MVC Expansion Candidate Profiles
Hello Valley fans. With football season on the downswing, I am here with my second long-form basketball article of the year. (My first was my season preview which is already all sorts of wrong, but if you want to see it you can click here). We’ve all heard the rumors that the Valley is strongly considering expanding from its traditional 10-team model, and they may expand to as many as fourteen teams. We’ve also heard from official sources that the five candidates being discussed are Murray State, UIC, UT-Arlington, Omaha and Kansas City. I suspect there may be a lot of speculation from folks in a lot of these rumors, and I also suspect there may be more institutions under consideration than the ones we have heard. That said, the rumors about those five schools seem to be the ones with the most smoke. So, I figured it was time for MVC fans to get the lowdown on these schools, their athletics programs, and their markets. If you have read a lot of my stuff or follow me on Twitter, you know how I feel about chasing markets at the mid-major level. But I will try and be as objective as possible about this and give you the pros and cons of each institution as I see them. I will present info on the schools, their programs, their facilities, their market and draw some final conclusions about their respective pros and cons of each at the end (where I will drop objectivity and give my opinions). I skipped the power rankings this week to focus on this article, as it seemed like a good week to skip with so many teams on finals week. Let’s hop right in with the first candidate, shall we?
University of Illinois-Chicago Flames
UIC is located just off the loop in Chicago’s near west side neighborhood. With an enrollment of 33,000 students, UIC would have by far the highest enrollment of an MVC institution. In fact, UIC has more students than Evansville, Valpo, Drake, Bradley and Belmont combined and has the highest enrollment of any college in Chicago. UIC is a doctoral school conducting a very high level of research (R1 status). One in ten Chicagoans with a college degree is a UIC alum. The school does not have its own specific endowment as it draws from the $2.4 billion endowment of the entire University of Illinois system. A fun fact about UIC is that the stadium that the Cubs played in when they won the 1907 and 1908 World Series (West Side Park) was located on a site that is now part of the UIC campus. A plaque is situated at the site today.
The UIC Men’s Basketball team has a little bit of history since moving to DI in 1981 but has struggled of late. Coached by MVC alum Luke Yaklich (Illinois State) in his second season, the Flames have made the NCAAs three times but never since 2004. While they have managed a few CBI and CIT appearances, they’ve spent most of the last two decades hovering around .500, with a few seasons finishing well below. From 2002-2004 the Flames made two NCAA Tournament appearances and an NIT appearance. However, they have yet to win a game in either competition. In the last non-COVID season of 2019-20 the Flames finished 18-17 and 10-8 in the Horizon League while averaging 1,715 fans per game. That would have been by far the worst attendance in the MVC, over 1,000 per game less than last-place Valpo. Their jersey game is on point, though, as you can see by those amazing uniforms above.
Some of their other programs have had more success. While their women’s hoops history is even worse than their men’s, their soccer and baseball squads have been very successful historically. The men’s soccer team has only had three losing records since 1997. In 2006, they were ranked as high as 6th nationally, and in 2007 they made it all the way to the elite eight. The Flames have won the Horizon League regular season title six times (including as recently as 2019), and the tournament title six times (including a run from 2016-18). They’ve played in the NCAA Tournament eight times. The baseball team finished first or second in the Horizon league 17 of the last 20 seasons, won 12 Horizon League titles since 2000, won six Horizon League Tournaments since 2000, and participated in six NCAA regionals since 2000. They are also the alma mater of Curtis Granderson and play in that beautiful stadium you see above.
The UIC Flames’ basketball team plays at Credit Union 1 Arena (formerly known as the UIC Pavilion). The facility was opened in 1982 and renovated in a big way in 2001. This is a legitimate city facility that is more than capable of hosting the Flames as well as large events like concerts, political rallies and other events. The facility has hosted indoor football, WNBA, roller derby, indoor soccer, and WCW among others. It also hosts major concerts.
In addition to the arena, UIC baseball plays at Beautiful Curtis Granderson Field (see way above), soccer plays at Flames field. They also have smaller facilities for volleyball, swimming, softball, tennis and golf. Their baseball facilities in particular are top notch.
UIC is obviously located in Chicago, and not much needs to be said about the third biggest city in America. Chicago is the hub of culture in the Midwest. While St. Louis still serves as the league’s official home base, the league seems to be literally built around the Windy City at this point. The university is located near Chicago’s south loop (but not quite in the south loop). This isn’t the worst place to be in Chicago, but it also isn’t the best. You could certainly do worse when it comes to location. Credit Union 1 Arena is just a couple miles from Grant Park and the Soldier Field/Aquarium area. It is not far from Michigan Avenue and just 3.5 miles from Navy Pier. It is “closer to the action” than Loyola (unless by “the action” you mean Wrigley Field).
