PantherU

Our best destination doesn’t exist yet

If there’s anything of which we can be certain, it’s that no one wants to be here.

I’m not talking about Milwaukee. I love this town. I love this school. I don’t love how the university views its athletics program at times, but I’m happy that they’ve listened to me before by taking my multi-million dollar ideas and making them their own.

I’m talking about the Horizon League, but not just the Horizon League. We are but one of many conferences full of members who seem as though they’d like to be ‘anywhere but here.’ Mid-majors and low-majors alike pine for the days when their fans don’t have to go to the office the day after a game and explain which game they attended or who the opponent was. This is true for fans of these schools across the country, and it’s tiring. We’d all like to be part of the club, if you please.

With news that Wichita State is in serious talks with the American Athletic Conference to become their 12th full member, it looks like it’s time for one of our fellow mid-majors to get the invitation most of us will never sniff, let alone receive. It’s an invite that Dayton and Saint Louis have hoped and prayed for from the Big East that has never come.

The Vacuum

Mid-Major Madness published a story Wednesday discussing a few of the options for the Missouri Valley Conference should they decide to move up. Forgetting the fact that two of the schools already rebuffed the MVC when Wichita State didn’t have one foot out the door (Belmont and Saint Louis), the writer didn’t think of a possibility that might scare members of the MVC: it may no longer be the preferred destination for Midwestern mid-major programs that it once was.

Wichita State’s possible move to the AAC could send shockwaves throughout the Midwest’s mid-major conferences.

It’s scary, but it’s not altogether unrealistic: outside of Wichita State and the screwed-over Illinois State, no team in the MVC finished in the top 100 of the RPI this year. According to RPIForecast.com, Southern Illinois was the only other team to finish in the top 150, and even they were only 145. That’s as many teams in the top 150 as the Summit League. That’s one fewer than the Horizon League.

Clearly, if fans in Horizon League schools have always longed to be in different conferences, fans in the Missouri Valley aren’t far behind.

When new Big East was created, it left a vacuum in the Missouri Valley as well as the Atlantic 10. This vacuum left schools in the Horizon League jockeying for position, combing their hair and shuffling their resumes in order to get one of the coveted spots. The MVC went with Loyola, and then the Horizon League took Oakland from the Summit League. The tidal wave rocked several conferences.

Surely the moment Wichita State leaves the MVC for the AAC, another tidal wave may start rolling, ready to shock each conference and leave us all just a bit weaker than we were before.

Why is this acceptable? The MVC is going to replace the Shockers with a team that can make the basketball better. That team’s former conference will replace them with someone who can make the basketball better. And so on and so forth, until someone’s stuck deciding whether or not to take leftovers from the WAC. No one is happy with that scenario – but for some reason or another, no one has thought of anything better.

The Solution to Our Collective Problem

The Horizon League has plenty of good programs that would like to be elsewhere. The Missouri Valley has plenty of good programs that would like to be elsewhere. The Summit League has some good programs that would like to be elsewhere. The Atlantic 10 has plenty of good programs that would like to be elsewhere, except most of them are on the east coast.

It seems to me like there’s something better right here. We just need one of the schools to have a chancellor or president with the grit and determination to make it happen.

Milwaukee would be the largest school in the potential new conference – and their students say “level of competition” is why they haven’t come out for every game.

I think it starts with a few schools having an informal conversation. Being the blogosphere’s representative of the Milwaukee Panthers, this idea is going to center around us. So I apologize if you’re a fan of another school and were hoping to see more of a lean your way. We’re #1 – as in the first school, not necessarily the best, to join up with this kooky idea.

For this exercise, we’re going to bring along Valparaiso University from the Horizon League. They’re the school with the most recent success. It’s a private school that has been willing to spend money in men’s basketball, and it’s the only Division I school in their area of a few hundred thousand people – plenty of people from which to draw a season ticket base. They’re also best tied to us because of the large amount of Valpo alumni and students that come from the Milwaukee area. The Crusaders were cruelly left out of the NCAA Tournament last year, something that might have been avoided had they had a higher RPI from better competition in the conference. The level of competition doesn’t just rear its ugly head on the RPI – students at Milwaukee overwhelmingly cited ‘level of competition’ as the biggest reason they don’t attend basketball games. This new conference would change that overnight.

When Wichita State leaves the MVC, there’s going to be a bunch of schools that have value – Bradley, Southern Illinois, Loyola – but we’re going to take the University of Northern Iowa and Illinois State University, the two best representatives of recent sustained success (UNI) and current success (ISU). UNI is a school that has invested in men’s basketball for years and has won in the NCAA Tournament. We actually opened their McLeod Center back in 2006 with the first men’s basketball game in the new facility, an absolute gem for a mid-major with a unique setup for suites and the concourse. Illinois State’s Redbird Arena is a great venue that is starting to show its age but would be plenty worthy of membership in a better conference. Dan Muller has had the Redbirds in the postseason in three of his five years there and, like Valparaiso last season, should have been in the tourney this year.

UNI’s McLeod Center is a fantastic home that would be a great venue for the new conference.

I’m not going to the Summit League – not yet. for the fifth and sixth schools to join our informal talks, we’re going to take a couple teams that may be perfectly happy where they are, but have a ridiculous travel arrangement: the University of Dayton and Saint Louis University in the Atlantic 10. There’s no need to sell Dayton to the conference – instead Dayton has to be sold on this new conference – but the fact of the matter is both schools spend a lot of money sending their sports teams to the east coast.

You have to remember that this isn’t just flying basketball teams – you also have to send your track team, your swim team, your tennis team. Dayton may be happy to do this – after all, their closest opponent in the conference is Duquesne, not SLU – but the Billikens have to be pouring money down the drain. Saint Louis is something like eight hours away from their closest conference “rival” after Dayton, and they’ve never had sustained success in the conference anyway.

This season, Dayton and VCU were the conference’s only at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. While the Horizon League splits the tournament pie among ten teams and the MVC ten, the Atlantic 10 pie gets split among fourteen teams. That’s a lot to ask the Flyers to give up when they’re one of the rainmakers and they’re traveling more than just about anyone.

Milwaukee. Valpo. Northern Iowa. Illinois State. Dayton. Saint Louis. Murderer’s Row it is not, but these are rocks upon which a solid, strong Top-10 conference can be built.

Saint Louis hasn’t found a forgiving home in the Atlantic 10. Perhaps they’ll be happier in a stronger conference where they fit inside the footprint?

I included these six because their sports also happen to align. This cannot be overstated, because one of the things that stops a conference from coming together is not having enough teams in a sport to make it so one team can join. Barring the occasional oddball sport that doesn’t need a conference (women’s bowling at Valparaiso), the new league wouldn’t need more than a couple schools that carry certain sports to be able to field the minimum required for automatic bids to the NCAA postseason tournaments. Associate members can be brought on as needed to fill things out.

It starts with an informal conversation, but once everyone is on board the discussion then turns to additional teams. How many to add? They’ll need at least two more, but the conference theoretically could be as few as eight or as many as fourteen. Schools should be cognizant of the fact that the more teams in the conference, the more chance there is of multiple teams having off years and dragging down the league. There’s also a smaller piece of the revenue pie for each new school.

The good news? There’s a lot of potential.

Who else is in?

I used those six schools merely as a jumping off point. There’s absolutely going to be two more, but as many as eight more schools that could make up membership in the new conference. Let’s take them conference by conference.

The Missouri Valley’s got plenty of schools that would be easy adds to the league, but there are also some that are easy “no” votes. Indiana State, Drake and Evansville are all schools that I would leave on the chopping block. Drake and ISU have had fleeting success but it hasn’t been sustainable. Evansville has done almost nothing since joining the MVC.

Missouri State and Loyola are schools that are on the list mostly because of facilities. The JQH Arena at MSU is a gem, but the team hasn’t done much of anything since Steve Alford left town in 1999. This despite the building and solid coaches like Barry Hinson and Cuonzo Martin manning the helm.

Bradley is The Show in Peoria. They could be an excellent fit, revitalized for a new conference.

I probably have the best knowledge of the Ramblers. Loyola’s history is ancient, as is their fan base. But the old donors put together a ton of money and totally reworked the athletics facilities on campus. The glorified high school gym that was the Gentile Center became the legit, gorgeous 4,500-seat Gentile Arena in just one offseason. Their status in Chicago makes them an obvious choice to get a foot in the door of the Midwest’s most fertile recruiting ground. Then again, they really haven’t been successful – their last NCAA Tournament was over 30 years ago.

SIU and Bradley have had relatively recent success, and both own their local market, but Carbondale is in the middle of nowhere and Bradley hasn’t been to the tournament in a decade. The good news for the Braves is that Peoria is a perfectly fine town for a bigger conference, and they are the only show in town.

Many of the MVC schools carry football – as do UNI and ISU – but the Missouri Valley Football Conference is separate from the MVC, so any members that come along should be able to stick around in the MVFC.

In the Horizon League, you can cast Youngstown State and Cleveland State off the island without a longer look. YSU’s limited resources almost always go to football and they have had zero success in the conference since joining 16 years ago. Their coaching hire, Jerrod Calhoun, is a CSU guy who should have gotten that job but is tasked with turning that program around. CSU has a brand new athletic director whose first hire, Dennis Felton, almost got him tarred and feathered when news broke.

