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.

Separation Anxiety

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
  • Chattanooga

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.

Arkansas schools are four hours away from the closest Ohio Valley Conference Schools, and the conference has show little inclination to expand deeper into Alabama or Mississippi, or farther north in Illinois or Missouri. As much as everyone seems to say that the conference shouldn’t add another Division II squad, it appears to be the only option outside Lipscomb, a team that was also rejected the same time Belmont was.

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.

Filed under: Ohio Valley Conference

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  1. If Murray State were to move I could see them making the jump to the Sun Belt Conference. I know the football facilities are not up to par as other Sun Belt teams, but I could easily see them making the renovations to their football stadium, the same way WKU did, go to the SEC get your butts kick and collect that six of seven figure check. Western Kentucky did it. I see no reason why Murray State can not. Only thing, as a traditionalist, I would hate to see Murray State leave the OVC. There is so much history there and they are one of the founding members. Why it may be nice to get there conference rivalry back with Western Kentucky, I think they would hate to lose the Austin Peay rivalry more. As a Morehead State alumni and fan, I never see the Eagles leaving the Ohio Valley. The only conference move I ever see MSU making is getting back in the OVC in football. The Eagles do not fit in any other conference, all conferences you mentioned are primarily private institutions. And while the Eagles have had success on the court over the last five years, they are no where near jumping to the Atlantic 10. Another possibility for the Eagles would be the MAC, but since they have non-scholarship football I never see that happening. Same goes for EKU, though with there football success I could see a more realistic move to the MAC. Jacksonville State needs to go. They are an extreme outlier in the conference and it's been known they want to leave for an FBS conference. The sooner the better. I believe the OVC will stay in the 12-team format, its the way college athletics is evolving. Northern Kentucky would be a great addition to the OVC. They open the market to the Cincinnati area, give Kentucky a bigger footprint in the OVC. I know they got rejected recently, but I wonder if that was out of fear of the Kentucky Bank Center, which would of instantly became the best arena the conference has ever seen. I believe Tennessee State will always flirt with the SWAC, but that is all it will ever be, a flirtation for all the reason you already mentioned. Lipscomb would be a good addition, but do you think the OVC would really want to have three schools in one city? And by OVC I mean the non-Nashville or non-Tennessee schools. Great read with some great insight. Just provided my thoughts on the situation. At the end of the day what I would really like to see is Northern Kentucky in and Jacksonville State out.
    • ovcball:
      Thanks for the compliment. And I think you've got some great points. I was surprised when the OVC didn't invite Northern Kentucky. I agree, I'd hate to see Murray leave. The Sun Belt would make sense, but to be honest, I'm not sure how the alumni at Murray would take it. Murray fans don't like losing, and I'm not sure they'd want to get the brains beat in in FBS football for a few years. I'd love them to make that move, though. But you're absolutely correct on the money: make a few upgrades, get that bigger check, and that can come back to help the basketball program as well. Do you think Morehead will go back to scholarship football? That's a big change to make, from a financial point of view. Here's my one thing about Jacksonville State: yes' they're an outlier. But if you can keep JSU, you possibly expand into the south. As a Morehead fan, I'm sure that's the last thing you want, but it's just a thought. Thanks for the read, and for your thoughts.
      • I would love to see Morehead State go back to scholarship football. The program has certainly lost credibility with the previous administration cutting the scholarships and moving out of the OVC. Will it happen and how logical is it with the athletics budget? I'm not sure. I know a lot of people want Morehead State back into the OVC for football, but money runs the world and school's have to stay as far out of the red as they can each year. An interesting development happened over the last couple of years where the PFL (Pioneer Football League, for those unfamiliar) winner will earn an automatic bid into the FCS Tournament. With the chance of making the tournament and having kids pay there way to play, meaning more money for the university as a whole with tuition, its hard to see why Morehead State would go back into the OVC. Honestly, from a budget standpoint, the PFL is more attractive then the OVC right now. I have no problem extending the conference south. If there were a more logical travel partner for Jacksonville State then it would not be as bad. I would not mind seeing East Tennessee State join the OVC. It would put another school closer to Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky. They have a rich basketball heritage and would be a good fit for the league, the OVC would essentially span from border to border in Tennessee. The last thing I would want to see if another Division II school coming in. Just look at the bottom of the league for the past five-to-six years....UT Martin, SIU-Edwardsville and Jacksonville State all are at the bottom of every single year and it kills the conference RPI. You've touched on it and I agree that your conference is only as good as your worst team is, and right now our former D-2 buddies are keeping this conference from being a Missouri Valley type conference.
        • Justin:
          UT Martin has been in Division 1 for 20 years. What the hell do you know. Your article was interesting, but in no way helpful "at all" to what future expansion holds. JSU will not be going anywhere until App St and Ga SOuthern have moved up. I should be doing your job. I'll say this, SIUE should have "never" been invited to the OVC. JSU is doing okay at hoops this year, and UTM won the regular season OVC in 2008-2009. Do your research or get a new writer to do your job. I'm free!
          • First off, I don't write for this page. It's my own opinion. Second off, outside of the Lester Hudson years, UT-Martin has done more harm than good for the OVC, they are consistently in the bottom half of the OVC. They were not able to capitalize off the Hudson years and took there place back at the bottom of the OVC. Martin even had a winless conference season a couple years ago which is a nightmare for conference RPI. Teams like Martin, SIU-E and Jacksonville State can not have one or two good years and be like 'Hey guys, look at us we are pulling our weight,' when it's clearly not the case. You have to maintain success like Murray State, Morehead State, Austin Peay and Belmont before you start throwing stones. Martin had a nice run with Hudson that put them on levels that they will never see again at Martin. They got the the NIT which is an accomplishment for them. They had a chance to win the OVC Tournament that year, but Morehead State shut down Weddle and could not stop Faried, though not many people could in the OVC.
OVC Ball
Morehead State’s fall: The numbers say get out of the half-court

2014-15 Standings

OVCOverall
WEST
UT Martin0-06-3
Murray State0-07-4
SEMO0-05-5
Eastern Illinois0-04-6
Austin Peay0-04-7
SIU Edwardsville0-01-7
EAST
Belmont0-07-4
Jacksonville State0-07-4
Eastern Kentucky0-06-4
Tennessee Tech0-06-5
Morehead State0-04-10
Tennessee State0-02-9