Obviously with Loyola leaving the league, it makes sense to want to fill that gap with another school in the biggest city in the Midwest. There are, presumably, a significant number of alums of every Valley school in Chicago and the city is obviously a great recruiting area. UIC is the only realistic option if we want to get a presence back in the city. The Flames’ basketball history isn’t great, but if you only consider the last 30+ years it looks quite similar Loyola’s history before they joined the league (although the Ramblers admittedly had more tradition pre 1985). You’re throwing in a solid soccer and baseball program as well. UIC plays in nice facilities as the arena is a first-class mid-major facility, and they have a renowned baseball field too. The obvious drawback is UIC’s standing within Chicago. College athletics take a back seat to pro sports in Chicago to begin with, and UIC is behind DePaul, Northwestern and Loyola in terms of college basketball pecking order (not to mention Notre Dame and basically every Big Ten team). The Flames’ average attendance is well below the average Valley school and would have been dead last in the league by far in 2019-20, despite having much more folks in the area to draw from. Still, the stat about how one in ten Chicagoans with a degree are UIC alums keeps ringing in my ears. One has to imagine if the team started to have success, a few of those alums could be moved to get excited about it. For my money, other than Murray State, UIC is the obvious #2 on this list of possible expansion candidates. If you’re going to chase a market Chicago is the one to chase, and while they’ve had some struggles UIC is a known commodity in Chicago. I welcome the Flames with open arms.
University of Missouri-Kansas City Roos
Like many schools of its ilk, UMKC (or “Kansas City” as they like to be known for athletic branding purposes) is an amalgamation of several historical universities. The school was originally to be called “Lincoln and Lee University” to honor Abraham Lincoln and Robert E Lee. It would have effectively been a monument to the Civil War and renewed northern/southern unity. Their sports teams would have almost certainly been nicknamed the “Rebels”. Instead, they ended up going with “University of Kansas City” and opened in the 1930s. Several other local colleges folded into the University over the following years until the school became part of the University of Missouri system in 1963. The university reached R2 status (doctoral university- high research activity, just a notch below UIC) in 1999. Today UMKC has an enrollment of just under 17,000 and an endowment of $153 million. There seems to be a problem of a lack of culture and identity at UMKC. School leadership often speaks to working on increasing the “culture of belonging”. It seems that the university is continually striving to establish tradition and a sense of identity for itself (especially compared to the larger state universities like Mizzou). The bulk of UMKC’s campus is in the rockhill neighborhood of Kansas City, near the Country Club Plaza shopping center.
The original Kansas City Kangaroos mascot (seen above) was designed by none other than Walt Disney himself in 1937. Unfortunately, that is the only interesting and noteworthy thing about the Kansas City athletic department. When the school rejoined the Summit League last year, they officially branded their athletic programs as the “Kansas City Roos”, shortening their mascot name and the UMKC moniker that university at large still uses. The school seems to be intentionally dodgy about its athletic past, but from what I can tell there is good reason for that. They started play as a Division I program (after 17 years in NAIA) in 1987. In 34 seasons, the Roos’ men’s basketball team has yet to make an NCAA Tournament or NIT appearance, and their only postseason action of any kind occurred in 2017 when they went 1-1 in the CBI. They’ve finished above .500 ten times in their 34-year DI history, and just three times since 2006. KC joined the Summit League (then the Mid-Continent Conference) in 1994 before moving to the WAC in 2013. Then they moved back to the Summit in 2020. Their head coach is Billy Donlon who is in his third season with the team. In 2019-20, despite a rare above .500 season, they averaged 1,069 fans per game. That put them over 1,600 behind Valpo (who was last in the Valley in attendance that year). That number is by far the lowest of any of the five candidates, and I honestly believe it is probably inflated a bit.
The rest of their squads do not seem to have much history either. It is hard to find much historical info about their men’s basketball team, and it is even harder to find info about their other sports. If they do have any accomplishments, they are awfully bashful about them. It appears their soccer team had some success in the early 2000s, winning a handful of league titles. They even won an NCAA Tournament game in 2001, which is the school’s only NCAA Tournament win in any sport in its history as far as I can tell. Their women’s hoops team was a stellar NAIA team in the 80s but has had a real rough go of it this century. They were poised to possibly make their first NCAA Tournament in 2020 after winning the WAC regular season title, but COVID wiped the league tournament and NCAA Tournament.
