The Horizon League Tournament comes to a close tonight at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum on the Indiana State Fairgrounds with Wright State taking on Northern Kentucky to determine who will go to the NCAA Tournament.
It marks the final year of an original three year agreement to play the tournament in Indianapolis after four seasons in Detroit. But it doesn’t sound like the tournament will be moving away from Indy anytime soon.
“We are home,” Horizon League commissioner Julie Roe Lach said during an interview on ESPN2 during the Northern Kentucky / Purdue Fort Wayne semifinal game Monday night. “Indiana is a basketball state, Indianapolis is a sports city. Central location, destination city, right where our championship needs to be.”
Prior to moving the tournament to Detroit back in 2016, the league’s #1 seed hosted the quarterfinals and semifinals with the highest remaining seed hosting the title game. Since then, the format and venue has changed several times, though the format and venue have remained the same for the past two seasons.
The semifinals and championship round of the neutral site tournament has been sparsely attended, especially in comparison to the top seed hosting the event, likely due in part to those games falling on a Monday and Tuesday night because of ESPN obligations. Attendance should be up this year, however, with three of the closest schools to Indianapolis – Purdue Fort Wayne, Northern Kentucky, and Wright State along with top seeded Cleveland State – playing in the event.
So while the format and tournament dates may not be ideal, especially for fans that don’t live in the greater Indianapolis area, it sounds like it is here to stay.
“The secret formula here in Indy is you form a local organizing committee,” the commissioner said. “And so we did that 3 years ago, this year we have 30 plus people – community leaders, businessmen and women – and they have brought local sponsors to the table. They brought people who say ‘I don’t want to buy LED time but I want to buy $5,000 worth of tickets and donate them to charity so that kids can come to these games that might not otherwise’.”
“And then we’ve hosted all these other amplifying events in and around, so we’re building something special here.”
The Horizon League is in the midst of its worst season ever ranking as the #26 conference (out of 32) in the country according to KenPom.com. The league had ranked as high as #16 (2016) and #18 (2019) in recent memory and was even as high as #12 back in 2014, a ranking achieved without Butler and Loyola Chicago, proving that it can be done as the league currently stands.
But the bottom seems to have fallen out on quite a few programs with half the league ranking 250+ in the KenPom rankings and none in the top 150.
Most of these metrics are decided in the non-conference season when teams are playing against opponents from other conferences, so the way Horizon League teams are scheduling non-conference games plays a big part in how it all shakes out.
If teams are loading up on guarantee games against power conference opponents – Green Bay was paid $85,000 to play at Minnesota back in December for example – that is going to hurt the team’s and conference’s metrics and ratings because Horizon League teams are not going to win those road matchups very often.
In fact, Horizon League teams went just 35-79 (.307) against Division I opponents during the non-conference season mostly due to playing an abundance of high major opponents and road games. And because the league is so down this season, the conference tournament champion is likely to receive a #16 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the league’s history.
Most of the league’s non-conference victories came against non-Division I opponents which do not affect rankings and metrics.
“It is a challenge,” Roe Lach said Monday. “It really starts with playing at home. We know teams win 74% of games they play at home, so they’ve got to bring quality games to their home courts. Their fans love it, but it gives their student athletes a chance to thrive.”
It may cost some money to pay to get opponents to come to Horizon League arenas, but getting more home games against winnable mid-major opponents and actually winning those games would improve teams’ rankings, the league’s rankings, and ultimately could result in multiple NCAA Tournament bids for the conference or at least improve the league champion’s seed in the NCAA Tournament resulting in a more winnable matchup.
“You [buy home games], instead of being bought,” she said. “Or maybe if you go out and do a big guarantee game you take that money and reinvest it in some quality home games for your student athletes and fans to come out and enjoy.”
“It’s got to be a league-wide, collective effort and our presidents have really bought in and recognized that that’s part of the formula here.”
While the topic of Horizon League realignment and a potential replacement for UIC – who is leaving the league for the Missouri Valley Conference this summer – wasn’t directly discussed, the commissioner was asked about the constant movement of teams to new leagues that we have been seeing in college athletics over the past decade or so, how she manages that, and what she sees going forward.
“I think part of it is what unifies us,” she said. “What we know unifies us here in the Horizon League is we’re in this 7-state, big city metropolitan footprint, and yes we’ve got a mix of predominantly large urban institutions but some privates too, with the common denominator of this collective commitment to basketball.”
The most common name thrown around the internet as far as a possible replacement is Bellarmine, a private school located in Louisville, which would fit the bill of a big city metropolitan footprint.
They would also be an instant upgrade for the conference in mens basketball over UIC. Even though they are not yet eligible for the NCAA Tournament since they are still transitioning to Division I from Division II, Bellarmine is playing for the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship game tonight.
The school also has a baseball program – something important for the Horizon League since they are losing UIC’s program – as well as lacrosse, a growing sport that is already being played at three other HL schools that could potentially be sponsored by the conference in the near future.