Published Thursday, December 26, 2013 at 10:00 pm / Updated at 12:31 am
ATHLETICS
White: Summit League sees peak amid periods of realignment

It's hard to ignore the transient nature of UNO's conference, the Summit League.

From its days as the Mid-Continent Conference, members have come and gone, seemingly overnighting in the Summit before finding their next home. Only two of the league's eight current programs have been on board continually since 1998. The rest have joined since 2005.

But while understanding that stability can be fleeting in the conference realignment era, it's worth revisiting that earlier this month Oral Roberts elected to come back to the Summit after a two-year stay in the Southland.

And that this year's new member, Denver, joined its third home in three years — preferring the Summit over Sun Belt membership and a one-year stopover in the Western Athletic Conference.

And you may have noticed that the league's third-newest member — the University of Nebraska at Omaha — is demonstrating that it could become a mid-major player more quickly than most imagined.

“With Denver and Oral Roberts, and I'd like to put us in there, too, we're certainly adding to the profile of the Summit League,” UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts said.

A number of indicators are showing that the Summit League is a pretty nice place to be, and for something other than the short term.

The Summit's last four entries have been Oral Roberts, Denver, UNO and South Dakota. The last four to have left are Oakland, Missouri-Kansas City, Centenary and Southern Utah. That's a net gain for the Summit.

“The Summit League is in as good of shape as it's been in my nine years,” said Tom Douple, the league's commissioner. “It's something to build upon that's very positive, and I think Oral Roberts and Denver both felt that way.”

The most convincing reasons the Summit is strong? The conference's flagship sport — men's basketball — is doing fine, both on the court and in the postseason (the league tournament generates solid revenue). The league's recent departures aren't irreplaceable. And potential options for new members, if necessary, appear promising.

In hoops, the Summit ranked 16th out of 31 conferences in the realtimerpi.com ratings Thursday, better than more established leagues like Conference USA and the Big Sky and slightly behind regional mid-majors from the Missouri Valley Conference (10th), Mid-American Conference (11th) and Horizon League (12th).

The Summit's signature win this season was North Dakota State's victory over Notre Dame. There have been nice wins against name mid- to upper-major programs — UNO beat Nevada, Denver beat both Colorado State and Wyoming, and both Denver and South Dakota State beat Belmont (which earlier had beaten North Carolina).

Almost as impressive have been the near misses: UNO's near upsets of Iowa, UNLV and Minnesota; South Dakota losing to Wyoming in overtime and to Kansas State by two; Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne losing to Dayton by one and to Illinois by two; and IUPUI leading most of the game before losing late to Northwestern.

With North Dakota State 36th and UNO 74th in the RPI, the top of the Summit is stronger than the Horizon, which has one top-100 team. (Wisconsin-Green Bay — which beat South Dakota by four — is 64th.)

“Our depth is getting better,” Douple said. “Take Omaha for instance — what it has done has been tremendous for our league.”

Sure, there was some hand-wringing among conference insiders when Oakland left for the Horizon, but the concern didn't meet the gloom-and-doom predicted by those on the outside.

While the Horizon and its followers tend to look down on the Summit, the big difference between the leagues is more about geography (Butler is gone, folks). Oakland has a solid basketball tradition (though not like Butler's), but it aligns better with the Horizon. Comparing league members, Denver and North Dakota State have bigger budgets than any Horizon program, while the rest of the respective league members are relatively equal.

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The Summit's other recent departure, UMKC to the WAC, is still a head-scratcher. The WAC stretches from Chicago (State) to Seattle to Phoenix (Grand Canyon) to the southern tip of Texas (Texas-Pan American). You wonder if the Kangaroos will follow Oral Roberts' lead and ask to come back.

Occasionally there are rumors about IUPUI or IPFW — Eastern time zone programs — hoping to find new homes. But with budgets around $7 million that are the lowest in the Summit, and with little or no athletic tradition, what value do those schools bring to another conference besides realignment insurance?

“In today's world, with blogs and Twitter and social media, it's hard to have one day when you won't find any of our schools linked to going somewhere else — not unlike any other conference,” Douple said. “I know from my perspective, there's a strong commitment from our chancellors to what we have going.”

So let's examine the Summit's future.

With so many leagues sprouting to 12, 14, even 16 programs, the Summit may look weak with nine (starting next year). But there's something to be said for a more traditional size.

In a one-bid league, everyone has a little better chance of reaching the NCAA tournament more often when competing against eight schools instead of up to 15. That helps make programs attractive to recruits.

And a double round-robin league schedule of 16 games provides plenty of nonconference options. Programs can make budgets work with a lineup of guarantee games while still being able to play some winnable nonconference games. Look at what UNO is doing, with four losses — by an average of eight points — generating $340,000.

“We all struggle to schedule (nonconference) home games, so more conference games helps you a bit,” Douple said. “And people have a higher comfort level with more members in case you lose one. But you want to be careful about who is joining and the commitment. I don't think there's a magic number for conference members.”

If the Summit wants to get to 10 — or even 12 — who are the candidates that make the most sense?

UMKC. North Dakota. Northern Colorado.

North Dakota would be a no-brainer, if it would want to realign itself with rival North Dakota State and other former Division II North Central Conference opponents (South Dakota, South Dakota State and UNO). Same for ex-NCC member Northern Colorado, which competes with North Dakota in the Big Sky and would give the Summit an ideal travel partner for Denver.

There's your 12. There are other possibilities, too, of course.

Douple said all conversations with potential new league members are confidential, and he declined to specifically discuss any school's interest level.

Whether eight programs or 12, or somewhere in between, the Summit looks set up for a strong future.

“In the next year or two, I think there will be some additional transition — not necessarily in the Summit, but obviously there's a domino effect,” UNO's Alberts said. “Where things land is futile to try to predict, but we do feel good about our membership in the Summit.”

Contact the writer: Rob White

rob.white@owh.com    |   402-444-1027    |  

Rob White covers University of Nebraska at Omaha sports and the Omaha Storm Chasers.

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