COMMENTARY: The OVC and Conference Realignment
With the seemingly never ending cycle of conference realignment, I often get asked where the OVC fits in to the picture. And while I’ve discussed it in 140 characters on Twitter, it’s never been an issue I’ve looked at in depth, and I determined it’s time for that to change.
As much as football is king in collegiate athletics, the OVC is, to make a strange comparison, the Big East of small conferences. Yes, there is football, but over the past four years, it’s become clear that basketball is king, at least where it comes to being relevant for a school looking to make a move, and more so for conferences looking to add new schools.
The reason for this is straightforward: four straight seasons with NCAA tournament wins in basketball, and no FCS playoff wins in football since before some current college students even knew what a football was. In five years, that could all change, but this is the reality of the conference right now. (Proof it can change: Belmont was rejected when they first attempted to join the conference for not having a football program)
I’ll look at football later in this article, but let’s begin on the court.
Maybe this is harsh for early December, but reality appears to be setting in for the conference. After an outstanding November, teams are struggling so far this month, as only five teams now remain over .500 in non-conference play. Two weeks ago, it was eight. Tougher competition has something to do with it, but for a conference looking to elevate it’s status, complaining about playing tough competition is contradictory to that cause.
The comparison everyone wants seems to make concerning the OVC is how it stacks up to the Missouri Valley Conference, an “upper tier” mid-major conference that’s geographically near the Ohio Valley. Right now, the MVC is 9th in Sagarin rankings, with three teams better than the OVC’s best (Belmont) and just one team in the bottom 100. The rest tend to fall in the 100-200 ranking range.
The OVC is still hovering in the high-teens in conference ranking, according to both the RPI (17th) and Sagarin (19th) numbers, but both numbers show one trend that’s been troublesome for the Ohio Valley Conference for quite some time: the gap between the top and bottom is larger than ever. Belmont and Murray State (and according to the RPI, Eastern Kentucky) make up a top tier of the conference, but six teams reside in the bottom 100.
When it comes to conference realignment, the trend we’ve seen is that schools that are a “mismatch” for their conference tend to make the most moves. It’s one reason Belmont left the Atlantic Sun, a conference they’ve absolutely dominated, (for comparison purposes, the A-Sun is 25th) although I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest reason. Travel is, and Belmont is in the heart of the OVC, compared to being more of an outlier in the Atlantic Sun.
Establishing that the OVC is a more basketball friendly conference, the first question is what schools would consider a move to OVC because of their basketball programs. Location is obviously an issue, and Lipscomb is the first that comes to mind, being in Nashville, and another school that doesn’t have a football.
But it you look around the four state region, there are few, if any other teams that make any sense. No Sun Belt team is moving, due to being an FBS football conference; No MVC conference team is moving, because that would step down in basketball terms. So who’s left?
While there are a host of Division II schools that would love a chance to move up to Division I, for now I’m limiting this discussion to current Division I teams. Let’s look at teams in Kentucky, Illinois, and Tennessee that could even possibly be considered from a location standpoint:
- East Tennessee State
- Northern Kentucky
Outside of Northern Kentucky, the other two teams would expand the conference from a geographic standpoint, which would likely be rejected by enough teams to refuse a bid, and NKU was just refused a bid to the conference, making the transition from Division II. ETSU could be a possibility for football reasons, which I’ll get into a bit later.
So the OVC isn’t likely to expand from a Division I point-of-view. But, what about teams leaving.
As I alluded to above, two teams are clearly the cream of the crop in the conference, Murray State and Belmont. While there are conferences that might look at the schools for their basketball histories, a move makes little sense for the schools for the same reason.
If either of these schools are going to move, it will be because of basketball. So here’s a list of top-15 mid-major basketball conferences with FCS football:
- Atlantic 10 (8th – Basketball only)
- Missouri Valley (9th)
- West Coast (10th)
- Horizon (12th – Basketball only)
- Big West (14th – Basketball only)
- Metro Atlantic (15th – Basketball only)
- Colonial (18th)
Obviously, moves to the MAAC, Big West or West Coast aren’t happening. While the Atlantic 10 stretches to Missouri and North Carolina, either team wouldn’t be within three hours of their nearest opponent, (although to be fair, St. Louis isn’t) and the Horizon or CAA aren’t really any better.
So that leaves the Missouri Valley, which Belmont used to play men’s soccer in. For one year. They’re so far outside the edges of the conference, it doesn’t make sense for either the conference of the Bruins.
So what about Murray? The Racers would be on the edge of the conference, at least two hours away from every opponent, and ten hours or more away from the furthest, compared to just about five now. But the Racers, a long time Ohio Valley member, haven’t really shown and inclination to leave the conference. Their two biggest rivals are about an hour drive away, and they’re three hours or less away from 75% of the conference. From a geography standpoint, it wouldn’t make much sense.
The idea has been floated by fans that Murray could try to move in basketball only, and stay in the OVC in football. I doubt either the MVC or the OVC would be particularly thrilled with that idea.
So where are we, after all this talk. In summary, Lipscomb is waiting in the wings, and there’s just nothing else that really makes sense from a basketball standpoint. That’s not to say a move won’t happen, as there have been plenty of head-scratching moves made during conference realignment thus far, but for smaller schools with limited budgets, no move is likely.