The first conference realignment domino of the year fell on Friday morning when Wichita State accepted an invitation to the American Athletic Conference, leaving the Missouri Valley Conference reeling from its second high-profile program (Creighton) to leave the conference in the last four years.
Shortly after the Wichita State move was announced, CBS Sports reporter Jon Rothstein reported that Valparaiso and Murray State were at the top of the Valley's wishlist to replace Wichita State. The Valley will have a meeting of its athletic directors and Presidents on Sunday in St. Louis to determine the best course of action moving forward.
All Valparaiso can do for the time being is wait and wonder. Is the Missouri Valley Conference without Creighton and Wichita State a better league than the Horizon League?
Men's Basketball was obviously the driving force behind Wichita State's decision to leave the Valley for the American Athletic Conference. Should the Crusaders be considered for the Valley, it would be on the strength of men's basketball well before anything else.
I'm well aware that Valparaiso has 18 other teams competing in 20 sports, but men's basketball will be the reason why a move does or doesn't happen. It will be the main consideration of both the Valley and Valparaiso. Sure, the Olympic sports will be discussed, but men's basketball is the moneymaker.
I've gone back and forth for the better part of four years when people ask me if moving to the Valley is a good idea for Valparaiso. Yes, the basketball is (or has been) significantly better. The Valley was the No. 12 conference in RPI this season while the Horizon League checked in at No. 17 according to Schererville native and CBS Sports Bracketologist Jerry Palm. Is that a significant difference? Well, Illinois State was 26-6 against D1 competition this year entering the postseason, with just two of the losses coming against 100+ teams, and it still wasn't enough for the Redbirds to get in the Big Dance. Is the profile of the league going to improve next season without Wichita State? Not likely.
But even with the loss of Wichita State and with Illinois State getting the Valpo treatment of 2016, that still doesn't necessarily mean the Valley is a bad fit when compared to the Horizon League.
Anyone who knows me or follows me on Twitter (@NWIOren) should know that I've been one of the biggest champions of the Horizon League since Valparaiso joined the conference. I applauded the league's decision to bring in Oakland, I complimented Northern Kentucky and I supported Motor City Madness, even in the wake of Valparaiso's two forgettable trips to the Joe.
All that said, the Horizon League is in trouble. The graduate transfer rule is sapping this conference of its talent. Brandon Wood (Michigan State), Bryn Forbes (Michigan State), Trey Lewis (Louisville), Anton Gray (Wichita State), Austin Arians (Wake Forest), Joe Mays (Kentucky), Akeem Springs (Minnesota) in the past and now Mark Alstork and Kerem Kanter this season. Throw in traditional transfers Marcus Keene and now Rob Edwards and the list reads like a Who's Who of Impact Transfers for top programs.
There has been no stability in coaching either. Greg Kampe is the longest-tenured coach in the league and that's not in total years, that's just in the four years he's been in the league. Every other program has a different head coach today than it did at the end of the 2014-15 season. Think about that. Kampe is the only Horizon League coach remaining from the time Tevonn Walker played his first collegiate game.
Now that's not to say I don't think there is a lot of coaching talent in the league, but how long are those coaches going to stay? John Brannen took Northern Kentucky to the NCAA tournament this year and his name was linked to Dayton's opening. Give him one more successful year and he could be gone. Linc Darner's name has been linked to several positions and if Steve McClain can win at UIC, you have to think he'll be getting some phone calls soon enough. The Horizon League was once a very strong mid-major conference. It's seemingly turned into a stepping stone for players and coaches alike. With Butler and Loyola moving on in recent years, perhaps it has turned into a stepping stone for schools as well.
Does that mean Valparaiso should leave? I'm still not sold. Follow me on this...
There really isn't a big difference in travel between the Horizon League and the Valley. Both conferences feature a Chicago school (UIC, Loyola) that are within 65 miles of the Athletics-Recreation Center. The Valley has more teams closer to Valparaiso with Bradley, Illinois State and Indiana State all ranging within 155 to 190 miles from the ARC. Milwaukee (150) is the only school within 250 miles of the ARC in the Horizon League outside of UIC. That said, there are four schools in the Valley (Drake, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, Missouri State) that are more than 340 miles from the ARC with Missouri State being 533 miles away. Cleveland State and Youngstown State are the only two Horizon programs eclipsing 300 miles in distance from Valparaiso. Oakland and Detroit are roughly 250 miles from the ARC, but fans going to both games would likely stay in the city for the entire trip, cutting down the overall travel.