The Roos basketball teams play in the on-campus Swinny Center (seen above). The 1,500-seat facility has been the home of the men’s team since it moved back on campus in 2019. Swinney is, frankly, quite lacking relative to Missouri Valley Conference……or even just DI basketball…..standards. However, the University has another option. Except for a brief foray on campus from 2010-2012, and their current experiment, the Roos have played at downtown Kansas City’s historic Municipal Auditorium (seen below) for most of their existence.
Municipal Auditorium is located about 5 miles north of campus and seats 10,000. University officials have stated that the move to the on-campus facility was done to foster a “culture of belonging” among students. It also didn’t hurt that playing games downtown cost the department six-figures worth of revenue each year. When the team moved back to the arena in 2013, $5 million in renovations were done to modernize the experience. While Swinney is honestly a better fit for the program as it currently stands, one would imagine/hope/pray that a move back to Municipal would be a prerequisite to MVC membership. The only other facility of note for UMKC is Durwood Soccer Stadium on campus.
The biggest and most obvious draw to having Kansas City in the MVC is the market in which it exists. If Chicago is the cultural capital of the Midwest, I would argue that Kansas City is the cultural capital of the great plains. The city is the biggest thing going from St. Louis to Denver and from Minneapolis to Dallas. The metro population is just over a half million, with a metropolitan area of 2.3 million. The reasons why the Valley covets this market are obvious. It is a perfect geographic and cultural fit for a league that is looking to expand its footprint back westward after inching easterly for the last few years with the losses of Wichita State and Creighton. The campus is located five miles south of KC’s famous Power and Light District (and the adjacent T-Mobile Center), and a few miles west of the Kansas City Zoo. It is seemingly in a nice area of town and the rest of the city is accessible. Also, despite all its faults in athletics, UMKC is the only DI school in the Kansas City area. It doesn’t seem implausible that the city could one day rally around the Roos if they could find some success on the court.
I understand why the MVC is interested in establishing itself in Kansas City. But I think this is a perfect example of market chasing perhaps going too far. Despite all their well-intentioned efforts, UMKC men’s basketball (and athletics in general) continue to be a virtual non-entity of the zeitgeist in Kansas City. Even compared to a school like UIC, which has much more to compete with between pro and college sports in Chicago, UMKC’s athletics seems to be lacking. I lived in Chicago, and while UIC was not a big player….you at least knew it existed. I would venture to guess most Kansas City residents are barely aware that UMKC exists at all, and even fewer know anything about their basketball team. They have tried appealing to the city at large and the students. They have moved downtown, then on campus, then back downtown, then back on campus. They’ve tried rebranding. But the residents of KC have shown time and time again that they simply do not care about UMKC Athletics. It makes all the sense in the world to be in KC, especially if we plan to expand to Dallas as well. It connects Dallas and Mo State to Iowa, the home office in St. Louis and Chicago. But at some point you need to have some level of support, resources and excitement for it to matter. UMKC is in the bottom 10% of college athletics in nearly every category. Now, I will say this. I do believe Kansas City is a college sports town, despite a lack of a P6 squad in the city. The Big 12 Tournament is there most every year, they host NCAA Tournament games, and there is a major KU, Mizzou and Kansas State presence. UMKC is the only DI school in the city, and I could see a scenario where a groundswell of support emerges if the team starts to have some success. Its lack of competition could be its salvation. Joining the Valley could help. But overall, I see this move as only looking OK on paper to the academics making this decision. In practice, I wonder if UMKC has it in them to be a league asset long term, and not an anchor. If you want the league to really get its members some publicity, they need to be fielding competitive teams and making NCAA Tournament runs. Kansas City gets us substantially further away from both of those things, and does not move the needle to the general populace in KC. There are simply better options than this.
Murray State University Racers
Murray State is the school on this list that most closely resembles the classic profile of a public MVC institution. Located in a small town in southwestern Kentucky, Murray State was founded as a normal school in the 1920s. This is a similar history to every other current public Valley school, all of which were originally founded as normal schools. Murray does not have the major research background that some of the other schools on this list have, but it is consistently listed as one of the best regional universities in the south. MSU’s enrollment of 9,466 would put it last among the Missouri Valley’s public universities (but ahead of all the privates once Loyola leaves), and its endowment of $91 million would be the second lowest of any Valley school (ahead of Indiana State). Murray is located in the small town from which it gets its namesake, Murray, Kentucky, which is not particularly close to any major markets. Overall, Murray State as an institution is quite similar to most of the public schools in the MVC. It is a standard normal-school-turned-regional university.
