Over the last several years, conference realignment has been a reality in NCAA athletics, oftentimes resulting in awkward or unnecessary partnerships between schools and their new leagues. Then there is the case of the American Athletic Conference granting membership to Wichita State, and it’s easy to see how beneficial the relationship can be for both parties.
Next to football, basketball is the most visible, and profitable, college sport. The AAC is strong in hoops, generating multiple bids annually in the NCAA Tournament even while some of its flagship schools have underperformed relative to their historical standards. In adding the Shockers though, the AAC is getting a college basketball program that has been truly elite under the leadership of Head Coach Gregg Marshall.
Since winning the 2011 NIT Championship (no small feat in itself), Wichita State has been to six straight NCAA Tournaments. Elite.
The Shockers have won 30 games four times in the last five seasons. Elite.
They’ve advanced in the last five NCAA Tournaments, winning 10 tourney games total over that span, and getting all the way to the Final Four in 2013. They followed that up with a 35 win season in which they went undefeated until March. Elite.
Off the court, the Shockers are no mid-major either. Wichita State makes the financial commitments necessary to compete at the highest levels, in the form of coaching salaries and charter flights, investing in their program every step of the way.
They’re on a remarkable run, and it’s only natural that the American would want to add a program of that caliber, but it also makes sense for the school to make the jump from the Missouri Valley Conference where they’ve been a member since 1945. Although the MVC has had some basketball success over the years, the loss of Creighton to the Big East four years ago left a void they’ve yet to fill. In a one-bid league, there simply aren’t enough strong programs to consistently give WSU opportunities to build their NCAA Tournament resume during conference play. Just this season, Illinois State found this out the hard way, when they missed out on the tourney despite going 17-1 during the MVC regular season.
Gregg Marshall can try and build a strong nonconference schedule to balance this reality, but little room is left for error when the selection committee doesn’t care much for your January and February wins. The Shockers have been severely under-seeded in the NCAA Tournament during this run they’ve been on, bordering on disrespect. They went 30-4 during the 2016-17 season, playing perennial powers such as Louisville and Michigan State, and finished ranked #21 in the country. For this, they were rewarded with a 10 seed and a second round matchup with Kentucky.
Starting next season though, those conference games should make a difference. Missouri State is being replaced on the Wichita State schedule in favor of UConn. And then the following week, the Shockers will have another chance for a quality win. No longer will they have to run the table in league play just to get some credit on their resume. Consider this; despite playing a similar nonconference schedule, the AAC’s top team, SMU had an identical record to WSU…and were a six seed on your bracket. The AAC was only a two-bid league, yet the Mustangs were a much higher seed. That’s what kind of difference a conference schedule can make come March.
The equation is pretty simple for both the American Athletic Conference and Wichita State moving forward. The AAC would like their good teams from this past season to stay good (SMU, Cincinnati) and have some of their other programs to return to past glory (UConn, Temple, Memphis).
And for Wichita State, just keep doing what they’ve been doing – winning at an elite level.