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Atlantic 10 offers challenge, reward for Davidson basketball

By Jonathan Jones
jjones@charlotteobserver.com

DAVIDSON Davidson College’s impending move from the Southern Conference to the Atlantic 10 is one of the rare conference realignment moves motivated by basketball rather than football.

In a time when schools are changing conferences for bigger television money for football, Davidson will go the Atlantic 10 in the 2014-15 season in search of an elevated national profile, a more challenging conference schedule and high-caliber recruits for its men’s basketball program.

The jewel of Davidson’s athletic brand for the past four decades – and even more so in the past decade with the emergence of guard Stephen Curry – the Wildcats’ men’s basketball team is now in a more visible position to the national audience.

“Those athletes that once dismissed us because they did not find that we were in as nationally prominent a conference will now be more receptive,” Davidson men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop said. “We are playing in the northeast corridor and the Midwest. There is a significant television package. There are multiple (NCAA tournament) bids historically in the conference.

“There’s a greater awareness of that, and that gets us into the door of some prospects who before we couldn’t at all get to second base with.”

Davidson, an independent liberal arts school with an enrollment of 1,800, has one of the best collegiate academic profiles in the country, and seldom is an exception made for a student-athlete.

Davidson athletics director Jim Murphy said lowering the academic standards in order to accommodate a higher-level athlete was “never even considered, nor discussed.”

McKillop has recruited well overseas in recent years, with four of his players from the 2012-13 season coming from outside the United States, and he said the inroads in Europe have strengthened since the move was announced three weeks ago.

And with the move to a basketball-centric conference with a national profile, McKillop will now do battle with the likes of Stanford and Vanderbilt for prospective student-athletes in the country.

“I feel like that playing in these major metropolitan areas – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York – will increase our name awareness and increase that academic brand,” Murphy said. “And in many ways it will attract a higher-level athlete that’s also a very strong student.”

Influx of revenue

Even though no football television money is involved in the move, Davidson athletics will still receive an influx of revenue to its budgets.

The A-10 has television contracts with NBC Sports, CBS Sports and ESPN, which translates into more nationally televised games and a share of the revenue stream for Davidson basketball.

The move signals more at-large NCAA tournament bids in the conference, which also means more money. Davidson was the lone Southern Conference team in the tournament last year, and while the Wildcats received a large percentage of their tournament money, all members of the league were also allocated shares. The A-10 had five tournament teams this past season.

“The Atlantic 10 has had a very strong history of performing well in the tournament,” Murphy said. “Certainly if Davidson were fortunate to play in the tournament as the champion or an at-large bid, then we would share in those revenues in an increased way.”

But the move doesn’t come without a price. The school must pay a $600,000 exit fee to the Southern Conference, as well as an undisclosed entry fee to the A-10.

No longer will Davidson be able to bus to all its conference foes. Trips up the Eastern seaboard to major markets will involve flying.

“We won’t worry about the cost as much as we will creating flexibility in our scheduling to make sure our students can be in class,” Murphy said. “Just in terms of hard dollars, we think over time once we start active participation in the Atlantic 10, over a three- or four-year period, revenue generation can offset our operating increases.”

Scheduling

Even though Davidson had just one loss in conference play this past season, the Wildcats had to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament.

That won’t be the case in the Atlantic 10, though. Despite some basketball schools leaving the conference, the A-10 figures to remain a player for at-large bids in the tournament.

“Our conference games will take on a whole new life,” Murphy said. “Up until now, we’ve spent a good bit of our time in scheduling working on high-powered non-conference games that would impact our RPI positively in anticipation for a different kind of conference schedule. Now we look at the Atlantic 10 and our conference games are very strong RPI games for us.”

Last year the Wildcats scheduled New Mexico, Charlotte and Duke in non-conference while also meeting Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Gonzaga in the Old Spice Classic.

Moving forward, Murphy said the focus will be on more local and regional games in non-conference, saying that there will be a need for one or two marquee big non-conference games, but not three or four.

“We will add some very exciting changes to the schedule this coming year that will carry forward in our first year in the A-10,” McKillop said. “We’re going to keep doing what we have been doing, which is putting our guys in environments that challenge them to become the best they can be, to have an enjoyable experience as a student-athlete and give the college exposure in marketplaces alums are based.”

McKillop also didn’t rule out the possibility of scheduling old Southern Conference foes such as College of Charleston and Elon as nonconference opponents once the move is made.

How long McKillop stays on as coach might be the most important piece to the A-10 move.

McKillop, 62, has three years remaining on his contract, but Murphy hopes Davidson’s successful coach of 24 years stays even longer.

“People say your job is a better job when it’s at a higher level and it’s on a bigger stage,” McKillop said. “I’ve always tried to take our job at Davidson and put it on the highest level possible. So without any work on my part, it has become a better job.”

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