Conference realignment has created strange geographic footprints and destroyed rivalries in a shameless pursuit of money. I don’t love it. But, that said, it’s hard to argue today isn’t a great day for both the AAC and Wichita State.
“We are pleased and proud to welcome Wichita State to The American,” said AAC commissioner Mike Aresco. “This is a university with a strong athletic and academic heritage which shares our conference’s commitment to excellence.”
What Wichita State’s move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the American Athletic Conference creates is a close-to-perfect marriage between two entities that needed each other. They’ll both benefit from this arrangement -- the AAC by adding a nationally relevant men’s basketball brand, Wichita State by competing in a league that provides more opportunities to get the kind of quality wins the NCAA Tournament selection committee cares about so deeply.
And that’s really the motivation here.
Yes, this move will include all of Wichita State’s sports. But it’s obviously rooted in the school’s desire to play in a better men’s basketball league now that the Shockers have made six straight NCAA Tournaments and established themselves as a national power -- most notably while reaching the 2013 Final Four. They’ve averaged 30.4 wins the past five seasons and advanced in the NCAA Tournament each year. But the selection committee has still disrespected them each of the past two years by giving them a No. 11 seed in 2016 despite a top-20 KenPom rating and a No. 10 seed in 2017 despite a top-10 KenPom rating.
“I’m just glad they didn’t forget about us,” Gregg Marshall quipped on Selection Sunday after he was given a double-digit seed for the second consecutive season. But those days are presumably over. Because now, thanks to this move, Marshall won’t have to win every non-league game to receive a good seed in the NCAA Tournament, which was often the case in the MVC. And now, thanks to this move, Marshall can theoretically finish third in his league and still safely make the field of 68 because he’d still likely have more quality wins than he’d otherwise have based on opportunity alone.
“Now we won’t have to be perfect to make the NCAA Tournament or get a decent seed,” said one source connected to the school.
So this is great for Wichita State.
And it’s also perfect for the American Athletic Conference -- somewhat because Wichita State does not have a football program, meaning this does literally nothing to damage the AAC’s football product. Football remains as is. But now men’s basketball, the league’s second most important sport, has another established brand to pair with Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston, Temple and SMU. That’s a nice collection of schools. And to those who have suggested this might be shortsighted on the AAC’s part because Wichita State could slip to irrelevancy if/when Marshall leaves, I guess I’d say this: You’re wrong.
For starters, Wichita State’s move to the AAC makes it more likely than ever that Marshall will actually retire at Wichita State because he’s now, for the first time, coaching in a true multi-bid league with a great television contract. So there’s suddenly less incentive to leave. And even if Marshall wanted to leave, where’s he going? He makes $3.3 million per year and is uninterested in taking a paycut. So there are only a handful of schools that could afford him, and the list of places he’d seriously consider is even smaller. Which is why I’d be surprised if Marshall leaves Wichita State any time soon.
But if he does, guess what?
Wichita State would then just throw lots of money at another coach and continue to operate at a high level. And, no, that doesn’t mean I believe anybody could win at Wichita State like Marshall is winning at Wichita State. He’s a special coaching talent. What I mean is that Wichita State is totally invested in men’s basketball -- the coaches have access to private planes, the team charters all flights, etc., -- to an extent that makes it hard to fail. And what I mean is that no league with East Carolina and Tulane will ever regret adding Wichita State.
So congrats to the AAC. And congrats to the Shockers.
You guys really did need each other.
You’re gonna be great together.