5 Ways Moving to the AAC Will Impact WSU
It was only a matter of time. By the end of last season, Wichita State had outgrown the Missouri Valley Conference like a college freshman outgrows friends from high school.
But now that WSU is officially a member of the Power 6 American Athletic Conference, what will the move mean for Wichita’s crown jewel university?
Playing With the Big Boys
WSU has been upgrading its athletic profile in the NCAA over the past few years primarily through basketball, so it’s no surprise they have been looking to join a more elite conference. But in looking for a conference with more to offer, without football most major conferences won’t even sniff at the Shockers. But that’s exactly why the AAC makes sense right now for WSU.
The Shockers go into the AAC as a basketball and Olympic sports-only school, meaning there’s no pressure to build a costly football team anytime soon. The AAC also has the football-only U.S. Naval Academy among its teams – meaning the rest of the AAC will play Navy in football and WSU in basketball with no gaps in scheduling.
When it comes time to hit the hardwood, WSU will face much stiffer conference competition than in the MVC where they have played every season since 1945. Teams like UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston, Temple and SMU are a much more difficult prospect than the likes of Evansville, Southern Illinois, Drake, etc.
But better competition is a welcome change for Gregg Marshall’s team, because at tournament time the NCAA has always dogged the Shockers for playing in a perceived “weak” conference. Since Marshall’s arrival, the Shockers have proven they are among the elite teams in the country and now they will have the strength of schedule to hopefully merit a single-digit seed again for the first time since “the undefeated regular season” when WSU entered the tournament as a 1 seed and were dispatched in the second round by Kentucky in a heart-breaking loss most Wichitans still get angry talking about.
The new conference will also mean more national TV appearances for the Shockers, boosting the university profile even further. As WSU gets a bigger foothold in the national conversation, it will benefit the university in other ways as well.
With a higher-profile conference comes an increase in the talent and competition level and therefore recruiting needs weigh that much heavier. In the past, WSU has proven that they have the ability to recruit top athletes even while playing in the MVC. Coach Marshall has been able to recruit great players who want to play for him, and the move to the AAC will only help in his future efforts.
But there is also the added value in recruiting athletes outside of basketball. 15 total Shocker programs will be competing in the AAC this season. Baseball, softball, track and field, volleyball, tennis, cross country and golf athletes who wouldn’t have considered competing in the MVC will now be looking at WSU in a different way. The best always want to play with the best and the new conference gives WSU recruitment efforts a shot in the arm for bringing top athletes from around the world to Wichita.
Raising WSU’s Academic Profile
But what about benefits outside of sports? It turns out WSU’s academic programs will be getting a boost as well. AAC membership positions WSU as an academic research partner with other top schools, and they are already seeking those partnerships within the AAC.
During their tenure in the MVC, WSU was by far the top research institution in the conference. With the move to the AAC, WSU is now ranked sixth in the conference for research and development expenditures with $60 million in 2015 according to the National Science Foundation. By comparison the top schools in the conference spent $190 million (University of South Florida, Tampa), $189 million (University of Central Florida), $151 million (University of Houston), $116 million (University of Connecticut) and $89 million (University of Cincinnati) in that same year.
Moving into a conference that spends far more on academic research and making partnerships with those institutions has huge potential to positively impact WSU’s academic standing and programs. So those out there belly-aching that the move was all about sports can rest easy. The impact will be felt in all areas of campus life.
Bolstering Wichita’s Economy
Another key area the conference move will impact is the Wichita economy. One of the ways AAC membership will improve the Wichita economy is by bringing more out-of-state freshmen outside of the I-35 corridor to WSU. As the WSU brand becomes more widely-known outside the region in bigger cities, the university expects that its successes in sports and its raised profile in academics will bring many more out-of-state students to Wichita.
With the boost in academic research also comes the opportunity for new technological investment in the area and the possibility for new jobs to open up in the near future. WSU’s past research involvement has mostly been in aerospace and engineering, but research partnerships brought on by the new conference could extend WSU’s research profile into other areas through corporate grants.
WSU is banking on the fact that with their raised profile through athletics, many more opportunities for Wichita advancement will blossom. WSU is definitely stepping onto a bigger stage nationally, and with that recognition, they are hoping Wichita will eventually get to see the kind of bigger-city opportunities we could only have dreamt of just a few years ago.
With every change comes an adjustment period, and one of the things WSU and their fans will have to get used to is the increase in travel to AAC schools and tournaments. In the MVC, the longest trips to conference rival schools were to Illinois and Indiana. Now WSU athletes and fans will be traveling all over the eastern United States to compete.
Some of the new cities WSU will travel to include: Orlando, Tampa, Cincinnati, Hartford/Storrs, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Memphis and Greenville, NC. That’s quite a wide geographic area to consider, but conferences like these are now the norm in college athletics and WSU is joining this new tradition.
Gone are the days of car-tripping to St. Louis each year for the Arch Madness conference tournament, but it’s going to be exciting to see what traditions become a part of this new WSU version 2.0.