Sitting in his West Ashley home watching the NCAA basketball tournament on television, College of Charleston coach Doug Wojcik could only shake his head and wonder what might have been for the Cougars.
2013-2014 Conference RPI
1. Big 12
2. Big Ten
4. Big East
6. Atlantic 10
8. American Conference
9. West Coast Conference
10. Mountain West
15. Colonial Athletic
30. Southern Conference
Had Charleston been in the Southern Conference instead of the more competitive Colonial Athletic Association this past season, the Cougars would have had a much better chance to be part of March Madness.
A year ago, Wojcik's first season as the Cougars head coach, Charleston was one victory away from advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than decade. But Davidson beat Charleston, 74-55, in the SoCon tournament title game and the Cougars had to settle for a spot in the College Basketball Invitational.
With four returning starters, the Cougars likely would have been favorites to win the SoCon regular season this year, which would have meant at the very least an NIT bid, and possibly a spot in the NCAA tournament had they won the SoCon tournament.
But instead of having another 20-win season, which would have been Charleston's fifth in the last six years, the Cougars suffered through only their second losing season since 1981-82.
The Cougars weren't alone.
With universities searching for new revenue and looking to squeeze every dollar they can out of an athletic budget, 49 schools switched conferences last year in the most systemic shift to the college basketball landscape in decades.
The Cougars moved from the SoCon, which had a conference RPI rating of 30 out of 32 leagues this year, to the CAA, which was 15th in the RPI.
Only Pacific, George Mason and Old Dominion made as big a leap in competition as the Cougars. None of the teams finished with a winning record this season and only Old Dominion, which had been a consistent winner in the CAA not too long ago, had a better record this year compared to the 2012-13 season.
Twenty-eight of the 49 teams that switched to tougher conferences had worse records than they did in the previous season. Teams that made large jumps up the RPI conference ratings struggled even more.
"What happened to the College of Charleston this year wasn't unusual," said ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg, the former head coach at Virginia Tech. "A lot of the university presidents and athletic directors were just looking at the bottom line when they made these decisions. You can't blame them for that, but at the same time I don't think very many of them took into consideration what a move was going to do to certain teams in their program.
"They were chasing the dollar signs and not really thinking about how this could affect the basketball teams. Football was the driving force behind a lot of these decisions."
The Cougars played three teams in the SoCon this season, winning all three games: Furman (89-55), The Citadel (72-48) and regular-season conference champion Davidson (76-64), by an average of more than 23 points.
"I don't think there's any question Charleston would have been a contender in the Southern Conference," Greenberg said. "They went into Davidson's backyard and handled them pretty easily. That's not an easy place to win."
Greenberg said he's not surprised to see teams that had been perennial powers in their previous conferences are now fighting for mediocrity in their new leagues.
"Let's face it, Charleston had one year to prepare for the CAA," Greenberg said. "They had Southern Conference talent and the AD and president asked the coach and the players to go out and compete in the CAA, which is a much tougher league. It's just unrealistic to think Charleston could go into the CAA and contend like did in the Southern Conference.
"Look around college basketball, the teams that moved up, for the most part, didn't have great seasons."
There were exceptions, with Georgia State being the most notable. The Panthers, who were in the CAA last year, moved to the Sun Belt, which by RPI standards was a move up. Georgia State went 10-8 in the CAA during the 2012-13 season, but won the Sun Belt regular-season title.
"That was the exception rather than the rule," said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. "Georgia State had some good things going for them and I'm not so sure the Sun Belt was that big of a step up from the CAA."
The norm was more like what happened with Butler, Georgia Mason, Utah State and, yes, the College of Charleston. Butler, which went to the Final Four in 2010 and 2011, suffered through one of its worst seasons in recent memory, going 12-16 overall and 2-14 in their inaugural season in the Big East. The Bulldogs went from the Horizon League, where they were the team to beat, to the much tougher Atlantic-10 and then to the Big East.
"Three or four years ago we were celebrating Butler because everyone said they were doing it the right way," Bilas said. "They were in the Horizon League, they were going to Final Fours, and (head coach) Brad Stevens remained at the school when he had other opportunities because he was loyal to the players and the administration.
"We were commending them on that. Now, Butler is in the Big East, Brad Stevens is in the NBA, and they had some injuries this year. Butler had a losing season and we're criticizing them and wonder what happened. The fall from grace can be pretty quick."
Next year, 16 schools will switch conferences, including former SoCon members Elon (CAA) and Davidson (A-10). Greenberg said those programs could learn from what the Cougars experienced this season.
"Both of those schools are making major jumps," Greenberg said. "They're used to winning at Davidson and there's no better coach in the country than Bob McKillop, but there are no easy outs in the A-10. Davidson really has its work cut out for it next year."