The Good, the Bad, and the Valley
The 2016-2017 college basketball season is about to begin, and Wichita State is still a member of the Missouri Valley. If you’re reading this in Wichita, take a moment to open a window, and you’ll hear the collective sobbing of an entire city. OK, that might be a slight (huge) stretch of the truth, but the point remains. Wichita State has outgrown the Valley, and some Shocker fans are not looking forward to another year in this conference.
The Missouri Valley hasn’t always been such a bad home for WSU. Since the Shockers joined the Valley in 1945, they have shared this conference with some great basketball schools. Cincinnati, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, Saint Louis, Tulsa, and, of course, Creighton have all called the Valley home. Now those schools play basketball in the American, ACC, Atlantic 10, and Big East. All of those schools have gone on to better things while WSU is stuck with the likes of Drake, Loyola, and Evansville. If you haven’t sobbed uncontrollably yet, now would be the time.
While I’m busy sobbing, some of you might be wondering why the Valley is such a bad place for the Shockers. After all, they made the Final Four in 2013, had a perfect regular season and a number 1 seed in 2014, beat Kansas to reach the Sweet Sixteen in 2015, and beat Vanderbilt and Arizona in the NCAA tournament last year. Why mess with what’s working, right?
There’s no question the Shockers have had great success in the Valley in the past six years, but if you look closer, you’ll realize this conference is doing more harm than good, especially after Creighton left for the Big East in 2013. When our longtime rival was replaced by Loyola, everything changed. Instead of WSU having at least two guaranteed good games in conference, it now had a bunch of question marks. Occasionally, the Valley will produce another great team like Northern Iowa in the 2014-2015 season. UNI cracked the top 10 in the polls that year and greatly helped WSU in the conference schedule. Sadly, having another solid team in the Valley is a rarity anymore. The conference schedule is the main way the Valley is hurting the Shockers.
There are two main reasons why it’s important for Wichita State to have good opponents in conference play. The first one is about strength of schedule. When it comes to the NCAA selection committee choosing teams for March Madness, strength of schedule is hugely important. Just look at the Shockers’ recent history to see this in action. In 2014, the Shockers were an incredible team. The eye test said this. The computer metrics said this. But their strength of schedule was pretty poor. It was so bad that many basketball experts believed that a single loss that year would’ve cost them a number 1 seed in the tournament. One loss would have dropped the Shockers from a 1 seed down to a 2 or 3 seed. That’s the power of the Valley. The Shockers need better games in conference to help them with NCAA seeding. It’s that simple.
The second reason why WSU needs better conference games concerns the fans. Shocker fans like myself want to watch our team play good opponents. We want to see ranked teams come to Charles Koch Arena. We want good games that are fun to watch and that are nationally relevant. An occasional blowout is fun, but doing it nearly every home game against subpar teams is kind of boring. It’s like playing Madden on easy level. The first few times are really fun, but then it gets old. Watching the Shockers beat up on the Valley was fun the first couple years, but now it’s time for a new challenge.
The Valley is hurting the Shockers with strength of schedule, but it’s also holding them back in recruiting. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what most high school boys are looking for in picking a school to play college basketball. A great program, a top coach, a good school (some care about academics), nationally televised games, a school’s geographic location, and a school’s conference are all extremely important to recruits. Wichita State checks many of these boxes but not all of them. A better conference would greatly help. Since Gregg Marshall became head coach in 2007, he has landed two ESPN 4 star recruits and no ESPN 5 star recruits. With Marshall’s knack for developing talent, just imagine what he could do if Wichita State were in a better conference and consistently landing 4 and 5 star recruits.
The Shockers need to leave the Valley, but it’s unclear if there’s a viable path to do this. The Big East, American, Atlantic 10, and Mountain West are the four conferences often mentioned as possible landing spots for Wichita State. Let’s eliminate one immediately – the Mountain West. This conference is dying just as quickly as the Valley and only had one school make the NCAA tournament this past year. Throw in the extreme distances for travel and the late start times and you get a recipe for disaster. Although being in the same conference with UNLV, New Mexico, and San Diego State would be great, I just don’t see the overall appeal.
The Atlantic 10 is the much better, eastern version of the Missouri Valley. The A10 is what the Valley used to be: a strong, multi-bid basketball conference. Although I used to be 100% against this option, I’ve slightly warmed up to it. Being in the same conference with Dayton, VCU, Saint Joseph’s, and Saint Louis would be fantastic. The travel would be a challenge, and a few of the schools are bottom-of-the-Valley-esque (looking at you, Duquesne and Fordham). That being said, the A10 has been active in expansion over the past five years by adding VCU, Butler (was in the A10 for one season before joining the Big East), George Mason, and Davidson. If George Mason and Davidson caught the A10’s eye, why wouldn’t WSU? As long as Saint Louis and Dayton don’t leave for the Big East, the A10 could be a good match for the Shockers.
The Big East is comprised of ten basketball schools that don’t have FBS football and would seem like a perfect match for football-less Wichita State. There’s just one problem – the Big East presidents seem to have an elitist mindset. This conference only consists of private schools, and it appears like the presidents want to keep it this way. The Big East is their country club, and WSU is their blue-collar greenkeeper. WSU is great at what it does, but it will never be seen as an equal in their eyes. Hopefully, the Big East will put basketball before institutional fit if it ever chooses to expand, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.
The American Athletic Conference is Wichita State’s best option and a slight possibility. This strong conference survived the Big 12’s threats of expansion and will continue to grow. Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati, Tulsa, Temple, Houston, and SMU are the American’s best basketball schools and would be a huge step-up from the Valley. With the American, WSU gets good basketball, institutional fit, geographic neighbors, and former rivals. Not only that, it just makes sense. The American has twelve schools that play football but only eleven that play basketball. There really isn’t a logical reason why Wichita State hasn’t been added yet. Perhaps the American will expand when its TV contract expires at the end of the 2019-2020 season. As long as Wichita State keeps winning on the basketball court, it’s certainly possible.
Many Shocker fans have given up hope that WSU will ever leave the Valley for a better conference, but I’m still optimistic. I still believe that hard work and success should be rewarded in life, and few schools have had more success in men’s basketball over the past six years than Wichita State. The Shockers deserve a better home, and they will eventually find one.
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