Atlantic 10 Conference commissioner Bernadette McGlade was "extremely optimistic," but nervous nonetheless on Selection Sunday. Radically changed from a year ago, her league appeared poised to send a record six teams to the NCAA basketball tournament.
Based in Newport News since 2009, the A-10 long has ranked among the nation's best basketball-centric conferences, and its history includes Massachusetts, coached then by John Calipari, reaching the 1996 Final Four, and Saint Joseph's earning a No. 1 seed in 2004. But never had six A-10 teams land in the bracket.
CBS opened its show that Sunday evening with the East Region, unveiling almost immediately an opening game between Dayton and Ohio State. Dayton was the A-10's most questionable tournament qualifier, and that's when McGlade knew six were in.
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"All of a sudden it was like somebody just released the pressure valve," she said Wednesday before flying to Dallas for the Final Four. "A year ago, if you remember, (the A-10's) LaSalle was the very last team (shown). That was painful."
It's been that kind of season for McGlade and the A-10: high stakes, high pressure, high reward.
Conference teams thrived during the regular season, defeating the likes of Virginia, Creighton, Gonzaga, Maryland, New Mexico and Nebraska. Dayton won three NCAA games to reach the South Regional final, and last week the league announced a partnership with the ACC and Barclays Center that extends the A-10's presence at the Brooklyn arena and in the New York market through 2021.
None of this was a given following an offseason in which Butler, Temple, Xavier and Charlotte exited the league for various reasons. Butler and Temple were among the A-10's five NCAA teams last season, and Xavier is a postseason perennial, so dismissing the departures was impossible.
McGlade said that during the A-10's annual spring meetings last May the central question was: Who's ready to step up and replace the quality programs that left?
"Our regular season, I think we maximized," McGlade said. "Our teams got the job done in terms of wins and losses, and then to see them get acknowledged and get the at-larges into the (tournament) was really rewarding."
Only Dayton and Saint Louis advanced, with VCU's giveaway to Stephen F. Austin most disappointing, Saint Joseph's overtime loss to Final Four-bound Connecticut most excruciating. But Dayton's conquests of Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford — the Flyers then fell to Florida, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed — made the season.
Xavier in 2008 had been the A-10's most recent regional finalist, and Dayton had not advanced that far since 1984, when it lost to Patrick Ewing and eventual national champion Georgetown.
This marked the second straight NCAA tournament in which the lowest-seeded A-10 team was the most successful. Last year it was LaSalle making the Sweet 16, a testament to postseason's twists and the A-10's depth.
McGlade was in Memphis last week watching Dayton, but before heading south she jetted north for a joint announcement with ACC commissioner John Swofford, her friend and former boss, at the Barclays Center, home to the A-10 tournament in 2013 and '14.
Contracted at Barclays through 2017, the A-10 relinquished that final year to the ACC, which will stage its 2017 and '18 tournaments at the arena. In exchange, the A-10 will return to Barclays in 2019, '20 and '21.
Also, the A-10 and ACC will play an interconference doubleheader there in December of 2015, '16 and '17. Finally, the A-10 negotiated a spot in the annual Brooklyn Hoops events at Barclays, tripleheaders that this season included VCU defeating Boston College.
"I think it's a huge statement," McGlade said, "because being in Brooklyn and being in the New York media market is critically important to the A-10 and to our fan base and to our alums. And for us to solidify, at really a high level, the A-10's championship, that we're in Barclays and New York five of the next seven years, that's a statement in itself. Our coaches will recruit on that. … I think it's an incredibly important strategic decision for the league."
The doubleheaders with the ACC and the Brooklyn Hoops events also will give the A-10 exposure and marquee games difficult to come by during the regular season, when many power conference teams prefer comfortable home games to challenging road or neutral tests.
"It's really electric and it's so high quality," McGlade said of Barclays, which opened in 2012 and is home to the NBA's Brooklyn Nets. "They are very proud that they train all of their staff in the Disney model of customer service. … That's how I would compare it. … What Disney is to people that love amusement parks is what Barclays is to people who love basketball."
A former ACC associate commissioner, McGlade understood Swofford's eagerness to land in New York with his expanded membership, especially before the Big Ten. That realization (leverage?) led to a deal among friends that benefits all the principals.
"What's not to like?" was how McGlade described the agreement.
Much the same can be said of the Atlantic 10's season.