Tuesday, November 2, 2010

SUU's Departure And The Future Of The Summit League's Automatic Bid

It was officially announced on Monday that Southern Utah University would be leaving The Summit League to join the Big Sky Conference, effective at the conclusion of the 2011-12 academic year. While a future (South Dakota) and prospective (North Dakota) Summit League school are also involved here, their departure does not directly impact The Summit League in any way other than filling out the membership. Southern Utah's departure, then, is of primary concern. And with the exit of the Thunderbirds comes a lot of questions surrounding the future of the conference, particularly when it comes to basketball and the NCAA Tournament. In an attempt to make some sense of what is going on, I have carefully crafted the following post in a question and answer format which aims to address some of the uncertainty and confusion.

Disclaimer: Please note that all assumptions and analysis below have been developed using information from an official NCAA document about Division I sports championships, found here. If anyone has reason to believe that this is not the correct document to use for this situation, please let me know.

What is "Automatic Qualification" and how does it impact Summit League basketball?

Automatic Qualification is the process by which conferences determine a conference champion. That champion is then awarded a spot in the NCAA championships, whatever sport that may be. For Summit League basketball, "Automatic Qualification" is earned in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at the Summit League tournament each March. The winner of this tournament becomes an automatic qualifier for the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Generally, this is referred to as an automatic bid, or auto-bid.

All of the Division I men's basketball conferences receive an auto-bid. However, the NCAA Selection Committee is also tasked with filling in the rest of the spots on the bracket with at-large teams, those who qualify not automatically, but rather through the strength of their regular season. It is very rare for schools in conferences outside of the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10, and SEC to receive such an at-large bid. In fact, The Summit League conference hasn't received an at-large since 1991, when the conference makeup was much different than it is today.

Consequently, The Summit League is, by most standards, a one-bid league. That one bid comes via Automatic Qualification, or the auto-bid. Without an auto-bid, history shows us that it is likely The Summit League would no longer have representation in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. But would it ever come to that?

Breaking down NCAA Bylaw

This bylaw governs "Atomatic Qualification" for NCAA Division I men's basketball. It can be downloaded here.

Which set of requirements apply?

The bylaw states:
Men’s Basketball. After September 1, 2003, a member conference as of September 1, 1999, may continue to apply the automatic qualification requirements in effect September 1, 1999, until any change (e.g., adding or losing any member) in its men’s basketball membership occurs. Thereafter, the automatic qualification regulations in effect September 1, 2003, shall be applicable.
The way I read that, in lay terms, is that there are two sets of regulations, those passed in 1999 and those passed in 2003. Essentially, I believe this exception was made as a sort of "grandfather" clause which allows conferences - who may not have been up to the 2003 standards - continue forth under the old standards until a change was made. In The Summit League, many membership changes have been made since 2003 and changes are coming once again, therefore it is rather clear to me that the 2003 requirements are those which apply to the current situation.

Will The Summit League meet the "core" members requirement?

The bylaw states:
The member conference must include seven core institutions. For the purposes of this legislation, core refers to an institution that has been an active member of Division I the eight preceding years.
This one seems fairly straightforward. It also presents the biggest hurdle for The Summit League. With the departure of Centenary after this season (2010-11), the league would be down to seven "core" members. With the departure of Southern Utah in 2012, the league would now be down to six "core" members, or beneath the limit. To see why, let's look the the table.
Core Members Non-Core Members
Oral Roberts
Western Illinois
North Dakota State**
South Dakota State**
To help explain this distribution, we need to look at when certain schools became active members of Division I. To begin, IPFW just barely makes the cut as a "core" member. The school became an active member of Division I prior to the 2002-2003 season. Therefore, the 2010-11 season will be its ninth as an active member of DI. Thus, the school meets the "core" member definition since it has been an active member for the "eight preceding years" beginning this year. It is general knowledge that the other five schools have all been active members for at least eight years.

