It’s so very 1967 and so very 2017.
Wichita State can make both a retro move and a jump into the future if it is invited to join the American Athletic Conference.
The changes would be significant, thrilling and jarring, as well as nostalgic.
Membership would improve Wichita State’s standing in college athletics. It would not offer a cure-all for slights, perceived or real, from higher-profile conferences and the NCAA.
A move would boost Wichita State’s reputation, national exposure and excitement on game night in Koch Arena. It would meet university president’s John Bardo goals of associating with similar schools in large cities for academic, research, enrollment and fund-raising reasons.
There are potential issues where WSU would merely trade issues associated with the Missouri Valley Conference for a more expensive type of issues. Like the MVC, the AAC comes with the mismatched feel of map-busting geography and a mix of public and private, rural and urban, basketball and football.
“It’s such an odd conference in a lot of ways,” said Harry Willis, a Tulsa fan for almost 40 years. “You’ve got everything from little Tulsa with 4,000 kids to (Central Florida) with 57,000.”
It is also a conference with big ambitions. Driven by football, it wants to change the lexicon from Power 5 to Power 6 conferences so it can cash bigger checks. Those ambitions mean AAC schools are pouring money into athletics in a desperate attempt to keep up with the ACC, Big 12, Big 10, Pacific-12 and SEC.
“It’s a conference that’s been underrated and undervalued,” said Harold Byrd, president of the Memphis Rebounders booster group. “Wichita State, with their history and their culture, would be a great fit in basketball.”
Obligatory caution: Numerous sources and multiple media outlets, including The Wichita Eagle, cite unnamed sources that report Wichita State’s candidacy for membership in the AAC is a real thing and moving toward an invitation.
Until it’s done, it’s not done.
Don’t chant “AAC” at your co-workers just yet.
As always, understand that people at American schools, Wichita State and the Missouri Valley Conference routinely decline comment on the matter because of the sensitivity of the expansion topic.
Wichita State could add a strong men’s basketball program with the potential to add prestige and NCAA Tournament spots to the American. It could add strength in other sports, devoted fans and good facilities.
Geographically, it’s not ideal for many AAC schools.
It’s also not a crazy distance for five members. And that’s where the root of this starts — with former MVC members Tulsa, Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston. Houston departed in 1960, before Memphis joined in 1967, so while all five never played in the MVC together, it’s enough of a connection to make some sense.
Shocker fans who remember Dave Stallworth, Terry Benton and Antoine Carr remember Cincinnati, Memphis and Tulsa.
“We had some wonderful games and it would be wonderful to be playing them again,” Willis said. “I’m old enough to remember Carr and (Cliff) Levingston and (Xavier) McDaniel. It’s a natural rival with a long history.”
In almost every way, this is a great deal for Wichita State. It’s a dream scenario that should be grabbed before Temple’s president wakes up and says “You want me to send my volleyball team where?”
If it happens, and there are many details unknown or unrevealed, here is a look at what membership in the AAC might look like for Wichita State.
What is the American?
The American Athletic Conference formed in 2013 out of the wreckage of the Big East. Seven private schools, none of whom play football at the top level, went their own way, retaining the Big East name.
The remaining schools, all with football, regrouped and raided Conference USA.
AAC members are Houston, Memphis, Tulsa, Tulane, SMU, Temple, South Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Central Florida and football-only Navy.
Louisville (Atlantic Coast) and Rutgers (Big 10) spent one year in the AAC before leaving.
AAC schools spend big in an attempt to keep up and admit its TV deal must grow to maintain that pace. AAC TV revenues are nowhere close those of Power 5 conferences such as the SEC or Big 12. Published reports put AAC revenues at around $1-2 million a school.
Wichita State, since it does not play football, is unlikely to receive a cut equal to other members.
What does it mean for Shockers basketball?
Athletically, the desire to find a new home for Wichita State men’s basketball is the driving force.
Membership in the AAC would provide better opponents and, the thinking goes, better access to NCAA Tournament bids and seeds.
Wichita State’s double-digit dominance of its MVC opponents — average margin of victory 19.8 this season — produces a feeling of inevitability in Koch Arena.
Opponents such as SMU, Houston, Cincinnati and Memphis could change that atmosphere quickly.
However, the AAC isn’t greedily snapping up NCAA bids. It earned one at-large bid this season, three in 2016, one in 2015 and three in 2014.
