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!