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Would the American Athletic Conference offer better NCAA Tournament access for Wichita State?

April 4, 2017 Columns No Comments

For some time now, there has been talk of Wichita State leaving the Missouri Valley Conference for the American Athletic Conference. When it was first discussed, it didn’t seem to make much sense, and that hasn’t changed now that a report suggests the school is in advanced talks with the conference to make the move.

The rationale is obvious, but needs some closer examination. When that is done, this possibility is a head-scratcher.

The Shockers don’t have football, and The American started with old Big East schools that had football. They have continued to add members that play football as well, with Navy being a football-only member. Wichita State would be the only basketball program that doesn’t have football; any issues arising from that can probably be ironed out just fine.

Gregg Marshall has built a terrific program during his tenure there, and he’s well-compensated. He has great facilities to work with there, which is a big advantage over other Valley schools. It’s no surprise, then, that they have dominated the conference in recent years, with a little help from some great recruiting. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker were great examples of under-recruited kids who they got and then had terrific careers.

And it’s no surprise that while Marshall’s name always comes up for high-major openings, he hasn’t budged, even as some pretty good jobs have come open. He’s in a pretty good situation, at least from the standpoint of pay and his chances to win the conference every year.

Whether or not the Shockers make the NCAA Tournament this year without a championship in the Missouri Valley Tournament is debatable, and we will never know for sure as they crushed Illinois State in the title game. By conventional measures, the Shockers’ NCAA Tournament resume was a little on the thin side, though a lot of that is out of their hands. They tried to put together a tougher non-conference schedule, and that is another subject for another time. There were plenty who also noted that this was a top 10 team in KenPom’s ratings and thought the possibility of a Shockers team that lost in the Missouri Valley championship game not being in the NCAA Tournament was a travesty.

In the end, the Shockers got an automatic bid and were a No. 10 seed, one widely thought to be too low for them. Sure enough, they beat Dayton in the first round to boot.

There is surely some frustration with the perception of the program and, perhaps more so, their conference, and Marshall vocalized some of that in recent weeks. In the opening press conference before the NCAA Tournament, Marshall said that he’s “kind of used to the short end of the stick, if you will, on the seedings.” At the end of his press conference after losing to Kentucky in the second round, Marshall was asked about the perception a little more directly.

“How many years do we have to do this to make people respect our program?” Marshall asked, seeming a little (understandably) exasperated. “I don’t know. That’s up to you guys (in the media).”

Marshall was asked, but deferred, on a question of changing conferences for theoretically easier access to the NCAA Tournament. That would appear to be a primary rationale for changing conferences, but would going to the American Athletic Conference really make sense to that end?

Since it emerged from the breakup of the Big East, The American has averaged three teams in the NCAA Tournament each year, with a national champion in UConn in its first year. However, the Huskies have been down ever since, and Louisville – who left for the ACC after the first year of the conference – is the only other member to reach the second weekend.

This year, The American got two teams in the NCAA Tournament: SMU and Cincinnati, both of which were No. 6 seeds. It followed last year, when four teams reached the NCAA Tournament, but none were seeded higher than UConn and Cincinnati, both No. 9 seeds in their respective regions. It is worth noting that SMU was ineligible for the postseason, but surely would have been seeded higher.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Valley has been no better than a two-bid league every year since 2005-06. The Valley has had its ups and downs, though it has been more up than down of late. Wichita State has had a large hand in that, of course.

If Wichita State’s motive for changing conferences is to get better access to the NCAA Tournament, it would seem the American Athletic Conference doesn’t offer a big help to that end at first glance. This year, there were not many more opportunities for quality wins there than in the Valley, and that was also the case two years ago. But the lack of football ties their hands as far as the Big 12 goes, as that would be the most natural fit, and while the Atlantic 10 would seem to make sense and has sent more teams to the NCAA Tournament since the 2012-13 season, they would be a geographical outlier there by a few hundred miles. The Big East actually makes more sense from a geographic standpoint, but Wichita State is a public institution and the Big East has ten private schools.

In other words, the Shockers don’t have a lot of obvious options in the name of going to a conference with more NCAA Tournament access.

The story is still developing, and on one level, you can understand the move if it happens. Wichita State would improve the conference, and could certainly contend regularly, especially as long as Marshall is the coach. It’s hardly guaranteed, however, that making the move would translate into a consistently better chance at reaching the NCAA Tournament.

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