Expansion in the WAC Set to Benefit the Conference; Here’s Why

This may be a little late to the WAC expansion party that took place last Thursday. But, podiums and welcome tweets aside, there is still much to talk about.

The summer additions are set to take place on July 1, 2021 and again the same time in 2022. When all is said and done, the conference will welcome six programs. The Texas Four, Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State & Stephen F. Austin are coming this year. As well as the 2022 addition of current Big Sky member Southern Utah and then followed by the departure of long-time cellar dweller Chicago State.

The sixth program has been talked about among WAC journalists as being another football playing school, but that is all we know as of now. This last addition is an attempt to bring the total number of schools with the sport to eight. This is necessary with two ineligible transitioning schools. Dixie State and Tarleton State don’t count towards a minimum needed six for an FCS playoff automatic bid. The last addition would need to be a program already playing football at the FCS level. Let the speculation articles begin.

Expansion was done by the WAC to set a new course for the future, with growth and stability involved this time around.

Current Conference Makeup

Chicago State (Chicago, IL), Member since: 2013

California Baptist (Riverside, CA), Member since: 2018

Dixie State (St. George, UT), Member since: 2020

Grand Canyon (Phoenix, AZ), Member since: 2013

New Mexico State (Las Cruces, NM), Member since: 2005

Seattle (Seattle, WA), Member since: 2012

Tarleton State (Stephenville, TX), Member since: 2020

UT Rio Grande Valley (Edinburg, TX), Member since:  2013

Utah Valley (Orem, UT), Member since: 2013

New Additions: 5

Abilene Christian (Abilene, TX) Will Join: July 1st, 2021

Lamar (Beaumont, TX) Will Join: July 1st, 2021

Sam Houston State (Huntsville, TX) Will Join: July 1st, 2021

Southern Utah (Cedar City, UT), Will Join: July 1st, 2022

Stephen F. Austin (Nacogdoches, TX), Will Join: July 1st, 2021

The five schools added certainly strengthen the conference’s geographic Southwest presence without expanding it any further. Expansion in the new decade looks impressive adding this historic and competitive group of programs to the WAC. All of this hard works appears to have successfully checked some boxes on the part of conference and school leadership.

Conference Stability 

Strengthening the WAC seemed very important for current member schools. Especially after the movement in-and-out of the conference over the last decade or so.

Since the inception of the Mountain West Conference at the onset of the millennium, things have been a little everywhere. Back in 1999, seven past and several founding WAC schools left to create their own geographically smaller and more beneficial home. The WAC has seen 19 schools come and go since, with some stints as short as a season and others spanning decades only to look for brighter horizons.

The most recent departures came just this past year as the conference saw Cal-State Bakersfield (to the Big West) and Kansas City (returned to the Summit League) leave after seven years of membership.

Maybe folks in Englewood have learned a lesson or two and looked at past miscues surrounding expansion. Kudos to them. Kansas City and now Chicago State were intended to be initial members of a new mid-west geographic footprint of the WAC in the future. Apparently, a conference map from sea to shining sea had been an issue in the past and to retain promising schools out west from searching for a home elsewhere, these new additions add strength without adding many more travel expenses.

Bus Trip Rivalries 

Another big time win for everyone involved is the opportunity to establish deeper regional rivalries. For some teams this means merely hopping on a bus, putting on the headphones to get game ready and hopefully in the near future walking into a sold out arena, all within a couple of hours. Expansion and creating two divisions will create more rivalries and make the regular season in hoops more important. 

Extremely Close Campuses: 

Dixie State (St. George) to Southern Utah (Cedar City)-Avg. 47 minutes by car

Tarleton State (Stephenville) to Abilene Christian Univ. (Abilene)-Avg. 1 hour & 29 minutes by car

Utah Valley (Orem) to Southern Utah (Cedar City)-Avg. 2 hours & 58 minutes by car

Tarleton State (Stephenville) to Sam Houston State (Huntsville)-Avg. 3 hours & 33 minutes by car

Tarleton State (Stephenville) to Stephen F. Austin (Nacogdoches)-Avg. 4 hours & 23 minutes by car

These are just some examples of how much closer some schools’ trips will be during conference play. Chicago State, who always felt like a geographic outlier in the WAC, have officially announced their exit next summer. That now leaves Seattle as most distant member going forward. Now anything heading northwest to Seattle or out west to California seem about as far as things may get.

Maybe, with a more detailed conference schedule with how many games will be played and how cross divisional play will work with basketball, some light will be shed on how often Texas schools head to the coast.

Football Aside, Focusing On Hoops

Throwing the college athletics cash cow sport of football to the side for a moment, mainly because that seems to be an ongoing/complicated discussion for a later date with more details.

Though adding WAC football to the FCS ranks looks like a big priority for some. Especially, UTRGV who have now voiced an interest of fielding a team as early as 2024. More basketball focused schools like GCU, CBU and Seattle have taken football off the table entirely. Conference hoops powerhouse New Mexico State has opted to remain an FBS independent for the foreseeable future.

Still, these additions have both sports in mind, while strengthening ties with their new and old Texas schools and others to bring back football. And successfully re-attracting Grand Canyon and others by making the conference a bit more competitive in hoops.

WAC Expansion
New Mexico State has been to the NCAA Tournament every year but one since 2013-14. And in 2020 had the NCAA Tournament not been cancelled, the Aggies most likely would have gone dancing again. Courtesy NMSU Athletics.

