The news is officially official: Butler is waving farewell to the Horizon League once and for all, and moving all of its sports to the Atlantic 10 starting in 2013, as Andy Katz reported Tuesday night and Butler formally confirmed Wednesday morning.
It's a big move, and an obviously advantageous one, for the flagship men's basketball program: The Bulldogs will play better competition on a regular basis, they'll be on TV more often, and they don't have to fret about avoiding slipups in conference play and/or winning the conference title to get in the NCAA tournament every season. Atlantic 10 at-large bids are far more plentiful than that.
The question is: Can Butler compete with the top end of the A-10? Can it consistently win one of those bids?
Not everyone is convinced. The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy believes Butler will have to change its recruiting style -- wherein Brad Stevens eschews top-end talent for good teammates and sleeper prospects -- to maintain a foothold in its new environment:
Stevens said during our lunch he would continue to value “level of basketball ability, character and everything else that goes into it, what’s important to them, what kind of teammate they are.” And no doubt he will. But Butler will have to shop in more crowded aisles now. It never will be the same.
Gun to head, I think Butler will be fine because Stevens is too good to be bad. But there's no denying the Bulldogs' world is changing. Recruiting must improve. Facilities should be upgraded. If those things don't happen, America's most beloved college basketball program could find itself in waters that are a little too deep because the A-10 is a significant step up in competition, and because the next Gordon Hayward or Shelvin Mack -- i.e., two pros who weren't projected as pros out of high school -- isn't the easiest thing to find.
These are valid concerns. Butler's modus operandi goes a little something like this: Recruit lesser-known character guys and overlooked talents, build those teams into cohesive four-year groups, and then slowly rinse and repeat. With the exceptions of Gordon Hayward (a now-promising pro for the Utah Jazz who sprouted Anthony Davis-like inches late in his high school career) and Shelvin Mack (a little-known guard out of Kentucky), the Bulldogs have always thrived on players with less sheer talent than panache, players who were better as the sum of parts than as raw parts themselves.
Perhaps Butler's most important recent player -- forward Matt Howard -- was a combination of these qualities, a player good enough to receive looks at high-major schools like Indiana and Wake Forest but not good enough to receive promises of stable playing time. He chose Butler instead, and four years, two Final Four appearances, and a host of (both basketball and academic) individual awards later, the rest is history.
Likewise, Butler's basketball resources -- logistical things like their recruiting spend, willingness to splurge on charter flights, renovations to Hinkle Fieldhouse and campus practice facilities -- will need to be the subject of a consistent commitment on the part of the school. These are the concerns, and they are valid.
They are also, perhaps, a bit overblown. For one, Butler has already begun to recruit more high-profile players. As Yahoo!'s Jeff Eisenberg notes:
They were a finalist along with North Carolina and Indiana for Cody Zeller, one of the nation's top centers in the 2011 class. They landed Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke, a sharpshooter coveted by many elite programs. They signed top 100 prospect Kellen Dunham in the Class of 2012. And they secured a commitment from top 100 power forward Nolan Berry and have offers out to at least a trio of other even more highly ranked Class of 2013 recruits.
Likewise, the Bulldogs have already begun to ramp up the financial backing of the program, too. The men's basketball program already receives a lion's share of the program's athletic spending. Hinkle Fieldhouse, one of the nation's most beautiful and historic basketball arenas, is set to receive a $25 million renovation in coming years. Stevens is under contract for 10 more seasons -- 10 more seasons! -- and he is believed to make just more than $1 million per year. Butler will surely have to spend more on game travel and recruiting, but the increased revenue from the move should help to offset those costs.
When you really boil it down, the concern over Butler's move, as it relates to continued success on the basketball court, goes like this: The Atlantic 10 has more good players than the Horizon League, and Butler will need more good players. Stevens wants to recruit his kind of player -- success and all, he won't abandon "The Butler Way" -- but the competition within the Atlantic 10 may force him to look outside his normal boundaries for recruits. Either that, or Butler won't win. Either way, something will change.
This concern assumes that there aren't players within Butler's recruiting sphere of influence -- which is centered in Indianapolis, the nexus of one of the nation's best and deepest prep hoops reservoirs -- that are both good enough and "Butler enough" to play for Stevens. Forget that this ignores the existence of Hayward and Mack and Howard, players who carried Butler to two straight national runner-up finishes. It assumes that Stevens can't find more of these players, or can't locate top-100 guys, even as he is already two years into that stage of the program's evolution. And it insinuates the existence of a big, bad Atlantic 10, a place where homey little Butler can't possibly hope to compete, not with Butler Way players who play committed, tight-knit basketball for one of the nation's best coaches.
I happen to think they can. The past five years is evidence enough for me.
Butler will have to grow and evolve in certain respects in its new home, no question. But it won't have to change what it is at its very core. Stevens is Stevens, after all. And new conference or not, Butler can still be Butler.