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Conference realignment: Horizon League expansion options

Where does the Horizon League turn now that Valparaiso has left for the MVC? We weigh the options.

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NCAA Basketball: Horizon League Conference Tournament-Milwaukee vs Northern Kentucky Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

For the third time since 2012, the Horizon League has had a school plucked from its ranks via conference realignment. The Missouri Valley Conference announced that it has invited Valparaiso, stealing a program that has won at least a share of the Horizon regular season title five times in the last six seasons.

No conference wants to lose one of its premier programs. But the Horizon League has options moving forward. After all, this is the conference that adapted to life without Butler after its departure in 2012. The conference has experience dealing with membership turnover and could go in a number of directions:

Do Nothing

This one obviously is not an exciting option.

But the Horizon League has played with nine teams as recently as the 2014-15 season. In fact, the conference spent the three years immediately following Butler’s departure at nine teams.

It is probably not wise for the conference to stay at nine for too long, though. Beyond the three schools that have departed in recent years, at least two others have been considered for expansion elsewhere during the same period. A few years ago, the MVC visited UIC in the process that ultimately resulted in Loyola receiving an invitation. More recently, Milwaukee was considered a candidate in this round of Valley expansion. This is clear evidence that the Horizon League could be in even deeper trouble trying to replace teams in the near future if they stick with nine.

Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone suggested the conference needed to expand in his press conference at the Horizon League Tournament in March. LeCrone stated then that he was “a believer that, at this point, 10-team leagues like ours maybe need to grow a little larger.” He went on to suggest the idea that there is “safety in numbers” and that the league needed to improve both internally and externally.

Turn to the Summit League

Bringing in new programs from the Summit League would certainly not be anything new for the Horizon — that’s actually where seven of its current members come from.

In recent years, the Horizon has almost used the Summit as a farm system. Valparaiso dominated that conference while it was still known as the Mid-Continent Conference and got the call-up to the Horizon League in 2007. After Valparaiso left, Oakland established itself as a power in the Summit League and worked its way into the Horizon in 2013.

However, things may be a bit more complicated than just scooping up the best team from the Summit League this time. The season prior to Oakland joining, the Horizon League was clearly the superior basketball conference. The Horizon League finished ranked 12th in KenPom that season whereas the Summit League was 23rd. Fast forward to the present day and the Summit League has now finished ahead of the Horizon League in KenPom for two consecutive seasons.

Furthermore, the strength of the Summit League has shifted away from the Horizon League’s traditional footprint. For five straight seasons, the regular season champion has come from the Dakotas. Given the conference tournament is played in South Dakota and a move from the Summit to the Horizon now seems more like a lateral move, it would seem unlikely that any of the schools from the Dakotas would want to stretch out their travel budgets to join the Horizon League.

That would leave the Horizon League with teams within its existing footprint. Fort Wayne and IUPUI would seem to make the most sense if the Horizon doesn’t want to branch out further. Sticking with KenPom rankings, those two would have finished within the top half of Horizon League teams this past season, so they would be relatively competitive. Furthermore, it would reintroduce the Horizon League to the Indianapolis area, where it is headquartered. Travel would be easier for both schools if they were in the Horizon League and might be enough of an incentive to sway them from the Summit.

Omaha has also been mentioned as a potential Horizon League expansion candidate. Nebraska is well outside of the Horizon League’s current footprint, which brings us to the league’s next option...

Expand the Footprint

The Horizon League could also opt to look west. Given the thinning options within its current geography, the conference may look for quality additions elsewhere.

The possibilities are aplenty if this is the route the Horizon League takes. In fact, just over a year ago it was revealed that New Mexico State had been in conversations with the Horizon League. While it is unclear how serious those talks were, it is evidence that the Horizon League is at least willing to consider schools well outside of its comfort zone.

The problem with expanding the conference’s geographical spread will come down to providing an incentive for prospective schools to join. As previously mentioned, the Horizon League’s overall rankings as a conference has fallen in recent years to the point where it is seen as an equal rather than a clear step up for other conferences nearby. If the schools aren’t going to be saving money on travel or improving their basketball competition, something else will have to draw them in.

Get Creative

Who says future additions have to be from the current Division I ranks?

After all, Northern Kentucky represented the Horizon League in the NCAA Tournament this past season in its first year of eligibility. They are proof that a school with the resources and the desire can be successful immediately when moving up divisions.

This would seem to be more of a last resort option for the Horizon League given an addition from a lower division would be ineligible for the postseason in its first four years. However, there has been some speculation that Southern Indiana may be positioning itself for a reclassification from Division II to Division I. The school is renovating its basketball arena, but has said this does not necessarily mean it is pursuing reclassification.

But if a school in the area was looking to reclassify and had the resources, the Horizon League could be an option in the coming years.