Just when everyone got used to 31 Division I basketball leagues, another one has come along to bump the total.
The Great West Conference, which operated as a football-only entity the last few years, will stitch together a six-team group starting this season. Included: North Dakota, South Dakota, Houston Baptist, Utah Valley State, Texas-Pan American and NJIT. Only Texas-Pan American will actually count as a full-fledged Division I member this year, so it’s not like an automatic bid is coming along just yet.
It’s obviously a geographic mashup of leftover schools, leaving the Great West for the time being as the platypus of Division I leagues. And the addition of NJIT certainly calls into question the definition of the term “West” for purposes of the North American continent. But it’s not like there haven’t been leagues in the past with members scattered hither and yon in such a way to render the league name incorrect.
* East Coast Conference (1993-94): Buffalo, Central Connecticut State, Chicago State, Hofstra, Northeastern Illinois, Troy State. The league (minus Hofstra) was absorbed into the Mid-Continent the next year. But it certainly was an interesting mix.
* Sun Belt Conference (football only, 2004-05): Arkansas State, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee, New Mexico State, North Texas, Troy, Utah State. Yes, Sun Valley is in Idaho. Even still, going from Potato Land to the heart of Dixie (Troy, Ala.) makes for one heck of a large belt.
* Mid-Continent Conference: This league had a vague enough name that so long as a school wasn’t in a state adjacent to an ocean, it would be a good fit. But let’s be serious: This is a rather spread out conference. Any league that scrunches together Louisiana (Centenary), Michigan (Oakland) and Utah (Southern Utah) together is a bit far-flung. Last year the conference became the Summit League, a name that does not distinguish very much at all about its geography.
Back to the Great West. Eventually, all of those schools will complete the Division I transition process. And when they do (assuming there’s still six of them held together), the conference will be eligible to apply for an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
Given the annual outcry for expanding the NCAA field, it’s not a stretch to surmise the supporters of a 96- and 128-team field will howl aplenty if even one of the 34 at-large berths are snatched away —- perhaps enough to get the field to either 68 or 72.
That’s just another example of how a seemingly small news item during a slow summer week could potentially have a significant impact years down the road.