PantherU

New Mexico State is an interesting idea but ignores the real problem

Disbelief. That’s the best word I can come up with to describe my reaction to rumors surrounding Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone and his next great idea.

At this point, I can barely wrap my head around it. Word surfaced yesterday from Las Cruces, New Mexico that our very own Horizon League has expressed interest in bringing on the Aggies and their vagabond athletics program.

Las Cruces is a 21-hour drive from UIC, the closest Horizon League school.

Location aside (I’ll get to that), NMSU is a decent program. They have a basketball team that has owned the Western Athletic Conference for a bunch of years.

 

The problem with that is the WAC isn’t the same WAC we’ve come to know over the decades of college sports. These are the current members of the WAC: NMSU, Chicago State, Seattle, Cal State Bakersfield, UMKC, UTRGV (yes this is a real school, UT Rio Grande Valley is the former UT Pan American and where Shaq Boga ended up), Utah Valley and for-profit Grand Canyon University.

This is the WAC that is owned by New Mexico State. To be fair, they also made NCAA Tournament appearances when the conference included Utah State, Louisiana Tech and Nevada, so it’s not like the Aggies are just the biggest fish in a small pond. They are a legit basketball program (coincidentally, their former coach Marvin Menzies just hired our outgoing coach Rob Jeter to be his assistant at UNLV). They have a Final Four in their history, although that was 1970 (with former UIC coach Jimmy Collins on the team, no less). It’s not like Loyola’s 1963 national title did the conference any favors. But they’ve more or less owned the WAC in this decade.

The Aggies have owned the WAC this decade.

But the WAC ain’t the WAC. Which is why they want to leave so bad they’re considering joining a conference where there closest opponent is 21 hours away.

There is upheaval in the program. Marvin Menzies has been replaced by Paul Weir, a longtime assistant who has been the heir apparent since he was promoted to Associate Head Coach in 2011. If Weir can keep the program rolling forward, the basketball team is strong enough to benefit the Horizon League.

As far as other sports are concerned, NMSU wouldn’t need to find a home for any of its teams; its football team is likely to become an independent and the equestrian team already is one. The baseball team is no great shakes, but it exists – and that’s a big deal for anyone who hops on the “Kick-Out-YSU” bandwagon that I’ve been driving for seven years. There are seven current baseball programs, one more than the minimum for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

At the end of the day, however, there’s one thing that just makes adding New Mexico State hard to swallow for fans of the Horizon League:

Location.

UIC is a long, long way away for New Mexico State. The Flames would be the closest conference team to the Aggies.

UIC is a long, long way away for New Mexico State. The Flames would be the closest conference team to the Aggies.

The Aggies are in Las Cruces, New Mexico. That’s “The Crosses,” for those of you in towns that don’t have a big Spanish-speaking population. It’s just about an hour north of the United States’ border with Mexico. Their men’s basketball budget would be the highest in the Horizon League, but travel has to be a big part of that. Chartered jets out of Las Cruces International Airport or commercial flights out of El Paso will pretty much be the way that the Aggies get to the Horizon League.

Traveling for them won’t be much of an issue. The WAC, while mostly in the west, is spread out because the west itself is spread out. The Aggies’ closest conference opponent is Grand Canyon University, almost six hours away. So they’re going to be flying regardless, which is why they would be willing to consider a conference whose footprint is so far away.

The Las Cruces metro area is similar in size to Madison, Wisconsin.

This is entirely the problem with adding New Mexico State to the Horizon League, although we haven’t had much luck with football schools (I’m looking at you, YSU). This is something that could be a problem down the road, but unlike YSU, the Aggies have not underfunded their men’s basketball program. Without taking travel into consideration, the 2014-15 reported budget of $2,937,179 was a hair short of $300,000 more than the Horizon League’s highest spender, Detroit. Those expenses would likely rise with five trips to the midwest just for men’s basketball alone. There are Olympic sports to consider as well.

