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Mid-majors focused on survival

7/22/2013

Realignment's avalanche continues to morph collegiate athletics.

The Big East still exists, but it's not your father's Big East. Or even your older brother's Big East. The ACC is a superpower with Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville (2014) joining the conference.

Maryland and Rutgers are on their way to the Big Ten.

And it'll take some time to grasp the makeup of the new American Athletic Conference.

But the high-profile shifts have masked the monumental reshaping in some of America's off-the-radar conferences.

The powerhouse programs are treated like elite free agents as they're courted by powerful suitors.

For many of the mid-major schools affected by the tidal wave, however, survival and stability have been the only goals.

The following programs were essentially left in the rubble of realignment. Now, they must prepare for a new day in a new league.

Georgia State (CAA to Sun Belt): Chaos and confusion

Earlier this week, a Georgia State player told coach Ron Hunter that he was excited for the 2013-14 season. Soon, he figured, he'd have a shot at rival George Mason once Colonial Athletic Association play began.

Hunter and his assistants just laughed. But they didn't correct him -- Georgia State will play in the Sun Belt next season -- because they've all suffered similar confusion.

"The kids on my team don't really understand we're in the Sun Belt," he told ESPN.com.

When he left IUPUI to accept the Georgia State gig in 2011, he anticipated stability. Within a year of his arrival, however, the tidewaters of realignment had pushed the CAA into uncertainty.

So Georgia State accepted an invitation from the Sun Belt, a move that was largely related to the emergence of its football program. But basketball was affected, too.

Hunter said he took the job because he wanted to face some of the former power brokers in the CAA, such as VCU, Old Dominion and George Mason. All three have left the league.

And now, Georgia State will play elsewhere, too. That belied Hunter's original plan when he took the job.

"It's tough in a sense that I was a guy where I was in one league [Summit] for 17 years," Hunter said. "I left there and I had nothing but change and uncertainty. I've moved three times. I've moved twice already in homes. I've switched leagues twice."

UMKC (Summit to WAC): New league, new money, new costs

The University of Missouri-Kansas City's athletic department didn't consider new leagues until it appeared that its former conference, the Summit League, had plans to transform.

That search led the school to the WAC.

"There was talk of realignment in the Summit League," said UMKC interim athletic director Carla Wilson. "For the most part, we wanted to make sure that we weren't in a situation at the end of the day where there's realignment and we were left in the wake."

The WAC waived the school's entry fee and also promised to host a future WAC men's basketball tournament in Kansas City.

The move, Wilson believes, will help the school enhance a basketball program that won eight games last season and has achieved more than 15 wins in a season just one time in the past six years.

The Kangaroos are moving to Municipal Auditorium (capacity 10,116) after recently playing games in the campus rec center.

Being entrenched in bustling downtown Kansas City will be a boon for UMKC men's basketball, Wilson said.

"It's like a new day at UMKC," Wilson said.

With a new price tag.

The footprint of the WAC will demand travel to schools in California, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona and Washington. Wilson said flights to games, compared to lengthy bus rides to Summit League games, will actually reduce the amount of class time that players will miss in the coming years.

But the trips will also boost the department's travel budget. To cover that and other additional fiscal demands that might accompany the move to the WAC, Wilson said the school could elevate ticket prices and make other adjustments to bring in the revenue that it needs to thrive in its new conference.

"We have to do the things we need to do," she said.

Pacific (Big West to WCC): New (old) rivalries

Pacific was a member of the West Coast Conference (formerly the California Basketball Association) through 1971. Then, the school had dreams of making its football program nationally relevant.

That never happened. So it dropped the sport in the mid-1990s.

That was significant for men's basketball because Pacific was left to compete as the only private school in the Big West.

"We were sort of an oddball," athletic director Dr. Ted Leland said.

That's no longer the case.

Pacific, which has an enrollment of 3,433, is now in a conference that's filled with other small private institutions.

"When people think about Pacific University, we sort of belong with our sisters," Leland said.

To reach the pinnacle of its new league in men's basketball, however, the program will have to go through schools like Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and BYU. Pacific reached the NCAA tournament in 2004, 2005 and 2006. But its bid to last season's Big Dance was its first in seven years.

Still, Pacific coach Ron Verlin expects the move to boost the school's basketball brand due to the WCC's national footprint and the buzz that new rivalries will spawn.

"The rivalries of this conference will come back big-time with [University of San Francisco] being an hour and half by car, Saint Mary's being an hour [away] and then, Santa Clara being about an hour and half by bus or by car," Verlin said. "I think the rivalries and those three games being so close will be outstanding."

Utah State (WAC to Mountain West): Utah or Las Vegas?

Stew Morrill is old-school. He's been a head coach for nearly 30 years, 15 of them with Utah State.

Change has been rare for the longtime leader. So he's not completely comfortable with the current turbulence in college sports.

"It concerns me how quickly the landscape can shift and change, how decisions can be made without everybody's best interest at heart," he said. "Geographically, I just have always felt there needs to be some geographical sense as to what league you're in. You kind of just hold your breath that everything is going to stabilize."

But he's excited about the potential that Utah State's switch from the WAC to the Mountain West may grant his program.

Utah State boasts one of the nation's most passionate fan bases, recognized for its stirring pregame "I believe that we will win" chant. And according to a livability.com poll released last year, Logan, Utah, is the No. 3 college town in the country. All of that coupled with one of the nation's lowest crime rates should help Morrill sell the program to a larger pool of recruits with the help of the Mountain West's national recognition and TV exposure.

"We've got a home-court advantage," Morrill said. "The more we can portray that to potential recruits and get that out there, the better for us."

But Utah State was a powerhouse in the WAC. And now the Aggies are positioned in a fortified conference that features five teams that earned NCAA tourney bids last season.

And although Logan has a certain appeal, Morrill recognizes that it might not surpass San Diego State's beaches and UNLV's nightlife in the eyes of potential recruits.

"If a kid visits Vegas and a kid visits Utah, obviously we've got our work cut out for us to impress upon him the differences in the quality of a college town," he said.

Boston University (America East to Patriot League): Scramble for security

For BU athletic director Mike Lynch, the Patriot League made sense.

The conference's scholastic reputation is strong. And the recent basketball success of Lehigh and Bucknell has enhanced the league's athletic reputation.

"For us, it was a relatively easy decision," Lynch said. "The Patriot League was a perfect fit. … They're right there with the Ivy League [academically]."

Lynch said he has talked to many BU fans who are excited about the change.

But fear was the primary emotion in his office before things were settled.

He said he wanted to ensure that his program had a solid home after watching other schools end up in difficult situations.

"I think we're one of the lucky ones," Lynch said. "We had an opportunity to determine our destiny where a lot of other schools, unfortunately, are having their destiny determined for them by others. That's a difficult place to be in."

And he's not convinced that the shift has ceased.

"I think every [athletic director] out there is concerned about that next phone call they're going to get about that school that's going to leave their league or really being concerned about where they're going to be left when all the chips stop falling," he said. "There's going to be some that end up in positions that they never dreamed of and probably wouldn't want their school to be in but they're powerless to stop it."