The Summit League's non-core members include North Dakota State and South Dakota State. According to a news release from The Summit League's website, North Dakota State was approved as an active Division I member in June 2008, or in keeping with the units above, the 2008-09 season. Likewise, South Dakota State also became an active member of Division I in 2008-09. Using this year as a baseline, the NDSU and SDSU tandem will be entering its third year as active members of Division I, or they have been members for the "two preceding years." This measure is six short of the NCAA requirement of "eight preceding years" needed to be termed a "core" member.

Therefore, with the departure of Southern Utah imminent at the conclusion of 2011-12, The Summit League will then not meet the core membership number needed to meet the requirement for "Automatic Qualification" in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Will The Summit League meet the "continuity-of-membership" requirement?

The bylaw states:
Further, the continuity-of-membership requirement shall be met only if a minimum of six core institutions have conducted conference competition together in Division I the preceding five years in men’s basketball. There shall be no exception to the five-year waiting period.
Southern Utah is set to leave the conference after the 2011-12 season. So we need to determine if the continuity-of-membership will hold up sans SUU for the beginning of that time period. Five of the six remaining "core" members are fine. We need to look more closely at IPFW. The school joined The Summit League for the 2007-08 season. This season, 2010-11, will be its fourth with the conference. Therefore, following the 2011-12 season, IPFW will have completed its fifth year as a conference member. This is great news as now all six of the conference's "core" members will have been competing together for the preceding five years in men's basketball following Southern Utah's departure in 2012. No worries here.


When Southern Utah leaves after the 2011-12 season for the Big Sky Conference, The Summit League will drop below the required seven "core" member institutions necessary to retain its Automatic Qualification status for the NCAA Tournament.

The Catch:

The NCAA does give conferences a grace period when the loss of a member results in a failure to meet the AQ requirements. The bylaw states:
A conference shall remain eligible for automatic qualification for two years following the date of withdrawal of the institution(s) that causes the conference’s membership to fall below seven institutions, or below six members with continuity of membership, provided the conference maintains at least six Division I members.
Southern Utah will officially depart following the 2011-12 academic year, meaning that the two-year grace period - if I am interpreting this bylaw correctly - will begin sometime in the spring/summer of 2012. This grace period would extend until 2014 so long as the conference maintains at least six Division I members. Essentially, this means that from this day forward The Summit League would need to find a seventh "core" member for men's basketball to begin play in the 2014-2015 season. If it fails in this endeavor, the conference would lose its ability to have Automatic Qualification for the NCAA Tournament.

North Dakota State and South Dakota State will not reach "core" eligibility until the 2016-2017 season, in which case they would have been active members of Division I for the "eight preceding years." Consequently, short of a change in the NCAA bylaws, The Summit League would not be able to count on these two schools to get the conference over the "core" hump until several years in the future.

Is there reason to be worried?

The Summit League has dealt with high rates of membership turnover throughout its existence, so this is surely not a new hurdle for its administrators. As Kyle Whelliston of the Mid Majority/Basketball Prospectus notes,
"The Summit League will be fine without Southern Utah. It is resilient, and it is used to airport goodbyes. Since its birth as the Association of Mid-Continent Universities in 1982, it has had 27 different members. The Summit League will somehow find a way."
Even so, there is definitely a snag with this "core" membership requirement. Membership changes in the past half-decade or so haven't resulting in such snagging because the core of the "core" was stable. The Summit League could find new members from the ranks of provisional Division I programs like IPFW, SDSU, and NDSU in 2007 because the seven-member combination of Centenary, IUPUI, UMKC, Oakland, ORU, SUU, and WIU were all "core" members, and the group of six (excepting Centenary which joined the Summit League in 2003) met the "continuity-of-membership" requirement . This time, however, The Summit League will not have such a luxury. Thus, the conference must look to add an institution which has been an active member of Division I for the last eight years (or will be by the 2014-15 season), and that new member must be able to begin competing for men's basketball in the conference to start the 2014-15 season or sooner. If these two factors are taken care of, there is no reason to be worried. The Summit League would retain its auto-bid.

