Wichita State celebrated its arrival into the American Athletic Conference on Friday as much because of conference non-expansion as expansion. Or perhaps because the Big 12 cares not for math.
In December 2015, WSU announced its desires to look for a new conference. By the fall of 2016, Wichita State waited on a decision by the Big 12 to help it leave the Missouri Valley Conference and continue its athletic resurgence with a monumental move.
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The American, which topped university president John Bardo’s list of preferred landing spots, was preoccupied with issues that threatened to diminish its prestige dramatically. Most of the 12 conference members wanted to be in a Power 5 conference and the Big 12 held open auditions during the summer and fall of 2016.
“That was a period of a lot of soul-searching,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said on Friday in a conference call. “We didn’t know whether we would lose schools. We got through that and ended up not losing anyone.”
During that period, Bardo theorized that an opening might pop for WSU if the Big 12 raided the American. As it turns out, stability gave the American a chance to assess its position and work its way into evaluating WSU.
If there is a turning point in WSU’s public pursuit of a more suitable athletic and academic home, it came on Oct. 17, when the Big 12 voted to stick with 10 members. That decision disappointed AAC schools Cincinnati, Houston, SMU, Memphis South, Florida, Tulane, Central Florida, Connecticut, Temple and East Carolina, all of whom lobbied in some way to join.
“I think that gave conferences the opportunity to look at themselves and see where they were going to be for awhile and make decisions long-term,” WSU athletic director Darron Boatright said.
Stuck with each other, they decided to take their fight for relevance and money in a different direction. Few football conferences make moves for basketball. Wichita State’s reputation altered that thinking.
The American’s membership of 12 worked fine for football. With 11 basketball schools, a slot existed for improvement. Boatright, largely through the school’s consultants, began to hear more from the American. Bardo said the conference vetted WSU’s academics and reported favorably. Tulsa athletic director Derrick Gragg, Bardo said, made an unannounced visit to check out WSU’s campus.
“I really felt like it changed gears in October,” Boatright said. “That was the first time I thought this thing could work.”
Boatright, trusted by Bardo to take the lead role, kept much of the conversation between the consultants and the AAC quiet, shielding information from Bardo and his coaches to protect avoid leaks that might scare off AAC schools. When asked, Bardo and coaches could honestly profess ignorance to many questions.
“I was told that ‘loose lips sink ships,’ ” WSU basketball coach Gregg Marshall said. “I wasn’t apprised of every step along the way, but at the same time I knew it was making progress.”
Bardo said he saw momentum pick up after Christmas break, with more updates and more serious inquiries into how things worked at Wichita State. Soon after, the topic went public and some inside the MVC began to speak of WSU’s departure as inevitable. By early March, evidence mounted, with no dissent, that the Shockers were on their way out of the Valley, their home since 1945.
Wchita State set itself on this course in 1999, when the school needed to raise its men’s basketball team and arena up to Missouri Valley Conference standards. The day could not have happened without former president Don Beggs (himself very much an MVC loyalist) hiring athletic director Jim Schaus, who drove the renovation of Koch Arena and hired successful men’s basketball coaches Mark Turgeon and Marshall.
That foundation and WSU’s glittering success since 2011 convinced the American that it could make a rare basketball move in the football-dominated world of athletics.
“They were a program that seemed to have the right fit for us,” Aresco said. “We didn’t need to do this. This conference would have been perfectly fine at 11. We’re going to be a strong basketball conference.”
WSU, in addition to basketball power, offered a geographic fit with the western and southern parts of the AAC. Its other sports are strong and its fan base is impressive, a factor for a conference that may look at Tulsa as a future home for the men’s basketball tournament.
“We really couldn’t see a downside,” Aresco said. “Just because we don’t need to do something, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something, or you shouldn’t consider something it if helps you. This strengthens us. This helps us in so many ways.”
Three questions for AAC basketball
1. How will the Shockers adjust to the new home?
Wichita State enters the American as the favorite and will start the season regarded as a team expected to win NCAA Tournament games. If you want to adjust for newness and unfamiliarity, maybe it’s picked second behind Cincinnati.
All of WSU’s rotation players are back, led by All-MVC picks Markis McDuffie and Landry Shamet.
NCAA Tournament games against Dayton and Kentucky, however, showed the Shockers need to improve to play 18 games against higher-caliber opponents. WSU coach Gregg Marshall didn’t trust his bench to play as deep in those games. WSU’s record-setting offense slowed considerably against those strong defenses and more of those types of opponents are on the way in 2017-18.
The Shockers played UConn, Temple, Tulsa and Memphis in recent seasons, so they are quite comfortable with that level of play.
2. How does the American help Wichita State?
Memphis and Connecticut, both coming off down seasons, must improve if the American is going to earn more NCAA Tournament spots and better seeds. The off-season is a disaster for both because of transfers.
That leaves WSU, Cincinnati, SMU and rising Central Florida to lead the way.
Here’s something different from the Valley days: Waiting on NBA decisions. If SMU’s Semi Ojeleye and Central Florida’s Tacko Fall return to school, it’s good news for the American and WSU.
3. Who are the weak links in the American?
Tulane last played in the NCAA Tournament in 1995 and last reached the NIT in 2000. The Green Wave, coached by Mike Dunleavy, went 6-25 in 2016-17 and averaged 1,800 fans at home games.
East Carolina’s NCAA drought stretches to 1993. Remember, that is the school Gabe Blair left in 2008 to transfer to Wichita State because he wanted to play in a winning program.
South Florida is on a streak of five losing seasons and will try to rebuild under new coach Brian Gregory. The Bulls own three NCAA Tournament appearances, most recently in 2012.
— Paul Suellentrop