Welcome everyone to Blake Schumaker’s conference realignment talk! Why yes, usually this would be John’s thing, but this one is my opinion on what should happen given the new era of conference cannibalization. Today, we’re going to talk about the recent news of Merrimack and Sacred Heart packing up and taking their ball to the MAAC, what that means for the NEC, and what I believe should happen:
Merrimack and Sacred Heart’s departures from the NEC leave the conference in a precarious position. The NEC is now at an underpowered seven members and could see a couple more defect to the MAAC (more on that in a second). As a football conference, the NEC now has only six members counting associate member Duquesne and any further toppling of those dominoes could see a disaster scenario unfold – loss of football as a sponsored sport. In men’s basketball, the NEC has been picked apart time and time again, with three of its last four tournament champions (not you Fairleigh, sit down) having defected to other conferences since their wins. It’s also worth mentioning that the NEC consistently ranks near the bottom of the totem pole in conference NET rankings for basketball.
So what do these moves mean for the NEC as a conference? To be frank, the NEC as we know it is on life support, in dire need of a shake up or new blood. The idea of a PAC-2 scenario occurring should be at the forefront of the NEC commissioner’s mind in this changing landscape of conference realignment. While I could say that the conference has the ability to draw some support from D2 schools who would like to move their play to D1, that’s boring. Garrett Lash at Mid Major Madness already covered it and there were no standouts in the NEC’s geographical footprint.
Instead, let’s look at a conference merger! This was wildly speculated on when the PAC was undergoing its turbulence and has yet to come to fruition with the Mountain West being the likely candidate, but I believe it’s only a matter of time. Oregon State and Wazzu are on a ticking time clock and no one else seems interested. If the NEC were to merge, the likely candidate would be with the Horizon League, it’s neighboring non-football conference who recently took Robert Morris away from them.
What would the conference map look like? Why, I spent exactly 10 minutes in Photoshop answering that question for you!
It’s beautiful. Like if the Big Ten actually stayed in its geographic area. Thank you to NCAA Maps for the resource.
This is what I would consider a good option for the Northeast Conference as a whole. The Horizon League has a bit to gain in a merger with the conference, but what about the NEC? Surely the departure of two of their schools shouldn’t cause the conference to look at an option so brash. Why would they resort to this option?
Because the vultures haven’t finished eating.
The MAAC is at 13 schools right now and its desire to expand has been fueled by losing competitive pieces to their core like Monmouth back in 2022. While the conference could stop at the two newest members, MAAC could be looking at additional pieces from the remains of the NEC. In specific, I believe the all-private college coalition will look to take some of the higher performers from its remains: Fairleigh-Dickinson (FDU) of New Jersey and Stonehill of Massachusetts.
Both schools fit the demographic and footprint of the conference easily and would be competitive in the sports provided. Stonehill saw a good amount of success in its first year of conference play in the NEC and FDU took down No. 1-seeded Purdue in the tournament just last year, due to the technicality that Merrimack couldn’t play. Both are private institutions with fairly high endowments and enrollment, and they fit in the footprint that MAAC has established.
If either of these schools announces their intention to join the MAAC, the NEC will be considered open season. This is where the Horizon League comes in. The Horizon League has had a bit of a problem recently with some of their sports that are close to becoming unsponsored, namely tennis, baseball, swimming and diving, and golf. When you can’t convince your schools to build up, you should instead build out. Almost every remaining NEC school sponsors the sports that are missing members and would lead to an influx in competition in those sports. I would love to see some new competition in baseball and Central Connecticut could be that group.
In addition to adding schools for sports, the Horizon also adds a new footprint that matches their slogan: #MajorCities #MajorExperiences. The schools that I expect would remain in the aftermath of the NEC’s all have some component of a major city around them, in a similar way to Wright State being in Dayton but actually physically located in Fairborn. It also expands nicely to an east coast market that the Midwest-leaning Horizon would love to tap into.
The hiccups with this plan come from two places: the aforementioned lack of standing among schools in the NEC in Horizon’s primary sport of basketball, and what to do with football in a non-football conference. I’m an optimist and believe that the addition of the NEC schools would allow them to recruit better than they would while remaining in the NEC. As for football, I have an even wilder proposition – turn the Horizon/NEC into a full football conference.
The NEC has enough schools that sponsor football that, when combined with the Horizon schools, they would have a stable conference of about eight members. This assumes the following – that Robert Morris (Big South-OVC) and Youngstown (MVC) move their football conferences to the new mega-conference, and that no other members of the NEC defect during the merger, such as Duquesne as an associate or any other full members of the conference. If FDU and Stonehill do move, that puts the conference at six again and in danger but there’s some hope. While I highly doubt any other Horizon school will jump onto the opportunity at this time, having an at-home conference could also convince some of the other members to add football to their list of sports down the line.
With all of that said, you may be asking how likely this scenario is for both conferences. My answer? Not very likely, like maybe 2%. The NEC is not currently in full-blown nuclear panic yet – that may happen if anyone else gets poached, whether by the MAAC, MEAC, CAA, or some other entity – and the logistics of adding football among other concerns, like the distance traveled to furthest point Central Connecticut or Stonehill, would cause pause among Horizon League and NEC member schools. Add the fact that the NEC would lose its valued automatic bids in a merger with another conference, and I don’t foresee this happening with the momentum of the conference as it stands today. But should another school drop out of the conference with no immediate replacement in Division II prepared, all of the dominoes could fall with the Horizon League absorbing the competition.