UIC is an interesting case. They’re in Chicago. They have nice facilities. They’re a large school that spends money in athletics. I’d consider them despite their lack of success for a long time. I would also consider Green Bay, who doesn’t have the budget but has won despite the lack of success.

Oakland would bring high-major talent and a rabid fan base to the new conference.

Detroit is a possibility, but the Titans have only shown they’re willing to pay money to the coach. They’d have to do more to get in the conference, because their only recent success completely relied on the fact that their star player happened to look a lot like their head coach – so much so you’d think they were father and son.

Wright State would be an obvious choice. They have great facilities, they’ve been successful, they’ve built a strong program and they are in an area that loves it when they thrive. That area would also be their downfall – no way, no how, will Dayton ever be in the same conference as Wright State. So the Raiders’ membership hinges entirely on whether or not Dayton is in the conference.

I think there are two shoo-ins from the Horizon League, depending on the amount of teams the conference decides to add. The first would be Oakland, who is somewhat outside the footprint but is successful and has a rabid following. They don’t have a lot of room to grow, but the Golden Grizzlies would be a real tough out at the small O’Rena and everyone loves Greg Kampe. Unfortunately, Kampe won’t be there forever, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down.

The other obvious choice, at least to me, is Northern Kentucky. I fought hard to make NKU the tenth Horizon League program. There’s no school in the country that’s done a better job of handling a transition to Division I. NDSU was all set to win when they got in on their first year as a full member of D-I, but NKU built their gorgeous, palatial arena before they made the jump up. They also built brand new soccer and baseball stadiums, but the Norse have done a hell of a job getting themselves ready for bigger things. Right now, the goal is to be a force in the Horizon League. If they have a better conference to get into?…

NKU’s 2017 Horizon League Championship is just the first of many big things for the Norse.

As for the Atlantic 10, I doubt any of the other schools would come along. The only one close to the footprint would be Duquesne, but they’re in transition and would be a later add. I’m also guessing they’d prefer to stay in that conference because the travel would be similar, if not better there – so they don’t have the reason that Dayton and SLU have to get out of dodge.

Outside the original conferences, I think a long look has to be given to the Summit League’s North Dakota State and South Dakota State. Those schools are into football like UNI, but SDSU is decidedly hoops-first and NDSU just built a brand new arena for its program. Both schools have been willing to spend money in hoops to win. They’d be solid possible additions.

Belmont has famously turned down the MVC and the Horizon League, but their president said he did it because he didn’t think those conferences were enough of a jump to warrant the move. How about a conference that’s better than either? Other schools depend on how far the conference wants to go outside the main footprint. Is it worth it to get New Mexico State? Maybe not, but this is one of those times where you come up with thoughts outside the box to get the creative juices flowing.

As far as the number of schools is concerned, I’d probably wager a guess that 10 is the best number. If not 10, then eight. I’d rank 12 and, lastly, 14 as possible even numbers for the conference. That’s up to the schools who come together, and it’s up to them who the schools are that get in.

There’s absolutely precedent for this grouping of schools from multiple conferences forming a new, central league. In hockey, when the Big Ten formed its league upon the creation of Penn State’s Division I program, two conferences lost schools: the WCHA (Wisconsin and Minnesota), and CCHA (Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State). The strongest remaining teams of the WCHA and CCHA, knowing their conferences were no longer as strong, left those two leagues to form the brand new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Then, the remnants of the CCHA folded that conference and joined what was left of the WCHA. Surprisingly, no one is unhappy. The Big Ten is still getting its feet wet, but the possible money makes it worth while. The NCHC is one of the 2-3 strongest conferences in D-I annually, and the WCHA is right up there as well.

But there’s one more team I’d like to talk about as a possible member.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s a shocker.

Wichita State’s best destination may not be the AAC, but rather a conference of their own creation.

This is better for Wichita

The Shockers are so desperate to get out of the Missouri Valley, they’ve considered harpooning their basketball program by adding an albatross FBS football program to be more attractive to potential conferences. This is a sport that costs something like $8 million annually – not including startup costs – to field a team that sucks. Unless Charles Koch is willing to fund Wichita State’s entire football program until he’s long dead, it doesn’t make sense.

What also may not make any sense is the American Athletic Conference. It seems like they’re a good fit on the surface, since they’d be the 12th full member and their football space would be held by current associate member Navy. But that move is going to feel mighty stupid when the Big XII finally wises up and pulls Cincinnati and UConn into the fold and get back to 12 members. Even if they don’t, you think the ACC or SEC hasn’t considered super-conference status?

Wichita State fans like the idea of conference games with UConn and Cincinnati. But what if those schools get into better conferences?

Even if the AAC membership stands pat, it’s still full of teams spread out across half the country. It’s still full of teams that have football as a higher priority than basketball. And they only garnered one at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this season.