Please note everything up to this point is based on information available from the NCAA bylaws and my interpretation of these requirements. If a reader sees fault with anything above, please contact me and let me know. This is a very complicated situation, and I'm just doing my best as a regular dude to make sense of it all with as little complication as possible.

Everything to the south of this italicized comment is now pure speculation.

What factors could throw a wrench in the preceding analysis?

For all of the above situations, it was assumed that the "core" membership of The Summit League - IPFW, IUPUI, UMKC, Oakland, ORU, and WIU - would stay static through the end of the grace period in 2014. If this happens, then everything will be great.

However, if conference realignment continues to rear its ugly, football-shaped head and one or more of these schools is presented with a membership opportunity elsewhere, then The Summit League's position as an Automatic Qualifier for the NCAA men's basketball tournament would clearly be in jeopardy. However, this is not all doom and gloom. The six "core" schools appear rather committed to the conference at present, as do in-the-distant-future "core" members NDSU/SDSU.

What does this mean for Oakland?

It is the Oakland basketball program's best interest to not only be a part of a conference, but to be a part of a conference with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. A conference offers stability and scheduling, and the auto-bid is the opportunity to play in the premier event of college athletics. Oakland has reaped the benefits of both in the past.

Some have postulated over these past few days that the remaining Summit League institutions should enter into an agreement that would impose huge exit fees if a school were to bolt for greener (read: more stable) conference pastures. If you have followed conference realignment this summer, you will no doubt remember this being a factor in some of the bigger conferences.

Such an agreement would be awfully tempting as it would more or less hinder schools from leaving if the fee was too costly to do so. I would be torn on whether or not to agree with such a move (purely as a fan). On the one hand, it would ensure that The Summit League wouldn't be torn to pieces in the near future. On the other, what happens if an opportunity presented itself to join with a more attractive league? I am a fan of The Summit League and its schools and would hate to see any one school's actions result in the downfall of the conference, but as an Oakland fan first and foremost, it'd also be disheartening if OU were left on the outside looking in because it was unable to make the right move in a time of ever-changing conference landscapes. Conference realignment is not done, and it could in fact get crazier in the coming years as the major conference players push the limits of membership. For now Oakland basketball, as the prime sport of Oakland University, needs to continue to do everything it can to make itself as valuable an asset as possible. This would help guarantee that the school wouldn't get lost in the shuffle of future realignment.

What is clear to me at this point, in a time of uncertainty, is that The Summit League needs to find that seventh "core" member. There is a real opportunity to strengthen the league with such an addition, and if officials can approach a school or two in the general region ("general" used liberally) of this conference, then travel will improve markedly. The search should not be conducted hastily, but it should be done with a focus on preserving the progress the conference has made in recent years in men's basketball. Wait too long and the concerns won't be purely from fans, but also recruits who wonder if the school they choose will have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament. That's a tangible concern, no doubt, and one that makes me hope there is a school or two out there that has been in Division I for at least eight years which might be willing to help restore the stability the remaining Summit League schools thought they had found in recent years.

Update 1 (11/2 1:20AM): I was "tweeted" with some solid information after posting this an hour ago. According to Forum (Fargo, N.D.) reporter Jeff Kolpack, there is currently legislation upcoming in the NCAA which would alter the AQ bylaws. He states that it would "get rid of the six schools together for five years rule" and "the new rule will simply require seven active members." Using the terminology laid out in this post, the first part means the continuity-of-membership criteria would be abandoned. The second part is a bit unclear to me, though taken literally, it means that a conference would simply need seven active members (The Summit League will have eight when SUU leaves). However, because the "core" requirement is such a fundamental part of this equation, we would need to ensure that the seven active member requirement would then be absent of the "eight preceding years" language. If that is the case, then The Summit League would be okay at its level of membership following SUU's exit. The next question, however, is when will this legislation be officially acknowledged by the NCAA and implemented? We shall see.

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