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Butler facing sea change with move to Atlantic 10

INDIANAPOLIS - It’s a warm spring afternoon in Indianapolis, and the Butler basketball coaches are already going full throttle.

Brad Stevens is patrolling makeshift courts in the steamy Hinkle Fieldhouse parking lot where nearly 300 children are attending basketball camp. Inside the historic brick building, fans are whirring to cool down the indoor court as Stevens’s top assistant, Matthew Graves, pins standings and rosters on a board in a hallway.

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Graves has already made one change, replacing the name of a camp league from Horizon to the Atlantic 10, Butler’s new affiliation.

This is the easy part. Behind the scenes, the Bulldogs are in full scramble mode.

“Some years, May 30 is a really relaxing day,’’ Stevens said before chuckling. “It ain’t this year.’’

Life is about to change for the NCAA Tournament darlings, the two-time national runner-ups who are suddenly all grown up. Butler announced last week that it will switch leagues before next season, rather than waiting until 2013-14.

Stevens has traded in some of his coveted free time to get an early glimpse at his 15 new league foes. He’s studying rosters and trudging through numbers, trying to decipher strengths and weaknesses of the Rhode Islands and Duquesnes and Saint Louises. And Stevens and Graves are trying to fill a schedule that now has four glaring holes - two lost league games, a BracketBuster game that Butler will no longer play, and a non-Division 1 opponent that must be dropped because of A-10 rules.

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No, it’s not easy in the wacky world of conference realignment, and not just for Butler.

“We have nine people in the conference office and they basically went into working around the clock to get the [league] schedules done,’’ Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said. “Some had vacation time and they canceled that to work on this. Basically, we had it all done during the spring and then we had to redo all of it with the anticipation of a 16th team.’’

Butler’s president, James Danko, and athletic director Barry Collier informed Horizon League officials May 2 that the conference’s best-known school and one of its longest-tenured members would leave for the A-10 after making a farewell tour next season.

What changed?

Perhaps it was the reaction Butler expected to face during next season’s road trips.

“Actually we talked a little about that and we didn’t know how it would turn out,’’ said guard Rotnei Clarke, who played at Arkansas but sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. “We figured the crowds would give us a little bit of something, that maybe it would be a little more amped up than it normally is. We also know there are going to be a lot of great atmospheres in the Atlantic 10.’’

Or maybe it was the reaction from the Horizon League presidents. CBSSports.com reported that the presidents wanted to make Butler’s teams ineligible for all league tournament titles, which would have kept the men’s basketball team from having a chance to seek an automatic NCAA bid.

Stevens said he didn’t know if that was true. Collier declined to comment on the report, citing an agreement with the Horizon League that allows Butler to leave the conference immediately. League officials have repeatedly said the agreement does not allow them to discuss Butler’s impending departure, either.

Whatever occurred, it expedited the move.

“We did announce we were leaving in 2013-14 and now we’re going a year early,’’ Collier said. “But once people have their destination, they usually don’t mind getting there a little sooner.’’

Butler’s early move will force the conference to reduce the league schedule from 18 games to 16, giving each team two new open dates. Conference spokesman Bill Benner said he is not aware of any league mandate that would prohibit a Horizon League school from scheduling Butler.

The simplest solution might be adding a 10th member this summer. Don’t count on it.

“I think it would be fairly unlikely, if not fully unlikely, to add a team or teams that soon,’’ Benner said.

The new-look schedule has Stevens taking a different tack. He’d like to play at least one game in a major market outside Indy, but he is wary of upgrading a schedule that he believes may already rank among the 15 toughest in Division 1.

That’s not all.

“Most years, you play about 20 teams because of the two rounds in league play,’’ Stevens said. “Next year, we’re going to play 28 or 29 teams and that’s a heck of a challenge. One of the interesting things is that when you’re playing everyone twice, that’s kind of a different coaching package for the second round of opponents. Now we’re just going to be playing them all once.’’

The A-10 had already changed the schedule once this spring, when Virginia Commonwealth accepted an invitation. League officials were ready to vote on the new schedules last Wednesday when they found out there was a chance Butler might join sooner. When Temple and Charlotte leave the league next year, the scheduling format will change yet again.

Whatever the obstacles, Butler believes they pale in comparison to the payoff of joining a league that has become a landing spot for small programs with rich NCAA tourney histories.

Richmond has taken down big-name programs such as Indiana, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, and Vanderbilt over the last three decades. Rhode Island came within 3 points of reaching the Final Four in 1998. Xavier has gotten within one win of a Final Four twice in the last decade. Massachusetts (1996), Saint Joseph’s (1961), and VCU (2011) have all played in the Final Four, and Butler (2010, 2011) and Dayton (1967) have worn the title of national runner-up.

In recent years, the A-10 hasn’t been treated like other non-BCS conferences, either, annually earning multiple NCAA bids.

Those were two of the reasons Butler made the switch.

“Like I said, the Horizon League deserves credit because it’s a lot better league than people think,’’ Clarke said. “But I think the Atlantic 10 will give us a better chance to get there [NCAA tournament], and it will give us more exposure, too.’’

The only immediate drawback is time, a precious commodity in athletic departments.

“We’re playing an NFL schedule and we don’t really know how that will work,’’ Stevens said. “You know, I’ve always been of the thought that if we’re going to go, then let’s go and if we’re staying, then let’s stay. But I’m ready to do it, and I’ve been ready to do it since May 2.’’

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