The most important week in recent Colonial Athletic Association history started out all right: Five days ago, George Mason announced it would turn down offers from other conferences and remain in its home league. That was good news for the CAA and commissioner Tom Yeager, who was struggling to hold together one of the nation's best emerging mid-major hoops leagues -- one that sent four teams to the NCAA tournament just two years ago -- amid rampant realignment rumors.
The good news basically stopped there: On Tuesday, VCU announced it would leave the CAA to join the Atlantic 10, taking the flagship men's basketball program (a 2011 Final Four participant, no less) to play with Xavier and Butler and the rest. Now, per a report in the Hampton Roads Daily Press, the CAA is also going to lose the Old Dominion Monarchs, this time to Conference USA.
ODU took its time with the move. There was no rush to announce two weeks ago despite C-USA's seeming insistence to that effect. Instead, like any sought-after recruit, the school weighed its options, presented its case to its Board of Visitors and concluded that now was the time to take the next step in its athletics evolution.
An evolution will be required. Unlike VCU's home in the A-10, C-USA requires this little thing called football, so ODU's 3-year-old program will have to make the leap from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, and to do so it will have to upgrade its scholarships and athletic facilities, including Foreman Field. The football stadium seats 19,818, making it among the smallest facilities in C-USA.
Hosting a mere 19,000 for your football games isn't necessarily a bad thing: According to this graphic from the Virginian-Pilot, the Monarchs will become one of the few teams in C-USA with the ability to boast full attendance at its football games. That's already a leg up on other recent C-USA additions Charlotte and Texas-San Antonio, both of which will attempt to jump-start relatively nonexistent football programs as they move to what will now be a 14-team league stretching from West Virginia to Texas to Florida.
What will it mean for basketball? It's hard to see many drawbacks. Conference USA is without question consistently deeper and tougher than the CAA (even in the CAA's best years), but without Big East-bound Memphis, there is no clear power in the league, and no reason ODU's success under Blaine Taylor (who has averaged 24.3 wins per season, and gone to four NCAA tournaments, since 2005) couldn't continue.
Surely, there will be adjustments. Taylor might have to tweak his recruiting somewhat. But much like Butler, the Monarchs have consistently proved (via the power of efficiency stats, which are helpfully adjusted across conferences) themselves worthy of playing in C-USA. In fact, without Memphis, the leap from the CAA to C-USA, as quantified by each league's total efficiency strength, is not nearly as wide as the leap Butler will make from the Horizon to the A-10. In 2012, Conference USA ranked No. 10 in the nation; the CAA ranked No. 13. And that's with Memphis. The highest-ranked non-Memphis C-USA team in 2012 was Southern Miss, at No. 75; in the past four seasons, ODU's average KenPom rank is 67.75. This is not an insurmountable challenge. In many ways, ODU is already ready.
That's why this is such an important and ultimately understandable move: The Monarchs get to try out this whole FBS football thing, and all the resources and trinkets it provides, without risking a major downturn on the basketball side, where ODU's mainstream athletics relevance lies. The Monarchs can compete and win and get to NCAA tournaments in C-USA, maybe even easier than they did in the CAA (at-large bids should at least be slightly easier to come by), and they can bring in more cash to do so.
Much as we'll lament the state of the plucky, upstart CAA -- and as bad a week as this was for Yeager -- it's hard to question the Monarchs' motives. Old Dominion took its time, weighed its options and found a new home, one that should pay dividends as early as its first season in 2013-14. No mystery here.