The Horizon League schools are an average of 241 miles away from Valparaiso while the Valley schools are an average of 270 miles. If you take out the two outliers (Youngstown State and Missouri State), those numbers go down to 225 and 237 miles respectively. So the travel wouldn't be considerably different should the Valley have travel partners and link Loyola and Valparaiso together, similar to Valparaiso and UIC in the Horizon League.
The big difference however falls in who would be going to the games. The best part about the Horizon League as far as Valparaiso is concerned is the ability to get into big markets where the school has large pockets of alums. The Horizon League is a Midwestern-based conference that plays in large cites like Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland. Chicago is obviously there as well, but given that it's also in the Valley, that becomes a moot point.
I'm a Milwaukee native and I'm aware that there are quite a few Valparaiso fans/alums that live in Brew City. It's evident at the UWM Panther Arena that Valparaiso fans make up a large part of the crowd, particularly when the students are on spring break. There was also a large contingent of Valparaiso fans at Cleveland State this year. So it got me thinking...
Without Valparaiso alumni residency numbers at my disposal, I went with the next best thing I could come up with. I went to LinkedIn and started searching for Valparaiso alumni in all of the Horizon League and Valley cities. Valparaiso often boasts of more than 50,000 alumni living across all 50 states. LinkedIn returns 36,158 results for individuals that have studied at Valparaiso. It's not a perfect representation, but it's certainly a solid sample size. The numbers I found were staggering.
Missouri Valley Conference
Chicago, Illinois (Loyola) -- 10,826 Valparaiso alums registered on LinkedIn
Peoria, Illinois (Bradley) -- 114
Des Moines, Iowa (Drake) -- 69
Evansville, Indiana (Evansville) -- 68
Normal, Illinois (Illinois State) -- 37
Terre Haute, Indiana (Indiana State) -- 29
Springfield, Missouri (Missouri State) -- 11
Cedar Falls/Waterloo, Iowa (Northern Iowa) -- 10
Carbondale, Illinois (Southern Illinois) -- 0
Chicago, Illinois (UIC) -- 10,826
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Milwaukee) -- 716
Detroit, Michigan (Detroit Mercy, Oakland) -- 518
Cleveland, Ohio (Cleveland State) -- 260
Cincinnati, Ohio (Northern Kentucky) -- 246
Green Bay, Wisconsin (Green Bay) -- 80
Dayton, Ohio (Wright State) -- 53
Youngstown, Ohio (Youngstown State) -- 5
Outside of Chicago, which is available in both conferences, the Missouri Valley has a total of 338 LinkedIn registered Valparaiso alums living in the geographic area of the schools. The Horizon League has 1,878 in its geographic area. If I'm being generous, I could throw in the 451 registered alums in St. Louis for Arch Madness, but that's still not even half of what is offered in the Horizon League.
So why does this matter? Valparaiso hosts alumni events surrounding men's basketball games and those alumni events represent opportunities to interact with fundraisers and donors. Valparaiso is no different than any other school in the 21st century. Money is tight and donors become the lifeblood of the institution. Moving to the Valley might be a good basketball move, but is it really a good financial move when you consider that a move to the Valley would likely need to come with some facility upgrades (which were long overdue for the Mid-Con, let alone the Horizon League, certainly let alone the Valley)?
The Valley feels like a better basketball conference. It would put Valparaiso back in a conference with four private schools, something that Mark LaBarbera mentioned was enticing about joining the Horizon League before Loyola and Butler departed. That said, isn't Wichita State (and Creighton) leaving the Valley the same as Butler leaving the Horizon League? What's to say the Valley doesn't end up in the same situation as the Horizon League four years from now, serving as a glorified minor league system for the Power Six conferences?
So, my answer? I really don't know. I'm guessing Valparaiso would accept an invitation to the Valley if granted, but I wonder if sometimes the trades you don't make end up being more important than the trades you do make. I'll end with a motivational quote that was ironically tweeted out by Bradley (and former Green Bay) coach Brian Wardle on Friday afternoon..."The grass isn't greener on the other side. It's greener where YOU water it."