The Horizon League could replace departing Valparaiso as soon as the upcoming fall season, and almost certainly at least by 2018-19, the league commissioner told The Detroit News on Wednesday.
Commissioner Jonathan B. LeCrone wouldn’t identify the school, but confirmed the league presidents voted to extend an invitation to a single institution, with a formal announcement coming within the next two or three weeks. Horizon League officials saw presentations from two institutions in the last week, and voted to invite one of them to join.
Expansion votes require a super-majority from the league board, so at least six of the nine votes had to be yes. Valparaiso, leaving for the Missouri Valley Conference, still sits on the board, but can’t vote. LeCrone wouldn’t release the vote total.
“I am fairly certain we will be at 10 members either in ’18-19, or possibily even ’17-18,” LeCrone said. “It’s really up to the institution to decide their entry date.”
The Horizon League has been looking at expansion for well over a year, and has targeted several schools during that time frame. It stepped up its pursuit when Valparaiso announced this spring it was bolting. Valparaiso is paying a $500,000 exit fee to the Horizon League for giving “untimely notice,” LeCrone said.
Any new member likely would have some strength or potential at basketball, as the Horizon League, which doesn’t have football, has been known for its hoops in recent years, especially with Oakland and Valparaiso, and longs to someday be a mid-major considered for multiple NCAA Tournament bids.
LeCrone also said the new member will have a baseball team, which was a priority. With Valparaiso leaving, the Horizon League is down to six baseball teams, which is the minimum number allotted for a conference to receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
IUPUI doesn’t have Division I baseball, though it has a club team and could still be in the mix. But that would rule out long-rumored target Robert Morris, which doesn't carry baseball.
All other names that have been floated do carry sanctioned baseball, including Fort Wayne of the Summit League, which is down to six baseball teams and would be under the NCAA threshold should one leave; and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville of the Ohio Valley Conference; as well as the wild card, Phoenix-based Grand Canyon of the Western Athletic Conference.
Fort Wayne, formerly IPFW, is scheduled to split into two universities in 2018, so it's unclear how that could affect the Horizon League's interest. Also, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville just joined the Mid-American Conference for soccer, so that might lead to complications. Plus, it hasn't had a winning season in basketball since joining Division I, and was just 6-24 last season, 1-15 in conference play.
Grand Canyon is very intriguing, and has some darn good basketball, coached by Central Michigan Hall-of-Famer and former NBA star Dan Majerle, and a passionate fan base.
With Valparaiso leaving, the Horizon League, also home to Detroit Mercy, has schools in five states, all of which border at least one of the other states the league, most recently expanding to Kentucky with the addition of Northern Kentucky. Given the modest budgets and travel strain, it would seem adding Grand Canyon by itself wouldn’t make a ton of sense unless a second, western school was added, so schools making road trips could hit both stops at once to save money.
That said, asked if the one-school invitation means that school is in the current region, LeCrone laughed and said, “I wouldn’t assume anything.”
Also, Grand Canyon has a hefty athletics budget at $20 million and could handle the travel. For comparison, the average budget in the Horizon League is $13.37 million; the highest is Illinois-Chicago, at just over $17 million, and the lowest is Green Bay, just under $10 million. Oakland is around $14 million. Detroit Mercy is private.
“We have a very broad candidate list,” said LeCrone, “and we have lots of good candidates outside our current geographic region.”
At the recent Horizon League meetings, there was interest in eventually expanding to as many as 14 teams, and that’s still open for discussion, LeCrone said. The priority over the last week, though, was to find a school to replace Valparaiso so the league can get back up to 10, and then consider other candidates for down-the-road additions. LeCrone said the other school which presented to the board, and didn’t get an offer, still could be considered in the future.
CURRENT HORIZON LEAGUE MEMBERS
* Cleveland State (1994)
* Detroit Mercy (1980)
* Green Bay (1994)
* Milwaukee (1994)
* Northern Kentucky (2015)
* Oakland (2013)
* Illinois-Chicago (1994)
* Wright State (1994)
* Youngstown State (2001)
FORMER HORIZON LEAGUE MEMBERS
* Butler (1979-2012)
* Dayton (1987-93)
* Duquesne (1992-93)
* Evansville (1979-94)
* La Salle (1992-95)
* Loyola-Chicago (1979-2015)
* Marquette (1988-91)
* Northern Illinois (1994-97)
* Notre Dame (1982-86; 1987-95)
* Oklahoma City (1979-85)
* Oral Roberts (1979-87)
* Saint Louis (1981-91)
* Valparaiso (2007-17)
* Xavier (1979-95)