Smart says move will help Rams in March

Virginia Commonwealth’s pending move to the Atlantic 10 isn’t necessarily remarkable.

Today, realignment is expected. Transition rarely surprising.

But the rise of VCU’s athletic program -- one that’s inseparable from the Rams’ run to the 2011 Final Four -- in recent years has been dramatic.

Rams head coach Shaka Smart said he hopes the change will position VCU for more postseason success.

In 2011, VCU squeezed into the Big Dance. Last year, the Rams were the CAA’s lone representatives in the NCAA tournament after winning their league’s tournament.

Smart, however, said he anticipates fewer challenges in his pursuit for a bid once VCU joins the Atlantic 10.

“Definitely, I think that was one of the pros, major pros of the Atlantic 10. When you look at the at-large number over the past several seasons and you compare it to the CAA, it’s not even close … 7,8,9 times as many,” Smart said. “From that standpoint, it makes more sense. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get an at-large. It’s still challenging. And there are a lot of good teams that are battling for that at-large bid.”

He calls the Atlantic 10 a “premier” conference but he said he won’t change his recruiting philosophy.

Smart tends to sign blue-collar players, such as the edgy, veteran athletes who anchored his program’s run to the Final Four last March. They’re typically tough and scrappy but rarely Top 50 as preps.

His program’s new home, however, might help VCU grab higher-caliber players who’d previously chosen to compete for bigger schools.

“I think we’ll still recruit the same type of guys. Maybe with the league affiliation we’ll get hurt a little bit less when we’re going up against the big boys in the BCS leagues,” Smart said. “Most of the guys we lose are to those leagues. … I don’t think the type of guys we recruit is really going to change. We recruit guys to try to beat the teams that we beat in the NCAA tournament.”

With VCU leading the way in recent years, the CAA maintained its post as a midmajor power but a series of recent maneuvers has jeopardized that position.

VCU will leave the league this summer. Old Dominion and Georgia State will depart in 2013.

Smart said rumblings about possible realignment commenced after the 2011-12 season. And although he’s cheered his former league, he said the chatter about CAA disruption contributed to his program’s decision to leave the conference.

“You just have to, in these situations, get the best feel you possibly can for the changing landscape of college sports and where it’s going,” he said. “There was definitely the possibility or maybe even the likelihood that there was going to be major movement within the CAA. And so the obvious question is ‘Are you going to be one of the schools that’s moving or one of the schools that still there when the movement occurs?’”

But’s it’s not all roses and rainbows for VCU.

Now, the Rams must fill the new holes in their 2012-13 schedule.

They intended to play George Washington and Richmond during the nonconference portion of their slate. But both schools are in the Atlantic 10 so they’ll face them in conference play.

The CAA plays 18 conference games and the Atlantic 10 employs a 16-game league schedule. That’s another two-game gap for the Rams. Overall, Smart said VCU has six matchups to secure.

“The biggest challenge is we have a ton of games to schedule now,” he said. “When this announcement came out, we had seven games to go get. That’s a challenge this time of year. A lot of teams are done [with scheduling].”

But the problems don’t outweigh the benefits, Smart said.

With a tougher conference schedule, VCU could avoid the end-of-year jitters that beset the program as Selection Sunday approached the last two years. And they’re leaving a conference sapped with instability and joining a league that recently regained its footing in the national realignment shift after losing Temple and Charlotte.

“We were in a very good league in the CAA. One thing about me, I’m not a grass is always greener on the other side guy,” Smart said. “But when the athletic director and his staff started researching and looking at pros and cons and just weighing the details, it became more and more clear that it was the right thing to do.”