What can Purdue-Fort Wayne bring to the Horizon League?

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Purdue-Fort Wayne is joining the Horizon League for the 2020-21 academic year. The school announced the move earlier this month. While the move makes sense for both the school and the league, it seemed to come out of nowhere as the league wasn’t responding to the departure of any members.

This marks the fifth time since the exodus that created much of the current Horizon League that the conference went to the Summit League for a new member, though like IUPUI’s move in 2017 this seems to be more about geography than a step up in competition. When Valparaiso and Oakland joined the Horizon League, they were doing so from the top of the Summit League. Purdue-Fort Wayne won the Summit League in 2016, but has otherwise been an upper mid-tier team.

Since Valparaiso and Oakland left the Summit League for the Horizon, the power and the geography in the conference shifted dramatically westward. The schools in North and South Dakota have had a firm grasp on the league’s automatic bid. When IUPUI left for the Horizon League in 2017, Purdue-Fort Wayne became one of two schools east of the Mississippi in the Summit League. Considering most of the six hour drive to Western Illinois in Macomb, IL was directly to the west it was clear that the conference’s geography had left the Mastodons behind. The Horizon League represents a much stronger geographic fit while keeping the level of competition roughly equal.

One concerning aspect of the move from the perspective of the Horizon League is that John Konchar — a do-everything wing currently on a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies — is out of eligibility for Purdue Fort Wayne. Konchar averaged 19.5 and 8.5 last year. Throughout his four years in Fort Wayne, he finished every season with at least 13 points and 8 rebounds per game. If the Mastodons’ success under coach Jon Coffman was disproportionately due to a player that will be nearly impossible to replace, the transition could be a struggle.

A key component of the move — and one that made many feel the school would be a palatable option for the spot IUPUI got during the Horizon League’s last round of realignment in 2017 — is the Mastodons’ baseball team. The Horizon League dropped to six members that sponsor baseball when IUPUI replaced Valparaiso. One more departure among its schools that sponsor baseball would have left the league below the requirement for an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Purdue-Fort Wayne gives the league a little bit of stability in baseball given that every member school that has been mentioned in realignment talks also sponsors baseball.

There are a couple of elements of the move that make it feel like more of a preemptive defense against being poached. First, nothing has changed since the last time that the league considered adding the Mastodons. If the plan was always to go to 11 teams, why not add Purdue-Fort Wayne along with IUPUI? The Mastodons had the stronger basketball program at the time, and the gap has actually only shrunk since then.

The other reason that adding Purdue-Fort Wayne feels like a preemptive move is that Bellarmine University announced in June its intention to move to Division I and join the Atlantic Sun conference for the 2020 season. Bellarmine faces the same geography issues in the Atlantic Sun that caused Northern Kentucky to leave for the Horizon League in 2015.

Bellarmine’s move also leaves the University of Southern Indiana — which has long been linked to the Horizon League and is a year removed from finishing a 66 million dollar stadium renovation — short on natural rivals and a potential candidate to make the leap to Division I. Both schools have strong basketball tradition and feel like programs that could easily manage the move to Division I. If USI decides to join Bellarmine, both would be subject to the NCAA’s rules which state that a school can’t become eligible for the NCAA Tournament until it has been D-I for four years.

With two schools that show potential to be the next Northern Kentucky seemingly in the picture, adding a program that hasn’t shown that same potential feels like a defense against the fact that multiple member schools were mentioned as candidates for the Missouri Valley when the MVC added Valparaiso. Northern Kentucky dramatically strengthening its position since that time could be a catalyst for adding a program that doesn’t need to wait out the Division I transition period.

Ultimately, the addition of Purdue-Fort Wayne feels like one that made more sense during the last round of realignment. Baseball was as much of a need then as it is now and the conference didn’t have one or two schools with the potential to be the next NKU seemingly waiting in the wings. Instead, New Mexico State and Grand Canyon were legitimately being discussed as potential options.

As far as geographically logical options were concerned, Purdue-Fort Wayne was a stronger fit than IUPUI in every way but market size but the league went with the Jaguars. Ultimately, IUPUI adapted well enough to the Horizon League. While replacing former star John Konchar won’t be a small task, there’s no reason to believe the Mastodons won’t be a solid addition as well.

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