Concerns about the expansion of NMSU’s travel budget are there, but this isn’t about their travel costs as much as it is for the rest of the conference. Green Bay spends around half their non-personnel, non-student aid expenses each year on travel. This is a school that used to be near the top of the Horizon League in spending in the mid-2000’s, and they haven’t been able to keep the pace. It’s in the interest of the conference to keep Green Bay afloat as a strong men’s basketball program; that could be difficult if the Phoenix are sending all of their teams to Las Cruces, New Mexico for conference match-ups.

Here in Milwaukee, we’re also facing the $250 million budget cuts that Governor Scott Walker pushed through on the UW System. It may not be in our best interest to add half a million in travel expenses to add a team that isn’t a huge boost to the men’s basketball profile.

The distance is far. Those are big costs. The strength of the program, however, would need to make up for it.

The Aggies would fly most places regardless of conference, so the Horizon League’s profile is an attractive option to NMSU.

In that case, I’m just not sure that NMSU gives us the benefit against the added cost of traveling. They’ve been to six NCAA Tournaments since 2007, more than any Horizon League team. They haven’t won a game, however, in the NCAA Tournament since 1993, and that victory (and 1992’s Sweet 16) was vacated. Neither Menzies or his predecessors Reggie Theus and the legendary Lou Henson were able to get them past the opening game in the Big Dance.

We’ve seen this before from other teams, with mostly good results. Valparaiso hasn’t won in the tournament since 1998 but has done better than any Horizon League team since 2012. Oakland hasn’t gotten to the tournament since joining the Horizon League, but they came closest this year.

All in all, I think New Mexico State would be a good program to add. I would see them being a top 5 program annually and competing for the conference championship.

The problem is, that doesn’t do much for me. Neither does adding North Dakota State and South Dakota State, two schools who have owned the Summit League since Oakland left and would be a perfect pair of travel partners to join up. Belmont is a great school, is close enough to the footprint that it makes sense, and goes to the tournament on a regular basis. They’ve turned us down in the past, but their associate membership in men’s soccer at least gives us the opening to continue pursuing them.

My problem with all of these options, however, is that they continue splitting the pot. None of them give us what we need, a program that has the strength to garner at-large bids and NCAA Tournament victories to raise the profile of the conference and the money in our coffers.

Here’s the honest truth – the Horizon League is weighed down too heavily by weak programs. Thankfully for Youngstown State, they weren’t the main culprit this year. Northern Kentucky (296) and UIC (346) were bigger drags on the Horizon League’s RPI, and Cleveland State took a huge drop in their RPI after losing their whole nucleus to transfer in the previous two offseasons.

NMSU has done a good job of keeping its hoops program strong despite an expensive football program on campus.

For YSU, the problem is that they’re in a relatively undesirable location for recruits and their football program gobbles up any little bit of support the basketball program can get. This is another problem with possibly adding NMSU, or either Dakota school; when you add dollars to the athletics budget, is men’s basketball going to get first crack at that, or is football gonna take a bigger slice of the pie? Each of those three potential additions have been able to succeed in men’s basketball in spite of this issue, but that’s no guarantee for the future.

The fact remains this: at nine of ten Horizon League schools, men’s basketball is the big dog on campus. That’s how it needs to be, because men’s basketball is the rising tide that raises all ships – all sports across all campuses and the academic boost from a higher profile and bigger school spirit. That’s how it is in the Horizon League. Everywhere, but Youngstown State.

Of the four RPI anchors in the Horizon League this past season (four below 250 in the RPI), three of them have real upside. Northern Kentucky is brand new to D-I and boasts one of the best arenas in the country, not just in mid-major basketball. Cleveland State slipped up bad because they lost three guys, but those guys would have been replaced soon anyways. UIC made its transition from Howard Moore to Steve McClain, and even though they took their licks they bring back one of the best post players in the conference in Dikembe Dixson and the dude is a freshman.

Add in the fact that UIC and NKU are bringing in two of the best recruiting classes in the conference and you can see the upside.

