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Wichita State’s reported conference change makes sense, but is still risky

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What, and you thought conference realignment was just for the Big 12?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Indianapolis Practice Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It wouldn’t be college football offseason without some talk about conference realignment. But this time, we’re not talking about the Big 12.

The Wichita State Shockers are going to the American Athletic Conference. Wichita State has been close to leaving the Missouri Valley for a while, according to Pete Thamel at Sports Illustrated from a few weeks ago:

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.

That’s since turned into reports like the following:

It makes a lot of sense for the AAC to look to add another strong basketball program. Since Navy is only an AAC member for football (it competes in the Patriot League in other sports), AAC basketball only has 11 teams, an awkward number for scheduling.

Another strong program would help its overall RPI, potentially give the conference additional revenue-sharing from the NCAA tournament, and give UConn, a program that has been rumored to be considering leaving for the Big East, another reason to stay.

On paper, it makes sense for Wichita State to consider being that program.

Under coach Gregg Marshall, the program has been one of the elite mid-majors, only to be consistently lowballed when it comes to seeding in March. The Shockers have won at least 25 games in each of the last eight years and have made the NCAAs a whopping six years in a row, even making a Final Four. Despite a 30-4 record, the Shockers are only a 10 seed this season.

Part of that might be because of the low RPI of the MVC. Games against programs like Drake and Bradley lower WSU’s computer profile. This season, according to TeamRankings, the MVC had the 12th-highest conference RPI, below the WCC and CAA. The AAC, which sent SMU and Cincinnati to the NCAA tournament, was seventh.

With the addition of the Shockers, the AAC would further establish itself as a strong, multibid conference, with UConn (which won a national title in 2014), SMU, Cincinnati, Memphis, and Temple.

But the move would has some risks.

WSU doesn’t provide the one thing that is typically discussed the most in conference realignment: a major TV market.

The AAC is already a league without a strong geographical identity, as it spans from Connecticut to Tampa and Oklahoma. Another outpost would shift the balance of the conference away from the East Coast and further muddle the identity of the league, perhaps making it harder to develop and sustain rivalries. Plus, it’s not like Wichita State is an AAU research powerhouse, should conference presidents care about academic reputation.

There’s also the risk that Marshall could leave. While he’s turned down power jobs before and already makes a healthy salary (reported to be over $3 million, thanks to some big-time boosters, including the Koch brothers), the school has not enjoyed much postseason success without him.

Should he leave, perhaps for a school like Indiana, the AAC runs the risk of diluting the league identity for a non-football athletic department (that has considered bringing back football decades after ending its program) that might not be able to sustain success.

There is precedent for smaller, basketball-focused schools moving up in conferences and enjoying success while losing a big-time coach (VCU) or a program-defining talent (Davidson, Creighton). If Wichita State can sustain high-level basketball in a world where Marshall was coaching elsewhere — and it does have the resources to potentially do it — WSU could provide nice depth to an already decent basketball league.

It wouldn’t be without risks. But that’s true of almost any move.