PHOENIX – The American Athletic Conference is engaged in talks to add Wichita State, according to multiple sources. The conversations have advanced to where a timeline for potential membership has emerged, including the possibility of Wichita State playing in the AAC as soon as next season.
There’s strong mutual interest between both sides, and sources said that a final decision could be made within the next month or in as few as the next two weeks. Any decision would need to be approved by the American Athletic Conference’s presidents, but the mutual interest is strong enough where neither side sees any looming issues.
The biggest lingering detail remains when Wichita State would leave the Missouri Valley Conference to begin play in the AAC. Sources said there’s a strong chance that the Shockers could play in the AAC in the 2017-18 season, as both sides would prefer Wichita State avoiding playing a lame duck year in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Valley officials are prepared for the move, as one told Sports Illustrated on Thursday night: “We understand that this is in the works and that it’s a strong possibility.”
The incentive would likely be for the American to move quickly.
Wichita State returns virtually its entire team from last season, which finished 31-5 and took No. 2 Kentucky to the final seconds in the Round of 32. (Former walk-on John Robert Simon is the team’s lone scholarship senior).
The incentive for the AAC to act now comes down to NCAA units, which are worth nearly $1.6 million for every NCAA game that a team plays in. If Wichita State’s stout team makes a deep run next season, the potential haul of units—which are shared by the conference—would make an expedited timeline look wise. Regular season college basketball moves the needle so little for television that Wichita State’s ultimate value for the AAC would likely resonate more in earning NCAA units than in potential television dollars. (The AAC’s television deal expires in 2020).
Multiple sources pointed to Creighton’s exit from the Missouri Valley in 2013 as a potential blueprint for Wichita State to follow. Creighton announced it was leaving the league in March of 2013 and started play in the Big East later in the year. Wichita State’s decision to exit could come as early as April, which would mean a similar timeline. There’s no significant exit fee penalty for Wichita State to leave the league. (By leaving without giving the requisite 12 months notice, per Valley by-laws, Wichita State would forfeit a portion of its share of the annual conference revenue distribution).
When Creighton left in 2013, one Valley source pointed out that Wichita State officials fought hard against a hefty exit fee. That showed other schools in The Valley that the potential of Wichita State moving had always lingered in the minds of administrators there.
Wichita State would join the American as a non-football member. The league is currently an 11-member basketball conference, giving Wichita State a natural spot as the 12th team. The Shockers would join in other non-football sports as well, including the school’s perennially strong baseball program.
Wichita State has played in the Missouri Valley Conference since 1945. The lure for the school revolves around bolstering its basketball resume for the NCAA tournament selection committee, as Wichita State went 30-4 during the regular season and received just a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Valley’s conference RPI ranked No. 12 nationally, while the AAC ranked No. 7. (Just two AAC teams made the NCAA tournament this season—Cincinnati and SMU—compared to four last season.)
The potential move appears mutually beneficial on paper. For Wichita State, it helps bolster their strength of schedule and national profile. For the AAC, it injects another program that’s immediately competitive nationally to increase its national competitiveness.
Two weeks ago, Missouri Valley Commissioner Doug Elgin expressed his worry over a potential move to Sports Illustrated: “It wouldn’t be a genuine response if I said we weren’t concerned,” Elgin said prior to the start of the NCAA tournament. “We want them to stay. Losing Creighton was a blow to the league. Losing Wichita State would be the same.”