Conference realignment dominated headlines in college basketball in 2013 when the Big East Conference passed over the Dayton Flyers to add Xavier, Butler and Creighton. At that time, Dayton remained optimistic the league would expand to 12 teams and it would receive an invitation, but the Big East stayed with 10 teams and Dayton’s invitation never came.
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However, according to multiple reports over the weekend, the Big East will expand to 11 teams — possibly as early as the 2020-21 season — and the 11th team will be Connecticut, which will return to the Big East after six seasons in the American Athletic Conference. Some Dayton fans reacted to that news on social media over the weekend as you might expect. Getting passed over may not have hurt as bad as it did six years ago, but the news reopened old wounds.
University of Dayton Athletic Director Neil Sullivan has dealt with questions about Dayton’s future in the Atlantic 10 and its prospects for joining the Big East for as long as he’s been on the job — he took over when Tim Wabler stepped down in September 2015 — and he reacted to the Big East news on Monday in an interview with the Dayton Daily News.
Staying on top of conference realignment is part of the job, Sullivan said.
“Myself, our president, even our board of trustees,” Sullivan said, “we have a responsibility to continue to be tuned into the environment, the economics of the business, conference realignment and any other market realities. It’s also our job to foresee obstacles, opportunities. We constantly challenge and reevaluate our assumptions, and we’ve done that long before this weekend’s news and we’ll do it long after. This is a fluid business. It’s always evolving and changing.”
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Asked if there was ever any chance of Dayton getting into the Big East, Sullivan said, “I guess I would say, without trying to be mechanical, is our framework hasn’t changed. We want to be in the best multi-bid basketball conference we can be in. Right now, that’s the Atlantic 10. It probably wouldn’t be appropriate for me to publicly speculate on scenarios other than to say we’re just relentless and aggressive in our pursuit to position and fight for Dayton basketball, to fight for our students, to fight for our fans. We always do that. We do that now, and I think we’ll do that well into the future.”
The 2019-20 season will be Dayton’s 25th in the A-10. The league sent at least three teams to the NCAA tournament for 11 straight years until 2019 when only Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis made it.
The A-10 failed to win a NCAA tournament or NIT game for the first time ever and slipped to 11th in the conference rankings compiled on KenPom.com. It was the third straight season the A-10 had dropped. It ranked eighth in 2017.
“It’s a concern,” Sullivan said. “You don’t want to be on the fringe of being a multi-bid conference. You want to be squarely solidified as one.”
A-10 Commissioner Bernadette V. McGlade joined the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee in the 2018-19 season, and Sullivan said she shared her expectations with the 14 A-10 programs about what the league needs to do remain a multi-bid league. With many of the power conferences moving to 20-game schedules, the opportunities for strong non-conference wins are dwindling.
“Some of the very best teams on the schedule have to come from our league,” Sullivan said. “That’s where things are headed. The NCAA selection committee deeply values games against other NCAA at-large contending teams, and we need more of them from the A-10. You either have a great win or a tough loss against a really highly-rated team. That’s the goal of the league, and that’s what we talk about.”
While everyone in the A-10 expects the downward trend to reverse next season, with VCU, Davidson, Dayton and Rhode Island among the teams returning talented and experienced rosters, the slide in recent years has hurt the conference’s status.
“”The A-10 has been a multi-bid league for many years,” Sullivan said. “It’s got great coaches, great players, good tradition, but we’re not satisfied. I don’t think anyone is. We’re never satisfied, whether that’s with our own program (or others). There’s no secret the league needs to be stronger from top to bottom, and we’re part of that league and we’ve got to do our part as well. But it can be done. It can be done from the A-10. It has been done.”
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While Sullivan said it wouldn’t be healthy to speculate publicly on possible scenarios that could result from the UConn news — such as the A-10 losing VCU to the AAC, a logical move, according to Yahoo Sports college basketball writer Pete Thamel — he acknowledged it’s a popular topic when he talks to fans.
“We have passionate fans — fans who want the Flyers to be successful,” Sullivan said. “Conference affiliation certainly has an influence on our schedule. It has influence on TV agreements. It has influence on brands. It’s not to be dismissed. But it also does not, nor will it ever, disrupt our pursuit of championships and winning in March. That’s what needs to happens. That’s what we’re after.”
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