Horizon League expansion

Purdue Fort Wayne addition makes sense for Horizon League

The timing of Tuesday’s announcement that Purdue Fort Wayne will be joining the Horizon League was surprising in that it seemed to catch anyone who follows the conference closely a bit off guard.

But the move itself shouldn’t be a surprise at all. The Mastodons are a perfect fit for today’s Horizon League.

Yes, that is a knock on how far the conference has slipped since losing its flagship program Butler in 2012. The corresponding move to add Oakland in 2013 was a good one, as was the move to add Northern Kentucky in 2015 after the departure of Loyola. These are two programs that are committed to men’s basketball and have solid fan bases.

But the latest move prior to Tuesday, the addition of IUPUI in 2017 after Valparaiso left the conference, sent a signal that the league’s administrators seemed resigned to the fact that the Horizon League won’t be able to regain a place among the best mid-major basketball leagues in the country as was the case even in 2013 and 2014 without Butler.

The conference replaced Valpo, a program with a passionate fanbase and a team that more-or-less dominated the league once there was a void at top, with a convenient, easy solution that lacks any resemblance of a fanbase or basketball commitment in IUPUI.

Which brings us to Tuesday.

PFW

Photo via Purdue Fort Wayne Athletics

With teams struggling to fill out a 13-game non-conference schedule thanks to power leagues going to 20-game conference schedules and general non-conference scheduling cowardice, the Horizon League again took the easy way out by expanding so two more conference games can be added to each member’s schedule.

It’s an convenient way to help alleviate non-conference scheduling issues that head coaches have been getting louder about recently. Perhaps it will end the practice of league coaches scheduling multiple non-Division I games, though unfortunately that is highly unlikely.

“We want our athletic programs to constantly support the missions and visions of all of our universities,” Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone said Tuesday in a press conference announcing the move. “We want to be highly competitive, particularly in men’s basketball, in the Horizon League.”

It was refreshing to hear the commissioner specifically mention men’s basketball. But unfortunately it appears that the league cares more about travel efficiencies and ease of scheduling rather than putting the best possible men’s basketball product on the floor.

“It’s about fit, it’s about alignment, it’s all about the right school at the right time,” LeCrone said.

So apparently the right time will be July 1, 2020 when Purdue Fort Wayne officially joins the league the for 2020/2021 season.

With that in mind, the move makes a lot of sense.

The Mastodons men’s basketball program hasn’t been great, but they haven’t been bad either.  Instead they’ve been a consistently average program which is a good thing when you consider that each current Horizon League member has had at least one season ranked 243 or higher according to KenPom.com’s final rankings over the past six seasons.  By comparison the highest PFW has finished over that span is 192 which occurred this past season.

In fact, the Mastodons six year average KenPom finish (160.5) would rank fourth in the league behind Oakland (150.8), Green Bay (151.2), and Wright State (156.0). It’s three year average KenPom finish (170.0) would also rank fourth behind Northern Kentucky (108.0), Wright State (138.0), and Oakland (155.0).

Final KenPom Ranking

(Note: you may need to rotate your mobile device to horizontal to see the full table):

School

2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 6-Year Avg

3-Year Avg

Oakland 194 167 79 103 175 187 150.8

155.0

Green Bay

71 71 127 190 263 185 151.2 212.7
Wright State 133 243 146 164 133 117 156.0

138.0

Purdue Fort Wayne

146* 172* 135* 153* 165* 192* 160.5 170.0
NKU 311* 246* 255 138 90 96 189.3

108.0

Milwaukee

168 211 114 259 196 296 207.3 250.3
CSU 85 89 290 242 300 278 214.0

273.3

Detroit Mercy

195 182 173 302 319 233 234.0 284.7
IUPUI 330* 280* 207* 198* 284 191 248.3

224.3

UIC

275 282 335 238 182 196 251.3 205.3
YSU 186 273 282 282 322 259 267.3

287.7

Source: KenPom.com / * =Not in Horizon League            

Purdue Fort Wayne has also had recent success against Horizon League opponents going 5-1 against them since 2016 with a pair of wins over Detroit Mercy as well as victories over UIC, Cleveland State, and IUPUI.

