Examining American Athletic Conference Possible Replacement Members
By: Ethan Hennessy
It is rumored that Connecticut is leaving the American Athletic Conference to return to the Big East Conference in all sports aside from football. According to Matt Norlander of CBS Sports “Barring an unexpected event, or an accelerated timeline, the Big East is expected to formally announce UConn’s return to the conference in New York City on Thursday”. This would leave the conference with twelve members for football and eleven for every other sport including men’s basketball. Should they choose to replace the departing huskies or even expand further I have looked at possible candidates and evaluated the likelihood and possible fit of each of them.
Tier 1 – Best Choices for Replacement
VCU- This is a school without football, so the conference could remain at twelve members for that while adding a very strong basketball power. Similar to the recent addition of Wichita State the Rams would come in and instantly compete towards the top of the conference bringing a passionate fanbase with them. VCU would probably jump at the chance to move up in caliber of conference for a win win for both VCU and the AAC. This is probably the only school that as a solo add would feel like a possible upgrade over UConn with the Rams having made eight of the last nine NCAA Tournaments and a final four in that span.
Western Kentucky – Western Kentucky is 7-3 against Power 5 schools in basketball the past two seasons. Since the American always likes to try to prove they can hang with the big boys on the court through their self branded Power 6 campaign this would be one of the best adds for that. Along with VCU they have an incredible home court enviornment and large passionate fan base. WKU also makes sense football wise making a bowl game four of the past five seasons.
UMass- The minutemen are less than two hours from UConn, so they would slide right into place as a geographic replacment. With this choice the conference would also not lose its New England foothold. Football is an independent looking for a home, and while basketball has been down recently it is still overall a respectable brand with some semi-recent history. The American Athletic Conference headquarters is also in Providence Rhode Island which I think slightly increases their chances as maybe the conference wants to keep somebody close to HQ.
Tier 2 – Could Work But Not Ideal
New Mexico State – The aggies have quietly become the Gonzaga of the WAC. Eight straight conference regular season or conference tournament titles has built them into one of the best mid majors in the country. Their case for moving to the American may be outweighed though by being outside of the current already gigantic footprint of the conference. They do have a bad FBS football team, but since the conference already has twelve football members they might be inclined to take them in all sports besides football which would help the aggies case.
Navy – The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis is already an affiliate member of the conference for football only. Logistically it makes a ton of sense to just take your 12th football member and make them the 12th full member in everything else. However, there is a reason they are a football member only. If the American Athletic Conference wanted to pluck either them or Army from the Patriot League for basketball believe me they would have done it already. Sure it would be rough at first, rough like going winless or only getting a win or two against the likes of ECU and Tulane for a few years, but with a few years of American TV money pumped into the program they could start to move out of the cellar slowly.
Tier 3 – Swing for the Fences
Loyola Chicago – Not only would you get a basketball program with national brand name, but you would also get the third largest media market in the country to go with it. Hey it worked for Wichita, so why not snag the Missouri Valley Conference’s newest cinderella sensation right? The only problem might be the prospective school itself Loyola Chicago may or may not want to pass up the chance to have the inside route to the NCAA tournament for the forseable future to battle it out with the tougher competition like Memphis, Wichita, Cincinatti, and Houston for what would be far from a guaranteed trip to the NCAA or NIT almost every season.
Boise State – They have been at least a 20 win team in the Mountain West every year (since 2012-13). The broncos would be a solid add for basketball, and a phenomenal one for football by not only strenghtening yourself, but also weakening your competition of the Mountain West. The only issue, and it is a major one, is geographically this would make no sense Boise State would have all of their conference companions well over 1,000 miles away. This is West Virginia in the Big 12 on steroids.
BYU – Similar to Loyola Chicago I’m not actually sure the American would even be able to lure the cougars away from the WCC where they feast on the monetary fruits of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, and occasionally their own labor. Their football would be a nice upgrade over UConn’s, but just like Boise the issue of geography plays large in this one.
There are plenty of other schools that could make viable justifications to be added to the American such as Buffalo, Marshall, Dayton, and Charlotte. While I wouldn’t be shocked to hear them mentioned I just don’t see them in serious consideration by the American as the replacment for UConn.