In 2015, Temple went 23-10, 13-5 in the AAC with an RPI ranked No. 31 and did not make the NCAAs. Tulsa finished second in the AAC at 14-4, 22-10 overall and was sent to the NIT.
The Shockers must keep winning. Big.
The AAC, for the most part, isn’t taking at-large bids from better conferences. Most painfully, it watched its former partners in the Big East grab six at-large bids this season.
The coaches in the AAC are superb — Tubby Smith at Memphis, Mick Cronin at Cincinnati, Kelvin Sampson at Houston and Fran Dunphy at Temple start the list.
Where does the basketball talent come from?
Recruiting analysts Brian Snow (Scout.com) and Eric Bossi (Rivals.com) see only upside for Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall and his staff.
They out-recruited the Missouri Valley Conference and can do the same in the AAC.
“I don’t think there’s anything Gregg Marshall can’t handle,” Bossi said. “The roster they have could compete for the AAC title next year.”
WSU would benefit from playing higher-profile schools and more TV time. CBS carried two AAC games. ESPN’s family of networks broadcast more than 90 AAC games; the MVC had 41, a number that includes ESPN3.com broadcasts.
“The AAC has a bit higher profile,” Bossi said. “It has some names that resonate a little more with recruits who don’t know as much about college basketball as we like to think they do.”
AAC schools often work the transfer market more than the MVC and get first pick at players leaving a Power 5 school. SMU’s Semi Ojeleye, a transfer from Duke, is the AAC’s Player of the Year.
AAC schools do not usually recruit the elite level of high school players. According to Rivals.com, five members of the class of 2017 ranked in the top 150 are headed to an AAC school, three to UConn. Four of those athletes are ranked between 100-150. In 2016, UConn grabbed five of the top 150, with Cincinnati and Temple one each.
“When you look at Cincinnati, SMU — those are full-grown men out there,” Snow said. “You need to be old in college basketball. A lot of those kids that transfer see the American as a better level than the MVC.”
What about other sports?
Wichita State would take a step up in almost all sports, although perhaps not as dramatically as it appears.
Women’s basketball is all about UConn, although South Florida and Temple also played in the NCAA Tournament. Central Florida, Tulane and and SMU went to the WNIT.
In baseball, the AAC consistently ranks higher than the MVC in RPI. In the past three seasons, it earned six at-large bids.
East Carolina (2016) and Houston (2014) advanced to a super regional. Former member Louisville played in the 2014 College World Series.
The MVC, in the past three seasons, has four at-large bids. Missouri State played in a super regional in 2015.
The MVC can make a case it is stronger in volleyball. It took five at-large spots over the past four seasons compared to one for the AAC, Cincinnati in 2016.
MVC softball last produced an at-large team in 2011. The AAC has five in the past three seasons.
Joining the AAC would be a big step up for Wichita State’s golf and tennis programs.
While the MVC is a good track and field conference, a move would put WSU against deeper competition in some events. In the preseason NCAA outdoor coaches poll, only the men’s team from Houston (No. 20) is ranked from either conference.
How do they get there?
Wichita State’s travel bills and logistics would change dramatically. How much depends on how the AAC sets its schedules.
Volleyball, for example, uses travel partners, as does the MVC, to minimize the miles with a weekend trip to schools near each other. AAC tennis doesn’t play a round robin. Sports such as golf and track and field only meet for conference tournament or meet.
Travel partners could help in basketball, but TV obligations often intervene. If the AAC expands to 12 teams, the prospect of divisional alignment, used in football, could help with basketball travel.
If the AAC were to use its football divisions as a blueprint, Wichita State could join a division with Tulsa, Memphis, Houston, SMU and Tulane. That might mean home-and-home series with those five schools and three road and three home vs. the other division.
WSU’s nearest MVC rival is Missouri State, 272 miles away. Its longest trip is to Loyola, 693 miles.
In the AAC, Tulsa is 180 miles. In the AAC, Temple, East Carolina, Connecticut, South Florida and Central Florida are all 1,000-plus miles from Koch Arena.
What replaces Arch Madness?
Take a bow, Shocker fans. Somebody is paying attention to your loyal travels.
ESPN reported last week that the AAC is considering rotating its men’s basketball tournament with Hartford, Conn., Orlando and Tulsa in the picture.
If 6,000 or so Shocker fans travel 446 miles to St. Louis for tournament, might that number rise to 10,000 for a three-hour drive to Tulsa?
Wow. What a dream for Shocker fans.
