Wichita State Shockers

American Athletic Conference a new thrill for Wichita State fans

Wichita State fans spoke positively of the move to the American Athletic Conference. Next season’s men’s basketball tournament is in Orlando, Fla.
Wichita State fans spoke positively of the move to the American Athletic Conference. Next season’s men’s basketball tournament is in Orlando, Fla. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State fans are already loving the Shockers’ new home.

Shortly after Wichita State accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference on Friday, fans used some of the biggest and best phrases in sports to describe the move.

Some called it a slam dunk. Home run. Even a grand slam. But perhaps Steve Boleski, a season-ticket holder and lifelong WSU fan, put it best: “It’s a great day to be a Shocker.”

“You dream about an opportunity like this,” Boleski said. “The question that goes across your mind when you do is, how realistic is it? Is it going to happen? Well, now it has, and it changes the complexion of the athletic department. It’s a good move for the university that will align our interests with a conference that has a much similar focus and level of commitment to competing at a national level.”

Wichita State joins the AAC after calling the Missouri Valley Conference home since 1945. The Valley was good to the Shockers for many years, providing a geographical and competitive fit for most of their teams, but they appeared to outgrow the conference in men’s basketball.

That much was evidenced when they received a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament after going 30-4 and a top-20 ranking by the end of the regular season.

“It was imperative that they make the move now,” former Wichita State player Ron Mendell said. “The Missouri Valley just seemed to be in a bit of a decline. The loss of Creighton was a blow to the league. We lost a natural rival and the rest of the teams couldn’t keep up. Some of those schools used to have really good basketball programs — Bradley, Drake, Indiana State, Northern Iowa. They just haven’t been able to put it together.”

“Recruiting was becoming a problem in the league. I enjoyed playing in the Missouri Valley, but it’s not the Valley of Death anymore. I wish them well, but moving to the American is a positive.”

A positive that will send Wichita State into a conference that routinely ranks just behind the five power conferences in basketball prestige and give fans new travel destinations.

The American consists of Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, South Florida, SMU, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa and now Wichita State. Navy is a football-only member.

“I’m excited to possibly take a trip to Tulsa, Dallas or New Orleans to see the Shockers play,” said WSU fan Kelsey Coonce.

Coonce said she was interested to see how joining a conference that emphasizes football will impact Wichita State’s future gridiron plans. She is also curious to see how WSU teams respond to games on the East Coast.

“The AAC is much more spread out and I know our athletic department obviously thought of that when making the decision,” Coonce said. “I hope that the men’s basketball team can continue with the same amount of success, and that people will stop doubting the program as weak or inferior just because of the conference we were in.”

Of course, fans won’t have to travel to see good basketball in the American.

“Another great thing about the move is having higher profile teams coming into Koch Arena,” Ty Houseman said. “The difficulty Wichita State has had getting quality home games has been widely publicized, and being in the same conference with several potential top-tier programs will make for a much more anticipated home schedule.”

If playing alongside tradition-rich basketball schools such as Cincinnati, Memphis, Temple and UConn boosts Wichita State’s profile, some think Gregg Marshall will stop being a coaching target for every top power-conference job that comes open.

“I feel this move could ensure Marshall stays until he retires,” Russell Lowden said. “I think he was getting tired of bad seeds in the tournament due to The Valley schedule not offering many quality win opportunities.”

“I see no reason for him to leave now,” Loren Honse added.

Lowden said he also looks forward to attending a new conference tournament in a new city. Past AAC tournaments have been held in Memphis, Orlando and Hartford, Conn. It returns to Orlando next season.

Few fans offered anything resembling a negative remark about Wichita State’s move on Friday, but some admitted they were nervous about the stability of the Shockers’ new conference.

Every basketball-playing member of the league, except Tulsa, tried to bolt for the Big 12 last summer when it announced plans to explore expansion. Cincinnati, Houston and Memphis pushed especially hard and still have eyes for a power conference. The teams within the American don’t share much history. Is there a chance the league could be raided and diluted in a few years?

“The move to the AAC, for me, will still be a sit back and hope for the best,” Honse said. “But with our teams’ strength and coaching ability I believe it is a great fit.”

In some ways, it’s a dream come true.

“I just think people should be excited about this,” Boleski said. “It’s an opportunity to improve and to compete to win at the highest level possible. In college sports, that’s what it’s all about.”

Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett