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Doing the Conference Shuffle

October 15, 2003 Columns No Comments

Doing the Conference Shuffle

by Andrew Flynn

This offseason has drawn to light the best and worst of what happens when folks look at a map and say, “We should have these guys in our conference.”

It seems that’s exactly what ACC commissioner John Swofford did with his quasi-successful power grab of Big East Schools. While the dust in Round One of that battle has only recently started to settle, future moves of Conference USA, Atlantic 10, and even the WAC to fill the void will only create a chain reaction of realignment that will eventually see the creation of new super-conferences and others going by the wayside.

For those of you that were backpacking across Europe since the NCAA finals, basically the ACC tried a surprise move to grab the best and brightest of the Big East football schools – Miami, Syracuse, and Boston College. Campuses were toured. Soapboxes were stepped upon. Lawsuits were filed. In the end Miami agreed to jump to the ACC, and Virginia Tech was the last-minute “un-vitee”, who was merely issued a chance at the behest of Virginia’s governor, using UVA as a mouthpiece. That Virginia Tech was a plaintiff against the ACC seemed beside the point. So next year the ACC football schedule will be meaty, and the 2004-05 basketball schedule will be a little watered-down. As always, it’s all about the Benjamins.

But the ACC-Big East story, and its future chapters, such as this weekend’s news that Boston College will fall on the ACC side of the fence, will be detailed in this space next year. For now, Hoopville will bring you up to speed on the conference affiliation changes taking affect this season, which profiles a few conference jumps, some team swapping, and three new Division-I schools entering the fray.

America East Conference
On April 22nd, Maryland-Baltimore County jumped from the Northeast Conference to America East, giving the conference its 10th member institution. Meanwhile, former D-1 newcomer Binghamton is now a fully-fledged member of the America East Conference.

UMBC was not a consistent program in recent years, so the effect of their entrance on the conference is likely a mixed bag at this point. Whether or not it is a good move ultimately remains to be seen; they enter from a conference in similar standing to America East. One thing that will be interesting for them is playing on the road, as the nearest school to them is more than a four-hour drive away.

Binghamton, on the other hand, has been very competitive against America East teams the past two seasons and figures to be a consistent contender before long. Additionally, the basketball team will soon play home games in a new 6,000-seat Events Center on their campus, and there is speculation that it might be a possibility for future conference tournaments. They will prove to be a good addition, though they figure to take a slight step back on the court this year as they lose three key starters and a good reserve from last year’s team.

Atlantic Sun Conference
The A-Sun loses both Jacksonville State and Samford to the Ohio Valley Conference, but gains a former D-1 Independent in Lipscomb. The conference map gets skewed a bit, as the A-Sun loses two of its three Alabama schools (Troy State remains), while adding another Tennessee school to join cross-town rival Belmont. Samford had been in the A-Sun (formerly TAAC) since the conferences inception in 1978, leaving Mercer as the only remaining original member. Jacksonville State had been in the conference since 1995.

JSU and Samford celebrated great seasons in the northern division of the A-Sun last season. The JSU Gamecocks finished the regular season with an overall record of 20-10, and 10-6 in the conference. JSU lost to UCF in the quarterfinals of the 2002 A-Sun tournament 68-51. The Samford Bulldogs finished 13-15 overall, with a 9-7 conference record. The Bulldogs lost in the quarterfinals 70-54 to eventual A-Sun champion Troy State. The loss of these two teams will undoubtedly relieve the pressure of competition for the remainder of the northern division.

The Lipscomb Bisons will begin their first full season of A-Sun play in 2003, but won’t be eligible for the A-Sun tournament. The Bisons finished 2002 with a 13-16 overall record, and were 3-3 against A-Sun opponents. The Nashville team made nice first impressions in the A-Sun, winning against Stetson and Campbell. The Bisons are 61-32 in three years behind head coach Scott Sanderson. They won’t help the conference’s RPI, as JSU (180) and Samford (204) were a bit ahead of Lipscomb (319).

Big South Conference
Though it did not get as much press as Miami and Virginia Tech’s move to the ACC, VMI and Elon changed conferences over the summer, with the Keydets moving to the Big South and the Phoenix moving into the vacancy left by VMI in the Southern Conference. Associate member Birmingham Southern completed their provisional status and is now a full member.

