Archive for March, 2015

After Iowa State lost within the opening hours of the first round (sic) of the NCAA Tournament, I didn’t even bother checking my bracket (IlliNIT Blues) until yesterday since I had figured my horrible Final Four prognostication skills (having had first weekend losers Iowa State and Villanova in addition to Kentucky and Wisconsin) would leave me in smoldering ashes. So, I was quite surprised to see that I’m second place in my work pool and nearly in the top 5% of the ESPN brackets nationwide. Granted, my entry is guaranteed to have a Harrison Ford-piloted crash like the 1969 Cubs (or 1984 Cubs or 2003 Cubs or 2008 Cubs) since my points possible remaining are extremely low (as in Illinois basketball scoring in crunch time low), but it goes to show you how there’s still life even when half of your Final Four is gone within a 72 hour period.

As noted in last week’s post, the conference realignment front is fairly quiet these days for the power leagues with the exception of the prospect of Arizona State joining Big Ten hockey. However, there are some rumblings in the non-FBS Division I conferences that are basketball-focused, so let’s get the lay of the land:

(1) Big East Expansion (or lack thereof) – The Big East has the ability to poach any non-FBS Division I school that it wants (which is something that not even the Big Ten or SEC can say at the FBS level). Every school from the Atlantic 10, West Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and any other non-FBS league would take a Big East invite immediately. From there, any Big East expansion would have a massive trickle-down effect on the conferences below them. However, the Big East is sort of in the same position as the Big 12: it really does want to expand (regardless of what their respective commissioners and other PR people might say publicly), but the issue is that there aren’t 2 glaringly obvious candidates. As I’ve stated previously, St. Louis University seems to be the main lock for a future Big East invite regardless of how they might be performing on-the-court at any given time. SLU has the TV market, academic institutional fit as a private Catholic university, geographic location as a bridge between Creighton and the rest of the league, and facilities that the Big East is looking for as a total package. So, the primary issue is finding a partner for SLU, which isn’t as clear. Dayton has played very well on-the-court with a great fan base along with being a private Catholic school, but its TV market isn’t as attractive, Xavier is close in proximity, and there’s going to be consternation within the league about adding two Midwestern schools (as opposed to finding at least one Eastern expansion candidate). VCU has also been great on-the-court and has a desirable location, but it’s a large public school that isn’t an institutional fit with the rest of the Big East. Wichita State (which we’ll examine even further in just a moment) has the same institutional fit problems as VCU with a much less desirable location and TV market. Richmond is a great academic school with a solid basketball program, but it competes in the same market as VCU with fewer fans and a lower national profile. Davidson is similar to Richmond and has the advantage of the Charlotte market, but has a very small enrollment and alumni base (albeit wealthy and academically elite).

If I were a betting person, SLU and Dayton are still the odds-on favorites to eventually get into the Big East once it decides to expand. I feel that the fact that VCU is a public school ultimately tanks their candidacy even though they are attractive on virtually all other factors that the Big East desires in terms of location, TV market, fan base and location. Wichita State has never been a realistic Big East candidate since their issues are much broader beyond being just a public university (as you’ll see below). Richmond might be able to wedge into the mix if they can get some more high profile NCAA Tournament runs – as of now, their on-the-court attributes are going to matter more than their off-the-court attributes (which already fit well with the Big East).

For now, the biggest emerging challenger to Dayton for spot #12 in the Big East is Davidson. The small number of students at Davidson isn’t optimal, but the Big East has always been more of a TV league dependent upon casual large market fans as opposed to an alumni-based league (unlike the Big Ten and SEC). Davidson is within the Charlotte TV market, has legitimately elite level academics, performs well on-the-court, and would address the wariness of Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s of adding two Midwestern schools. So, keep an eye out on Davidson on the Big East expansion front.

