by David Elfin

When Big East Conference founding member Syracuse announced it was switching to the Atlantic Coast Conference and ending its gripping basketball rivalry with Georgetown after more than 30 years, I was stunned.

When ACC founding member Maryland declared it was moving to the Big 10 and ending more than 50 years of dramatic contests against the likes of North Carolina and Duke, I was sickened.

But when Colonial Athletic Association founding member George Mason revealed this week that it’s leaving for the Atlantic 10 come July, I had to applaud.

The CAA isn’t quite as old as the Big East and doesn’t have nearly the cachet of that league or the venerable ACC. Virginia Commonwealth following fellow founding member Richmond to the A-10 last year was a big blow to the CAA, which was 14-11 in the NCAA Tournament from 2006-12 with Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) reaching the Final Four as 11th seeds. James Madison, which upset regular season champion Northeastern to win the conference tournament, exited in the first round as a 16th seed last week.

Only seven schools took part in this month’s CAA Tournament because Georgia State (Sun Belt) and Old Dominion (Conference USA) had announced they were bolting next season while North Carolina-Wilmington and Towson State were sidelined for academic reasons. The College of Charleston is coming aboard, but a conference that had already lost the four schools nearest to Mason (American, Navy, Richmond and VCU) was no longer a good fit for the Patriots.

“Our partnership with the Atlantic 10 aligns with our core commitments as we move into the next phase of this university’s impressive journey,” said Mason President Angel Cabrera, who believes the switch will help build his growing school’s brand. “We are confident that our new partnership with the A-10 is critical to helping us build on our past with optimism for a future that influences the landscape of the national capital region and to new markets introduced to us through this valuable relationship with colleges and universities in the A-10.”

The A-10 had four schools in this year’s NCAAs (although Temple is leaving for the Big East) with LaSalle heading to the Sweet 16. The move to the A-10 not only reunites Mason with Richmond and VCU, it sets up what should be an intense local rivalry with conference founding member George Washington. It’s just 17 miles from Patriot Center in Fairfax to GW’s Smith Center in downtown Washington.

While the Colonials have been down in recent years, they took a step forward this year in coach Mike Lonergan’s second season as the Patriots took a step back in coach Paul Hewitt’s second season. With AU and Navy in the no-scholarship Patriot League and long-downtrodden Howard off the radar, Mason and GW should battle to be the area’s No. 3 program behind Georgetown and Maryland for years to come.

Mason has a bigger arena and budget, a prettier campus and that Final Four banner earned under former coach Jim Larranaga (back at Verizon Center with second-seeded Miami for tomorrow’s NCAA regional semifinal), but GW has a cool location, a deeper hoops tradition (NBA legend Red Auerbach played there for crying out loud!) and a better academic reputation (which matters to many parents, if not so much to their sons).

“The opportunity to become a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference provides outstanding opportunities for our intercollegiate athletics program and the university as a whole,” said Mason athletic director Tom O’Connor, who took over in Fairfax when the now-retired Jack Kvancz left for GW in 1994. “Our vision for Mason athletics is to be the best overall athletics program in the conference, with an emphasis on men’s and women’s basketball, and this perfectly aligned with the Atlantic 10’s vision and accomplishments.”

Lonergan can’t be juiced to have share the Washington area with a conference rival, but Philadelphia foes Temple, St. Joe’s and LaSalle made sharing A-10 membership work for them all these years.

As for Hewitt, the A-10 schedule won’t match what he had at Georgia Tech coaching against Mike Kryzyzewski, Roy Williams and Gary Williams, but a league with Saint Louis, VCU, La Salle, St. Joe’s, Dayton, St. Bonaventure, GW, Richmond, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Fordham and Duquesne is a heck of a lot better than one with Charleston, Delaware, Drexel, Hofstra, Madison, Northeastern, UNC-Wilmington, Towson and William & Mary.

“We are disappointed by George Mason’s decision to withdraw from the CAA after 30 years as a charter member,” said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager. “We wish them well as they strive to achieve the same level of competitive success in a new conference.”

A new conference, but with some old rivals. And, as is not the case with Maryland’s move to the Big Ten, D.C. hoops fans won’t have to get used to one of our teams playing in an unfamiliar league.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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