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League is trending up, but are changes on the Horizon?

Posted by Brian Dickmann on April 6, 2017 at 3:55 PM

Photo: Regina H Boone / Detroit Free Press





It's looking more and more likely that a new team or two will be calling the Horizon League home in the very near future.


Whether or not any current members ditch the conference this summer remains to be seen.


One thing that’s for sure is that the NCAA conference realignment carousel is ready to start up again as Wichita State is set to leave the Missouri Valley Conference and join the American Athletic Conference – possibly as soon as Friday.


That means the MVC could poach a Horizon League team as it did back in 2013 when it added Loyola to replace Creighton who left for the Big East.


The most commonly mentioned names for MVC replacements are current Horizon League members Valparaiso and UIC along with Belmont, Missouri-Kansas City, and Nebraska-Omaha.


Other possible options, according to several media outlets including the Peoria Journal Star, include current Missouri Valley Football Conference members North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota, and South Dakota State.


MVC athletic directors and presidents are scheduled to meet Sunday in St. Louis to discuss conference membership. It is unknown at this time if the league is looking at add one school to remain a 10-team league or add three to boost the conference to 12-team, two division league.


The Horizon League, meanwhile, was already exploring expansion possibilities prior to the Wichita State news.


Conference commissioner Jon LeCrone touched on it at his annual state of the league press conference last month in Detroit. According to the Detroit News, the league is “exploring adding a school or even multiple schools” and that “there have been preliminary discussions” but nothing is imminent.


“Certainly, there are conversations that are pretty active,” LeCrone said, via the News.


Then there’s a report from the Omaha World Herald that the conference is looking to expand and that Nebraska-Omaha and Denver are two potential targets.


According to the newspaper, “several sources say the Horizon League is looking to expand by two schools, and perhaps four. The reason: improving the league’s basketball profile but also providing more conference games and, thus, more home game revenue for members.”


Another possible target for the Horizon League could be Robert Morris, which is located just 60 miles east of Youngstown State outside of Pittsburgh and is building a brand new $50 million, 4,000 seat on-campus arena and is looking to bolster its athletic profile.


As for the rest of the current Horizon League members, the conference appears to be trending in a positive direction for the first time since 2013. That year, the first season without Butler after the Bulldogs left to join the Atlantic 10 conference and eventually the Big East, the Horizon League ranked as the 12th best conference out of 32.


The league has proven it can be a top tier mid-major league even without Butler. However, the conference has been in a free fall since that season finishing 14th in 2014, 16th in 2015, and an embarrassing 20th in 2016 which likely cost Valparaiso an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.


The good news is it seems that the league has bottomed out. The conference was still poor this season, finishing 17th in the RPI rankings according to CBS Sports, but every program besides Cleveland State seems to be either solid or showing signs of promise at this stage. The key is for the bottom feeders of the conference to get their act together.


Oakland and Northern Kentucky should be top 100 RPI teams next season. Valparaiso, Green Bay, and Wright State are solid programs that are not normally RPI drags even when going through a down season. UIC, Milwaukee, and Detroit Mercy are all well-funded programs that have recently cleaned house and made coaching changes and look to be trending in the right direction instead of the anchors that they have been the past few seasons.


Only Cleveland State and Youngstown State still look to be dumpster fires, though that may change with their head coaching changes this offseason.


Back in 2013, the first season without Butler when the league finished ahead of all of its mid-major peers except the Missouri Valley and West Coast Conference, the Horizon League only had two top 100 RPI teams: Valparaiso (59) and Detroit (64). More important was that fact that only two teams – Loyola (216) and Milwaukee (306) – had RPIs above 200.


Compare that to 2016 when only one team – Valparaiso (49) – had an RPI in the top 100 as the league rated as the worst it’s ever been. Four of the conference’s ten teams finished with RPIs above 270.


Of course RPI isn’t the end-all-be-all. But for now it still plays an important role on Selection Sunday and the conference being down has likely cost the league at least two years of being a multi-bid league and the millions of dollars that come along with it – Green Bay in 2014 and Valparaiso in 2016.


Being a top tier mid-major league occasionally means multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, something the league hasn’t been able to accomplish since 2009 when Butler and Cleveland State both won at least one game in the Big Dance.


More NCAA Tournament bids means more money for the league’s men’s basketball programs. More money means larger budgets for travel and recruiting. Larger budgets for travel and recruiting mean better players. Better players mean better teams. Better teams mean better games, bigger crowds, and more exposure for the league.


Even as a one bid league a better conference means a better seed in the NCAA Tournament and a better chance to win NCAA Tournament games.


Without question the most important thing that conference members can do is win games in the NCAA Tournament. There is no greater exposure for a league than when mid-majors can pull upsets and make a Cinderella run in March. The Horizon League has not won a game in the tournament since Butler’s departure in 2012. Tournament wins also mean more NCAA units ($$$) for the league and its members.


But beyond that every conference member can contribute to boosting the conference profile by winning Division I non-conference games before the Horizon League schedule begins. In the years since Butler left, the teams at the top have lacked top 100 RPI opponents to build an at-large resume once conference play begins. That means every game – even victories – were a drag on the team’s RPI once January and February rolled around due to terrible conference teams at the bottom of the standings dragging everyone down.


As a whole this season the Horizon League went 67-60 in nonconference play against Division I foes including 1-3 against the Summit League, 1-3 against the WCC, 0-3 against the Sun Belt, 9-11 against the MAC, and 5-7 against the Ohio Valley – all mid-major leagues the conference should be at or above in stature. This is not the recipe to have in order to move back up the conference ladder.


The conference is showing signs of life again though as two teams, Valparaiso (71) and Northern Kentucky (87) finished in the RPI top 100 with Oakland (109), Wright State (115), and Green Bay (158) in the top 160. Still, half of the conference finished with an RPI at or above 250 which drags everyone else down.


If a team like Valparaiso or UIC (or both) leave the for the MVC then the conference will have to re-evaluate and try to poach a school or two from a league that is lower down on the food chain. It remains to be seen how attractive of a league the Horizon would be at that point.


But if the Horizon League is able to withstand another round of conference movement it is poised for a rebound next season. Adding a couple new teams doesn’t really make sense unless they are perennial top 100 RPI teams that can improve the league’s chances of getting more than one bid to the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise you’re just splitting the same amount of money more ways.


Fans of Horizon League programs are looking for ways to get a better seed and possibly more than one team in the NCAA Tournament


“That’s gonna take some internal improvement, and maybe some external,” LeCrone said.


At this point it may not be up to the league office.


Buckle up, it should be an interesting next few weeks.




Realignment tools:



Map of current Midwest mid-major conference members


Build your own Conference: Spreadsheet of Midwest mid-major conference members -featuring annual basketball budget (2015), attendance (2017), and RPI (2017).









Categories: Horizon League expansion

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