By Kevin Sweeney
Conference realignment is like a domino effect. All it takes is one team to switch leagues, and all the sudden programs are swapping conferences in rapid succession.
After Wichita State departed the Missouri Valley Conference for a new home in the American, I knew it was possible that a large realignment could occur. Now, with Valparaiso poised to take WSU’s spot in “The Valley”, the realignment picture has become clearer. Now, let me preface this by saying I don’t expect, nor do I have any knowledge that, this will happen. That being said, here’s a chaotic scenario that leads to a change in the mid-major college basketball landscape as we know it:
In the immediate future, the Horizon League holds all the cards. My scenario hinges on Commissioner Jon LeCrone being very aggressive and looking to add 3 teams. First, the Horizon adds Robert Morris, a top NEC program that makes sense geographically for the league and would probably be interested in leaving an NEC that has been decimated by transfers.
The second addition would be Nebraska-Omaha. After being considered but declined for a move to the Missouri Valley, Omaha departs the Summit League for the Horizon. While Omaha is relatively new to the Division 1 ranks and is struggling to establish a fan base for its basketball team, it has a beautiful new arena and has been fairly successful during its brief tenure in Division 1, with a win over Iowa and a trip to the Summit League title game this season.
The final (and most controversial) addition would be New Mexico State. No, that’s not a typo. NMSU is currently stuck in a conference that requires a lot of travel as it is, as I was told by a close source that NMSU already flies to all its road WAC games. With the WAC fairly weak and facing an uncertain future, it seems possible that the Aggies could explore a move elsewhere. Jason Groves of the Las Cruces Sun-News reported last May that the Horizon League had “expressed interest in NMSU”.
Those 3 moves would create the largest ripple effect.
With Robert Morris off the the Horizon League, the NEC is left with just 9 teams. To fill that void, they add former independent and current A-Sun member NJIT, which has enjoyed recent success on the hardwood. That would leave the Atlantic Sun with 7 teams, but that number is set to increase to 8 in the Fall of 2018 with the addition of North Alabama from the D2 ranks.
The response from the New Mexico State entrance is the most drastic. Worried that they will wind up stuck in one of the worst conferences in college basketball, Grand Canyon attempts to depart the WAC as well. The fit for GCU is the West Coast Conference, where the conferences jump at the chance to add one of the highest-upside mid-majors in the country to combine with other top mid-majors like Gonzaga, BYU, and St. Mary’s. While there would likely be some pushback by the WCC schools about adding a for-profit school in GCU, in this scenario, Grand Canyon heads to the WCC.
With both of the top programs in the WAC now gone, the conference as a whole begins to disintegrate (Sorry, WAC fans). Cal Bakersfield heads to the Big West, where they fit right in with the 8 other California public schools currently in the conference. Cal Baptist, which is expected to join the WAC once they become D1 in Fall of 2018, would also join the Big West. It’s also possible those schools could wind up as independents should the Big West not accept them. Needing a home, UMKC heads back to the Summit League, where travel costs are lower. Facing deep financial trouble and likely untouchable by other conferences, Chicago State decides to drop divisions or drop athletics all together rather than deal with life as a D1 independent. That leaves the WAC with just 3 members: Seattle U, Utah Valley, and UTRGV. While all 3 of these programs could wind up as independents if no other conference is willing to add them, UTRGV would make sense geographically in the Southland, while Utah Valley and Seattle fit best in the Big Sky geographically but the Summit League in terms of the sports they play.
So, let’s review what each of these conferences would look like:
Could This Really Happen?
While it’s pretty unlikely for this to happen, it’s certainly possible. Obviously, the linchpin here is New Mexico State. If they make the bold move to the Horizon League, it could set off a chain of events similar to this one that would send shockwaves through mid-major college basketball.
Remember, this could only be the beginning. A realignment like this could cause numerous teams to look to move around in the near future.
What’s a More Likely Scenario?
While this plan is interesting for sure, it seems more likely that the Horizon League will draw from a more local group of schools. Robert Morris, Fort Wayne, IUPUI, Murray State, Belmont, UMKC, and Omaha will all likely be in the discussion. Adding up to 3 of those schools would set off a slight ripple effect, likely effecting the Summit League or Ohio Valley the most.
I’d love to see your thoughts on potential expansion in the Horizon League! Feel free to comment below or tweet me (handle is @CBB_Central) your thoughts on this scenario or Horizon League expansion as a whole!
While I appreciate the thought, there is a flaw in the argument. The WAC has the leverage of an automatic bid to NCAA tournament. The realignment that you have proposed with the folding of the WAC conference, eliminates that automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The teams involved in this conversation will not re-position themselves to a situation where they reduce their probability of making the tournament and earning the riches that go along with it. A more likely scenario would be a group to form a new eight team conference, the minimum for an NCAA bid, probably under the WAC name to avoid the waiting period.
While you make a fair point, my understanding is that both Grand Canyon and New Mexico State are very interested in moving up to a better conference. If those teams leave, the WAC is down to 6 with one of those being Chicago State, which is in deep financial trouble as an institution and is in danger of folding, and another being UMKC, which badly wants out of the WAC as well. Since the conference would be so weak, it would have a very difficult time finding teams who would be willing to join it. Therefore, we’d be facing a Great West scenario with a league that probably couldn’t receive an NCAA Tournament berth. The remaining schools are leaving out of necessity, not because they want out.
Very nice read. Love the possibilities. I’m a grad of NMSU and hope that we do find a stable conference. Lots of talk in this area for inclusion into the MWC or C-USA. Although, both seem like a long shot; very long shot. Sadly, the leadership at NMSU is slow to react which is one reason why we remain in the WAC. We need strong leadership who can recognize potential and find ways to make the dream of a stable conference a reality.
Looking forward to reading more from you…
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Thanks for the kind words Felix. Looks like Horizon League expansion will happen after next season. WAC’s future is certainly up in the air, think both NMSU and Grand Canyon would be best to look for a better conference. Should be interesting to watch unfold.
We’d be happy to have NMSU, GCU, & Robert Morris to take the HL to 12 teams. There’s been some hesitation on pulling the trigger on the Aggies & ‘Lopes. If that falls through, then Fort Wayne, Omaha and even Kansas City comes into play!
Purdue Fort Wayne (yes, they’ve changed their name after Indiana University pulled out of undergraduate classes) could make a change to the Horizon and protect an interstate rivalry with IUPUI, but Memorial Coliseum is a part time venue and their on campus facilities are too small for Division 1. Western Illinois is in deep trouble, but I have a feeling both schools will wind up in the Horizon. Not this year, but in 2018 or 2019.
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Good read and a worthy subject to speculate about. One wrinkle I would throw in is that Gonzaga is rumored to want away from the WCC. Seattle is a traditional WCC school and would probably be the first school that would get taken and if they were looking to expand could then add GCU and Cal Baptist (two private schools with religious affiliation much like the others in the WCC). I find it very unlikely that Cal Baptist ends up in the Big West with other state schools including UC Riverside in the same city. Full disclosure I am a Cal Baptist grad and would love to see our guys in the WCC. The head coach is a former St. Mary’s assistant and knows the conference well.
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