Bring the Norse North

When PantherU confirmed that Oakland was indeed coming to the Horizon League, the move was accepted with a lot of relief. Many fans were worried that the Horizon League was going to add IUPUI or IPFW, schools on no fan’s short list for the conference. It all stemmed from the fact that fan confidence in the Horizon League office, and commissioner Jon LeCrone, was tepid at best.

And why should it be? Adding Valparaiso was a great move, but Youngstown State has only recently stopped being an anchor dragging down the conference RPI. Men’s basketball is the sport that matters, and YSU has finished above .500 in conference exactly once since they joined the Horizon League in 2001. The Penguins have an average seed of 7.66 in the conference tournament, with their high water mark being a five-seed in 2006-07. So you can see why fans have been worried about replacements since Butler and now Loyola have departed the conference.

Fans wrung their hands for the past year, worried that the Horizon League commissioner would find his new Horizon League team in the Horizon League’s home town. They watched as the MVC, WAC, Mountain West and Summit got weaker. They saw the Ohio Valley Conference add Belmont and get considerably stronger on the southern flank.

But finally, the rabbit came out of the hat. Despite the perception that their addition would be blocked once again by Detroit, the conference will be announcing Oakland as its newest member in the next couple weeks. It’s not the home run that Belmont or Murray State would be, but it is the best fit, the double down the line. Oakland is an immediate upgrade over a Loyola school that was only bested in futility by Youngstown State since 2000.

It’s time to give LeCrone some credit. He watched the WAC practically implode and did nothing. He saw the MVC target some of his schools and didn’t do anything to stop Loyola leaving, which is addition by subtraction for the Horizon. Realize that without lifting a finger, LeCrone simultaneously weakened the MVC and strengthened the Horizon. Then, he strengthened the conference further by adding Oakland, a school that has earned its stripes. Since 2005, the Golden Grizzlies have more NCAA Tournament appearances than any Horizon League team. Though they haven’t won a game in the round of 64, they did come close in their last appearance against Texas.

Make that two victories in a row for Jon LeCrone, who has turned the Summit into an afterthought by adding Valpo and Oakland. He is on a roll, so to speak. But the job isn’t done. The Horizon League is at nine members, an odd number that just begs another addition.

The Horizon League has certainly been at its best when it is at an even number. In 1998, the eight-member conference sent three of its members to the NCAA tournament. Even this past season, with Butler gone and usually strong Milwaukee in a bad year, the conference finished 12th. But the real strong years came from when Valparaiso joined in 2007-08 to 2011-12, when Butler left. The conference was defined by Butler in those years, but Cleveland State, Valparaiso, Milwaukee, Wright State and Detroit all left strong marks. That is why the Horizon League remains as strong as it was when Butler was a part of the conference – it was never just Butler. Butler became Butler because they went through the baptism-by-fire of the Horizon League. They’re not Belmont, or Gonzaga, or Davidson, or Murray State. The reason isn’t because of Hinkle Fieldhouse or some abstract idea of the “Butler Way.” It’s because this conference is as tough as nails – even Youngstown State and Loyola notched victories over Butler in their strongest years.

Which is why the tenth member needs to be a smart choice. The Horizon League needs to add a program that has the ability to be a great basketball school down the road. It is important that they field a baseball team, but no team the conference could add will elevate the Horizon beyond a low-major in that sport; that’s just the way the cookie crumbles for northern baseball conferences.

So who can the Horizon League add? We’ve gone over this at great length, and we’ve learned that Belmont is absolutely not coming to the Horizon League, and Murray State likely would not come without Belmont. This leaves a slew of schools, but I’m prepared to say that Northern Kentucky should be the tenth member of the Horizon League. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you why.

For one, Northern Kentucky features the best geographical fit for the Horizon League. Robert Morris is also only an hour from a current conference school, but the Colonials would force a weird travel partnership between Cleveland State and Wright State. NKU ensures that Wright State is no longer a southern outpost of the conference, and it ensures that CSU remains a travel partner for YSU, schools that are only about an hour drive from each other.

The travel partner situation would be the best it has ever been. Sure, UIC needs to go further to Valpo than they did to Loyola, but it’s not actually by all that much. Milwaukee and Green Bay stay together, as do Cleveland State and Youngstown State. The Detroit/Oakland partnership is the closest any partners have been in the conference, and NKU provides Wright State a rival only one hour south and in a major metropolitan city, Cincinnati.

I know what the drag is. We highlighted their total lack of success in Division I last week, and the Norse are definitely a few years away from being a legitimate basketball program.

But we don’t need them to be. Not today. This isn’t Youngstown State, a school that values football a lot more than men’s basketball (and rightfully should). We’re talking about a school whose move to Division I was centered around basketball, exists in a city that is crazy about college basketball, and is armed with the best tools to become a great program. Just eight years after going to D-I, Oakland made its first NCAA Tournament appearance. Will NKU have to wait that long?

The Horizon League could opt to wait for NKU to get better before they decide to add them. But what happens when NKU makes its jump a little sooner than expected and they get snatched up by the CAA or OVC? The Norse could decide, like Belmont, that the OVC is a comfortable enough home and say ‘no’ to the Horizon League. We’d be letting a sleeping juggernaut go because we were too frightened they’d take too long getting going.

They won’t. If there were ever a school that prepared for its transition to Division I the right way, it’s NKU. They finished 11-16 in their first year in D-I where most schools take a few years to get going. Their last few years in D-II were good, with three NCAA tournament appearances in their last four years.

What changed? The home changed. NKU built the $60 million Bank of Kentucky Center, a 9,200-seat beast of a facility that is the reason NKU is in the Atlantic Sun and not the OVC. Why is that? The Ohio Valley was ready to vote to admit the Norse, but members expressed worries that NKU would have an unfair recruiting advantage due to the facility, and it never came to a vote.

It should come to a vote in the Horizon League, and the Board of Directors should pass it. This school has the opportunity to be a powerhouse down the road, and by adding Oakland we’ve already gotten better as a men’s basketball conference.

NKU has even boosted their athletics and basketball budgets considerably. In 2010-11, the Norse spent $5.788 million in athletics. In 2012-13, that number jumped to $9.12 million this season. NKU could still spend more – their basketball budget of $1.111 million would be higher than only Youngstown State – but the fact is that NKU reported a profit in men’s basketball. Imagine what they could do if they spent less money on travel (the Horizon League is much better for travel than the Atlantic Sun) and more on recruiting and operating expenses.

As for other sports, the Norse are coached in women’s basketball by Dawn Plitzuweit, who was a candidate to replace Sandy Botham and assisted Kevin Borseth at Michigan. Men’s soccer was a D-II powerhouse, winning the national title in 2010. Softball and women’s soccer are also very strong. The soccer stadium is a $6.5 million facility with a luxury box.

The Norse are not eligible for the NCAA Tournament until July 2016, so we’re looking at three seasons of NKU being unable to represent the conference in the tournament. That’s okay – even if they were eligible today, they wouldn’t be ready to win a conference title.

But we’re not buying the best team of the past ten years. We’re investing in a program for the next ten. NKU makes too much sense. They need to be the tenth school – this urban university in a major midwestern city, the perfect geographical match-up that plays exactly the sports the conference needs them to play.

Let’s hope Jon LeCrone and the Board of Directors make it three great additions in a row.

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