Of the candidates being considered (that we know of), Murray State has been the most successful on the court by an extremely wide margin. The Racers have been playing DI basketball since 1953 and have put together several impressive runs. By my count Murray State has competed in 17 NCAA Tournaments and 8 NITs. Most of that occurred since 1988, as MSU has made 21 postseason appearances since that time. Since 2010, the Racers have played in 5 NCAA Tournaments, two NITs and won a CIT title. In 2010, Murray was seeded 13th at the big dance and beat 4th seeded Vanderbilt before losing by 2 to eventual national runners up Butler. In 2012 a 6th seeded Murray made it to round two, and in 2019 a 12th seeded Racer squad beat 5th seeded Marquette before losing to Florida State. The list of recent Murray State head coaches includes Mick Cronin, Billy Kennedy and Steve Prohm. Their all-time record is 1,675-917. Famous alums include current NBA players Ja Morant and Cameron Payne. Those are just two of the nine guys who have been drafted to the NBA out of MSU. The team is extremely well-supported as well. Murray State fans traditionally take over the Ohio Valley Tournament and would likely bring a large contingent to Arch Madness in St. Louis. Their average attendance of 4,887 would have been third best among Valley schools in 2019-20.
The other sports at MSU have not had as much success. Murray State is the only school on this list that has a football team, although they have struggled as of late. The baseball team had a good run in the ‘70s but has struggled lately as well. Women’s basketball has struggled, but women’s soccer has had some success, making the NCAAs three times between 2015 and 2018. The volleyball team also made the NCAAs three times from 2014-2018 and has been very good in the OVC. They have two national titles in rifle. Overall, when it comes to a bringing a competitive program to the table no one on the list compares to Murray State.
Murray State plays men’s basketball at the CFSB Center. The arena was built in 1998 and is the biggest facility of its type in the area, hosting things like high school events, concerts, and trade shows. The facility holds about 8,600 for basketball. It isn’t an overwhelmingly awesome facility by MVC standards (and is arguably the second worst on this list ahead of only UMKC) but it is more than adequate for its purpose and has created an awesome home court advantage for the Racer faithful.
Their other facilities are similar. Baseball’s Johnny Reagan Field is named after a legendary coach. Football plays at the mediocre Roy Stewart Stadium, where a thoroughbred does a lap around the stadium every time Murray State scores (see above). Volleyball plays at Racer Arena, former home of the MSU basketball teams. They also have a softball field, tennis center, weight rooms, rifle range, indoor hoops practice facility and a pretty and unique soccer field in Cutchin Field.
The school is good, the athletic programs are excellent, and the facilities are good. So, what is the problem you may ask? The market. Murray State is, for all intents and purposes, not really in a market. If they were, they probably wouldn’t be available. Murray, Kentucky is a small town of about 17,000 people located in the southwest corner of the state. Murray is 2 hours from Nashville, 3 hours from Memphis, 3.5 hours from St. Louis and Louisville, 5.5 hours from Atlanta and 6.5 hours from Chicago. It is about as in the middle of nowhere as you can be in the eastern United States. If the MVC is looking to add some major market presence to the league (and they are), Murray State absolutely aint it.
If you’ve read my previous work or follow me on Twitter you already know my stance on Murray State. As I lay out in the article linked above (which is by far my most read post, by the way) I think the strength of the MVC has been in our smaller communities that are built around the university. The Racers get substantially better attendance than the schools in the big cities from this list because they own the region. There are no pro teams, no concerts, no nothing to compete for your entertainment dollar in Murray, Kentucky. The community rallies around and supports the school. That type of support is the strength of the Missouri Valley Conference, and a huge part of what makes our league special. It is the reason why, in my opinion, the MVC has had so much success historically and programs like Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, Valpo, and Bradley have been able to have success on the biggest stage while building decent sized fanbases. Those schools don’t simply exist in their communities, they ARE their communities. I get the draw and appeal of having schools in big cities, but there is a reason why the Valley has been more successful than the Horizon and Summit Leagues. There is a reason the Summit is anchored in the Dakota schools (and moved its offices to Sioux Falls). Those schools are simply better followed and supported. There is more of a sense of culture, community, and pride in those schools. And at some point, you simply gotta put butts in the seats and have people tuning in to watch. You gotta have people donating and interacting and spending money and singing your praises. And that is happening at schools like Murray State more than it is happening at satellite schools that get swallowed up by the big cities. I think if the Valley chooses to expand, it would be a grave error not to include Murray State. It’s like this. MVC Presidents are like Freddie Prinze Jr’s character in “She’s All That”, and Murray State is Rachel Leigh Cook. If the Presidents just give her a chance, she will take off her glasses and reveal herself to be beautiful and lovely. And like the movie, everyone except Freddie Prinze/the MVC Presidents can already tell she’s gorgeous before she takes off her glasses because…..well……it is painfully obvious. But Freddie needs convincing. So give the girl a chance, FPJ/MVC Presidents, and I guarantee you it will be worth it. Although literally everyone else could have told you that already. If the Valley doesn’t lock up the Racers somebody else will. Don’t let Paul Walker ruin our chance at happiness/NCAA bids. I think I am starting to lose this analogy.
