Growing up in Cincinnati, back when the Bearcats were a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, John Bardo used to join his father and listen to the basketball games on the radio.
He had a special attachment to the conference well before he became the president of Wichita State in April 2012, so Saturday will be an emotional day for Bardo when he watches No. 8 Wichita State play at Connecticut in its nationally-televised debut in WSU’s new league, the American Athletic Conference.
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It’s difficult to assess the magnitude of the event as it’s happening, but Bardo is sure Saturday’s game will be a milestone for WSU athletics and the university.
“As much as it tugs at my heart strings to leave a life-long friend, at tip-off I’m going to be really excited and maybe even a little teary-eyed,” Bardo said.
Wichita State basketball fans have eagerly anticipated the start of the conference season since the move was announced in April, but WSU athletic director Darron Boatright said the emotions will be different once the moment finally arrives Saturday.
“All eyes across the nation will be watching our game and it’s going to be satisfying,” Boatright said. “It’s also a little scary. There’s a range of emotions that comes with it. I know coach (Gregg Marshall) has this team prepared and they’re ready to compete with the best teams we can possibly compete with.”
While Bardo promoted the academic benefits of joining the American and Boatright emphasized how it can improve all of WSU’s sports, it was clear the move was made with men’s basketball in mind.
Marshall’s program is closer than it’s ever been to the heavyweights of the college basketball world and he’s aware of how important WSU’s first impression will be, especially with a top-10 team many prognosticators are picking to win the conference.
“Obviously you want to make a good first impression,” WSU sophomore Landry Shamet said. “But we’re approaching this like we would with any other good teams we’ve played. We just look at it like we have another good team we have to go try and beat.”
When AAC commissioner Mike Aresco visited Wichita in September, he said WSU joining the ranks was a “shot in the arm” for the AAC. It was ideal timing in basketball terms: WSU, a preseason title contender, joining another established contender in Cincinnati with programs like SMU, Houston, Temple, and Central Florida all on the upswing.
The consensus among NCAA Tournament projections has three AAC teams in the field with up to three more programs close enough to be capable of playing their way into the field with a good conference season. That doesn’t include Connecticut or Memphis, a pair of tradition-rich programs in the midst of rebuilding.
“Wichita State was always going to be a tremendous team and they would do well in any league, but I’m glad they’re in our league because there’s no question the competition is going to be better,” Aresco said. “There’s depth in this conference and that will make (WSU) an even stronger team and it’s going to help them playing better competition in bigger arenas in bigger cities on national television. This is the start of a great thing for Gregg Marshall and his program.”
The reality of the step-up in competition began to sink in with the basketball team while studying film of Connecticut, which is 7-5 and has lost its five games by an average of 20.8 points. By all accounts, the Huskies are considered a middle-of-the-pack AAC team.
The talent disparity between Connecticut, which boasts high school All-Americans and highly-touted recruits, and taems in the middle of the Valley provides a stark contrast.
“You start watching them on video against Arizona and you start to realize they’re just as long and as athletic as Arizona,” said WSU assistant coach Kyle Lindsted, who is preparing the scouting report for Saturday’s game. “It kind of takes you back a little bit. It’s a different type of player than we’ve seen over the years in conference up and down the line.”
It’s clear WSU won’t be able to rely on the same paths it took to win a share of the Valley championship the last four seasons and compile a 68-4 conference record in that span. The American not only offers bigger cities and more exposure for WSU, but also a significant step-up in the competition’s talent level.
“Our advantages are going to be to play harder, play smarter, and be tougher,” Lindsted said. “We’re not going to out-athlete these guys, so we better do the things we’ve been known for doing over the years. We’ve got to make sure that’s what we’re about.”
This type of challenge is what players look forward to.
“Anybody who is competitive wants to play the best of the best,” Shamet said. “It’s something I think we’re all looking forward to.”
The volleyball team’s undefeated run to an American championship earlier in the fall gave WSU’s athletic department a taste of what victory was like in the new conference. The men’s basketball team hopes to add to it in March.
“The sense I’ve got from talking to people is they were ready for a change,” Bardo said. “Everyone understands why this is such an important move. I think everyone is excited to get this thing started.”