Dikembe Dixson spent a lot of his freshman year losing, but things are looking up for a Flames program built around the young man.

What about Youngstown State? Sure, Cameron Morse is likely to lead the Horizon League in scoring the next couple years. But individual talent has never been the Penguins’ problem. Remember Kendrick Perry? Damian Eargle? Blake Allen? Vytas Sulskis? Were these guys not talented? How about Quin Humphrey? That guy killed it for Jerry Slocum in 2005-06 and 2006-07. The latter year they had their highest finish ever in the Horizon League, fourth. Well, a tie for fourth – they lost a tiebreaker to Green Bay, who thoroughly whooped their ass in the 2007 conference tournament.

That’s their high water mark – a 17-point drubbing in the Horizon League Tournament as the five-seed. In fifteen years. Our AD just fired the head coach partly because he didn’t reach a stated goal of 3rd in the Horizon League for years – yet Jeter had two NCAA Tournaments, an NIT and 185 victories. Jerry Slocum – who started the same year as Jeter, has 56 fewer victories since 2005, one minor postseason appearance (2013 CIT) and the same amount of winning seasons as Jeter has NCAA Tournament appearances (two) – just got an extension.

I believe time will show that 2015-16 was an aberration for the amount of bad teams in the conference. UIC is looking like it’s getting off the mat. CSU has institutional advantages (build-a-major) and Waters is building the program back up. NKU is just getting its bearings and John Brannen is putting together a program. Those three programs are looking up.

Google image search for “YSU Basketball” brings up dozens of images from broadcasts like this with plenty of empty seats close to the court.

As for the others? Green Bay looks like it has a great coach in Linc Darner and though they’re likely to take a step back without Carrington Love and once-in-a-decade defender Jordan Fouse, they have a bright future. Detroit is starting anew. Greg Kampe remains one of the best coaches in the country. Wright State threw away a good coach and replaced him with a proven winner. Valpo is Valpo, and even though the coach’s last name is no longer Drew, they still have the incredible international missionary presence that helps recruit outside the country.

Milwaukee? Good lord, who knows with us. Rob Jeter achieved at a pretty high level when you take into account the incredible dysfunction in the chancellor’s office and athletic director’s chair. Now the instability moves into the basketball office, and while we hope LaVall Jordan is the guy and I support him 100%, there’s no way of knowing until he does the job. We’re going to take a significant step back; that’s not a reflection on Coach Val, because John Wooden would have trouble coaching up a team with this kind of talent vacuum. Jordan’s pedigree – playing and coaching at Butler and coaching Michigan to the Final Four – shows tremendous upside.

But no matter the troubles ahead of us in our present and near future, or the troubles around most of the conference, the fact remains that we all have upside, we all have a history of success or the obvious potential for it (NKU).

While the rest of the Horizon League’s basketball schools have historical success, NKU is all upside – and the BB&T Arena is a big part of that.

 

If Jon LeCrone is seriously considering New Mexico State, fine. I think he’s shopping for a legacy, when the old tournament format was a wonderful legacy. Add Valpo, great. Add Oakland, terrific. Add Northern Kentucky, I’m on board.

But no school, and I mean no school, is going to be some magic panacea to lift up this conference. The Horizon League is a big boat with a heavy chain tying it to an anchor that won’t let it move forward; when we look to Youngstown State and their 274 RPI and say “well at least you’re far from worst,” that’s an incredible problem. They’ve got three seasons in their Horizon League history in which their RPI was better than 200, and in no year were they better than 170.

North Dakota State and South Dakota State are good programs. Belmont is a good program. New Mexico State is a good program, which reminds me; if geography isn’t a problem and you can stomach the big increase in travel expenses, Grand Canyon is a program on the rise.

Football will always, always be first at YSU.

Adding schools is nice. But you’re not going to get anywhere you want to be unless you admit your decision to bring Youngstown State aboard has failed, and cut your losses.

