Is Sun Belt Expansion on the Front Burner? – From the Bird’s Nest
There has been so much speculation just about every year about possible expansion in the Sun Belt Conference. And, honestly, most of the speculation has had little basis in fact.
And, while this could wind up being another one of those speculations that leads to absolutely nothing, there are signs that maybe, just maybe, we may have a reason to speculate.
The first sign came back in May when the Sun Belt concluded its spring meetings. On the subject of expansion:
....did include the potential for additional membership and expansion, but Sun Belt officials will not have further comment.
Compare that to the statement at the end of the spring meetings in 2014:
The Sun Belt has suspended further discussion or consideration to add any additional members.
I wrote a blog prior to the 2014 meetings suggesting the Sun Belt would add no one, simply because there was no attractive candidate for membership. But, I wasn't surprised when the tone of the league changed this past May. Not after what happened during basketball season.
The Sun Belt played a 20-game conference schedule (mistake #1, but that's on the coaches who voted to do it) in 2014-15. With eleven teams, scheduling twenty conference games was a total nightmare. In every case, schools had at least one quirk where they made two separate trips to the same state (i. e. one trip to Texas State and a separate one to UT Arlington.) In at least one case, a pair of schools (ULM and Louisiana) made separate trips to Texas, Alabama, Arkansas AND Georgia. In addition, some schools had to play a road game on a Thursday and then rush to play a home game on Saturday. Travel costs went through the roof. Missed class time increased.
So, the league released a schedule for 2015-16 that remedied that part of the issue: Schools would now play both teams from the same state (Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia) on the same trip and the same home stand. That alleviated a good part of the problem.
Unless of course, you're Appalachian State. The Mountaineers didn't have a travel partner, which meant their travel partner was "bye." In many cases, App would have a Saturday game where their opponent had a full week to prepare while App had one day.
Screwing one school is better than screwing everyone. Like I said, unless you're from Boone, North Carolina.
One other important domino fell in the meantime as well: A proposal to remove the 12-team minimum in order to play a football championship game. The Big 12 and the Sun Belt are the only two leagues with fewer than twelve football members (the AAC will get to twelve with the addition of Navy this season.) The proposal is a slam dunk to pass, probably in time for 2017.
That opens up the candidate pool considerably. While expansion to twelve with football in mind was driving the bus in the past, the Sun Belt has a new bus driver, at least for now.
At Monday's Media Day, Commissioner Karl Benson, in his "State of the Conference Address" said the league "was no longer driven by the a football championship game." He went on to suggest it was time to take a look at "what's best for other sports." Specifically, he went on to say, a travel partner in the east for Appalachian State.
Benson went a step farther in an exclusive interview with ESPN1420's Ryan Baniewicz when he said it was paramount to "fix the basketball structure."
As I said, that opens up the pool considerably.
I have long been a proponent of adding New Mexico State for all sports. They are already in the league for football, they've got a long-standing tradition in men's basketball and they bring the membership to twelve teams in the important Olympic sports.
But I have to admit, geographically, the Aggies have never made a lot of sense, especially with the current structure. The SBC West is relatively compact with two schools in Texas, two in Arkansas and two in Louisiana. They are easy travel partners with the longest trip being 3.5 hours (Arlington, San Marcos.) Adding the Aggies would move one of the schools to the East Division and would mean a Texas school would now be a partner with a Louisiana school and travel now starts to become an issue again. NMSU to Georgia Southern is roughly the same distance as Lafayette to Amherst, MA. And I don't see anyone screaming for UMASS to be in the league. (Except maybe UMASS, since football independence is not a good thing.)
Benson has repeatedly said expansion should come from the East. But Benson doesn't get a vote. The CEO's decide membership. And they don't speak publicly on the issue. Until they say NMSU is out, they aren't out.
So, what about the East?
Depends on who you talk to. Eastern Kentucky's name was prominently mentioned in 2014. They want to move to the FBS. But football is no longer a prerequisite. Their basketball brings something to the table...after all, they're in Kentucky. They've been in post season the last three years, one NCAA and two CIT. Their baseball and softball haven't had a lot of success recently. Their facilities date back to the 1960's without a lot of significant upgrades, except in football with a new multi purpose center ready to open.
But now, with football not (necessarily) an issue, there's another name being mentioned. And it's a name I'm starting to hear a lot.
They've had success in basketball, being in the post season (NCAA) the last two seasons. They've also recently had a CIT appearance and a pair in the NIT. Their baseball team has hosted regionals and a super and were nationally ranked this past season. Their facilities are new. Basketball will enter their fourth season at the HTC center. Baseball is brand new. Softball has had a big time upgrade. And, someday their football might be ready for the FBS. Their football facility is small but it has room to expand.
Both schools are easily accessible by air. Richmond is about 35 miles from the Lexington airport. CCU is in Conway, about 20 miles form Myrtle Beach. Neither is particularly close to Appalachian State (about five hours), but they are around the same distance from Boone.
It could be premature to suggest something is right on the horizon. But if the desire to "fix the basketball structure" is as important as Benson indicates, you've got three decent possibilities, two in the east, one in the west, all with good basketball tradition, who would love to be in this league.
If, however, making baseball better (and it needs to be) becomes part of the discussion, then there is a distinct separation.
Besides, Myrtle Beach rocks.