It also might be one of the few tournaments within driving distance. The women’s tournament is locked in Uncasville, Conn. The baseball tournament located in Clearwater, Fla., for all four years of its existence.
There is no volleyball tournament.
What are these people about?
The people who follow and work in the AAC describe it as ambitious and aggressive.
AAC schools are trying to keep up with the Power 5. Their goal is to beat those schools, and join them.
That is why schools such as Houston and Cincinnati are pouring millions into their facilities. Cincinnati is upgrading its arena at a cost of $87 million and will play next season at Northern Kentucky’s arena.
That reach and drive would be challenging and refreshing for Wichita State.
The AAC is all-in on football, which brings negatives.
Like in the MVC, it means some focus money and effort on football to the detriment of basketball. Many AAC schools rely heavily on money from the school and student fees. Some of that spending may not be sustainable, unless TV money grows.
It also means much of the conference membership wants to be somewhere else. According to CBSSports.com, 10 of the 12 AAC members chased Big 12 membership last season. Memphis sees its destiny in the SEC. UConn remains bitter over the loss of Big East rivals.
While it appears stable now, the AAC could look much different when TV deals are negotiated in the next 10 years or so.
Expect more passionate fans and more media interest locally among AAC schools. Shocker fans can find plenty of AAC rivals ready to battle on social media.
Who pays for all this?
Even without football, Wichita State would likely need to bump up its budget of around $25 million to compete.
AAC budgets, according to USA Today, are led by UConn at around $72 million and most are above $40 million.
Wichita State’s mix of around 30 percent of its budget from the school (including student fees) is low compared to many peers. WSU receives around 70 percent of its athletic budget from tickets, donations, media rights and other private sources. That is high for MVC schools. If those resources are maxed out, WSU may turn to institutional sources for more money.
Boosters, advertisers, students — be warned. Moving up in class requires investment.
What happens to history?
If college athletics is about tradition and history for you, this is the sad part.
The American isn’t old enough for history. While there are some natural rivalries, much of the AAC shares little common ground.
Wichita State, an MVC member since 1945, would enter as a stranger to most schools, even Tulsa. The Shockers and Hurricanes last played a meaningful game in 1996. The geographic juice could reignite the rivalry quickly.
Cincinnati and Memphis long ago moved to other rivals after their brief stays in the MVC ended in the 1970s.
The Shockers would be the new kid. That can be exciting and frustrating. Past currency would not mean much to the new mates.
Around the AAC in men’s hoops
- Location: Orlando
- Enrollment: 64,318
- Coach: Johnny Dawkins
- 2016-17 record: 24-11 (NIT)
- RPI rank: 58
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 4 (2005 most recent)
- Location: Cincinnati
- Enrollment: 44,338
- Coach: Mick Cronin
- 2016-17 record: 30-6 (NCAA)
- RPI rank: 12
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 31 (2017)
- Location: Storrs, Conn.
- Enrollment: 32,027
- Coach: Kevin Ollie
- 2016-17 record: 16-17
- RPI rank: 119
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 33 (2016)
- Location: Greenville, N.C.
- Enrollment: 28,962
- Coach: Jeff Lebo
- 2016-17 record: 15-18
- RPI rank: 214
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 2 (1993)
- Location: Houston
- Enrollment: 42,000
- Coach: Kelvin Sampson
- 2016-17 record: 21-11 (NIT)
- RPI rank: 60
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 19 (2010)
- Location: Memphis
- Enrollment: 20,585
- Coach: Tubby Smith
- 2016-17 record: 19-13
- RPI rank: 116
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 26 (2014)
- Location: Dallas
- Enrollment: 11,643
- Coach: Tim Jankovich
- 2016-17 record: 30-5 (NCAA)
- RPI rank: 15
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 12 (2017)
- Location: Tampa
- Enrollment: 42,000
- Coach: Brian Gregory
- 2016-17 record: 7-23
- RPI rank: 316
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 3 (2012)
- Location: Philadelphia
- Enrollment: 39,000
- Coach: Fran Dunphy
- 2016-17 record: 16-16
- RPI rank: 130
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 32 (2016)
- Location: New Orleans
- Enrollment: 13,000
- Coach: Mike Dunleavy
- 2016-17 record: 6-25
- RPI rank: 295
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 3 (1995)
- Location: Tulsa
- Enrollment: 4,682
- Coach: Frank Haith
- 2016-17 record: 15-17
- RPI rank: 133
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 15 (2016)