For the Big South, the availability of VMI leaving the SoCon opened a great opportunity to gain an all-important 6th football member (joining Elon, Liberty, Charleston Southern, associate member Gardner-Webb, and the future program at Coastal Carolina) and they quickly invited VMI to join them so they could have enough teams for an automatic playoff bid.

But the loss of Elon eliminated the immediate opportunity for the automatic football playoff bid. However, the football league still has some legitimacy with the VMI name being associated with it. As for the quality of Big South basketball; it should not change much. Elon and VMI have each hovered in the mid-200s in RPI the last couple of seasons, so any change in overall conference strength this season should be minimal. Also, in the short-term, the Big South should benefit slightly from the name recognition of VMI, both from their history, and from association with the departed Jason Conley. But the conference will not have the benefit of reaching a new market (Radford and Liberty are both in VMI’s region of Virginia).

In the long-term, it is difficult to see if Big South basketball will benefit or suffer from this ‘swap.’ VMI will always struggle with recruiting, yet they somehow managed to snag a talent like Conley (even though he did end up transferring to Missouri). Can the Keydets find other talented players like him? Until those questions are answered, it will be hard to figure out how Big South basketball will fare with this deal.

D-I Independents
Nowhere in college basketball is the yearly turmoil more evident than in the ranks of the Division I Independents. For this season, the confederation of unaffiliated teams loses four members and gains three. Here’s the breakdown. As mentioned in this article, three Independents now have shiny new conference affiliations – Centenary with the Mid-Continent, Lipscomb with the Atlantic Sun, and Birmingham Southern completed their move to the Big South.

Morris Brown’s situation was the most disheartening. A lack of financial constancy caused Morris Brown, the only Historically Black University founded by African-Americans in Georgia, to lose its accreditation in December. The school lost its appeal in April from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which denied the historically black college’s request to restore its accreditation. Morris Brown has suspended all of its sports programs; and all of the coaches and athletic department staff were laid off.

There are three newcomers to the Independent ranks this season, all of which have established programs at Division II or JuCo levels. The University of California-Davis brings their successful Aggie program to D-1, and already has an agreement to join the Big West when they complete their provisional status, joining UC System schools UC-Irvine, UC-Riverside, and UC-Santa Barbara in the conference. The school won the NACDA Directors cup for five of the previous six seasons for D-II, and was named the top D-II institution in the nation by Sports Illustrated. The UC-Davis campus, with 22,000 undergrads, will fit right into revenue models for D-1, will be able to offer intercollegiate competition for all 25 varsity sports offered by the school. UC-Davis’ football will be a I-AA independent this season. Suffering from their first losing season in a while (12-15) head coach Brian Fogel resigned in March, and was replaced by Gary Stewart.

The Northern Colorado Bears also joins D-1 for this season. The Greely, Colorado school has 12,000 undergraduate students, and has been playing hoops for over 100 years. The Bears went 11-15 last season, but return 10 players to a young team, and will get plenty of experience this season, as the school has scheduled games against Colorado, Colorado State, Texas State, Iowa State, Eastern Michigan and Loyola Marymount, along with home-and-homes with fellow D-1 newcomer Utah Valley State. Though not affiliated with a conference, the school has had informal talks with the Mid-Continent Conference, who would potentially look at the Bears and Utah Valley State as good travel partners, along with conference member Southern Utah, but nothing has been formalized.

Utah Valley State is the last new D-1 Independent for this season. The Orem, Utah, school used to be a Junior College, but has grown to a four-year institution. The Wolverines hired former Utah assistant Dick Hunsaker to lead the school to D-1. Hunsaker was a head coach at Ball State, and also was interim head coach at Utah when Rick Majerus took a leave of absence two seasons ago. Last season, the final one in the Scenic West Conference, the Wolverines went 26-7 against their JuCo brethren, However, this season might not be as successful, as the school has BYU, Boise State, Cleveland State and Robert Morris on the schedule for this season.

Lastly, Savannah State has been asked to repeat a year of their four-year probationary status by the NCAA, who found that the Tigers athletics program was coming up short in some of the D-1 requirements. The school did not sponsor the minimum number of sports in order to show progress towards D-1 compliance. Savannah State has since added cross-country, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s tennis to get up to snuff.