(2) Wichita State: Nowhere to Run – The non-FBS school that I get asked about the most lately regarding switching conferences is Wichita State (and that has accelerated this past week with their current Sweet Sixteen run). I certainly understand the fan love – as you can see from my bracket, I have the Shockers going to the Elite Eight (and as far off as I was on Iowa State, I was equally convinced that Wichita State would come out blazing against Kansas). However, as much as Wichita State was wrongly underrated by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee this year, the school is overrated by most sports fans as a conference realignment candidate. When I started writing about conference realignment with the Big Ten expansion index, my credo was always: “Think like a university president, not like a sports fan.” Wichita State is a perfect example of the disconnect between the thought processes of sports fans and university presidents. Sports fans see Wichita State as a school with great fans and astounding on-the-court success with a recent Final Four appearance and a memorable takedown of Kansas to get to the Sweet Sixteen this year. However, university presidents see Wichita State as a non-flagship public school that’s ranked in the 200s in the U.S. News rankings that’s located in a small TV market with little recruiting value (whether for athletes or “regular” college students). Remember that university presidents care just as much about what a school brings to the table when it’s awful on-the-field/court compared to how well it’s performing at its peak. Wichita State is a classic case of looking great for fans when they’re playing well, but it’s extremely tough for university presidents to see their value when they’re not playing well (as they’re not bringing academic prestige, an institutional fit, a major TV market, etc.).

Just look at the conferences that would be a step up from the MVC for Wichita State. The Big East, as noted above, is one of the most institutionally-aligned conferences outside of the Big Ten and Ivy League, where all members are private urban schools with a basketball focus. As a result, Wichita State simply isn’t a viable Big East candidate. The Atlantic-10 has some public universities, but it’s still more similar to the Big East as being private school-centric and the league may very well retrench from the Midwest if/when the Big East takes SLU. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) and Mountain West Conference (MWC) don’t seem interested at all in adding non-football members, so Wichita State won’t be considered. Even the West Coast Conference (which is a geographic stretch for Wichita State) has the same type of private school lineup as the Big East.

Unfortunately for Wichita State, it doesn’t matter how well the Shockers might perform on-the-court. Much like the power conference invite prospects for UConn (who has been an elite men’s and women’s basketball power), the off-the-court issues prevail in conference realignment and, as the old adage goes, “It takes two to tango.” Wichita State can want to leave the MVC all that it wants, but the conferences hold the power here. It’s not Wichita State’s choice to make to leave, so its only realistic option is to strengthen the MVC.

 (3) MVC Expansion and UAB (and the Chain Reaction for the Horizon League and Others) – Fortunately for Wichita State, the debacle of UAB getting its football program stripped by the University of Alabama power brokers in Tuscaloosa (with new allegations that it was a predetermined decision that was railroaded through the UAB leadership) might end up having a solid UAB basketball program that just scored a huge upset of my Final Four pick Iowa State fall right into the laps of the MVC. Conference USA appears to want to have all members to have football, so the league may kick out UAB for having had the misfortune of being governed by self-interested political appointees from a more powerful campus. As a result, UAB’s future conference membership for basketball and other sports is in flux, with Al.com reporting that there is mutual interest between UAB and the MVC. As horrible as the UAB football situation has been, the MVC would be about as good of a landing spot for the UAB basketball program as it could reasonably expect and, in turn, UAB is about as good of an expansion candidate that the MVC could realistically invite.

If the MVC adds UAB, the league would be unlikely to stay at just 11 members. This means that it will have to find a 12th school somewhere, which could then cause a chain reaction throughout many of the non-FBS conferences below them. When the MVC was exploring expansion a couple of years ago and ultimately decided upon inviting Loyola, the league had explored UIC and Valparaiso of the Horizon League heavily. This makes sense from a university president perspective – all 3 of Loyola, UIC and Valpo are located in the Chicago market, which is where a disproportionate number of MVC students and alums live. (A notable exception to this is Wichita State, which doesn’t have much of an alumni presence in the Chicago area.) The basketball fans within the MVC would probably prefer a pure on-the-court-focused addition like Murray State (although Valpo does have some on-the-court bona fides), but I’d expect MVC school #12 to be another Chicago market school. The demographics of the MVC generally look like the old Big 8, which isn’t sustainable for a league for the long-term. The irony is that Wichita State, the most important school in the MVC, would likely be unhappy about another Chicago area school, yet the rest of the MVC membership knows that Wichita State can’t go anywhere else for the reasons set forth above (which means that the most valuable school in the conference might have the least say in expansion matters).

This prospect of MVC expansion might be why the Horizon League commissioner has already said that it’s in the “active phase” of expansion and the league would likely expand in the near future. The Horizon League has already been interested in schools like Northern Kentucky (currently in the Atlantic Sun) and Belmont (an Ohio Valley Conference member) and the conference may need to also backfill in the event that it gets raided by the MVC (which could put Summit League schools such as Nebraska-Omaha into play).