Pictured: A real bowser according to
the MVC Presidents, apparently.
University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks
The University of Nebraska Omaha has a similar history to that of UMKC. It was founded in 1908 as a private college, then became a public school in 1930. It integrated into the University of Nebraska system in 1968. The school has the same Carnegie classification as UMKC and is just a notch below UIC with an R2 (High Research Activity) rating. With 15,526 students and a $72 million endowment, UNO would be just ahead of Indiana State in avoiding the league’s smallest endowment. But we all know it isn’t the size of the endowment that really matters, it is what you do with it. Among MVC schools (as the league will be constructed after this season), only Missouri State and Illinois State have more students. It is one of three four-year universities in the University of Nebraska system along with Nebraska-Lincoln (AKA, the Cornhuskers), and Nebraska-Kearney. The school is located about 4 miles west of where most of the best action is in Omaha.
Nebraska Omaha (which brands itself as “Omaha” for athletics branding purposes) is the youngest DI program on this list, making the transition from Division II in 2011. The school had a strong athletics history in D2, and the move up was somewhat controversial as they cut their football and wrestling programs in the process. The Mav football team was very successful with several conference titles and D2 playoff appearances. The wrestling team was even better, going out on top with three consecutive national championships. They actually found out they were being cut while returning home from winning the national title. Ouch.
The men’s basketball squad has not made an NCAA or NIT in its nine-year history, but they have made a bit of headway in that time. The Mavs have finished .500 or better in four of their last five seasons and finished second in the Summit League with a 13-3 record in 2018-19. The team is coached by Derrin Hansen, who has led the team since its D2 days in the mid-2000s. They’ve struggled this season, getting off to a 1-9 start with no D1 wins. Omaha averaged 2,393 fans in 2019-20 (a number I find a bit suspicious) which would have still been last in the Valley but is much closer to the MVC standard than UTA, UIC and especially Kansas City.
Unfortunately, Omaha’s best and most popular sport is not sponsored by the Missouri Valley. The Mavericks are decidedly a hockey school. Their beautiful new arena, Baxter Arena, is a hockey arena in which they also play basketball not the other way around. Their hockey squad made the Frozen Four in 2015 but has struggled a bit lately. The Maverick volleyball team has been strong lately too, and the program would bring an additional men’s soccer and baseball team into the league as well.
Omaha plays its basketball games in the beautiful new Baxter Arena, which opened in 2015. The arena is probably the best home gym on this list and would stand amongst the best facilities in the MVC. Unfortunately, as I said above, Baxter Arena is a hockey arena that is also used for basketball not the other way around. The arena seats almost 8,000 and features several alternate hockey surfaces for the team to use for practice and for public use as well. It is also used for concerts and other events. The arena is located a couple miles off campus.
The soccer team plays at Caniglia Field, the former home of the football team (RIP). Sapp fieldhouse is the home of their athletics administration offices and a secondary competition space that was the primary arena before Baxter Arena was built (and is still better than what Kansas City is using). The Mavericks opened Tal Anderson Field as the new home of their baseball program, and Connie Claussen Field as the new home of their softball program earlier this year. Both are nice new facilities that would be among the best in the MVC for their sports.
