With the official start of college basketball season now exactly two weeks away (and as was previously noted, scrimmages and exhibition games already beginning), it is time to start taking a look at one of my favorite subject – the small (sometimes known as Mid-Major) conferences. Personally, I think there is a distinction to be made between the leagues that are generally called Mid-Major and the ones I classify as Small conferences. The Mid-Majors are conferences that, in my book, annually have one or two teams that are in the at-large bid discussions, such as the Horizon League, the West Coast Conference, and the Colonial. The true “Small conferences” are ones that may have an at-large caliber team once every decade or so. These are leagues like the MEAC, Summit, Northeast, SWAC, and the Great West.
One league that I would have never put in the group of true small conferences before now is the WAC. At one point in time, the WAC was one of the most powerful conference out there. Teams such as Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Utah, UNLV and more have all spent time as member of the WAC. It have existed since 1962 and had a great history. Unfortunately, that is all coming to an end – which is why I am now officially welcoming the WAC to the Small Conference list.
The WAC will have ten members this season: Utah State, Idaho, New Mexico State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech all return from last season. Texas State, Texas-Arlington, and Texas-San Antonio are joining from the Southland, while Denver moves over from the Sun Belt and Seattle comes in from the rank of Independents. While on paper that is not a bad collection of teams, it is also very temporary. Texas State and Texas-Arlingon will be right back out again next season, moving to the Sun Belt, while Texas-San Antonio follows suit and heads to Conference USA. Louisiana Tech is also off to Conference USA, while Utah State and San Jose State will be going to the Mountain West. That will leave only four members to return next season: Idaho, New Mexico State, Denver and Seattle. To make matters worse, Idaho is heading to the Big Sky in 2014.
NCAA rules provide that in order to maintain your automatic bid, a conference must have at least seven members. If a conference falls below the minimum number of members, it has a two year grace period to get back up to 7, or the bid is gone. The continuity of membership requirement has been eliminated, which means technically it could be an entire new batch of 7 teams. The WAC is attempting to survive and has added two new members beginning next season: Utah Valley from the Great West and Cal State-Bakersfield which is currently an Independent. This would give the WAC six teams next season and five in 2014 — meaning that if they do nothing else, 2014 will be their final grace period year and then their bid would be gone.
There do remain a few limited options for the WAC to expand and get back up to 7 members. By taking Utah Valley from the Great West, that conference is down to only Texas-Pan American, Chicago State and NJIT. While NJIT makes no geographic sense whatsoever, UTPA and Chicago State could be enough to get them to the membership numbers they need. UTPA recently attempted to apply to join the Southland conference but was turned down, while Chicago State was booted out of the Summit League a few years ago. It is safe to say both would probably jump at the chance to join an automatic bid conference. NJIT is probably more likely to find their way into an East Coast conference, perhaps benefiting from the fallout of realignment going on right now between the A-10, Colonial, Southern, and similar leagues.
One other option for the WAC is UC-San Diego. This Division II school has been talking about moving up to D1 for several years now. New NCAA rules require a team to have a commitment from a conference for membership before it can move up. UC-San Diego was hoping for an invite from the Big West, but that does not appear to be coming now as the Big West has been able to add more notable schools such as Hawaii, Boise State and San Diego State.
As for the 2012-13 campaign (aka the final season that the WAC has any teams in it that people recognize), the league does not appear to be anything more than a single bid conference this season. Utah State is the perennial power in the league and should be at the top of the standings. Joining them in the battle for the top spot will be Joe Scott’s Denver Pioneers, who bring their Princeton-style offense to the WAC and possibly the league’s best player in Chris Udofia. New Mexico State won the automatic bid last season and may be a contender this year. The only other team to keep an eye on is Idaho, who has a legitimate big man in Kyle Barone — although he was recently suspended indefinitely for “violation of team rules”, and the Vandals will not contend without him.