Valparaiso’s exit would leave hole in Horizon League

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

While one collegiate conference is replenishing its basketball pool, another is feeling the sting.

Valparaiso on Tuesday was invited to join the Missouri Valley Conference, and after negotiations are finalized, it’s expected to make the leap over the summer.

That would leave the Horizon League, home of Oakland University and Detroit Mercy, with a significant void.

“Obviously, that’s a good, strong basketball brand,” Oakland athletic director Jeff Konya said of Valparaiso. “If they do depart, we wish them all the best.”

Valparaiso men’s basketball team has won the Horizon League regular-season championship five of the last six years, including a share of the title with Oakland this past season. It represented the Horizon League in the NCAA Tournament in 2013 and 2015.

In the Missouri Valley, Valparaiso would replace Wichita State, which is leaving for the American Athletic Conference. In 2013, the Missouri Valley lost Creighton to the Big East.

The Oakland-Valparaiso connection dates to 1998, when both competed against each other in the Mid-Continent Conference, until Valparaiso left for the Horizon League in 2007. Oakland followed suit in 2013. They’ve played eight times in the Horizon League regular season, with each team winning four times.

Valparaiso has 19 athletic programs, but would only take 18 to the Missouri Valley, leaving its football program in the Pioneer Football League of the Football Championship Subdivision.

But basketball long has been the school’s meal ticket, since Bryce Drew hit “The Shot” to stun Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. Drew was Valpo’s coach from 2011-16, before leaving last year for Vanderbilt.

With Valparaiso’s expected departure, the Horizon League would take a huge hit in the men’s basketball RPI.

The Horizon League has been hoping to get into multiple-bid territory with the NCAA Tournament. But Valparaiso’s departure — which would cost the school a Horizon League buyout in the neighborhood of $500,000 — sets that goal back, substantially, while leaving the Horizon League with nine member institutions.

That said, the void probably wouldn’t be there for long. The Horizon League has been very open about having discussions with possible future members in recent years.

“Certainly, there are conversations that are pretty active,” Horizon League commissioner Jonathan LeCrone said in March at the Horizon League basketball tournaments at Joe Louis Arena.

Whichever direction the Horizon League goes, it’s likely to prioritize men’s basketball over staying in its five-state, Midwest footprint. The Horizon League stretches as far north and west as Green Bay, as far south as Northern Kentucky (the conference’s most recent addition), and as far east as Youngstown State.

Universities that could be targets might include Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Omaha from the Summit League; and Belmont, Murray State and SIU Edwardsville from the Ohio Valley Conference.

Belmont, Murray State and Omaha were three other institutions in talks recently with the Missouri Valley Conference, but only Valparaiso got an invitation.

One wild card to keep an eye on: Phoenix's Grand Canyon, a member of the Western Athletic Conference. Grand Canyon is coached by former Central Michigan star and Traverse City native Dan Majerle, and has a rabid fan base.