Creighton is obviously in Omaha, so most MVC fans should be familiar with the town. With a population just south of a half million and a metro area of just south of a million, Omaha is a nice market to have although it isn’t one that will make or break you. Omaha is the “Gateway to the West”. If you are driving into Omaha from the east or south, it is the last town of consequence you are going to see for a while. It is also a town that is familiar with the Valley because of Creighton’s existence there and the league name in itself could cause some excitement among the populace. Omaha is on the Iowa-Nebraska border and there are already two schools from the great state of Iowa in the league, so some might say the market is at least partially covered already from an enrollment perspective. UNO is also fighting a couple battles when it comes to building their men’s basketball program in their market. They will always play second fiddle to their own hockey team, and they will always play second fiddle to Creighton’s basketball team.
I really wish UMKC’s athletics situation were more like Omaha’s. Kansas City is the perfect market, but the athletic department is just so lacking in resources, facilities, and support the Roos are a tough add. Meanwhile Omaha is over here building a decent department with nice new facilities and budding competitive teams, but they are in a less desirable market and are overshadowed by a larger program in their own town. I really like what the Mavericks have done. They’re the #2 public university in their state, and they are building the #3 athletic department behind Nebraska and Creighton. It is a distant #3, however. They have built great facilities for their hockey, basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball and soccer teams, and they have gotten to a point where they are getting some level of support for their sports beyond hockey (as their kind-of-OK basketball attendance suggests). They still have a ways to go to get to the level of the rest of the MVC in terms of support though. And that is the rub with Omaha. Their biggest sport is not an MVC sport, they’re a solid #2 team in their own town and an even more solid #3 in their state. And their town and their state aren’t that big. Their campus culture, while not as bad as UMKC, is questionable at best. If this department were brewing in KC, I’d say that they could be on the cusp of becoming a big deal in their town since they would be competing with no other DI teams. As it is, I have some issues with adding a school whose #1 priority isn’t men’s basketball. At the end of the day, though, they have done some good things especially with their facilities, and they’ve only been a D1 program for 10 years so the potential is still there. I’d slot Omaha behind Murray and UIC and ahead (well ahead) of Kansas City if I had to rank these schools in terms of desirability for the league.
University of Texas at Arlington Mavericks
Who is ready for a wildcard? In keeping with the old adage, “You can never have too many Mavericks in your conference”, the league is also seriously considering the Mavericks of UT-Arlington. UTA was founded in 1895 and was moved from the Texas A&M University System to the University of Texas University System in 1965. The school has an R1 Carnegie classification, which is better than all the other schools on this list, except UIC which equals it. UTA has an endowment of $211 million and an enrollment of 43,863 students which blows the doors off any current MVC school. In fact, if you combine the enrollments of Missouri State and Illinois State (the two highest enrollments of any current MVC school), they only just beat out UTA’s number. The six smallest MVC enrollments (Evansville, Valpo, Drake, Bradley, Belmont and SIU) combine to fall over 5,000 students short of UTA’s enrollment. The school’s mascot from 1951-1970 was, controversially, the Rebels but they adopted the Mavericks nickname in 1971. UTA is located on the south side of downtown Arlington. Arlington itself is located between the major cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. Considered a prestigious academic institution, UTA was awarded Texas Tier One status earlier this year, one of just four public universities to hold the distinction (along with Texas Tech, Houston and UT-Dallas). In athletics, they were a founding member of the Southland in the early 60s before spending one year in the WAC and then moving to the Sun Belt in 2013. As the Sun Belt looks to focus on FBS football, and as one of only two non-football playing members of the league, they have been politely asked to vacate the premises by 2023.
Most of UTA’s basketball history is bad. Like aggressively bad. If my math is correct, UTA had an overall men’s basketball record of 408-659 from 1959-1999 with only a single 1981 NIT appearance to show for it. However, things have been better in the new millennium. The Mavericks won a share of their first Southland Conference title in 2004. In 2008, the Mavs made their first and only NCAA Tournament appearance to date, losing to #1 seed Memphis in the first round. Since that NCAA appearance UTA has finished with a winning record in eleven of fourteen seasons, winning two conference titles and qualifying for two NITs and CITs each. In 2017, the Mavs finished 27-9 and made it all the way to the NIT quarterfinals with wins over BYU and Akron before losing to 8th seeded Bakersfield at home, falling one win short of the NIT semifinals in NYC. I must admit, I expected UTA’s recent history to be worse than it is. UTA averaged 1,754 fans in 2019-20 which would have been a distant last in the MVC last year. They averaged 2,798 in their Sun Belt Championship season of 2016-17, so they do have the ability to do a little better with success (but that still would’ve been 2nd worst in the Valley).
