UPDATE (11/04/2010): It appears South Dakota is not Big Sky bound after all, thanks to an invite to the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
In a piece of news I completely missed yesterday (thanks preseason bug), the Big Sky announced that North Dakota and Southern Utah are joining the conference as full members for the 2012-13 academic year. The Fighting Sioux (who won't be going by that name for much longer) were a candidate for membership in the Summit League, the conference the Thunderbirds are departing. North Dakota is currently a member of the bidless Great West Conference, composed of various former independents and transitional Division I schools, not all of whom are in the "West." (Yes, I'm looking at you NJIT and Chicago State.)
Reports out of South Dakota indicate that the Big Sky may not be done. Their next target is the University of South Dakota, who accepted a Summit League invite in April of 2009. It looks like the Coyotes will leave that conference in the dust and accept a Big Sky invite of their own.
After the jump, I'll discuss some of the impacts of and potential reasons for Monday's news.
For starters, the move isn't a bad one for Southern Utah and its soon-to-be former Summit partners for travel budget and time reasons, something The Mid-Majority's Kyle Whelliston writes about over at Basketball Prospectus.
Southern Utah currently resides in the Summit League, a very Central Time-centric collective where the long voyages made to Cedar City, Utah, by opposing teams are days that simply dissolve. One Summit assistant, whom I'll protect with anonymity for his own safety, once told me that he fears SUU weekend more than the annual Christmas trip to visit the in-laws.
Whelliston also points out that the two Dakota schools are ready-made Big Sky travel partners, which is a boost for that conference's scheduling. However, North Dakota and South Dakota's membership in the same conference also has a positive impact on non-conference scheduling. With the Nickname TBDs and Coyotes in the Big Sky and their respective eternal rivals, North Dakota State and South Dakota State, in the Summit, two to four (if the schools decide to do home-and-home series with one another) non-league games are all but automatically etched onto each team's annual hoops slate.
Not surprisingly, football is the primary driver for this move. Back in September, the Big Sky invited Cal Poly and UC Davis to join the conference for football. For obvious reasons, that was a move I didn't cover here. In fact, I didn't even know about it until I did my research for this post. The invitation to the Mustangs and Aggies effectively spells the end of the football version of the Great West, as it only had five members to begin with--not enough to earn a bid to the FCS playoffs. If South Dakota joins North Dakota and Southern Utah in the Big Sky, all five of its former members will have a football home, and the Big Sky will be the sole FCS conference west of the Great Plains.
When the transitions are made, the Big Sky will have 12 all-sports members and 14 football members. Or will it? Montana has been rumored as a strong candidate for WAC membership, as that conference seeks to replace Fresno State and Nevada, who will be leaving for the Mountain West in time for the 2012-13 academic year. Perhaps the Big Sky expanded pre-emptively, aiming to shore up its own membership in case the Grizzlies, and potentially Montana State, make the jump to FBS.
The monkey wrench in Missoula is that the U of M just hired a new president, Royce Engstrom, and he'll have a major say on if the Grizzlies transition to FBS and the WAC.. However, Will Holden of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle writes that it's likely Montana eventually makes the move, even with Engstrom at the helm; however, a Montana move doesn't necessarily mean that Montana State jumps too.
Montana leaving the Big Sky would drop that conference to 11 all-sports members and 13 football ones, while giving the WAC seven members. That's the magic number that allows the conference to keep its basketball auto bid. (As I wrote back in August, a conference needs seven members with six of those being "core.")
WAC commissioner Karl Benson isn't waiting on Montana, though. He could bring the number of football schools in his conference to eight by inviting Texas State and Texas-San Antonio, even though both of these teams would have to go through the FCS to FBS transition. (UTSA hasn't even played their first game, as the Roadrunners start varsity play next season.) For sports other than football, the WAC may end up with 10 or 11 members, as independent Seattle and Sun Belt outlier Denver are rumored to be in the frame for an invitation.
These moves would all help bring a bit more geographic sanity to the conference landscape. Besides Southern Utah's shift to a more travel friendly Big Sky, UTSA and Texas State's presence in the WAC would provide a nice bridge between New Mexico State and that league's current Eastern outpost, Louisiana Tech. Denver's addition would rid the Sun Belt of its westernmost school, though a conference that stretches from Florida to Kentucky to Texas is still not budget-friendly.
As for the Summit, Southern Utah's move and Centenary's drop to Division III, leaves that conference with eight members, a workable number, and six core members, meaning their NCAA bid is safe. The Great West, knocked out of the football business, will be hard pressed to survive as an all-sport conference thanks to the long stint in auto bid purgatory that's still ahead (as Whelliston also explains in his BP piece).
And that means the chances of a 32nd conference earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament have gone from slim to microscopic in just the span of two days.