As you can see, even one move by a smaller conference like the MVC could end up triggering large repercussions throughout Division I conferences. If the Big East were to expand, it could cause mass-scale change for non-FBS conferences on the level that we saw in 2010-2013. Of course, if the Big 12 were to expand, then all bets are truly off throughout college sports.

(Image from Fox Sports)

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After a long Chicagoland winter that included coaching my twins (and future hopes and saviors for the Illini men’s and women’s basketball programs) in the Naperville YMCA Kindergarten Basketball League, it’s time to get back to blogging. Fortunately, not much has occurred on the conference realignment scene since December when the Big 12 was coming right off of the sting of being left out of the College Football Playoff. After some expansion rumors that included Cincinnati and Memphis, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and his conference brethren have a long string of denials about any desire or need to expand. Personally, I don’t believe them – I think the Big 12 is fully aware that they need to expand for the long-term. Whether the Big 12 has any consensus on who they should expand with is an entirely different matter, particularly when those additions will need to come from the pool of non-power schools.

Interestingly enough, the latest expansion scuttlebutt is coming from the Big Ten. Granted, it’s only for hockey, but it’s still an intriguing indicator for the Big Ten’s overall plans (as you’ll see further down in this post). The Minneapolis Star Tribune had an in-depth article last week about how Penn State’s successful start to its hockey program is spurring schools across the Big Ten and the rest of the country to consider adding the sport. Arizona State recently announced that it will be starting a Division I hockey program… and according to the Star Tribune, the Sun Devils have been speaking to the Big Ten about its conference home on the ice:

Arizona State and the Big Ten both confirmed they’ve discussed a hockey future together. An outside school competing in one Big Ten sport already occurs in men’s lacrosse with Johns Hopkins.

Two other conferences with a major presence in the Midwest, the WCHA and the NCHC, are also engaged in conversations with the Sun Devils.

“I think being in a conference with like institutions is important,” [Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer] Heppel said. “[Arizona State] is going to have to think about that from an institutional and sport perspective. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have a historic relationship.”

Heppel oversees men’s hockey for the Big Ten, so her on-the-record quotes directly about Arizona State indicate that this isn’t a fly-by-night rumor.

My knee-jerk reaction: Sounds good to me. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has said before that the Phoenix market is actually home to more Big Ten alums than Pac-12 alums. If you’ve ever visited the Phoenix/Scottsdale area (particularly in the winter and spring), you could certainly believe it with the overwhelming number of Midwestern transplants and retirees (even compared to other Sun Belt locations like Florida). Phoenix/Scottsdale is to Chicago snowbirds as Miami/Ft. Lauderdale is to New York City snowbirds. Arizona State isn’t an AAU institution as of now, but it’s one of the largest universities in the country with respected graduate programs (even with the party school and Girls Gone Wild reputations of its undergrad population). Plus, the fact that Arizona State is in the Big Ten’s brother of the Pac-12 makes a bit easier to envision the Sun Devils as a hockey member compared to, say, Notre Dame.

At the same time, the Big Ten has the opportunity to make this into a broader relationship beyond hockey. For example, imagine if Arizona State commits to playing 1 or 2 Big Ten football teams per year, 2 to 3 non-conference basketball games, and several non-conference baseball games (where the Big Ten legitimately needs help from a powerhouse in that sport like ASU). That’s not a huge commitment from either Arizona State (and they may have wanted to schedule those types of non-conference games on their own, anyway) or the Big Ten, yet it starts building a more in-depth presence in the Phoenix area, which is a key market for Big Ten alums.

A related consideration is if other Big Ten schools will start adding hockey to further grow the league organically. If I had $100 million to spare, I’d start up an Illinois hockey program tomorrow. Alas, I don’t have that type of coin laying around and it doesn’t appear to be coming from other possible benefactors (such as the rumored interest of Jimmy John Liautaud, who is the founder of Jimmy John’s). This is unfortunate since the Illini hockey club has performed well for decades along with having a passionate fan base and that could be supercharged if it turned into the only Division I hockey program in the state of Illinois. Alas, Illinois has everything that it needs from a competition and fan base standpoint to support hockey, but none of the financial support right now.

