Tough to leave history behind, but Shockers needed to move.
Here we go again, or is it? A few years ago, the conference realignment/shuffling game was at full speed. The ACC stole teams as did the Big Ten, Pac 12 and SEC. The Big 12 lost two teams, then went out and stole West Virginia and Texas Christian to get back to uh….10 teams. These moves resulted in the old Big East (16 teams) becoming the new Big East with the new edition stealing three teams from three different conferences.
Yesterday, the American Athletic Conference (a newer conference) invited Wichita State to become a member for basketball and all sports. The Shockers do not field a football team and despite some people calling for one, football is not on the table of discussion. For the AAC, this is a great move. The Shocker basketball program has enjoyed tremendous success under coach Gregg Marshall. In 2013, they reached the Final Four and gave eventual champion Louisville all they could handle before bowing.
The 16-17 team went 31-5 but could only muster a 10 seed for the NCAA tournament. While we all know that wasn’t fair, it told the brass at the university that if winning a title was ever going to happen, they might have to look for a better conference. The Missouri Valley Conference has always been a solid basketball conference, but in recent years, has slipped to what we call a traditional mid-major. In earlier years, two and sometimes three teams were invited to the NCAA tournament, but this year, only Wichita State got in. Illinois State was on the cusp, but despite 28 wins, they had to settle for the NIT. Given that the Shockers were only a 10 seed, what would have happened had they not won the MVC Tournament?
The American Athletic Conference top-to-bottom is better. That said, only SMU and Cincinnati played in the tournament this season. SMU lost a first round game while Cincinnati bowed out in Round 2. Houston was its third best team, going 12-6 and 21-11 and Central Florida was fourth at 11-7 and 21-11. The Knights advanced to the NIT Final Four under coach Johnny Dawkins and appear to be a program on the rise.
The conference does have great pedigree. Connecticut has won four NCAA titles, Memphis has had deep runs in the NCAA tournament and Temple has also enjoyed tournament success, and unlike the MVC, the league has teams in major metro areas. Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Orlando, Tampa, New Orleans, Hartford, Memphis, Dallas, Houston are something that the MVC cannot match. Furthermore, the AAC has a much better television deal. Games are all over the ESPN networks, while the MVC is not. In fact, the MVC is regional only. If you live near a MVC city, you’ll get their games, if not; it ‘s ESPN 3 or another online stream. This is where having football helps. Football is the king as we all know, and having it insures that games will be broadcast because networks need inventory. The AAC is in a good spot. They can tell a network that they can broadcast our football games, but you have to broadcast our basketball teams too. Conferences like the MVC simply can’t wield that power.
One of the reasons why the old Big East disintegrated was that the football schools and basketball-only schools were at odds. The result was a bloated 16-team league for basketball, but fewer schools for football. The football schools were making more money, yet they had to share those monies with those who didn’t play. That led to the basketball schools breaking away and keeping the name, while the football schools formed the AAC, stole some schools from Conference USA and began anew.
The league now has 12 schools for football and 12 schools for basketball. In football, Navy plays to give the AAC two six-team divisions which at the time was the required number needed to stage a conference title game. Wichita State gives the basketball conference 12 schools and at this time, the fit seems like a good one. The one thing the AAC can’t do is to start this football and basketball only thing going forward. There is no need to require Wichita State to field a football team, but they can’t go out and invite another school for just football or just basketball. That would be a recipe for disaster.
For now, it is a win-win. The Shockers will undoubtedly enhance the basketball profile. They also do well in other sports. Baseball has slipped, but at one time, the Shockers were a perennial threat, in fact, they won the 1989 NCAA championship. The AAC sponsors 15 championships which include men’s and women’s soccer, something that Wichita State doesn’t offer. Will Wichita State add some sports or will be they content to stay where they’re at? That will be determined in the future, but right now, both the AAC and Wichita State University have to happy with their new arrangement.
Navy has helped the conference as a football-only member and Wichita State will help the conference as a member even without a football team. Wichita has a population of 386,000 with a metro area of 644,000. It’s not big, but it’s not tiny either. And, because of their success, people will follow them much like we follow Gonzaga. The Zags have proven that in basketball, you can play with the big boys despite being small and moreover, playing in a small conference. For the Shockers, the MVC was too small, but the AAC is the right size and that’s what they needed and that’s what they got.