Posted March 26, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Nations: Dukes left holding the bag

Jeff Nations

By Jeff Nations

By all rights, these should be giddy days for James Madison University's athletics department.

The men's basketball team, fresh off winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to earn the school's first NCAA men's tournament bid since 1994, proceeded to win that first-round "play-in" game against LIU Brooklyn to secure a No. 16 seed. That they got pummeled two days later by No. 1 seed Indiana is of little import, and did little to tarnish a spectacular season by coach Matt Brady's Dukes.

The women's basketball team is still alive, albeit in the more modest Women's National Invitation Tournament (WNIT). JMU bounced back from a semifinal-round defeat in the CAA tournament to score a first-round home win over North Carolina A&T, then stayed home to knock off the ACC's North Carolina State, 72-66, in Sunday's second round of the WNIT. That sets up yet another tournament home game for the Dukes, who host Fordham tonight in a 7 p.m. matchup at the Convocation Center.

Heady times, to be sure, for JMU fans. Yet the happiness quotient for any mid-major -- or most any college athletics program, it seems -- is always a tenuous emotion in these days of constantly shifting conference affiliations.

So it comes as no surprise that the cannibalization among conferences continues, with the CAA once again the latest victim. Charter member George Mason, a bulwark program which has long provided the sort of continuity that fellow CAA members like JMU and William and Mary also represent, announced plans on Monday to abandon their longtime conference affiliation and jump ship to the Atlantic 10 Conference starting in July. The Patriots will pay a price, of course -- according the CAA, those penalties include a ban from the CAA tournament for seven spring sports, plus monetary losses of at least $2.65 million.

Don't feel sorry for George Mason, though. This move is still about money, and the Patriots are certain to reap financial gain from their newfound A-10 allegiance. It's the same motivation that led Richmond to abandon the CAA for the A-10 for the 2001-02 season, and fellow longtime CAA member Virginia Commonwealth to do the same this year after a 17-year stint in the Colonial.

"We are disappointed by George Mason's decision to withdraw from the CAA after 30 years as a charter member," CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said in a news release on Monday. "We wish them well as they strive to achieve the same level of competitive success in a new conference. The CAA's Council of Presidents will continue to aggressively pursue institutions committed to providing the finest academic and athletic opportunities for our student-athletes."

The A-10 is unquestionably a step up in prestige and competition. This season, the league landed a record nine postseason spots, including five in the NCAA tournament. The A-10's women's programs nearly did as well, with seven postseason berths.

It's understandable, but that doesn't make it right. Much of that recent success by the A-10 comes from previous successful raids into other conferences -- like the CAA -- to grab their most marketable and competitive schools. Of course, those schools have to be willing to go, and in this day and age of revenue-growth opportunities and market shares the bottom line consistently trumps any feelings of loyalty or fraternity among longtime rivals.

That leaves JMU and the latest remnants of the CAA once more holding the bag, which is a shame. It would be refreshing to see schools take a stand for their conference, a league in George Mason's case that the school helped establish, and work to make that brand stronger rather than weakening it at the first sniff of a better offer.

That's not to say James Madison wouldn't do the same thing, if offered the chance -- it's the unsavory nature of the business of collegiate athletics. Unfortunately for the Dukes, their relatively small market size as compared to the recent CAA defectors says a lot about why JMU has yet to be wooed away by a better offer. Harrisonburg is a fine little city, but it lacks the growth potential of a Fairfax or the established market draw of a Richmond.

There is one other way to move, of course, if it comes to that -- win, consistently win. This year's watered-down version of the CAA probably helped the Dukes achieve more this year, and next year could be more of the same. Become the class of the league, and perhaps other conferences will eventually come calling.

It's sad that this might be the best scenario for James Madison.

The alternative, of course, is to stay put and help the league patch up the latest hole. That means another round of cannibalization, another league victimized to satisfy the financial and competitive aims of another. For JMU, the best path might be to straddle that line for now. Continue to build the program to excel in the CAA, but keep developing options for a possible move of its own. Maybe next time, the Dukes will be the ones heading out to greener pastures instead of the ones left behind.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>

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