Conference Realignment inching closer to the Horizon League?

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UIC linked to the Missouri Valley Conference in latest rumors

In the initial hours following Loyola’s departure from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Atlantic 10, it looked like the Horizon League might not be a candidate to get poached in this round of MVC realignment. But as things have progressed, the fact that the conference was losing its Chicago foothold became a significant issue for MVC officials. Per Matt Norlander, that’s when UIC emerged as a serious candidate. The Flames and Omaha joined Murray State, UT Arlington and Kansas City as the conference’s top choices in this round of expansion. It appears the Missouri Valley might bring in four of the five schools and move to 14 teams in this round of realignment, with schools making their presentations on December 19.

UIC as a candidate for the MVC

While it wouldn’t be how I would do things, the MVC is clearly prioritizing markets over results with most of the teams it’s currently considering. Of the group of candidates who have large media markets but lackluster on-court success, UIC should be at the top of the list. With that in mind, if the MVC’s plan is to go to 14 teams UIC should be a no-brainer.

The Flames allow the MVC to regain a foothold in the massive Chicago market that’s vital to several of the conference’s schools. Chicago has the third largest media market in the nation, which isn’t just larger than the market of any team currently in the conference but the largest that could reasonably be added without stretching the footprint drastically with a team in New York City or Los Angeles.

UIC has the largest budget in the Horizon League despite not having more expensive sports that aren’t sponsored by the league. Recent results haven’t been what you’d like to see out of the Flames, but demonstrated success is there in a way that it’s not for Kansas City. UIC under-performing is Kansas City or Omaha’s baseline.

The other rumored candidates

Even before Loyola left the MVC, the conference was exploring expansion after going to an odd number of teams with the addition of Belmont. While the conference has typically gone for an even number of public and private schools, losing an additional private school makes it difficult to pursue that path any further. The remaining private school options near the MVC footprint don’t have the same sustained success that Belmont does, and as a result the conference’s main contenders are all public schools mostly located in large markets. Here’s a look at the teams that appear to be the top MVC candidates:

Murray State is the candidate that should be the obvious addition for the MVC here. I’ve gone on at length about how the Horizon League should work to bring in the Racers if it doesn’t work out with the Missouri Valley, and pretty much everything in that article is why the MVC shouldn’t let it get to that point. The conference might be apprehensive about a small market school after Valparaiso failed to carry it’s momentum over to the conference once Matt Lottich took over, but Murray State has a proven track record of winning under different coaching regimes that dates back decades. It would be a mistake for the MVC to turn its nose up at the Racers once again (and if they do the Horizon League needs to work to take advantage of it).

Texas Arlington hasn’t been near the level of Murray State in recent years, and would be a market-based addition like UIC. The Mavericks on-court production has been better than the Flames’ with five Top 150 KenPom finishes in the last seven years, but UTA’s success still isn’t on the level of most prior MVC additions. The more pressing concern with UT Arlington is geography. UTA is over 400 miles from nearest MVC member Missouri State, and Missouri State is currently on an island 300 miles away from the next nearest member. With that said the schools most likely to take issue with that are the MVC’s northeastern group of Valparaiso, Indiana State, and Evansville. If I’m the MVC, I’m not sure I care if those three are unhappy. Missouri State is considered a candidate for a move to FBS, and if the Bears do eventually move UT Arlington will be a massive geographic outlier. That could be where serious issues begin for the MVC, as it could force the conference to bridge that gap in future expansion instead of focusing on the top candidates elsewhere in the footprint.

While I see a lot of problems with the idea of UTA to the Missouri Valley, the real head scratcher that emerged as a primary candidate on the day that Loyola left was Kansas City. Two years ago, Kansas City would’ve done anything to get into the Horizon League. If they had done so successfully, all indications are that they would’ve wound up a perennial bottom-half team. The MVC could have its pick of Horizon League schools, so the decision to give Kansas City this level of consideration is strange. You could point to the Loyola team that’s leaving the MVC as an example of the strategy working out, but that team made massive investment in the basketball program to strengthen its argument for the move. If Kansas City doesn’t do the same, they’d likely just predictably water down the basketball product and upset the schools that care about that.