The Maverick women’s hoops team had a great run in the early 2000s. They played in the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2007. After a rough early 2010s, they’ve been one of the best programs in the Sun Belt the last few seasons. UTA is another program that would bring an additional baseball squad to the Valley. The team has hovered around .500 for most of its recent existence. Their volleyball team has a very strong history but has been only OK this century. Their softball team also tends to hover around .500.
The UTA basketball and volleyball teams play at the College Park Center. The arena opened in 2012, and if you consider that Baxter Arena in Omaha is really built for hockey not hoops, this is probably the best basketball arena among the programs being considered. The 7,000-seat facility serves not only as the home of UTA basketball, but the signature basketball facility in Arlington. It is also the home to the WNBA’s Dallas Wings and has hosted the likes of Drake (the performer, not the Bulldogs) and WWE Live. The location of the arena was strategically chosen to be the centerpiece of a revitalization effort of downtown Arlington.
The Mavs’ other facilities include baseball’s Clay Gould Ballpark that includes a newly built state of the art clubhouse opened in 2015. Their golf team calls “Texas Rangers Golf Club” home, officially branded after the local MLB team. Softball plays at the newly (as of 2015) renovated Allan Saxe Field, and they also have a tennis center, an athletic performance center and an academic center. Maverick Stadium, home of the UTA track team, still maintains a fully painted (including a branded midfield and end zone) and operational football field with goal posts despite the fact UTA dropped its football squad in 1985. A wise decision, as you never know when a football team might just sprout up out of nowhere. How embarrassing would it be if they didn’t have a stadium ready. In Texas no less.
Arlington, Texas is effectively Dallas, Texas. It is also Fort Worth, Texas. The town sits between the two cities and is the true home of both the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers. On its own Arlington has a population of just under 400K and is the 50th most populous city in America. The Dallas-Fort Worth area has a population of between 5.5 million and 8.2 million depending on how you look at it. On its own, Dallas is the ninth most populous city in the country. The metroplex, as it is apparently known, is obviously geographically separated from the Missouri Valley by quite a bit. The addition of Kansas City would help connect the dots some geographically, but the closest MVC school to the area is Missouri State which is a 7 hour plus drive. That is only an hour less than the current longest drive between two MVC schools, 8 hours and 8 minutes from Springfield to Valpo (although Cedar Falls to Nashville, at ten hours, will take the title starting next year). This wouldn’t be the first time the Valley found itself in Texas, though. West Texas A&M was a league member from 1972 until 1985 before making a move to D2. There is no doubt that Dallas is an exciting market to be in, but UTA seems to be fighting a similar battle to UMKC. Is UTA, and UTA athletics in particular, a part of the zeitgeist in the metroplex? Dallas seems to be a pro sports town first, and the biggest sports team of them all (the Cowboys) play right there in Arlington. Among college sports, football (which UTA does not sponsor) reigns supreme in Texas. Even amongst college basketball teams in the metroplex, SMU, TCU and North Texas seem to be above the Mavericks in the pecking order. Not to mention Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor and Houston who all likely have bigger followings in Dallas than UTA. The fact that the team can’t even draw 2,000 fans a game in an area with a population over 8 million tells you what UTA athletics means to the average Dallas resident.
My feelings toward UTA, more than any other school I researched for this, improved for the better while doing my research. I didn’t know much about UTA going in, but there are a lot of good things here. The school has an enormous number of students and seems to be well funded and supported by the administration. Despite their struggles this year (and historically), the basketball team has been a decent program in the last decade and has potential to become a quality MVC team. They wouldn’t likely be an anchor to the league’s SOS like UMKC would almost certainly be. I was pleasantly surprised that the Mavericks play basketball in a relatively new facility in a good location with nice amenities. Much like Omaha, I really wish UMKC was more like this. All that said, I still can’t get past the feeling of “why” with UT-Arlington. All signs point to the idea that this marriage is very close to happening, and it seems like UTA will be an MVC institution soon. Several people have explained the idea of enrollment issues and how a presence in a big city like this can help enrollment at MVC schools. But I really struggle to see how that will work in practice. It just seems like wishful thinking to me. UTA is a ghost in their own town. Very few people in Dallas pay any attention to UTA athletics. In order to get the benefits you’re seeking here, you need have some sort of presence in the market. The idea that Texas kids are going to go to a private school in the upper Midwest because a college basketball team no one cares about in Dallas plays them in basketball just doesn’t add up to me. I don’t see how you get from point A to point B on that, and while several people have tried to explain it to me, I just don’t buy it. To me, the way you get publicity for the schools in your league at the mid major level is by getting media coverage, getting games on linear TV and getting people interested. You do that by having good teams and making runs in the NCAA Tournament. A good NCAA Tournament run would do more for the Valley than having a school that exists in Arlington, IMO. UTA seems like it would be better than Kansas City, and maybe Omaha as well……but it still doesn’t make much sense to me in terms of fit for the Valley.
