Shaka Smart says he’s excited for the challenge the Atlantic 10 offers.

RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart has only been knocking around the Colonial Athletic Association for three years, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for the VCU coach to walk away from the Richmond-based league.

It’s where he hoisted his first conference championship trophy as a head coach, and a league that made one of the most stunning Final Four runs in NCAA history possible. In 2010-11, the CAA enjoyed its best men’s basketball season ever, sending three teams to the NCAA Tournament. The league also ranked ninth nationally in RPI, which played a major role in the Rams’ 2011 NCAA at-large berth.

“In 2011, the only reason we even make the NCAA Tournament, is because of the strength of the CAA from top to bottom,” Smart said Friday, four days after VCU announced it would depart the CAA for the Atlantic 10.

“We’ve really enjoyed the competition the relationships, the rivalries in the CAA, the experiences that our student athletes have had, but the reality is we’re dealing with a changing landscape.”

Ultimately, VCU officials saw the CAA’s 2010-2011 season as the exception, rather than the rule, and chose to jump to the A-10, which sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2011-12.

Smart didn’t make the call, the VCU Board of Visitors did, but the coach reiterated his endorsement of the move Friday. Since 2000, the Atlantic 10 has earned 20 NCAA at-large bids, while the CAA recorded four. That was enough to convince Smart where the future of VCU Basketball should reside.

“The reality that everyone settled on was the best thing for VCU moving forward was to go to the Atlantic 10,” he said. “There are certainly more at-large opportunities than in the CAA. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s easier because you have a lot of great programs going after those, and they’re still hard to come by.”

The A-10 ranked seventh nationally in RPI last season and boasted eight teams within the top 100. That means VCU will have its work cut out for it, but Smart and his players are ready.

“The reaction from our current players was one of excitement,” Smart said. “Our guys like challenges, and they know that this is going to be a challenge. They know that they’re going to have the opportunity to go into arenas where they’ve never been and get to play against players that they’ve never played against before. But our guys don’t shy away from that stuff. They enjoy it.”

The Rams will be thrown right into the fire in 2012-13. A likely favorite to win the CAA, VCU will instead negotiate an A-10 field that could be among the best the league has ever seen.

But VCU expects to be in the mix for the crown. With the exception of leading scorer Bradford Burgess, the Rams return their entire team from 2011-12 after winning the CAA Championship and reaching the NCAA Round of 32.

“The ever-changing landscape of college athletics makes it such that you have to position yourself in a good place moving forward,” Smart added. “This was the right decision for VCU from that standpoint. Basketball-wise, we’re taking a jump. There’s no question about it. The level of competition night in and night out in the Atlantic 10 will be better. We have to prepare for that and be ready to attack that.”

TIDBITS

* Smart says he is “98 percent” certain VCU and Old Dominion will continue their rivalry. He says the Rams have essentially agreed to play next season in Norfolk to make the series work.

* VCU’s previously scheduled games with Richmond and George Washington – originally non-conference contests – will get thrown back into the Atlantic 10 scheduling machine. VCU is certain to meet Richmond at least once (possibly twice). A game with George Washington, while likely, remains to be seen.

*Smart conceded a game with George Mason “may not happen this year” due to logistical issues, but VCU remains open to continuing that series, as well as other series with James Madison and William & Mary.

*In the past, the Atlantic 10 has played a 16-game conference schedule, while the CAA has played 18. If A-10 commissioners choose to keep the schedule at 16 when they meet later this summer, the Rams will have to find two more non-conference games.

*Smart said he and his staff have already divided up the schools in the A-10 and have begun familiarizing themselves with each team.

*Smart said Friday he doesn’t expect a major impact on recruiting, but conceded that VCU may be able to establish a stronger presence in Ohio and, to some degree, up the East Coast.

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