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November 2, 2010
When Mid-Majors Expand
The Big(ger) Sky

by Kyle Whelliston

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On Monday the Big Sky Conference announced that it will expand to 11 schools with the additions of North Dakota and Southern Utah in 2012. What's more it is said that the former home of Gonzaga and Harold "The Show" Arceneaux will soon become an even dozen. The University of South Dakota's entry is apparently such a formality that it may simply be a ploy to get a second press conference out of this.

After a summer of expansion that resembled one of those wind tunnel cash-grab machines at a fair, it's refreshing to see changes that make good old-fashioned geographic sense. Southern Utah currently resides in the Summit League, a very Central Time-centric collective where the long voyages made to Cedar City, Utah, by opposing teams are days that simply dissolve. One Summit assistant, whom I'll protect with anonymity for his own safety, once told me that he fears SUU weekend more than the annual Christmas trip to visit the in-laws. Of course those trips go both ways. From the Thunderbirds' perspective, a $7 million athletic budget that ranked 307th out of 345 reporting schools last year won't be stretched as thin two seasons from now. UND and USD will serve as the Bigger Sky's eastern travel partners. It's a real win-win.

But barring a last-minute change of plans, South Dakota's move to the Big Sky represents a sort of low-level, mid-major altar betrayal. The Coyotes were scheduled to leave the Great West "conference" at the end of this season and join up with the Summit. The team that plays in Vermillion's DakotaDome represents one of the more ambitious, upwardly-mobile schools in the ranks of the very small colleges. USD played its first Division I campaign this past season, finishing 22-10 as Great West regular season and tourney champions. As such South Dakota will forever be the answer to a trivia question, the kind of trivia question that's destined to be part of the Final Jeopardy answer that ruins somebody's life.

The Summit League will be fine without Southern Utah or South Dakota. Don't worry about the Summit League. It is resilient, and it is used to airport goodbyes. Since its birth as the Association of Mid-Continent Universities in 1982, it has had 27 different members, and is the only current Division I league to have survived two near-death experiences. After a thorough 1994 pillaging by what is now the Horizon League, the Mid-Con was down to five teams for a moment. Then it came dangerously close to losing its NCAA tournament bid again in recent years when Valparaiso and Chicago State left. Then it added North Dakota State, South Dakota Sate and IPFW. The Summit League will somehow find a way.

Not so sure about the Great West, though. The league that began just two seasons ago and held its first tournament this past March doesn't have an Big Dance bid, and isn't close to earning one. The NCAA requires at least seven non-transitional Division I members. Seven "core members" must have held full D-I status for at least eight years, and six of those must be in the same league for five years. The loss of the two Dakota schools leaves the GWC with five teams: the Houston Baptist Huskies, NJIT Highlanders, Utah Valley Wolverines, Chicago State Cougars and Texas-Pan American Broncs. And those programs have a commitment to the conference that only runs through next summer.

The Great West's survival may hinge on the end of the Division I moratorium, which the NCAA will lift next summer after four years. After August 9, 2011, schools from the lower divisions can apply for provisional membership, and June 1 is the application deadline. Assuming a best-case scenario for the Great West--all five remaining original members stay, and two lower-division schools join up and go through four-year transition periods--and definitely assuming the NCAA won't be interested in granting an exemption that would reduce the at-large pool, there's still a very long road ahead to a bid. The GWC would have its seven full-fledged members in 2015, and an NCAA-worthy "core" by 2023. That would, under the current rules, allow for an automatic bid to the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

That's 14 years from now. The players who will make up the first Great West team that plays for a national championship have not yet entered preschool. But here's a positive omen for NJIT, which has won just 16 games over three Division I seasons so far: the year 2024 is the timeframe during which "Highlander 2: The Quickening" occurs.

Kyle Whelliston is an author of Basketball Prospectus. He is the founder and proprietor of The Mid-Majority, and nearly 100 times a year he can be found on press rows across the United States wearing sneakers with his suit.

Kyle Whelliston is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kyle by clicking here or click here to see Kyle's other articles.

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