Conference Realignment: Has the Horizon League invited Murray State yet?

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If not, somebody needs to get on the phone

Matt Brown of Extra Points broke news Friday that Belmont is set to leave the Ohio Valley Conference for the Missouri Valley Conference, with an announcement expected as early as next week:

Belmont would join Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky and Austin Peay — who are all leaving for the ASun — to become the fourth school to announce its departure from the OVC this year. But quantity isn’t the only concern for the conference: the four departing schools all finished in the top five spots of the OVC in men’s basketball in 2021, meaning the quality is likely to take a massive hit as well.

That news seemingly hasn’t been well received at Murray State, where Athletic Director Kevin Saal issued the following statement:

Murray State’s decision not to join the Horizon League when the school was rumored to be a candidate in 2017 likely came down to the OVC being at least on par with the Horizon League in men’s basketball and a better geographic fit. While geography is still in the OVC’s favor, the latest conference realignment swings the pendulum dramatically toward the Horizon League in terms of conference strength. According to KenPom, the Horizon League was already better than the OVC in 2021, and the four departing schools went a combined 80-33 overall last year.

But geography has to be a match for the Horizon League as well. Given that it’s not a major market and it’s outside the Horizon League’s current footprint, it is an issue worth considering. One way to overcome this is to add a travel partner alongside the Racers. Morehead State — which represented the OVC in the 2021 NCAA Tournament — makes a lot of sense, but adding NKU rival Bellarmine would be a return to the type of forward-thinking moves that position the league well longterm…not to mention it’d make the staff at HoriZone Roundtable very happy. The Knights finished a game out of first place in the ASun in the school’s first year in Division I last year. Considering how NKU has panned out after going 9-9 in its first year in the ASun, it’s reasonable to think Bellarmine could be a home run in its own right for the Horizon League. With Bellarmine being a non-football school that hasn’t been in the ASun long enough to be vital to its potential massive expansion plan, the Horizon League might be able to entice the Knights to move to a league that’s a better geographic fit, and in the process give Murray State a travel partner just a few hours down the road.

While the Horizon League might not be looking to grow beyond 12 schools, Murray State is the type of program you make an exception for. The Racers have finished with at least a .500 record in 33 of the last 34 men’s basketball seasons. In that stretch, every former coach but one has ended his tenure by moving on to a more prestigious job. Ja Morant recently became the latest Racers star to make the move to the NBA, following Cameron Payne and Isaiah Canaan. This success has helped Murray State overcome being located in a town with fewer than 20,000 people to create a rabid fanbase: at over 4,800 fans per game the Racers finished 2020 with higher attendance than everyone in the Horizon League but Wright State and Northern Kentucky. Adding a successful program like Murray State to the Horizon League would be a home run and if the school is in a position where it will accept an invitation to the league, that offer should already be on the table.

The biggest issue for the Horizon League is likely to be other suitors. Murray State was a finalist for the MVC during the previous round of realignment when Valparaiso left the Horizon League, but the public/private split in the conference was rumored to be a sticking point. With nearby private school Belmont making the move, an offer for Murray State might not be far behind. If that doesn’t happen, the ASun could still be a destination for Murray State as it continues to add members that have football. It’s possible the ASun already has an offer on the table, but the Racers are waiting to see what happens with the Missouri Valley first.

The football program could be another hurdle for Murray State considering a Horizon League invite, but it might wind up a minor issue. The Racers have posted just two winning records in football in the last decade, so the program isn’t likely to be as important in any realignment decisions as it would be for stronger football schools. When Robert Morris left the NEC last year, it moved its football program to the Big South, a conference that’s arguably a better geographic fit for Murray State anyway. With Kennesaw State and North Alabama set to leave the Big South when the ASun starts football, the opportunity to join the conference shouldn’t be hard to come by.

Ultimately, if the Horizon League has a chance to add Murray State it would be foolish not to do so. While geography and football present potential issues, the opportunity to add an annual title contender in men’s basketball should encourage league officials to find a way to make things work. The Racers would instantly elevate the Horizon League, and if it made an excuse to add Division I upstart Bellarmine, that’s even better!

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