Wichita State Shockers

Report: ‘Upper levels’ of AAC looking at Wichita State’s potential

Wichita State president John Bardo, left, has made it clear that he prefers Gregg Marshall’s basketball program and the rest of the athletic department look for new conference membership options.
Wichita State president John Bardo, left, has made it clear that he prefers Gregg Marshall’s basketball program and the rest of the athletic department look for new conference membership options. The Wichita Eagle

Officials at the presidential level at American Athletic Conference schools are discussing Wichita State’s potential attractiveness as a member, according to a report by Mark Blaudschun of TMG College Sports.

According to the story, American schools are looking at ways to increase the conference’s basketball strength. A scenario that adds Wichita State, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton as affiliate members (without playing football) is a discussion topic. The story cites anonymous sources and offers no specifics regarding a timetable or plan for expansion.

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“It has gone from an idea to a discussion at the upper levels, but far from a serious plan, but it continues to be a prime topic of discussion at conference meetings,” Blaudschun wrote on the subscription website tmgcollegesports.com. “According to several sources throughout the league, the American Athletic Conference is looking for a way to upgrade its rankings in basketball with an expansion blueprint focused primarily on Wichita State, but also including other higher profile basketball schools such as Dayton and Virginia Commonwealth.”

Previous reports described the American’s interest in WSU as primarily driven by American coaches. Conference expansion decisions are made by presidents and athletic directors, giving the newest report more weight.

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The AAC, which has 11 basketball schools and 12 that play football, is often mentioned as a desired landing spot for WSU because of its uneven number of schools that play basketball (and other sports). AAC members are Houston, Memphis, Tulsa, Tulane, SMU, Temple, South Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Central Florida and Navy, which is a football-only member.

A year ago, Wichita State announced that consultants would evaluate the athletic department’s options for leaving the Missouri Valley Conference and adding sports, most prominently football. The football piece of that study appears to have faded from discussion.

Wichita State president John Bardo declined comment Thursday. Any move made by WSU, athletic director Darron Boatright has said, would include all sports.

People in the WSU athletic department decline to speak publicly regarding the issue, citing the sensitivity of the matter or their unfamiliarity with the process and the administration’s movements toward that goal.

Yet the possibility of leaving of MVC is taken seriously by multiple sources in the department, some of whom believe it to be a likely outcome. Others are much less certain. All say leaving the MVC for the American is the desired goal of the university and some have gone as far as to calculate travel expenses in a conference that stretches to Connecticut and Florida.

Other concerns expressed by athletic department personnel include the stability of the American and the competition level among individual sports.

According to the Dallas Morning News, American members — largely ones that WSU would most benefit from association with — Cincinnati, Houston, SMU, South Florida, Tulane, UCF and UConn made presentations for Big 12 expansion last year. There is also concern about the American’s focus on football and the money that sport diverts from others, which some see as a road with similar obstacles as the MVC.

The American would be a step up for the Shockers, although that change would differ from sport to sport.

In volleyball, for example, six American teams ranked in the top 100 of the final NCAA volleyball RPI, although only two teams made the NCAA Tournament. The MVC put four of its 10 members in the top 100 and earned three NCAA bids. In the past three seasons, the American ranked ahead of the Valley in baseball RPI, although in 2014 only by one spot. Last season, the MVC ranked No. 9, three spots lower than the American.

Everyone realizes the decision will be led by men’s basketball and WSU’s desire to increase enrollment and its academic and research reputation.

Athletically, the American represents a step up from the MVC, which has limited WSU’s ability to earn favorable seeds in the NCAA Tournament because of its lack of strong basketball opponents.

Bardo announced his plans to explore conference options, he cited a desire to be associated with schools he considered more similar to WSU for academic mission and city. The Valley is a collection of schools with little in common with Wichita State, outside of the relationships and traditions formed over many years of conference membership. It is home to four private schools. It is home to five other public schools, all located in smaller cities and with different academic and research focuses.

“We’re an emerging major research university,” Bardo said in 2015. “If you look at what’s happening around the United States, major research universities are the core drivers of those cities that are being successful. We really feel that change in society has positioned us differently.”

A change in conference membership could also be a factor to help keep men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall happy at WSU.

In the past two seasons, he’s had to defend his team’s worthiness as an NCAA Tournament team despite strong win-loss records. He came to WSU from Winthrop in 2007 because he wearied of double-digit NCAA seeds and the difficult of earning at-large bids in the Big South. While WSU has earned at-large bids in four of the past five seasons, the MVC is more of an impediment in that process than a help.

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop

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