The Atlantic 10 is the best mid-major hoops conference in the country. The Mountain West and Ohio Valley Conference stake their claim every few years, but neither can match the A-10’s commitment to excellence in hoops on a consistent basis.
If it hadn’t been for realignment, they could have widened the divide. Despite the A-10’s strong showing in the tournament and La Salle’s playoff run, it may be on a downward trajectory once March Madness is in the rear view mirror.
The death of the Big East created a bevy of mournful hoop heads, but another tectonic realignment shift has the A-10 going under the knife for heart replacement surgery. After 31 years, Temple, the conference’s flagship program is bolting to the new “Big East” like Will on a flight to a town called Bel-Air.
As one of Philly’s Big 5 hoop programs, the Explorers of La Salle have been the Tito to Temple’s chart-topping, Top 25 program. La Salle finished this season fifth in the conference and thought their campuses are only four miles apart, historically, they couldn’t be more distant on the hardwood.
It wasn’t always this way. La Salle actually won the 1954 NCAA title, but it only won two tournament games before this March (since being defeated in the national championship game by Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons in 1955).
But don’t sleep on the Owls. They quietly have the most all-time wins by any program without a national championship. In fact, the only schools ahead of them in total wins are Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Syracuse. That’s a giant killer amongst a murderer’s row of hoops programs.
However, last Sunday was a tale of two diverging A-10 Philadelphia programs. La Salle alum, Frank Dunphy, became Temple’s head coach in 2006, but he’s never been to the Sweet 16. On Sunday, Temple got bounced from the Big Dance before the first weekend’s conclusion for the sixth consecutive year, courtesy of a Victor Oladipo dagger.
Meanwhile, La Salle guard Tyrone Garland banked in a Southwest Philly floater to vault La Salle into the Sweet 16. The program that had only won a single tournament game in the last 31 years, has now won three in a week.
VCU, Butler and Saint Louis seemed better suited for the Goliath-slaying crown. However, ugly stepsibling La Salle has been the true Cinderella tale.
While the new “Big East” will be an upgrade for Temple’s football program from the MAC, it will be like any other remake to a film classic. It’ll have the same name, but it will inevitably possess a different tone, and the cast won’t deliver the same first-class performances.
The “Big East” will look as much like its current incarnation as the new Lil Kim looks like the old one. That’s not an exaggeration, either. Cincinnati, UConn, Houston, Navy, Memphis, SMU, South Florida, UCF, East Carolina and Tulane will compromise the “Big East” facelift. In reality, this is just a ham-handed attempt to strike as many major media markets as possible.
Although, the original Big East kicked expelled them from football in ‘07, Temple is leaving the A-10 to pimp their budding football program out with the Big East’s fraternal twin.
“We have two world-class coaches in football and men's basketball, and they belong on a national stage,” Patrick J. O'Connor, chairman of Temple's board of trustees, told CSNPHILLY.com last year.
Money talks and Temple walked because football rakes in the dough. Since the A-10 doesn’t have a football conference all they could do was kneel, kiss the pinky ring and keep it moving. Football is the lifeline of the A-10, but if it weren't for football Pittsburgh, Villanova, West Virginia, UConn and Penn State would still be members.
In addition to losing Temple, Butler is rolling out to join the new Catholic 7, erasing any chance of Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart reviving a slightly toned down reincarnation of the Calipari-Chaney blood feud with them.
This season, A-10 sidelines were graced by the two most successful 30-somethings in college hoops history. VCU and Butler had blank slates in the A-10 before this season, but Smart and Stevens arrived with expectations of competing for conference superiority –reminiscent of two hardwood masterminds before them.
John Chaney took Temple’s reins during their first season in the A-10 and steered the program to 17 tournament appearances and five Elite Eights.
However, much to Chaney’s chagrin, during the ‘90s, the A-10 was John Calipari’s conference. Before Smart’s Havoc D was putting the squeeze on opposing offenses, the 29-year-old coaching prodigy was tasked with resurrecting a program that was stuck in a vegetative state.
Back then Calipari’s X’s and O’s game was on point. At UMass, Calipari landed his first great prospect in Marcus Camby and the ‘96 season was his opus magnum.
En route to winning UMass’ fifth consecutive A-10 regular season championship and a No. 1 seed in the Tournament, Calipari led the Minutemen to the ‘96 Final Four. Since Calipari left the program, UMass has been on the side of NCAA Tournament milk cartons. They haven’t been since 1998. Much of the conference is down.
Danny Hurley may be able to revive Rhode Island, but that’s until he gets an interview with a major program. It can’t be much longer until VCU or Smart gets an invite to a conference with a lucrative television deal. The A-10’s downward spiral may just be beginning.
In the new A-10, La Salle has a little more room to stretch their legs without its North Philly neighbor and the momentum to carve out a new niche. George Mason is an intubation tube meant to keep the A-10 breathing, but they won’t replace the loss of Temple. Whether you’re mourning the Big East, or celebrating La Salle’s tear through the tourney, take some time to get familiar with what they lost in the Atlantic-10.