Instead, from what I’ve heard for at least the past year, Nebraska is by far the closest to jumping up to Division I hockey. The Cornhuskers’ new Pinnacle Bank Arena has icemaking capabilities and the school is also opening a new separate ice arena that can easily be used as a practice facility. Since Nebraska has the expensive physical facilities in place already, they’ve already fought the vast majority of the battle in starting a program. Nebraska has a top tier fundraising operation, as well, so they can get the money into place once they’re given the green light. There have been rumblings about Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa looking at hockey, but if you’re a betting person, you should wager heavily on Nebraska as the next existing Big Ten school to add the sport.

What does this mean for Big Ten fans that don’t care about college hockey? Well, one open question is whether the possibility of Arizona State joining the Big Ten hockey league means that it will blow open the door for more affiliate Big Ten members in hockey or other sports. From my vantage point, not necessarily. Just as Johns Hopkins was a special case as a Big Ten affiliate in being an academic and men’s lacrosse powerhouse, Arizona State hits a lot of metrics for the Big Ten in terms of being in the Phoenix market and a friendly Pac-12 for other sports that don’t exist for other members. Big Ten hockey fans might dream of adding the likes of Boston University, Boston College and Notre Dame if the league were to let in Arizona State, but that doesn’t seem likely (not the least of which is the fact that the Hockey East is a tough nut to crack even with dangling the prestige of the Big Ten). Instead, look at some of the more unique outliers that wouldn’t have the same poaching hurdles. For instance, MIT has Division I men’s and women’s rowing (where just as Johns Hopkins is Division III for all sports except lacrosse, MIT is Division III for all sports except rowing). Could that be leveraged into a relationship between MIT (which would be academic dynamite for the Big Ten presidents) and the Big Ten? What about academically prestigious schools in the Sun Belt that could add firepower to Big Ten baseball, such as Rice or University of California system members? The possibilities are endless, but the Big Ten is also likely to be very conservative in its affiliate member picks.

Separately, the Big Ten is on the precipice of negotiating new TV deals that will start after the 2016-17 season. As Ed Sherman pointed out in the Chicago Tribune last week, the Big Ten is in a great position as the only major pro or college sports property to come onto the market for the rest of this decade. It can expect Fox to bid aggressively for tier 1 rights as well as current rights holder ESPN. In my opinion, the Big Ten will likely end up with a setup similar to the Pac-12, where tier 1 rights are split between ABC/ESPN and Fox while the rest go to its conference network of the BTN. I don’t think there’s much chance of the Big Ten taking all of its rights to Fox even if Rupert Murdoch makes a blood money Godfather offer. The ratings for Big East basketball on FS1 have been depressing beyond belief and, contrary to the rantings of some Big East haters out there, it has nothing to do with the Big East conference itself. Any random game on ESPN and, for that matter, ESPN2, is going to have a massive amount of more exposure compared to the exact same game on FS1. That speaks to a problem with the channel itself – it depresses ratings simply by channel location whereas ESPN boosts ratings.

Believe me – exposure matters greatly to the Big Ten. The money obviously matters, but that money is only there because the Big Ten has had the best TV exposure of any conference for decades. As Sherman noted in his column, the Big Ten had ESPN, CBS and BTN (a partial Fox property) all covering portions of the Big Ten Tournament. That’s akin to the setup that the NFL has – they’re essentially getting paid a lot of money by everybody in the media business. I don’t think the Big Ten is going to step away from that approach – they want as many high profile outlets covering their games as possible. So, I don’t see the Big Ten being willing to move games from ABC and ESPN to FS1 and FS2. Regardless of how Big Ten fans might personally feel about ESPN commentators (and IMHO, Big Ten fans complain too much about them as a whole), it’s horrific for conference exposure to move off of the Worldwide Leader. However, I could certainly see the Big Ten being happy with games that are currently on ESPNU and ESPNEWS being moved to over-the-air Fox and FS1. That points to maximum exposure with a ton of checks being cashed from Disney and Fox with some side basketball money from CBS.

With that, it’s time to fill out my bracket and prepare for watching basketball in the middle of the day. (My Final Four picks: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova and Iowa State, with Kentucky over Villanova in the national championship game.) Enjoy the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament!

(Image from SI.com)