Mid-Continent Conference
The Mid-Continent added D-1 Independent Centenary this offseason, bringing the conference to 9 teams, and spreading the conference map south to include Louisiana. Centenary, with the smallest enrollment of any D-1 school, rejoins a conference after four years of Independent status. The school was a founding member of the Trans American Athletic Conference (now the Atlantic Sun), with membership from 1978 to 1999.

On the court, the Gents haven’t had much success in the past few years, something that their Independent status hindered. Last season, a streaky Centenary went 14-14 overall, starting with three losses, followed by four wins, followed later by five losses in a row, then followed by five consecutive wins. Four of the 14 wins came against D-II opponents, but they kept it respectable against Arkansas and Missouri, and had a one-point loss on the road against Fresno State. Centenary fits into the middle of the pack in terms of RPI, nestled in with Missouri-Kansas City and Southern Utah in the 270’s, down quite a few notches from perennial powerhouses Valparaiso (96), and to a lesser extent, IUPUI (160) and Oral Roberts (170).

The move also helps set up the Mid-Continent to encourage basically any other team to join from any time zone, as several schools, including two of the new D-1 Independents, and other future D-1 schools, are lobbying for inclusion.

Northeast Conference
When Maryland-Baltimore County jumped to the America East conference, the NEC didn’t so much as say goodbye, at least publicly. The conference merely removed UMBC graphics and links from their official site, and moved on. Now with 11 teams, there is a bit more of a scheduling difficulty, but the conference tournament will hardly be affected, as only the top eight schools make the tournament anyway. And while UMBC is the farthest team from the conference’s geographic center, the conference loses a travel partner for Mount St. Mary’s, which is also in Maryland.

While the NEC is rated as the 28th-strongest conference, it actually loses its worst performing team, at least in terms of RPI. UMBC was rated 302nd of the 327 teams last season, and everyone else in the NEC was lower than 285, save for Sacred Heart at 295. UMBC also was at the bottom of the NEC standings, with only five conference wins (Mount St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart had six), and seven overall. So the addition by subtraction is complete, and the NEC may even pass the Mid-Continent Conference in RPI for this upcoming season.

Ohio Valley Conference
Both Jacksonville State and Samford jumped to the Ohio Valley Conference from the Atlantic Sun Conference. Jacksonville State moved to find a conference in which to consolidate their athletics teams into one conference since the Gamecocks moved to D-1 in 1992. Samford did the same, making the move to have all 17 of its athletics teams in the same conference for the first time ever. All but the Bulldogs’ football team had been in the Atlantic Sun (formerly Trans America Athletic Conference) since 1978, and the Bulldog football team has played as an NCAA 1-AA independent since 1988.

The Ohio Valley pads its conference lead over the Atlantic Sun in the RPI standings. The Ohio Valley was 19th last season, while the A-Sun was 20th. However, Jacksonville State (180) and Samford (204) were two of the power schools in the A-Sun last season. Jacksonville State should fit right into the OVC basketball mix, potentially challenging for the conference crown given the right scenario, while Samford projects into the middle of the pack.

Southern Conference
Even though they had been members of the SoCon for 78 of the 82-year existence of the league, VMI knew that its football team would never be able to compete with the Georgia Southern’s and Furman’s of the world, which forced them to look for a new home for their football team. However, the Southern Conference members were not looking kindly on a team that was not going to field a football team in their league, so the Keydets decided to leave gracefully instead of getting ‘kicked out.’

The Southern Conference needed a replacement for the Keydets, namely a football playing school in their geographic footprint. Elon fit that mold, and they accepted an invitation to the SoCon, further moving the school and its football program up the ‘prestige ladder’, from NAIA, to Division II, to the Big South, and now to the Southern Conference, all within the last 20 years. The move was primarily football driven, seeing as Elon had won two NAIA national championships and was a powerful Division II team. But it was also a chance for all of Elon’s teams, including basketball, to move to a slightly higher profile conference, with possibly more chances for exposure.

Moves for 2004-05
ACC: Adds Miami (Florida) and Virginia Tech from the Big East

Independents: Adds Longwood, North Dakota State, and South Dakota State

Sun Belt: Adds Troy State

Moves for 2005-06
ACC: Adds Boston College

Atlantic Sun: Adds East Tennessee State

Big West: Adds UC-Davis

Independents: Adds North Florida

Sun Belt: Adds Idaho, Utah State, Louisiana-Monroe

Hoopville writers Phil Kasiecki, Jeremy Dunlap, and Ashley Burns contributed to this report.


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