Column: A fan’s field guide to picking the school to replace Wichita State
After Wichita State announced its move to the American Athletic Conference on Friday, it left quite a pair of shoes to fill in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Granted, no one team is immediately going to replace the immense impact WSU had on the conference, both financially and in terms of exposure. That role will have to be filled in part by each of the nine other remaining institutions, including SIU.
But before fans start wildly deciding who should replace Wichita State, there’s one fact that Valley fans have to accept: The MVC will not be as attractive of an option in its best sport, men’s basketball, compared to what it has been within the last ten years.
Look at the early 2010’s Missouri Valley: In 2012-13, the Valley had five teams in the top 100 of the NCAA’s men’s basketball RPI — and Illinois State was No. 106. Now, the top two Valley representatives (Creighton, as well as WSU) are out.
Sure, UNI has experienced recent success — Illinois State was a great team last year; SIU, Indiana State and Bradley have history. But the fact of the matter is that in last season, what ended up being its proverbial “contract year” to entice other schools to join, the Valley fell flat.
Outside of Illinois State, the next highest RPI team was actually SIU at 145th. Seven out of the 10 Valley teams finished with sub-150 RPIs. For a conference trying to recruit a new school with a decent athletic reputation, that’s not a good resume to hold.
With that being said, I believe that there is still a chance for the Valley to pick up a name that college basketball fans (and sports fans, in general) have heard of. And it should not be taken lightly.
Four years later, it appears picking up Loyola has worked out for the MVC. Another pickup like that, or better, could salvage the Missouri Valley for years to come.
The Valley can only make one move that would be, in my opinion, a true immediate mistake: adding another Illinois school. The MVC already has four, so adding another would muddy up an already saturated market even further. Not to mention, there’s a pretty large budget issue in the state right now.
So finally, there are four strategies the MVC can take in looking for its new member. Here’s possible targets for each of those strategies.
Add a Missouri Valley Football Conference school as a full member.
Adding Youngstown State as a member would make tactical sense for the MVC in that it adds a new state — and more importantly to the league execs, a new market — to the conference.
The Missouri Valley currently doesn’t have any full members in the state of Ohio. But, with two Indiana member schools, it wouldn’t add too much of a travel strain on most Valley schools (the farthest trip would be for Missouri State, which already makes this trip for football).
Plus with YSU’s recent FCS football runner-up finish and former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel as university President, the school has the wow factor.
I know what you’re thinking already. Yes, I know the travel for this would be ridiculous. Yes, I know North Dakota is a hockey school. But, logistically, this would make sense for the MVC.
North Dakota is already joining the MVFC in 2020, so why not just have it join the conference entirely, which would ease the transition. UND also has the added bonus of being a NCAA tournament team in 2017.
The Fighting Hawks are already an outlier in the Big Sky Conference, having to travel as far as 1,630 miles to Northern Arizona to compete. So for non-football sports, the move would make sense for UND in that its farthest MVC opponent would be Evansville, only 1,000 miles away.
Other options: North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Western Illinois
Add another school from a state the MVC already populates.
This may be the most logical addition on all accounts. First, the Valley is headquartered in the city. Secondly, it would add another school from Missouri, but not one close enough to Missouri State to saturate its market. This would likely ease the travel partner burden for the Bears as well.
A lot of schools, SIU included, already play SLU during their nonconference schedules so the administrative relationships have already been formed.
Saint Louis has not been a basketball power in recent years, but, like SIU, had tournament success within the last 15 years.
The big hitch in the process for recruiting SLU would be convincing Billiken officials to leave the Atlantic 10, arguably a better conference than a Shocker-less MVC. But as far as travel goes, the MVC would ease a lot of stress for SLU as their nearest conference opponent currently is Xavier in Cincinnati, Ohio.
This possibility will set the hearts of college basketball fans a-flutter. The shot that now-coach Bryce Drew hit in 1998 to send the Crusaders to the second round over Ole Miss will forever be in college basketball folklore.
But, Drew has Valpo back in a serious way. Each year since he’s been coaching there (2011-12), Valparaiso has participated in a postseason tournament, making the NCAA tournament twice and losing the NIT final in 2016. If that trend continues, that’s great revenue and exposure for the league.
Additionally, Valparaiso would make a great natural travel partner for Loyola, being only 60 miles apart. Teams could feasibly stay in the same hotel for two nights instead of having to travel between sites.
Valpo currently resides in the Horizon League, an up-and-coming conference that also held Loyola before it left, but the MVC would still be an upgrade for the Crusaders.
Other options: Missouri-Kansas City, Illinois-Chicago, Southeast Missouri State, SIUE
Add a school from a border state where the MVC doesn’t currently reside.
