Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What expansion did to Conference USA

For those that have been ignoring the possibility of the Big Ten expanding to 16 teams, take a look at Conference USA.

I know that doesn't make much sense on the surface, but stay with me here.

Back in the early 2000's, Conference USA was all but considered a major conference, especially in basketball. With teams like Memphis, Cincinnati, Marquette, Louisville, and DePaul, there was legacy, there was talent, there was great coaching, and they annually had success in the NCAA Tournament.

That was before Miami got fed up with playing football in the Big East.

As the Hurricanes pushed harder and harder to join the ACC, the ACC pushed harder to get three Big East schools to join their ranks. They initially wanted Syracuse and Boston College, but after quite a bit of politicking and negotiating, in 2005 it was Virginia Tech, and not the Orange, that switched conferences.

This left the Big East in a tough situation. Already a league known more for their basketball than their football -- and we all know football is the real moneymaker -- they were left with just four schools that had D1 football teams. UConn decided to bump their football program up from D1-AA, but the Big East still needed to add three more football programs to their conference to remain in the BCS.

So they raided Conference USA.

Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, and South Florida all went to the Big East, giving them three football playing schools (Louisville, Cinci, USF) and two basketball-only schools in untapped markets -- DePaul in Chicago and Marquette in Milwaukee. Charlotte and St. Louis both decided that with all the defections, they would be better off in the Atlantic 10.

Conference USA was left with Memphis ... and not much else. Houston, East Carolina, Tulane, UAB, and Southern Miss. To combat their defections, the league added Marshall, Central Florida, Rice, Tulsa, UTEP, and SMU.

Not exactly a murderer's row.

We all know what happened after that. Memphis dominated the league for four seasons under John Calipari. But when Cal bolted for Kentucky, Josh Pastner was left with a depleted roster and an NIT team. Gone was the league's shining star, replaced atop the conference by a UTEP that went 15-1 during the regular season. To get a feel for how strong the conference was this year, that UTEP team was a 12 seed, barely sneaking into the NCAA Tournament.

UAB beat Butler, Cincinnati, Georgia, and Arkansas, climbed to as high as 20th in the RPI before league play started, and after going 11-5 in the conference, the Blazers missed the NCAA's altogether. So did Memphis and Tulsa. Conference USA got two bids for the first time since 2006 for the simple fact that, with Memphis having a down year, someone was able to pull an upset in the conference tournament.

Elijah Millsap and UAB missed the tournament this season.
(photo credit: The Birmingham News)

Dan Wolken, a fantastic reporter for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal who has been extremely vocal (well, on twitter) the problems with this league, penned a great article on Sunday detailing precisely how bad things have gotten for Conference USA:
A year ago, UAB put together perhaps the most impressive non-conference resume (outside of Memphis) since the league reorganized in 2005 with victories over Cincinnati, Georgia, Arkansas and Butler. The Blazers entered conference play with a 12-2 record and an RPI of 20. After playing (and beating) East Carolina, Tulane and SMU to start the league schedule, UAB's RPI dropped to 35. When UAB played Tulane for a second time in late February, its RPI dropped from 32 to 37.
With poor performances in the non-conference season, teams like SMU (208), ECU (231), Tulane (282) and Rice (311) have created a power-ratings drain on the league's top teams, to the point that RPI guru Jerry Palm came to Florida last week and told the coaches that UAB and Memphis would have likely been in the NCAA Tournament if the bottom of the conference wasn't so bad.
Those are pretty staggering numbers for a league that just six years ago was routinely considered on a par with the six power conferences. To get an idea of just how far this conference has fallen, Wolken lists four teams from the league (a third of their membership) that were ranked outside of the top-200 in the RPI. The six power conferences, combined, had four teams ranked outside of the top-200 -- DePaul, Iowa, Indiana, and LSU.

All four of those teams were truly horrific this season. None of them play in the Pac-10, either.

How does the league plan on fighting this problem? Wolken explains:
There's not much C-USA can do about the quality of teams in its league; that's on coaches to go out and recruit and players to go play.

But what it plans to do, if last week's meetings are any indication, is clamp down on how its teams are scheduling in the non-conference season. In an attempt to manipulate the RPI to its advantage, the league is telling its coaches to build schedules for which they can win 70 percent of their non-conference games.

For ECU, that means don't schedule almost-certain losses to Wake Forest, Tennessee, Northern Iowa, Charlotte, Clemson and Virginia Commonwealth, as the Pirates did last season.

To enforce, or at least encourage, better scheduling, Banowsky said C-USA has created a formula to distribute its postseason revenue on the basis of winning percentage. The more Division 1 non-conference games a team wins, the more money it gets from the league.

Moreover, the league is going to review all non-conference games and give feedback on whether schools are scheduling at the appropriate level. If the directives are ignored -- for instance, if an athletic director at a bottom-tier program starts taking multiple paydays at power-conference schools just to help balance the budget -- C-USA may seek even more control.
Wait, what?

The conference is paying schools that load up on teams like East West State University for the Deaf and Blind?

I'm not exactly sure that makes a whole lot of sense.

For starters, the way quite a few of the schools -- especially the ones near the bottom of the league, the schools that the league is trying to get to turnaround -- fund their athletic program is by cashing in on the paydays from high-majors. Are they really going to scrap the high-five, low-six figure payout they get to let a Duke beat them by 50? If they don't, than doesn't this new rule only make the rich get richer? Won't a school like Memphis, who rarely is going to finish with a non-conference winning percentage below 70%, be the school that benefits from this rule?

The other problem is that these teams aren't guaranteed to win these games. What happens in ECU goes 3-9 against teams like Arkansas-Pine Bluff and High Point? What does that do to the conference RPI?

I understand what Conference USA is trying to do. Improving the competitive balance between the best teams and the bottom teams is one way to boost the conference RPI. But trying to get teams to play weak schedules to make the league look better is like putting a band aid on a stab wound.

It doesn't fix the problem. It doesn't make SMU or Tulane more competitive. Its not going to actually make Conference USA any better. And until the bottom of Conference USA actually does get better, they are going to continue to have these same problems.

Would the league have been in this position if it didn't lose all of their best teams to the Big East and Atlantic 10?

That right there is the problem with expansion.

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