Listen, I’m a sap for the rags-to-riches story for in college hoops. Sure, sure. People like to tell you that there are too many teams in college hoops, so on, so forth. This is not a good opinion. As an alum of a small university that doesn’t compete on the Division I level, I would give my left damn kidney to watch my undergrad alma mater lose one NCAA Tournament game by 50 daggone points. It would be good, fun, and wholly worth it.
Tonight featured one of those rags-to-riches stories. Just five short years ago, Northern Kentucky University was something of a no-name, also-ran in it’s own Division II conference — the GLVC. It wasn’t the best or second best Division II program in the state of Kentucky — Bellarmine and Kentucky Wesleyan could take that title. Now they’re destined for the NCAA Tournament after winning the Horizon League title tonight after knocking off Milwaukee in their first year of eligibility.
It’s something of an amazing, almost unheard of feat — considering how taxing the transition to Division I can be on a program. 2016-17 brought NKU’s first winning season since the transition, which included a four-year period of meaningless seasons, adapting coaches and athletes, talent upgrades, and even swapping conference affiliation from the Atlantic Sun to the Horizon League.
But, tonight, for the Northern Kentucky administrators that made the jump — it’s validation. The free publicity NKU will receive will be worth millions over the next week or so, and that’s not even including the more intangible benefits of student morale, alumni engagement, so on and so forth. If they’re able to win a game next week, it’ll really open up checkbooks for everyone from alumni to prospective applicants. And that’s critical for a school like NKU that’s targeting big-time growth.
Still, that got us thinking: What Indiana based schools could be candidates for a NKU-like jump to D-1? Some are just a handful of years removed from competing against the Norse anyway. Here’s five, each based in varying levels of reality from actually-once-talked-about to not happening.
Here’s the most obvious answer -- and the program that got me thinking about writing this piece. USI and NKU were something of GLVC rivals, have similar newish-histories (both founded in the mid-20th century), serve a regional audience in a metropolitan area, and have rapidly growing student populations in the tens of thousands. USI has real basketball tradition, too! They’ve been to three D-2 title games since 1994, including winning the whole dang thing with Bruce Pearl in 1995. That was a real thing that happened! Look!
There’s plenty of backchannel internet rumors and scuttle that this is something USI seriously evaluated sometime in the past, but nothing confirmed -- and there might be reason for that. Evansville’s not a huge town, and they just built a brand new arena for one not-very-good Division I program with a long history of success at the lower division level. UE’s history also stretches far longer and deeper, but it’s a far smaller institution that USI. Could Evansville support two Division I programs financially? Hard to tell. The relative newness of the school itself limits fundraising, too. But if it’s really a state priority to increase USI’s regional and national profile, Division I might be the route to go.
UNIVERSITY OF INDIANAPOLIS
We’ll keep it at the D-2 level before things go full-well off the rails here. UIndy’s another highly successful Division II athletics program competing in the GLVC, a former conference mate of NKU. It’s obviously in a highly-populated area, and has a undergraduate population that isn’t completely prohibitive of 5,400 to enter D-I.
Perhaps the biggest problem? Indianapolis already has IUPUI that struggles to gain any local spotlight outside of Indy’s pro sports and Butler. It’s also a relatively small private institution with a limited endowment and budget. Hard to see how this is a go, ever.
[SHUFFLING RANDOM NOTES AND PAPERS, WHILST UNFURLING COMICALLY LARGE SCROLL]
You, a smart and knowledgeable person, note the difficulties that would ensue for a small Division III college to hop to Division I. Don’t worry! I, the common idiot, have been preparing these talking points for nearly a decade.
DePauw, at just 2,400 students total, would be far too small to be a Division I institution, right? WRONG! DePauw’s actually bigger than Davidson by a nice little margin. Steph Curry’s alma mater is often cited by DePauw alums (read: me) when this conversation comes up, actually. The schools are both top national liberal arts institutions, feature almost identical super-huge endowments ($660 million a piece) for tiny schools, and are both extremely loosely affiliated with a religious group. This can work. Trust me. Please put my school in Division I.
(This won’t ever happen because of the very dumb Monon Bell Game, which I would gladly trade 10/10 times to watch my beloved Tigers lose to UIC in a Horizon League Semifinal on ESPN on a random Thursday night.)
IT’S TIME TO BRING STEVE ALFORD HOME TO INDIANA, FOLKS.