The schools above are the ones reported by the media to have gotten the most consideration from the league. But there are several other schools that have been involved in past searches or are the subject of speculation among fans. I’d like to take a quick look at them.
NKU has gotten a lot of play as a candidate for the MVC for several years. The Norse started the transition from Division II to Division I in 2012 and play in the 11-year-old BB&T Arena as members of the Horizon League. Fans have speculated about NKU because they are well supported with an average 2019-20 attendance of 3,559 (better than four Valley schools) and are in the large market of Cincinnati, Ohio (just over the river on the Kentucky side, obviously). One would think this would be an attractive option for the Valley that extends the footprint a bit (we do not currently have a school in Ohio/Ky) and adds a presence in an area from which league schools could realistically draw enrollment (especially the eastern schools). I really don’t know why there hasn’t been more smoke for NKU as they seemingly check all the boxes, but it seems the league is looking more west and south than east for whatever reason.
The Panthers were heavily involved in previous expansion searches, and I seem to recall them being particularly involved in the search to replace Creighton. UWM is a large school in a big market, one that becomes even more attractive if the Valley doesn’t have a school in Chicago. Their basketball team has some good history as a mid-major playing out of the Horizon League, although they’ve struggled a bit more recently. UWM seems like the type of school that could really benefit from MVC membership, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the program improved after joining the league. They play in the decent UW-Panther arena, but only averaged 1,432 fans last year. Still, UWM seemingly brings more to the table than Kansas City and have several advantages over Omaha and UTA.
This school would likely be a stronger candidate if it existed in a better market. WSU has one of the strongest men’s basketball programs in the Horizon and is well supported averaging 4,164 fans per game in 2019-20, which would have been 5th in the Valley. They play in a decent facility in the Nutter Center, too. Fairborn, Ohio is not the biggest market so they will not be considered, but I feel like they’d be a good fit in the MVC.
The Dakotas: South Dakota State, North Dakota State, South Dakota, North Dakota
These schools will never get a look from the market obsessed MVC Presidents, but I really believe they would make the Valley better competitively and bring in more money and more visibility. These are the flagship institutions in their states and get the bulk of the media coverage in their (admittedly sparsely populated) areas. They have strong fanbases, strong cultures, and strong support. They are located in smaller communities that rally around the team instead of getting swallowed up by a large city. There is a reason these schools dominate the Summit League, which is home to schools from Denver, the twin cities, Kansas City, and Omaha. There is a reason the league office is in Sioux Falls. These schools aren’t a realistic possibility for membership, but I just wanted to voice my personal support.
Yes, this school was D3 as recently as………early 2021, but if you’re going to consider Kansas flipping City you ought to be considering the Tommies. St. Thomas has a ways to go to improve their facilities to get them to DI standard, but they will get there. The school has a half billion-dollar endowment and is one of only two DI schools in Minnesota. The campus is in the Twin Cities, which is fertile recruiting ground for MVC institutions. St. Thomas has absolutely nothing but potential. The university is well supported, has a very good culture of excellence in athletics, and a has a strong university identity and culture within its student body. Not to mention they are the only private school mentioned in any way on this list. Honestly, they’re already in a better situation than Kansas City. KC has had 30 years to prove their worth in DI. Give the Tommies a look. Or just go to 12 schools for now and wait until a 13th and 14th emerge as deserving. I’d bet St. Thomas will be one of them.
And that is that! I hope you feel you have a better handle on what to expect from these schools should they join the league. The rumor is that reps from the schools are making their pitches this week, so we may find out soon if any changes are being made. At the end of the day, consider this. Using the criteria reportedly being valued by the Presidents, none of the current MVC schools would likely be deemed a good fit for the league other than Loyola and maybe Drake. Just think about how crazy that is. We are the best mid major league in the Midwest yet none of our schools would be good enough.
Anyway, that is it. I hope you enjoyed this one. One thing that gets lost in all of this is that a 14-team MVC would probably mean an extra day of Arch Madness. Is that really necessary? Yes, actually. Arch Madness should be every day. Best of luck to all the MVC teams this week and GO VALLEY! I’ll be back next week with the standard power rankings.