News broke two weeks ago that Loyola-Chicago will become the 15th member of the Atlantic 10 conference. This is a great pick-up for all involved: the A10, Loyola, and the fans.
However, is the conference done expanding? The answer to this should be no. The conference is sitting at 15 members. A nice round 16 teams would make scheduling a bit easier, though there is no reason to stop there. If there are other schools out there that provide value to the conference, the A10 (or any conference) should entertain adding them. So, who are these mystery suitors that the A10 should consider? In no particular order…
AAC Left-Behinds: Wichita State & Memphis
The argument for both of these schools is roughly the same. They are both not terribly outside of the A10’s geographic footprint (with St Louis, Davidson, and Loyola-Chicago in the fold), are in decently sized metro areas, and have had both historic and recent success in basketball.
Memphis boasts 3 Final Fours in their history and is currently ranked in the top 10 in this year’s AP Poll. Wichita State has 2 Final Fours in their history and has been to 8 of the last 9 NCAA tournaments (including Sweet Sixteens in both 2013 & 2015). Suffice it to say that both schools would bring significant cache, fan attention, and money to the league.
Going to the A10 seems like more of a boon for the Shockers (from the crumbling AAC) as they do not have a football team to worry about. Memphis has a decent football program and does appear to be on the short list for the Big 12 if they decide to expand again. I would put the chances at slim for Wichita State and slim to none for Memphis but the A10 would be foolish not to at least kick the tires on these additions. At the very least, if the AAC breaks up further these teams might be looking for a home for their Olympic sports and the A10 might be their best bet basketball wise. The A10 would do well to start conversations with these schools asap and perhaps influence their decisions.
The Once (& Future?) King of the A10: Temple
Also an AAC team but Temple deserves its own discussion as the elephant in the room for A10 expansion. Temple is the fifth winningest D1 Men’s hoops team of all time and much of that success came while in the A10 conference. Under legendary coaches John Cheney and Fran Dunphy, the Owls racked up the following accolades during roughly 30 seasons in the A10:
- 10 A10 POYs
- 7 A10 COYs
- 5 Elite Eights
- 23 NCAA Tournament Appearances
- 9 A10 Tournament Titles
- 10 A10 Regular Season Championships
On the flip side, Temple has FBS football and the A10 does already have two Philly teams in La Salle and St Joe’s. On the flip-flip side, the AAC is a shell of it’s former self and may even disband entirely if a couple of more dominoes fall against them. Also, I don’t foresee La Salle and St Joe’s being able to stand in the way of Temple return to the A10. In the new world of streaming with regards to conference realignment Temple will bring enough fans and revenue to the remainder of the A10. Throw in the history that the Owls have with the conference and it starts to make all kinds of sense.
Temple cannot be happy about the direction of the AAC, and has to have contingency plans in place. The fact that there are more independent FBS teams in the Northeast these days (Army, UConn, and UMass) might interest Temple to take football independent and return to the A10. Another option could be to take football back to the MAC or maybe CUSA or Sun Belt. In any case, there is plenty of call these days amongst the college hoops community to return Temple to its former glory in the A10. Jon Rothstein, in particular, will not stop tweeting about it.
A10 Callups: Iona or UVM?
Let me preface this by saying that neither school is super attractive to the A10 right now but are showing potential. If they continue on their paths of success and become Loyola-lite or Gonzaga-lite they could be good value adds for the A10. So, let me lay out the case…
Here we have two schools who have been making some noise in lesser leagues, the MAAC and America East respectively. Iona is the king of the moment right now: HOF coach Ricki Pitino is leading the Gaels to unprecedented recruiting and on-court success. They have a program defining win already this season over at the time #10 Alabama and have made 7 of the last 9 NCAA tournaments. They have won the MAAC conference tournament or regular season every year since 2012 except for 2020. They also are squarely in the A10’s geographic footprint as well as in a heavily populated area in Westchester County, NY. Fordham is nearby in NYC, but I feel like this addition would help the A10 shore up the area as Fordham really hasn’t been holding NYC down.
