Commissioner Jon LeCrone said the focus of the Horizon League is not to find one school to replace Valparaiso, which announced Thursday it is leaving for the Missouri Valley Conference, but rather to target multiple candidates to fulfill the league’s mission of expansion.
“These transitions are always interesting in that I always see them as new beginnings, and it really creates some energy within our league,” the Vandalia native said on a conference call with reporters. “I won’t divulge the schools we’ve talked to, but we have had a number of conversations over the last 24 months across a number of geographic regions. We really can’t go much further north, but certainly we have had candidate interest from the east, the south, southeast, southwest and west.”
The expansion likely will be incremental rather than a mass influx, with the priority being to bring the league membership back to 10 teams for a more balanced schedule.
LeCrone wouldn’t rule out the possibility of that happening in time for the 2017-18 season, but with the fall sports season less than three months away, chances are remote.
“It’s more than likely we would be nine for this coming year,” LeCrone said. “I think we’d be in position to add at least one school in ‘18-‘19 and maybe more along the way in ‘19-‘20. We’ve studied models all the way up to 14- and 16-team leagues. I think we’re committed to growing larger. How much larger I’m not quite sure.”
The ideal scenario, LeCrone said, is to add enough teams to allow the league to move to a divisional alignment.
“That really helps our student-athlete experience because divisional play is really the way you mitigate cross-country travel, particular for the Olympic sports to try to keep them closer to home,” he said, adding that the commitment in men’s basketball will be to try to get as many teams as possible to maintain a double round-robin schedule.
LeCrone made it clear men’s basketball will be the driving force, but not the only one, when it comes to inviting new members.
“All expansion activities are really focused on men’s basketball improvement,” he said. “So we’re thinking about emerging brands, we’re thinking about existing good basketball brands and you have to think about the timing as well. It’s a two-part decision-making process with interest on our part and interest on the candidate’s part.”
LeCrone said a healthy budget also will be an important criteria because the league wants to attract athletic programs that are competitive across all sports the way the Horizon’s two newest additions, Oakland and Northern Kentucky, have been.
Due to the likelihood of the HL being a nine-team league in 2017-18, athletic directors will evaluate a couple of different bracket options for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in March. LeCrone said the league hopes to announce the bracket by the end of June.
All of the regular-season schedules also will have to be re-done, but LeCrone said those are minor inconveniences and that the overall outlook is one of promise as the league continues on a path toward expansion.
“We’re really excited about our overall approach to membership,” LeCrone said. “This has really been a work in progress for two years. We have a comprehensive candidate list, and we have a high degree of interest. It’s really a new beginning for us.”