INDIANAPOLIS — Wichita State arrives here for the first round of the NCAA tournament with a unique sense of both empathy and dread from its opponents. No one wants to play the Shockers, who are 30–4, rated No. 8 in kenpom.com rankings and reached the Final Four as recently as 2013. No one can believe the Shockers are a No. 10 seed, one of the most controversial and indefensible NCAA tournament seeds of this generation.
Wichita State’s duality as a dominant national program from outside of a power conference is becoming an increasing anomaly. The Shockers may play in the Missouri Valley Conference, but they have a national brand, a consistently packed arena and they pay coach Gregg Marshall well over $3 million per year. Essentially, everything about them aside from their league schedule and the respect from the NCAA selection committee is high-major.
Two years in a row, the NCAA tournament selection committee has stunned college basketball observers with its treatment of the Shockers. In 2016, Wichita garnered a No. 11 seed despite going 24–9, which led to playing a First Four game in Dayton. (After blowing out No. 11 Vanderbilt and No. 6 Arizona, the Shockers eventually ran out of gas against No. 3 Miami.) This year, Wichita is seeded so low that it’s not a guarantee the Shockers would have made the tournament if they had lost to Illinois State in the MVC title game. (Illinois State got left out at 27–6). “The notion that Wichita State could have been left out of this year’s tournament is insane,” says Valley commissioner Doug Elgin. “It’s as strong a team as I’ve seen in 30 years in our league.”
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that a confluence of Wichita’s recent success, the history of programs with similar profiles and the current trends of the NCAA tournament selection committee will drive the Shockers to a higher-profile conference. Conversations with sources around college sports this week revealed Wichita upgrading its league—likely to the American Athletic Conference—as a distinct possibility in the near future. This could happen in as soon as the next few months or may take a year or two. But the odds are increasing that the Shockers will end up somewhere else, with the AAC offering the highest profile and making the most sense. “It wouldn’t be a genuine response if I said we weren’t concerned,” Elgin said. “We want them to stay. Losing Creighton was a blow to the league. Losing Wichita State would be the same.”
A source said the American Athletic Conference is exploring ways to improve its basketball reputation. The league has 12 members for football but just 11 basketball schools, which means adding one non-football school would be logical. (Navy is the league’s football-only member.) Commissioner Mike Aresco’s public comments that the league didn’t want multiple basketball schools fueled speculation that it may be considering a single one. “We are not under any circumstances going back to the old Big East model of multiple basketball schools,” Aresco told Sirius XM satellite radio. The league is wary of adding multiple members for basketball after seeing how juggling football ambition and basketball tradition became untenable in the Big East. Ultimately, those tensions played a huge factor in driving the league apart.
Wichita has also pondered Conference USA, and the Mountain West and MAC to a lesser extent, as options if it decides to add football. (While the Big East makes sense for basketball, league officials there have been adamant about not expanding. There would also be little interest on the television side because of the value of the Big East's contract with Fox.)
The recent history of conference realignment shows that it typically occurs when the league is on the cusp of a television contract. Essentially every recent major move has come either before a contract (Pac-12), to sweeten a conference network (SEC) or to re-open negotiations on a current one (ACC). The simple conference math is that more schools bring in more money.
The American’s current television deal, signed after the league got gutted by an exodus, pays teams in the league just $1.9 million in media rights per school. That’s at most one-tenth of what the ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 get in annual television revenue. The AAC’s contract mercifully ends in 2020, which means preliminary talks for the new deal begin sometime year. History dictates that if the league wants to grow, it’ll move sooner than later.
Potentially adding Wichita may be one step in the evolution of the AAC. There are few logical options for football expansion, which is a completely independent conversation. The most logical football targets would be adding a pair of military academies, Army and Air Force, for football only to go with Navy. There’s no indication if independent Army or the Mountain West’s Air Force would be interested, but they are the most logical football expansion options to be discussed.
Basketball is rarely a huge driver of realignment. But in Wichita’s case, the marriage appears to be mutually beneficial. The AAC had just two teams reach the NCAA tournament this year. Wichita barely made the NCAAs twice in a row despite dazzling seasons and could use the schedule upgrade from a stronger conference. The two teams from the AAC this year aren’t a cause for alarm—UConn won the NCAA title in 2014 and the league got four bids last year. More so than television revenue, Wichita would add the potential of lucrative NCAA units annually. (Each appearance and win is essentially worth $1.6 million over six years, and the units passed on from the old Big East to the AAC are beginning to cycle out).
Marshall has not filtered his criticisms and concerns about Wichita’s seeding. An NCAA source said this week that it’s impossible to gauge if Wichita would have been in if they lost because they had already clinched the Valley’s automatic bid by the time the committee convened. The source did add that Middle Tennessee likely would have gotten in if it had lost in the Conference USA final.
Marshall certainly is not naïve to the upward mobility of teams in the past decade who’ve rode consistent basketball success to higher leagues. The moves include VCU (CAA to Atlantic 10), George Mason (CAA to Atlantic 10), Butler (Horizon to Atlantic 10 to Big East), Xavier (Atlantic 10 to Big East), Creighton (Missouri Valley to Big East) and Davidson (Southern Conference to Atlantic 10). Wichita has built a superior or similar reputation in the Valley as all those schools did in their previous leagues.
When asked if he expected Wichita to follow their lead, Marshall didn’t dismiss the notion. “That's beyond my decision-making level,” he said. “That's a presidential deal as far as conference affiliation. I just think there's a little bit of a movement, it seems, by the committee to squeeze out the non-Power Five. I really feel that.”
He’s not the only one, as the trend of large conference mediocrity flooding the tournament is real. Whether that manifests in the Shockers moving on appears to only be a matter of time. Elgin points to the Gonzaga model and the success the Bulldogs have had in the WCC, but they appear to be the anomaly. “The gap is going to get bigger than smaller,” VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin said. “You have to be on the right side of the divide when the big divide comes.”
All signs point to Wichita moving up, for fear of being left out.