Conference realignment: A Boston primer

Few conferences were left untouched by the tsunami of realignment that flooded the college basketball nation this summer. Fifty-three Division-I teams changed affiliation for the 2013-14 season (including four leaping up from Division II), scrambling 20 leagues and creating another from scratch.

It’s a confusing year to be a college basketball fan, one that will prompt hundreds of questions such as “Why hasn’t Syracuse played Georgetown yet?” or “What is an Incarnate Word?” To ease the transition, here’s a primer on how conference realignment affects the four Boston teams. For each league, I’ll present the league’s Pomeroy ranking as it actually stood for the past five years, as well as what it would have been over that time with 2013-14 affiliations.

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Atlantic Coast Conference:

IN: Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse

OUT: none, for now (Maryland leaves in 2014-15)

acc-conference-realignment

From a hoops perspective, no existing league won bigger in realignment roulette than the ACC. All three newcomers were ranked in the final 2012-13 AP Top 25, and they have combined for 11 NCAA tournament appearances in the last four seasons — all single-digit seeds, six in the top 4. Syracuse is one of college basketball’s elite programs and comes off a Final Four appearance, while Notre Dame and Pitt were perennial contenders in the Big East and should remain that way in the ACC. (Perhaps the scariest part: defending champion Louisville enters in 2014-15, replacing struggling Maryland.) In the short term, Boston College’s road back to the top tier of the ACC got much more difficult, but in the long run, the Eagles will benefit from being in a fantastic basketball conference.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that the ACC’s expected conference ranking in 2014 is unchanged by realignment — the explanation, basically, is that a top-three ranking is hard to improve in the first place. On a Pythagorean expectation basis, only three conferences improve more from realignment than the ACC, which Pomeroy predicts to finish behind only the Big Ten and the Big East. If all teams had played in their current leagues for the past five years, the ACC would have ranked first or second every season except 2011-12.

Patriot League:

IN: Boston University, Loyola (Md.)

OUT: none

patriot-conference-realignment

Not many mid-major conferences were helped by this cycle of realignment, but the Patriot League was an exception. In picking up BU and Loyola — which combined for four 20-win seasons in the last four years — the Patriot League cashed in on its academic profile and basketball momentum to prepare itself for a better post-C.J. McCollum/Mike Muscala future.

McCollum and Muscala helped lift the Patriot league to the #17 Pomeroy ranking in 2012-13, but with the graduation of those stars, the conference would have been projected to slide back into its past mid-20s home. With the Terriers — picked first in the preseason poll — and Greyhounds, however, it is pegged by Pomeroy as the #21 preseason conference. And this shouldn’t be just a one-year blip; with BU and Loyola in the fold, the Patriot League would have gained an average of three positions per year in the conference rankings, more than any other league in the nation.

From Boston University’s perspective, the move doesn’t change much about its basketball outlook in the short term — the new Patriot League and the old America East have essentially identical 2014 projections. But the Terriers were likely enticed by the Patriot League’s academic profile; from a basketball standpoint, they also get the upside of joining a league that has recently produced a Round of 32 NCAA tournament team (Lehigh, 2012) and an 11-seed (Bucknell, 2013), which haven’t come out of the America East since 2005 and 1984, respectively.

Colonial Athletic Association:

IN: College of Charleston

OUT: George Mason, Old Dominion, Georgia State

caa-conference-realignment

Once one of the nation’s strongest mid-major conferences, the CAA slipped in 2012-13 as several teams failed to live up to high expectations (that is, when not playing Virginia). It should still bounce back this season, but that effort will take a hit without George Mason (now in the Atlantic 10) and Georgia State (Sun Belt), who would have contended for the CAA title.

In the short term, College of Charleston is a welcome addition to the league; after winning at least 19 games for five straight seasons in the Southern Conference, the Cougars should be able to replace one of the departed contenders. But the psychological impact might be greater — the CAA’s reputation as a king of mid-majors was built on 11 NCAA tournament wins and two Final Fours in the last decade (not counting play-in games). With all three teams responsible for those wins now gone (George Mason, Old Dominion, VCU), will the CAA still be considered important?

Ivy League:

IN: none

OUT: none

ivy-conference-realignment

The Ivy League was untouched by realignment, of course, and it will stay that way even if the major conferences start expanding to outer space. (Jim Delany’s already thinking of ways to court Titan University and its footprint in Saturn’s TV market by 2050.) The league has been the Ancient Eight since its inception in 1954, giving it a 45-year head start on the SWAC as the longest-running D-I conference in its current form.

The Ivy’s relative ranking fluctuates a bit with realignment due to changes in the composition of surrounding leagues (this year, its position is helped by raids to the WAC and MAAC), but its basic outlook as a middle-of-the-pack conference is unchanged. That’s still leaps and bounds better than most of the Ivy League’s history, when it was weak even by mid-major standards.

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Other conferences of note:

American Athletic Conference (formerly Big East):

IN: Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Temple

OUT: Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pitsburgh, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova

american-conference-realignment

The American will look much different than last year’s Big East, with more than half of its membership turning over before the 2013-14 season. Without Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pitt and the Catholic septet, the AAC doesn’t really have the firepower to be among the nation’s top two or three leagues — but with Louisville, UConn and Memphis at the top, this is still unquestionably a power conference, roughly comparable to recent editions of the SEC. The question is, will it remain that way when Louisville leaves next year?

Summit League:

IN: Denver

OUT: UMKC, Oakland

summit-conference-realignment

For this year, the Summit League projects as the biggest mid-major winner of conference realignment. It lost two teams and gained only one, but that pickup was a great one — Denver, a potential top-100 team that fled the sinking WAC. UMKC isn’t much of a loss for the league, but Oakland is, as the Grizzlies won 20 games for four straight seasons before a 16-17 2012-13.

Conference USA:

IN: Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, Old Dominion, UT-San Antonio

OUT: Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, SMU

cusa-conference-realignment

ESPN’s BracketBusters may be gone, but its spirit will live on in the form of this year’s C-USA schedule, which features teams who spent last year in the A-10, CAA, WAC and Sun Belt. Holdovers UTEP, UAB and Southern Miss should be strong, but after the AAC pillaged it of crown jewel Memphis and others, C-USA looks more like a true mid-major conference than the tweener league it used to be. Realignment was bad for Conference USA, but it could be worse…

Western Athletic Conference:

IN: Cal State-Bakersfield, Chicago State, Grand Canyon, UMKC, UT-Pan American, Utah Valley

OUT: Denver, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, Texas State, Utah State

wac-conference-realignment

Poor, poor WAC. With major conferences adding schools and schools adding a major conference, it’s no surprise one mid-major league got shafted, and it was the WAC left holding the hot potato when all was said and done. New Mexico State, a top-100 team in each of the last three seasons, is still in the league, but that’s about it — last year’s first, second, fourth and fifth-place finishers are gone, and number six (Idaho) is bolting next year. After sharing a level with leagues regularly in multi-bid discussion like the CAA, Horizon and WCC, the WAC’s peer conferences will now be deep mid-majors like the Southern and the Big Sky.

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