials need to spend the offseason studying the example of the oft-cited Missouri Valley Conference, which placed four teams in the tournament field.

"Our conference doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves," Xavier Coach Sean Miller said. "I'm sure that we'll all work hard again this spring to see if we can get some more credit."

While Atlantic 10 officials said they do not measure themselves against the CAA, the leagues overlap to some degree. Both now have members in the Richmond, Washington, Philadelphia and New York media markets. Some of their schools recruit directly against each other; three of George Mason's starters, for example, considered attending Atlantic 10 schools before arriving in Fairfax.

"I certainly think our league's closed the gap," UNC Wilmington Coach Brad Brownell said. "I think we have more schools in our league now that have put in the resources, built better facilities, hired good coaches and done things to improve their programs, and I think probably a big reason for that is looking at the A-10, seeing the success the A-10 has had over the years and saying, 'Why not us?' We've tried to piggyback on them."

While the Missouri Valley has received the brunt of the criticism leveled at lesser-known leagues in recent days, several shots have also been fired in the CAA's direction, with pundits arguing that a school such as George Mason, which received an at-large bid, was less deserving than a Big East school such as Cincinnati, which did not.

"I think there's been a lot of unwarranted criticism dumped by some media folks on both the Missouri Valley and the Colonial, and by inference a lot of other teams too," CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said. "I don't think we have to apologize to anyone, but obviously we'd like to validate the confidence the selection committee had in awarding us the at-large bid."

Even this year, the Atlantic 10 had far more notable nonconference victories: GW beat Maryland, Temple beat Alabama and Saint Joseph's beat Kansas. And head-to-head results notwithstanding, the CAA could use a few wins this weekend to lend true credibility to the Atlantic 10 comparisons. No CAA team has survived the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 1988. Twelve Atlantic 10 teams have played into the tournament's second weekend over that same span.

"I still think the Atlantic 10 has a little bit more sexiness to it, because they have a richer tradition, a greater history, a prouder past," said Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg, who is working as a CSTV analyst this month. "That doesn't mean they'll have a more promising future."

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