Boston University’s departure from America East to the Patriot League is at the very least a glancing blow to the future of America East. The move came out of nowhere, at a time where it seemed that conference maneuvers for this year’s cycle were complete. But few moves may have the affect this one has.
America East survived a round of conference maneuvers over a decade ago, when three of its premier programs were among four who bolted to the Colonial Athletic Association. After that, Vermont became a powerhouse after steadily rising for several years, Boston University went on a big run and Northeastern became relevant again and then a postseason team before they, too, bolted for the CAA in 2005. But this one might be tougher to overcome.
For starters, the Terriers were arguably the premier program in the conference. They have been contenders for postseason play just about every year since early in Dennis Wolff’s tenure at the school, and that’s continued through two more coaches. They are also viewed as one program that should be able to contend every year, given the school’s location, Agganis Arena allowing them to get good opponents at home in non-conference play, and the academic offerings.
Any conference losing its premier program would be hit with a glancing blow, but America East’s problems don’t end there. The conference has been very weak the last couple of years, so losing a program the caliber of Boston University hits harder, at least at first. The Terriers always played a strong non-conference schedule, so they helped keep the conference’s RPI up even when losses mounted, as they did in December last season. This is also a conference whose bottom three teams entered conference play in 2011-12 a combined 1-35. Yes, there is some youth in the conference, but this year continued a downward move for the conference and not all of the teams were young. Binghamton has still not recovered from the Kevin Broadus era, although the recent hire of Tommy Dempsey to run the program is a step in the right direction.
There’s also the matter of perception. Going to the Patriot League from America East is widely viewed as a lateral move, which doesn’t reflect well on the erstwhile conference. It was one thing for past members to go to the CAA, or would be if BU had moved to the Atlantic 10, which they have been linked with in the past. While the Patriot League is on the whole a better academic league, it’s not by that much as America East schools are generally pretty good academically and several schools wouldn’t be terribly out of place in the Patriot League.
Besides that, the defections may not be done. Stony Brook is being courted by the CAA, where Maine and New Hampshire already play football. Maine and UNH may be investigating their options to be proactive for their future as well. Stony Brook has publicly said they’re committed to America East, but we’ve heard programs say similar things and bolt shortly thereafter. The school has become an annual contender as Steve Pikiell has picked up where Nick Macarchuk left off in their formative Division I seasons, so if they were to bolt, it would be another glancing blow.
America East isn’t in the kind of dire straits that the WAC is in. For 2013-14, only four members are committed to the WAC, which is ironic since it was the first conference to go to 16 members. At this point it would not be a surprise to see those four members go elsewhere while the WAC dissolves. America East still has eight members for now, so they’re not in that kind of trouble just yet.
If America East were to look to add members, where would they go? Two thoughts that have been floated out there are Bryant and Quinnipiac of the Northeast Conference. Bryant, in particular, is a bit miscast in the conference as an elite academic school, one that wouldn’t be out of place in the Patriot League. They would make sense as it would give the conference a Rhode Island team, and one near Providence. Neither team would give them what Boston University did, at least initially, but they would help the conference remain viable. They could also consider NJIT, which is a major outlier in the Great West Conference and would surely love to have the opportunity to go for an NCAA Tournament bid, something that is currently out of reach.
Time will tell what the Terriers’ move proves to be for the future of America EAst. At first glance, it is at least a glancing blow to the conference. If it proves to be the beginning of the end, however, it won’t be entirely shocking. One might say that the conference has reached gut-check time.