Butler had to make the jump to the Atlantic 10.
They had no choice.
When you are in a conference that is a perennial one-bid league and you have the chance to join a conference that can send their fourth or fifth place teams to the NCAA tournament, you almost always make the jump. If you are one of america’s best mid-major programs run by arguably the best young coach in the country, you can take the ‘almost’ out of that statement.
But the benefit of joining a stronger league is also the biggest risk: there is going to be much more competition for those elusive tournament bids. Butler will be replacing Temple in the A-10, but even without the Owls, the top of the Atlantic 10 looks like this: Xavier, Dayton, St. Louis, Butler and St. Joe’s. One of those five will finish in, at best, fifth place. And that’s not including Richmond (who made the 2011 Sweet 16), La Salle (an improving team made up of rising juniors), UMass (who might have the best point guard in the conference in Chaz Williams), Rhode Island (who just hired Danny Hurley) or George Mason and VCU (who may end up entering the A-10 at the same time as Butler).
If George Mason and VCU do end up leaving the CAA, that means that three of the teams that I mentioned above — three — will finish in the bottom half of the conference each and every season.
The A-10 is going to be a very balanced, very competitive league. With all due respect to programs like Cleveland State and Valparaiso, Butler will be competing with teams that are (Xavier) or border on being (St. Louis, St. Joe’s, Dayton) high-major programs.
Despite the success that Butler has had of late, they are not quite on that level yet.
That doesn’t mean that the Bulldogs can’t have success in the league. Quite the opposite, actually. In 2013-2014, Khyle Marshall and Chrishawn Hopkins will be seniors, Roosevelt Jones and Kameron Woods will be juniors and Kellen Dunham will be a sophomore. That’s probably enough talent to be a top 25 team and a favorite in the conference heading into that season.
And that may be enough to earn Butler a fourth-place finish in the regular season.
I have no doubt that the Bulldogs will find success in the Atlantic 10, especially if they keep Stevens around for the long-term.
But Butler fans need to be sure to temper their expectations. Finishing in the top four or five in the Atlantic 10 would be a successful season that puts the Bulldogs on the bubble. Finishing fourth or fifth in the Horizon League is a ticket to the CBI if you have the kind of national profile Butler does.
Be happy about the step-up in competition, but be aware what a step-up in competition means.