Finally, the most recent update that indicated UIC was working overtime to get into the OVC also named Omaha as a candidate. Like Kansas City, Omaha strikes me as a poor man’s version of a Horizon League school when it comes to realignment. Fifth year seniors on the Mavericks’ roster have been a part of one team that finished the year in the KenPom Top 200, most recently finishing ranked 300 after a 5-20 season and currently on pace to be even worse than that at 1-7 and ranked 334. From reports, it sounds like Omaha might be added if the MVC doesn’t think Kansas City can handle the move financially, but they’re another questionable candidate even as a backup plan. Neither Omaha’s metro population nor it’s media market compares favorably to those of several Horizon League schools. This feels like it would be a nostalgia addition to get back into Creighton’s market.

But seriously, what is the MVC thinking?

If details from Matt Norlander’s report prove true and the MVC picks four of the schools in this article to join the conference, the conference could quickly grow to regret its decisions. While I’ve already said I don’t like the idea of market-based additions, I do understand them as a strategy. The concern is with the specific schools being considered. Todd Aaron Golden of the Tribune-Star touched on several of the issues this morning, but there are so many it’s difficult to hit them all in one piece.

For the MVC, schools like Kansas City and Omaha give no indication of being anything but reactionary, desperation additions akin to the Horizon League adding IUPUI when Valparaiso left. This leads into several issues that such moves could cause for the MVC. When the Horizon League made its desperation addition, it diluted its own product while also strengthening the Summit League. A key difference — and another problem with these moves — is that the Missouri Valley has no reason to be desperate and reactionary.

For years, the Horizon League first looked to “call up” teams from the Summit League. The Horizon League was typically significantly stronger than the Summit League, so it was a natural upward progression. After that strategy had underwhelming results multiple times, the conferences have settled in with the Horizon operating entirely east of the Mississippi River and the Summit League being a comparable group of teams almost entirely west of the Mississippi. If the MVC isn’t careful, it’s not impossible that it could find itself in a similar spot. If Kansas City is added and it causes Missouri State to hurry its move to FBS, the conference will not only dilute its product with an underperforming school, but by losing a team that’s currently ranked 68 on KenPom after finishing last year Top 100 as well. If the Summit League calls up Augustana, the 2016 Division II Men’s Basketball National Champion that’s currently 8-1 with a Top 15 win looks to be on the upswing after a few down seasons and could easily find itself outperforming Kansas City if it moves to Division I. If the replacement for Missouri State was Omaha? That’s two underwhelming additions and a strong team departing. The conference would suffer a significant blow to its ranking, and it would be entirely self-inflicted.

While the Horizon League had to make a move to replace a departing school, the MVC preemptively did that. Belmont was added — with Murray State rumored to bring the conference to 12 teams — before Loyola announced its departure. Sitting at 10 schools is an option. A move to 12 with Murray State and another school that’s had actual on-court success is a move that’s available to the MVC as well. Early 2022 regular season results notwithstanding Northern Kentucky would bring excellent facilities, a Cincinnati market about the size of Kansas City’s, and actual on-court production to the MVC. There’s a little more projection required for NKU compared to past MVC candidates, but looking at the current candidates they compare very favorably. The Horizon League shoud feel fortunate if Northern Kentucky doesn’t emerge as an option for the MVC.

And NKU is just the top Horizon League candidate that would be a better addition than Kansas City or Omaha. Wright State has financial issues and a market that’s marginally smaller than Omaha’s that are likely keeping it from being a top option, but the Raiders have been at least decent since Brad Brownell’s tenure began in 2006 and have become the team to beat in recent years under Scott Nagy. Cleveland State would stretch the MVC further east when it apparently wants to move west, but it’s had success Kansas City could only dream of under both Gary Waters and Dennis Gates. Even among purely market-based additions like Kansas City and Omaha, the Horizon League has better options. Oakland, Milwaukee, and Detroit Mercy would bring the MVC large markets in the footprint with schools that have actually had success in Division I. The Titans would even allow the MVC to keep its public/private balance close.

Or the MVC could just wait. Since there’s no need for a reactionary move, the conference could let things play out for a few years. Maybe recent Division I callups St. Thomas (MN) or Bellarmine put themselves on a trajectory that shows actual potential to succeed in a large market, with the added benefit of maintaining the public/private school balance that has been a key factor in past realignment. The MVC is in an obvious position of power compared to the Summit League and Horizon League. There’s no reason to make rash decisions that could change that.

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