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CAA hoops on shaky ground with sanctions looming

UNC Wilmington forward Keith Rendleman boxes out Hofstra

UNC Wilmington forward Keith Rendleman boxes out Hofstra forward Nathaniel Lester. (Feb. 25, 2012) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

RICHMOND, Va. -- 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."


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