Murray State is a compelling option for multiple reasons.
The most obvious of which is its vicinity to multiple MVC schools. Four Valley schools are within a five-hour drive of Murray.
There is also a subtle reason Murray makes sense. With the 2020 addition of North Dakota, the MVFC will stand at 11 teams and in conferences, odd numbers are bad numbers. Murray State’s football stadium holds 16,800 people, which I’m sure would fill up with North Dakota State and Youngstown State and the rest of the MVFC coming to town every few years.
Additionally, Murray State, like SLU, is another school with ties in the MVC already. The Racers faced three Valley teams in basketball this year, and four in the last three seasons, and have success, making the NCAA tournament twice within the last 10 years. Murray has been one of the co-powers of the Ohio Valley for years, which brings us to the other natural new state selection….
With one basketball power leaving the MVC, why not add another?
Belmont has made the NCAA tournament seven times since 2006 and has played in a postseason tournament 11 of the last 12 years, despite being an NCAA program for a shorter time than most college students’ lives.
The Bruins out of Nashville, Tennessee would bring another metropolitan market into the Valley. Granted, with SEC school Vanderbilt right next door and other mid-major schools Tennessee State and Lipscomb also in the city, it’s sharing that market. But Nashville is a big market nonetheless.
Combine a strong basketball program with a metropolitan market, and it has to be a compelling suitor for the MVC.
Belmont was heavily cited as a strong candidate to join the Missouri Valley in 2013, and should be again this time around.
Other options: Milwaukee, Green Bay, Arkansas-Little Rock, Morehead State
Replace a far away school with another far away school
UNO may be the most high-risk/high-reward option out there.
Adding the Mavericks would be risky, because they’re relatively new and unknown. They just entered Division I basketball in 2011-12, and 2015-16 was the first season they were eligible for postseason play.
However, UNO is a program on the rise. It’s played in two postseason tournaments already and was five minutes of holding a lead away from going to the Big Dance this year out of the Summit League. The Mavericks also beat Iowa in Iowa City this season.
The program is now housed in a new on-campus arena as well, which adds some appeal to the school. In addition, the Valley is also familiar with the city thanks to its former ties with Creighton.
If UNO is the choice, it may leave casual fans shocked. But Loyola was in this same spot four years ago so it’s reasonable the MVC may go this route again.
I’m not going to lie, this one doesn’t make much sense to me. But it’s one fans may hear gain some momentum.
USA Today reported that Denver was a school that “would have significant support as candidates to replace Creighton” in 2013, so it’s fair to assume the possibility would get some attention again.
The travel would be a nightmare (up to a 14-plus hour drive for some schools, meaning lots of teams paying for flights), but Denver is a market that is relatively untapped. Colorado and Colorado State are the two big players in the state, but that’s a lot less competition than most states the MVC is already in.
Denver is a successful athletics school, just in sports the MVC doesn’t have, like ice hockey and lacrosse. Its men’s basketball team didn’t return to Division I status until 1999 after a 20-year hiatus.
Like I said, Denver doesn’t make much logistical sense but if worse comes to worst, we may be hearing about them as a serious contender.
New Mexico State
After reading what I just said about Denver, I bet this doesn’t make any sense and makes me sound like a hypocrite, but hear me out.
Why is Wichita State leaving the MVC? Because it feels its worn out the MVC and needs greener pastures. Now look at NMSU. The Aggies have made the NCAA tournament six times this decade, and has a winning percentage of .750 in the dreadful Western Athletic Conference.
If the MVC truly looked at Denver in 2013, then looking at NMSU would seem fathomable. As far as markets go, there’s only two Division I schools in New Mexico. The other is the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, more than 200 miles away from NMSU’s Las Cruces.
Yes, travel would be crazy expensive and brutal, but in the WAC, New Mexico State travels to face Chicago State every year. So, they’re technically kind of used to it.
With the way recent conference realignments have gone, leagues have had to make logistically concerning decisions. The MVC shouldn’t be in that boat, but if it has to be, NMSU may be the best option.
Other options: Oakland, Oral Roberts, Texas-Arlington
Secondary option: Stay afloat with nine members and hope for future realignment chaos
This is likely the last resort for the Valley, and it’s a risky one.
In order to do this, the Missouri Valley is basically betting on itself to turn it around and hope that other teams come knocking later with better options.
If the only options that present themselves in 2017 appear to be band-aid style solutions or low quality options, this may not be that ridiculous of a move. But, as I said previously, conferences hate odd numbers for scheduling’s sake.
This route would be a shocking one, no pun intended, if it’s the one the MVC takes, but in this world anything seems possible anymore.