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Wichita State has emerged as a potential basketball-only member of the American Athletic Conference, per Jon Rothstein at FanRag Sports. Reportedly, obstacles stand in the way, but a potential expansion for the Shockers could happen for the 2018–19 basketball season.
Aside from the fact that I’ve mentioned this severaltimes — meaning I get credit for the idea that the AAC has stolen from me — this is great news for the Bearcats. The core of the conference is 11 schools. Navy was added as a football-only member in 2015–16, rounding things out to an even 12 football programs. This has paid dividends for the AAC, because — prior to the Midshipmen’s late-season collapse — they were another respectable Top 25 member of the conference. The higher-ups recognized that they essentially had a free seat at the table, so they added a football program with success, a respected name, and a solid fan base. Given the struggles of the AAC’s basketball side, it’s time they do the same. Wichita would be a very good candidate.
- There are no downsides. Seriously. If you can think of a single (good) reason we shouldn’t do this, let me know, because I don’t have one. Having 11 teams is kind of awkward in the first place, so adding a basketball-only school is a good idea. We have a great opportunity to bolster the conference in one area without diluting another area. The worst possible outcome is that we add Wichita and their success fades. However, they cannot possibly be worse than Tulane, ECU, or USF. Even a mediocre program would strengthen this conference, and Wichita is far from mediocre.
- They bring success. Wichita State’s last decade is fairly similar to Cincinnati’s in that a proven, successful coach left and was replaced by a new guy who slowly rebuilt the program and then stuck around despite more lucrative offers. For Cincinnati, it was Bob Huggins giving way to Mick Cronin. For Wichita, it was Mark Turgeon giving way to Gregg Marshall. In the seven seasons since Marshall got the Shockers back to power, they’ve averaged nearly 29 wins per year, have spent time in the Top 10 in three seasons, earned five tournament appearances, and have reached a Final Four and a Sweet Sixteen.
- They have a reputation. Maybe they’re not quite Gonzaga, but Wichita State has made a name for themselves as one of the top mid-majors in the country. Part of the way they’ve done this is by beating really good teams. They’re giant slayers. In the 2013 tournament, they beat 8-seed Pittsburgh, 1-seed Gonzaga, and 2-seed Ohio State on the way to the Final Four, where they lost to eventual-champion Louisville. In the 2015 tournament, they beat 2-seed Kansas, an in-state enemy. In the 2016 tournament, they beat 6-seed Arizona. This program does not back down from big names, and the AAC needs desperately needs that.
- They bring a fan base. The AAC needs more fans in number and in quality. Last season, the Shockers averaged 10,805 fans per contest despite a home slate whose crown jewel was #25 Utah at an off-campus arena (basically Wichita’s version of US Bank). That attendance figure is higher than any current AAC team’s, aside from Memphis who literally just makes up a number every game. WSU fans pack the house for bad Missouri Valley Conference opponents. Surely a schedule including the likes of Cincinnati, UConn, Memphis, Temple, Houston, SMU, and (rival) Tulsa wouldn’t hurt.
- They could blossom in the AAC. I’ve always thought weighing potential in an expansion scenario is dumb. Tulane was in the Big 12 conversation, but that school becoming a respectable athletic power was a decades-long plan that would have made little sense. UC was on the cusp and a move up the ladder could’ve been enough of a shot in the arm to turn the Bearcats into a new power, à la Louisville. Xavier was in a bit of a glass ceiling scenario in the Atlantic 10 until an opportunity in the New Big East presented itself and helped propel the Musketeers to a second straight season in which they’ve spent significant time in the AP Top 10. Wichita State could have the same potential. WSU has managed this kind of recent success without any help from their conference. Improving their strength of schedule, prestige, television exposure, and budget could be enough of a boon to turn the Shockers into one of the top programs in the AAC. It can’t possibly hurt.
- The proximity makes sense. This is less important in a conference like the AAC, where it seems like we’re just grabbing anyone with a pulse and a bit of success, but Wichita State does fit in nicely with the geographic footprint. It would bring a new state to the conference, and tap into a demographic that loves basketball. (Again, we desperately need fervent fans.) Wichita, Tulsa, Dallas, and Houston would form the western wall of the AAC.
I get the sense this deal is far from done, but I think it’s one that needs to happen. The AAC has nothing to lose in this scenario, and they need to actively seek to improve their basketball status, because that’s one area in which they should be able to succeed on a consistent basis. Basketball can operate more successfully on a small budget than football can, and basketball coaches don’t get poached from smaller schools in the same they do in football.
The AAC’s gridiron success has been a pleasant surprise, but basketball can’t afford to flounder. This is a great opportunity for the conference to be aggressive and improve itself, and I hope they seize it.