Vermont to its own credit has won the America East regular season for the last 5 years and have made 4 NCAA tournament appearances over the last 10. Vermont is in the A10 geographic footprint and would give the A10 another state flagship university in New England to go along with UMass and URI. Vermont actually does decently well in athletic revenue and coach John Becker has been America East coach of the year 4 of the last 5 years. Neither Vermont nor Iona have football, so that’s not a concern.
Let me make it clear that I don’t think either of these schools are ready to be added to the A10 at the moment. However, if Rick Pitino resumes super-sayain HOF mode or Becker does his best Mark Few impersonation and either of their schools ascend to Gonzaga-lite status the A10 should come calling. To do this they’ve got to do more than just make the dance, they’ve got to make some noise in the tournament. A few deep-ish runs would be necessary and being highly ranked during the season wouldn’t hurt. With that, I think their relatively small market size can be overcome. We’ve seen how passionate the fan bases of schools in smaller A10 markets can be.
An Intriguing Prospect: Buffalo
The MAC is a great league. And I actually think that Buffalo fits into it pretty well geographically, culturally, and athletically. However, the MAC media payout is only ~$670k per year per school and Buffalo is kind of at the crossroads of the Northeast and the Midwest. While the A10 deal is rumored to be slightly less than the MAC’s, it does not include football. The Bulls could more than make up the difference with their own football rights deal or just playing one additional buy game per year.
Also, the A10 will definitely be able to negotiate a higher media rights deal in a conference that includes Loyola-Chicago and Buffalo (or any of the more established basketball schools mentioned here). Finally, this version of the A10 would expect to see a lot more NCAA Tournament units than the MAC. All around this is a better deal for the Bulls, though they would have to do something with their football team. As we mentioned earlier, there are a lot more FBS independents in the Northeast the days but this might still involve sacrificing football a little bit.
I haven’t even mentioned that the Bulls are an attractive target basketball wise. They’ve reached the NCAA tournament 4 of the last 6 years and made the round of 32 twice. They amassed a 32-4 record in 2018-2019 and earned a a #15 ranking in the AP poll and 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. They are a flagship university in a decent size city and an AAU member, a tremendous academic add. They would also start immediate rivalry with St Bonaventure.
A Market Addition with Upside: Belmont
Edited 12/11/2021 to add Belmont on suggestion from u/awrf on Reddit
Geographically, Belmont is pretty attractive to the A10. They are in Nashville, the 21st most populous city in the USA, bringing another big market to the conference. They are also a little bit further East than Memphis and don’t have football to worry about.
Belmont also has big athletic aspirations it seems, they are set to leave move up to the MVC next year (from the OVC) and they spend money on basketball. As of most recent data, Belmont outspends the OVC by the widest margin of any team to its conference in the country. The Bruins rank 94th in the country in this regard, outspending current A10 teams: Fordham, Richmond, Rhode Island, George Mason, St Bonaventure, La Salle, and George Washington. It is only a matter of time before that spending turns into on-court success and inbound revenue if they keep it up.
Basketball wise, they have 8 NCAA tournament appearances since 2006 (qualified for the 9th prior to Covid cancellation) and have 12 regular season conference championships during that same span. Belmont has won 20+ games every year during that time frame aside from one, and are usually closer to 30 than 20. So, the regular season success has been there.
The major knock on the Bruins is that they have never made it past the 1st round in March. To really entice the A10, they need to make a few runs. But hey, prior to 2018 Loyola-Chicago had only made the tournament once since 1969. So, 2 or 3 tournaments from now we could be viewing Belmont in a very different light.
A10 Target Map
Looking at this map, the A10 obviously doesn’t shy away from saturating a market (Richmond, DC, and Philly) so I don’t think Buffalo and Temple’s proximity to other A10 teams is a real problem. Wichita State and Memphis are the long shots of their own accord but if either want into the A10 they’re in. Iona, Vermont, and Belmont have work to do but the A10 should be watching their careers with great interest. If I were Commissioner McGlade I would sending feelers out to all of these target schools. Hopefully she has already.