To the nine presidents and chancellors of basketball-centric schools in the Horizon League: this conference can be one of the 10 best in the country. It can be the conference everyone knows it can be – a collection of mostly urban mid-majors that achieve at a high level akin to the Missouri Valley, Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference.

The Horizon League lays out its goals on the website:

The Horizon League’s primary focus is on adding value to the educational experience through its four platforms: athletic performance, academic achievement, community outreach, and personal responsibility and accountability. It is the League’s belief that athletics is a powerful and visible resource tool that can be used to enhance student-athletes’ collegiate experience. The Horizon League’s goals are to enhance the holistic university experience for the student-athlete, to create an affiliation of institutions with similar athletic goals, and to adhere to the principals of integrity, diversity, excellence and growth. The Horizon League sponsors competition in 19 sports – nine for men (baseball, basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, swimming and diving, indoor track and field, outdoor track and field and tennis) and 10 for women (basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, tennis and volleyball).

Youngstown State brings us plenty of problems here:

  • Personal responsibility and accountability – YSU is a great school with great people who try very hard to succeed on and off the field of play. But their basketball program has been a drag on the conference in the most important sport for almost its entire existence. Where is the commissioner’s accountability here? When does commissioner LeCrone finally own up to the mistake of adding YSU and admit that he cannot serve the other nine presidents and chancellors well if the only revenue sport at each of their schools is held back by YSU?
  • To create an affiliation of institutions with similar athletic goals. – Nine schools have a goal to win at men’s basketball above any other sport. One school’s goal is to win at football first and not invest in the sport that is most important to the nine other schools.
  • …adhere to the principals of integrity, diversity, excellence and growth. – Excellence and growth. YSU has 24 conference championships in all sports in 15 years, which is 7th out of 10. But they’ve been here twice as long as Valpo, five times as long as Oakland and 15 times the tenure of Northern Kentucky. That’s not excellence. If we’re going to push for growth, we can’t do that with this going-nowhere program holding us down in the only revenue sport the conference has.

The facts are there. Men’s basketball is where we eat. Ten athletic departments, ten schools, ten alumni bases, ten student bodies, ten presidents and chancellors. Nine of the ten are looking to grow and succeed in men’s basketball come November. The tenth is excited for summer training camp and kickoff on September 1st, and couldn’t care less about basketball. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of Penguins go Ted Cruz and refer to it as the “basketball ring.”

If you collectively think New Mexico State will be a good addition, I respect that. What I can’t respect is the continued ignorance of the huge elephant in the room that has been sitting there. This isn’t 2006; we can’t wait and see if the Penguins figure it out. They’ve had plenty of chances to get it right, and this extension of Jerry Slocum shows they have no intention of making a real effort in the sport that matters most to the Horizon League. No other sport can come close in importance, because a successful Horizon League men’s basketball program can support all the other sports at their schools. YSU feeds football and let’s men’s basketball wither in the corner.

Kicking them out is not without precedent. Most people believe Chicago State was privately forced out (though they “withdrew”) of what’s now the Summit League. Temple football got booted from the Big East, and why do you think New Mexico State is looking for a new conference? Partly it’s because the Sun Belt voted to not renew their membership in football (along with Idaho).

Don’t worry about being polite. Don’t worry about some kind of state university solidarity. Don’t worry about anyone else being on the chopping block – you’re all safe and working hard towards making basketball better (yes, even you Milwaukee administration – despite our current civil war, I know you want what’s best for hoops).

Don’t hesitate. Vote to remove Youngstown State. Then you can add a tenth school or even go to twelve, centered on succeeding in hoops.

In terms of college sports, there’s no better example of “addition by subtraction.”

Raise your sights, indeed – cut YSU loose. It’s for the best.

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All 2015-16 RPI numbers come from the website RPIForecast.com.

Additional reading:

“Potential scenarios for H-League” 4-19-2013

“Suitors for the Horizon League” 4-9-2013

“The Horizon League made its own bed” – 5-2-2012

 

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