Conference Realignment: USI exploring a move to Divison I…and the Horizon League?

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The Screaming Eagles’ long anticipated move might finally be in the works

The University of Southern Indiana is exploring a move to Division I, and suddenly the Horizon League might have too many excellent expansion candidates to bring them all in. The reports of potential Division I expansion come after years of USI officials saying that the school wasn’t looking to move up. News of the potential move was first reported by Kyle Sokeland of the Evansville Courier & Press on Monday:

The Horizon League has been linked to the school that gained notoriety under Bruce Pearl before he left for Milwaukee, and it’s easy to see the appeal from both sides. The Screaming Eagles have a very strong Division II program across the board, with men’s basketball winning the 1995 National Championship under Pearl and remaining strong in the time since. A 66 million dollar stadium project that was completed in 2019 means that like former Great Lakes Valley Conference rival Northern Kentucky, the school would be coming into the league with state-of-the-art facilities.

While it could be argued that adding a second Division I team to the Evansville, Indiana market might over-saturate it; it could create an interesting situation for whichever conference winds up with USI. Most of the schools in the Horizon League play second (and sometimes even third) fiddle to another program in the same city. Given the Evansville Purple Aces’ struggles in the Missouri Valley Conference, USI has the potential to grow into the biggest show in town despite being in a smaller conference. When the Screaming Eagles and Purple Aces played an exhibition game in 2019, the Division II school forced overtime before losing 68-71.

Southern Indiana would find an excellent geographic fit in the Horizon League. In addition to reuniting with its former GLVC rival and becoming the third Indiana school in the league, most of the schools are within a roughly seven hour drive of Evansville. Given the recent implosion of the OVC, the Horizon League also presents the best competitive opportunity for a team in the area moving up from Division II. The Horizon League finished 2021 ranked roughly on-par with the OVC before the latter lost four of the top five teams in the basketball standings.

As with Murray State, the Horizon League wouldn’t be the only suitor for Southern Indiana if the Screaming Eagles did make the decision to move to Division I. Fortunately for the league, there wouldn’t be a conference that was head-and-shoulders superior should it extend an offer as there is with Murray State and the Missouri Valley.

Normally the recent shakeup in the Ohio Valley Conference would put it below the Horizon League in the conference realignment pecking order, but USI is the one potential expansion candidate that might see it as a more appealing destination. In 2017, the OVC relocated its basketball conference tournament to the Ford Center in Evansville. USI would have homecourt advantage in the OVC tournament, though that may not be a factor for the first four years while USI made its Division I transition. With that said, the OVC is now down to eight members and Murray State seemingly eager to leave. It’s possible that the OVC would allow USI to participate in the conference tournament while it transitioned to full-time Division I status, with the conference using a hometown team to draw interest and make up for the recent heavy blows realignment has dealt it.

A potential wildcard destination for Southern Indiana would be the ASun conference, but it’s a wildcard that has a strong chance to land USI should it extend an invitation. Like the Horizon League, the ASun would allow the school to rejoin a former GLVC rivval, in this case Bellarmine. Where the Horizon League might have an advantage is that the Screaming Eagles don’t have a football program and the ASun’s recent additions as well as the Division II programs being linked to the conference indicate football as a focus. Bellarmine was added before the ASun’s recent shift toward football schools, and could be a candidate to be poached from the conference that extends all the way to southern Florida much like NKU was in 2015.

The situation that would likely allow USI to join the Horizon League sooner rather than later would be for Murray State to wind up in the league and Bellarmine to decide to stay in the ASun. The Horizon League has typically waited at least a short amount of time before taking teams that move up from Division II, but in this case it might be best to act quickly. The provisional Division I status shouldn’t be a sticking point for the league, as it would be going above its normal membership count to bring in Murray State.

The league would be less likely to add both former GLVC rivals at the same time, but it’s a bold move that could pay huge dividends quickly. Bellarmine contended for the ASun regular season title and made the conference championship in its first year of Division I, seemingly putting it far ahead of where Northern Kentucky was as a Division I member before joining the Horizon League. Given how NKU has panned out, the league might not want to miss out on the Knights. USI has a strong program and new facilities, and could quickly become the king of a market that features a current Missouri Valley team. While both would most likely be considered as add-ons to Murray State, there’s plenty of reason to believe they’re worthy on their own merits.

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