The ‘Dons have had six straight winning seasons and shared the Summit League regular season championship in 2016 earning their first ever NIT bid. They have also appeared in the CIT several times but have yet to reach the NCAA Tournament, though they have only been in Division I since 2002. PFW went 18-15 (9-7 Summit League) this past season.

The move also gives the league another rivalry to go along with Green Bay/Milwaukee, Oakland/Detroit Mercy, and Wright State/Northern Kentucky. The PFW/IUPUI rivalry goes back to 1972 with the Jaguars leading the all-time series 29-18 including their time as Division II opponents.

Areas of concern would be the program’s budget and attendance, though both will likely benefit from the move away from the Summit League.

Purdue Fort Wayne averaged 1,369 fans per game this past season which would’ve ranked 9th out of 11 Horizon League programs, ahead of only IUPUI and Cleveland State. Like Green Bay, the Mastodons split their home schedule between an on-campus arena, the 2,300 seat Gates Sports Center, and the off-campus Memorial Coliseum which seats 13,000 fans.

School Avg. Attendance (2019)
Wright State 4,145
Northern Kentucky 3,595
Oakland 3,017
Youngstown State 2,465
Green Bay 2,107
UIC 2,099
Detroit Mercy 1,864
Milwaukee 1,514
Purdue Fort Wayne 1,369
IUPUI 1,345
Cleveland State 1,115

Games against regionally recognizable schools as well as closer proximity to opponent’s traveling fans attending a road game should boost future attendance for the program.

Financially, the school spent $1.545 million on its men’s basketball program in 2017, the latest numbers available, according to the Department of Education.  That would rank 10th out of 11 teams ahead of only Youngstown State’s $1.517 million.

2017 Horizon League budgets:

School

Men’s Basketball Overall Athletics

Wright State

$3,050,810 $11,909,490
Detroit Mercy $2,673,249

$14,971,175

Oakland

$2,336,615 $14,915,427
UIC $2,335,671

$16,767,518

Milwaukee

$2,321,139 $13,293,626
Cleveland State $2,073,834

$12,837,410

Northern Kentucky

$1,965,242 $11,331,072
Green Bay $1,758,211

$8,931,223

IUPUI

$1,614,116 $10,203,286
Purdue Fort Wayne $1,545,947

$10,771,785

Youngstown State $1,517,679

$15,876,225*

Source: US Department of Education / *Includes $4,097,973 for Football

However, the program will likely see a considerable cost savings in travel since most Horizon League opponents will be a short bus ride instead of having to trek all the way to North and South Dakota multiple times as well as Tulsa, Oklahoma and Denver, Colorado aboard airplanes for conference games. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported in 2017 that the PFW athletic department spent $1.18 million on travel alone, a considerable chunk of the department’s $10.7 million overall budget.

Green Bay will be the furthest conference opponent the Mastodons will travel to (367 miles) while Western Illinois (357 miles) was the closest opponent to Fort Wayne in the Summit League.

PFW 2

Photo via Purdue Fort Wayne Athletics

With the Horizon League in it’s current state the move to add Purdue Fort Wayne makes complete sense for both parties involved.  The conference gets some non-conference scheduling relief and adds a stable basketball program with potential located right in the middle of the league’s geographic footprint. The Mastodons get much needed travel relief and join a league that makes more geographic sense and is a step up in prestige, even if the Summit League has ranked as the better conference in 3 of the last 4 seasons.

KenPom Conference Ranking:

Year

Horizon

Summit

2014 12

15

2015

14 22
2016 16

15

2017

20 16
2018 24

14

2019

18

23

 

It is not known at this time if the league will add a 12th team in the future or if it will stand pat at eleven, though the options for a potential twelfth team are not that great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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