Top Notch Additions

The five schools set to join the conference this summer, at least on the hoops side of things are perpetual championship contenders in their current conferences.

“The opportunity to bring five quality institutions into the conference, to significantly strengthen the WAC’s national basketball brand and other championship sport profiles, and to bring football back under the WAC umbrella is one that made sense,” WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd said.

One thing that has always made the conference unique in my eyes, is it’s willingness to bring schools up to the D-I ranks. This aspect of conference membership isn’t unique to the WAC by any means. And it may have been utilized as more of a survival technique then competitive booster at times but still utilized well so far.

What makes this most recent expansion different in my eyes is the increase in history and competition at the D-I level added with those aforementioned programs. Compared to say Grand Canyon or Dixie State who had multiple conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances at the D-II level but were relevant newcomers upon entering the WAC.

GCU had to earn the buzz being generated around the program by pushing through some down years. But the conference realized bringing up more programs from D-II and waiting for the adjustment period to be over and probationary postseason bans just wasn’t an option. Instead taking advantage of some apparent dismay inside the Southland Conference was the perfect opportunity. And that’s where expansion comes in.

As we keep repeating how impressive the level of competition being added is but let’s look at some rankings to help back it up.

Current WAC Schools Metrics

NET, RPI & KenPom.com ($)

Chicago State-NET 346, RPI 334 KenPom 356

California Baptist-NET 265, RPI 338 KenPom 299

Dixie State-NET 315, RPI 281 KenPom 328

Grand Canyon-NET 135, RPI 259 KenPom 142

New Mexico State-NET 255, RPI unranked KenPom 118

Seattle-NET 252, RPI 288 KenPom 285

Tarleton State-NET 310, RPI 343 KenPom 331

UT Rio Grande Valley-NET 206, RPI 208 KenPom 209

Utah Valley-NET 202, RPI 215 KenPom 255

New Additions

Abilene Christian-NET 74, RPI 132 KenPom 111

Lamar-NET 318, RPI 287 KenPom 324

Sam Houston State-NET 148, RPI 63 KenPom 204

Southern Utah-NET 158, RPI 190 KenPom 178

Stephen F. Austin-NET 218, RPI 240 KenPom 158

As a whole, the WAC is currently 27th per KenPom. This is out of a possible 32 teams per his AdjEM metric. The Southland on the other hand is ranked 30th in a similar position to the WAC with eight of their thirteen teams currently ranked outside the top-300.

The WAC is in slightly better shape with only three of nine programs ranked outside of the top-300. But three of the four schools moving from the Southland rank inside the top-205. With Lamar being the lone exception in the 300s on all three ranking systems. And Southern Utah being another quality addition ranked inside the top-200 on all three.

So in short, the expansion additions are strong ones, and the conference will be adding more top-200 teams then not. Which should set them on the right course to have multiple teams go to the NCAA Tournament as planned.

Let’s Go Dancing

Something of note mentioned by those involved, is that the level of schools added to the conference aligns with the goal of becoming a multi-bid league down the road. For many current members of the conference, basketball is the sport to build around in the near future. Grand Canyon’s President Brian Mueller spoke on the schools goal of becoming the next basketball brand in mold of a Gonzaga, Creighton or Marquette. For these programs, cash flow from regularly sold out arenas and additionally generated funds from NCAA Tournament appearances is key.

For the conference to get there and begin to reap the benefits of multiple teams punching tickets, it’s entirely possible but may take some time to figure out. As the WAC has been a single big league for some time now. With the ticket punched from the conference tournament in Las Vegas, (set to stay there with expansion) usually being the lone option for an invite to the big dance for WAC programs. 

Sending multiple teams dancing is a tall order for the WAC. Other conferences out west like the Mountain West or WCC whom usually have a more competitive field of teams still can’t figure it out consistently. But this expansion may open more doors for the WAC to reap the benefits of the NCAA Tournament. 

NCAA Appearances by current schools (during WAC tenure)

NMSU-9 appearances (0-9)

New Additions (during tenure at most recent conference)

Sam Houston State-2 appearances, last in 2010 (0-2)

Lamar-2*, last in 2012 (0-2)

Abilene Christian-appearance, last in 2019 (0-1)

Stephen F. Austin-5 appearances, last in 2018 (2-5)

Southern Utah-1 appearance in 2001 (0-1)

New Mexico State’s consistent trips to the big dance is nothing to downplay. The Aggies have gone seven times in the last ten years. With Utah State and Cal-State Bakersfield being the only two teams to edge them out, both of whom are no longer in the conference. If anyone can make the Aggies nervous, it is some of these Southland additions.

For the newcomers, their history at least as far as their most recent conference is concerned is a positive one. Southern Utah boasts a lone appearance at the turn of the century. Stephen F. Austin has a high of five in the same time. They even have a couple of wins on their record, something even New Mexico State hasn’t managed to do. While Lamar has an impressive sweet sixteen run and six total trips in program history (5-6 overall). Their recent time in the Southland has yielded smaller opportunities, as they have made two trips, most recently in 2012.*

Overall, this expansion is big for members of the WAC, both competitively and financially. With football on the table and a deep desire to boast a more competitive mid-major conference that hopes to earn multiple NCAA Tournament bids, the fight is certainly there. As well as the appeal the conference is displaying for schools to leave their current homes for a bigger challenge is doubly impressive.

We just have to sit back and stay tuned for more info, thanks for reading.

About the author

Larry Muniz

Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast "Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry". He is also a USWBA Member.

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