The new league would be full of members who would have no designs on moving up from there. Memphis could be a team going higher than the AAC. Valparaiso won’t keep looking for something more in their conference. They’ll be looking to make a better life in their current conference – the new one.

It should go without mention that in the AAC, Wichita State would be stuck as the low man on the totem pole – without football, they won’t have a top seat for negotiating anything of importance. They’ll be a revenue producer in basketball only, which was a big problem with the old Big East – schools like Marquette and Providence were often drowned out by the schools who brought basketball AND football to the table.

With the new conference, Wichita State would not only be one of the most important members, they may be in the driver’s seat for getting a lot of things done.

What will it look like?

Like anything, it all starts with a name. Let’s call it the Great Central Conference. It’s got a great acronym – the GCC – and it’s regional even though it can be stretched to cover quite a lot of ground. I even came up with a rough sketch for a conference logo – don’t judge me, I’m an amateur:

Jimmy Lemke’s rough sketch of the Greater Central Conference logo

The Great Central Conference would be the anchor, the home of the best basketball in the middle of the country outside the “high-major” conferences. It’s also a working title, which can be changed as the conference sees fit. They can avoid those self-help seminar words like “Horizon” and “Summit” while holding onto the powerful word “Great.”

Where would the GCC office be? Currently, the MVC is located in St. Louis. The A10 is in Newport News, Virginia. The Horizon League is at home in Indianapolis, and the Summit League is in Sioux Falls. Chicago, while a great potential home, is the capital of the Big Ten.

Allow me to reintroduce myself. You’re still reading PantherU, and there’s no better home for the GCC than Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Just an hour-and-a-half away from Chicago, we’re close enough for the major airports of O’Hare and Midway (and our own Mitchell International is here as well). This is the city where they founded the American League. These are minor details. What’s not a minor detail is where I’d put the conference tournament:

Downtown Milwaukee and the Bucks’ brand new stadium would be the perfect home for the Greater Central Conference Tournament.

The Milwaukee Bucks are in the middle of building a brand new arena for their team directly north of the Bradley Center. It’s gorgeous, it’s big enough (seating will be around 17,000) and the area around it is being built to be a destination for events such as this. It’s pretty much the perfect home for the GCC Tournament.

Milwaukee is centrally-located. Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin are all states that point to the middle of the conference for a home. Milwaukee would be the natural home, given that Chicago is taken and we have a beautiful new arena that is just begging to be used in the first couple weeks of March once Marquette heads to NYC for the Big East Tournament. I’m sure the Bucks ownership was thinking of just this kind of event when they envisioned this facility.

 

Once the home and the tournament are decided, the GCC can lay down some ground rules to ensure that men’s basketball plays at a high level, giving us the best chance at as many at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament as possible, giving us the best shot at deep runs and all the glory that comes with it.

Dayton has had to share their NCAA Tournament winnings with a massive 14-team conference.

It would be up to the conference to lay down the groundwork for those rules, but I would start by creating scheduling guidelines. Games against teams outside the top 250 of the RPI are especially damaging, and teams are better off starting their season with a non-D-I game as a tune-up. Those games may not be exciting, but they’ll be better than beating a low-major D-I team by 40 and then seeing your RPI drop the next morning.

Other boundaries can be set, like a minimum for recruiting expenses, assistant coaches salaries, or travel expenses. Fail to meet that minimum over a couple years or schedule too many teams that finish outside the top 300, and you could stand to lose a percentage of your school’s cut of the conference revenue – that includes both revenue from NCAA Tournament units as well as revenue from television.

Speaking of television, the new conference will have a hell of a bargaining chip with the major networks. ESPN may be flush, but FS1 needs more first run major programming. That need is even greater at the NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, two channels that have other benefits – such as the conference tournament semifinals and finals taking place live on national broadcast television.

The conference commissioner and staff would be people who have had experience negotiating such broadcast deals. That experience doesn’t even have to come from the realm of sports, as long as we know they were part of a team that won a great television deal with one of the networks. Get me the people who got the Westminster Dog Show on frickin’ national television every year.

It’s gonna take a backbone. It takes a chancellor or president at one of these universities to say “Yes, I will stick my neck out there. Our university and its community deserve something better.”

It’s got to start with an informal discussion without the major principals in the room. Gauge interest, have a discussion. Those six schools don’t even have to be the six that first talk on it. Maybe Dayton balks and you bring in Wright State to be one of the anchors.

What I know is this: there are good programs and there are bad programs, and each of our conferences has been weighed down by bad programs for a long time.

Instead of trying to move up – where you’re always going to find programs that want to make the same jump that you just made – isn’t it time that we try to find our Forever Home?

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