Wichita State is showing that conference realignment can be like that old adage about the dog doing its business on the tree. Sometimes you’re the one making the moves, and sometimes you’re the one looking around picking up the pieces.
The Big 12’s imminent raid of Houston, Cincinnati and UCF from the AAC suddenly has the Shockers in a markedly different league than the one they joined just four seasons ago. But should the upcoming changes — whenever they may come — have WSU regretting its ambitious exit from the Missouri Valley?
The answer certainly has layers, but it’s probably no.
From a competitive and entertainment standpoint, the losses are clearly heavy for the AAC. Coupled with UConn’s move to the Big East, the league has now lost three of its most-pedigreed basketball programs from the time the Shockers joined in 2018. While the Huskies bolting may have seemed inevitable, the league and WSU probably weren’t, as much as is possible in the swirling uncertainty of college athletics, anticipating Cincinnati and Houston not being a part of the picture just four years later (despite persistent Big 12 rumors).
Marquee games against those three teams weren’t always guaranteed. UConn largely struggled in its final years in the league, and the Bearcats themselves are in a period of transition, but those two and Houston’s current skyward trajectory under Kelvin Sampson provided a bedrock of competitiveness in the league that WSU surely will miss.
That probably shouldn’t, however, have Shockers fans feeling FOMO for the Valley.
Much as we love the Valley, the teams remaining in the AAC still provide a higher quality league in any given year. Memphis still gives the Shockers a perennial top 25 team to contend with, while SMU, Temple and Tulsa — to varying degrees — offer more competitive stability than arguably any MVC program. Last year, teams finishing in the bottom half of the AAC (Tulsa — 121, Temple — 143, Tulane — 144) still posted significantly higher KenPom rankings than their MVC counterparts (Valpo — 193, Evansville — 204, SIU — 192).
The Valley is obviously no stranger to dizzying heights. Loyola Chicago has proven that twice, Drake seems to be set for year-in, year-out NCAA Tournament contention as long as it hangs on to Darian DeVries and Ben Jacobson still lurks at Northern Iowa. It’s a great mid-major league, but the quality depth is still higher in an AAC that remains more resourced.
Per Three Man Weave’s excellent program budget piece and database, every remaining AAC program except one (Eastern Carolina) outspent each team in the MVC besides Loyola in 2018-19.
This isn’t a groundbreaking thought. WSU wouldn’t have made the move in the first place if the league didn’t provide a significantly greater platform to basketball success. That should remain the case, even if dinged significantly, after the Big 12’s poaching exercise is complete.
It’s also worth saying that sentimentality doesn’t factor into the equation as much as one might think. WSU remains an odd geographic fit in the AAC, but had already lost the Creighton rivalry when the Jays moved to the Big East, and actually gained a historic rival back in Tulsa when it joined the AAC. Not that we don’t miss the at-times titanic clashes against UNI or the charged games with Missouri State.
Financially, WSU also still remains in a good spot. The timing was right for the AAC when it signed a new, football-fueled television deal with ESPN in 2019. The $1B overall deal upped each schools’ annual distribution from just under $2M to just over $7M. As a non-football school, WSU’s cut is lower and hasn’t, to my knowledge, been reported anywhere (we’ve submitted a FOIA request for this information and will update this story if we receive a response).
But when the deal was announced, AAC commissioner Michael Aresco made a point to say the deal was still a boon for WSU.
“This deal is good for Wichita State because this deal is good for the American,” Aresco said. “It elevates our status and it elevates their status. We’ll have to figure out the allocation for men’s basketball, but they’ll do better than they’ve done before and certainly better than they ever did in the Missouri Valley. That’s good for them financially.”
For context, the Wichita Eagle reported that WSU received on average $370,335 in its last four years in the MVC.
The Shockers are coming off arguably their finest moment in their brief AAC tenure as Isaac Brown cobbled together a regular season conference champion with an interim tag in a hectic year. Now that he’s the permanent coach, he’ll try to keep the Shockers as a national mainstay. It’s something they should have every opportunity to continue to do in the AAC, even if we miss the all-Midwest clashes and Arch Madness moments.