IUSportCom’s Nick Reith gives his take on the continuously modified Horizon League.
Even with Butler leaving the Horizon League for the Atlantic 10, commissioner John LeCrone has high hopes for the future of his conference.
With October rapidly approaching, many speculations will begin to surface on the upcoming college basketball season. Many midwesterners are wondering how Butler will fare in their new conference, the mid-major powerhouse of the Atlantic-10. More importantly, many worry about the stability of the Horizon League, as they lost their most nationally prominent member—a Butler team that appeared in two of the last three NCAA national titles.
If you ask Horizon League commissioner John LeCrone about his worries for the upcoming season, he’ll probably give you a genuine smile and tell you there’s nothing to worry about.
“At the Horizon League, we define ourselves. We’re not defined by any one member. We’re not defined by a member leaving, we’re not defined by a member coming in, and we want to compete at a very high level,” said LeCrone on the new conference arrangement. “We see great opportunities with the new athletics competition.”
In LeCrone’s 20-year tenure with the Horizon League, he’s seen six teams leave Horizon League for the likes of the Missouri Valley, Atlantic-10, and Mid-American Conference. Butler is the first team to leave since 1997, and the only school to do so after two Final Four appearances in its final three years. While Butler’s leaving the conference that helped them achieve these feats may leave a bitter taste in our mouths, LeCrone believes their accomplishments shouldn’t be diminished in the slightest.
“There’s a realization for what Butler did while they were here, and they should be congratulated for that,” said LeCrone on Butler’s seven Horizon League titles, ten NCAA tournament appearances, and two Final Four appearances in his time working with them. “When I first got here, I would not have put the Butler program, in men’s basketball, or generally at the top of our league. They’ve really built themselves up in the last 20 years.”
So now comes the time where we look ahead to the future of the Horizon League, one without Butler’s Bulldogs. LeCrone was glad to explain the new format. With nine members, the conference schedule will consist of a double round-robin format, each team playing a home-and-away with the other eight members. That adds up to 16 regular season conference games, leaving room for about 12 to 14 non-conference opponents.
“What’s different is that, for basketball, at least one team will not be playing on any given weekend. That’s one of the challenges we have going forward,” LeCrone said as he explained the new format.
LeCrone was very open to the smaller conference size, as it has some great advantages. He likes that every team plays everyone in their conference twice, and that’s something you can’t do well in conference sizes of 11 or more.
When asked if he was looking for teams to replace Butler, LeCrone again stressed the point that adding a new team wouldn’t be replacing another team.
“If you talk in terms of replacing a member, you’re stating that one member’s brand was very much a part of your own brand,” he noted.
LeCrone was also open to the idea of “adding a tenth member,” although he seemed content for now.
“We’ll continue to discuss membership issues, but we need to constantly ask ourselves, ‘Who do we want to be?’, not what we would want to become,” LeCrone said.
It’s clear that the Horizon league has a strong sense of brand identity, and any future membership additions will reflect teams that they think fit their mold, not the programs that would give them the most basketball talent. When asked about any potential moves in the near future, he stated that it’s a topic at the front of their minds.
“Many schools have reached us, all along the geographic parameters of our league. Many have even contacted us outside of our league’s parameters,” LeCrone explained.
LeCrone said one of the biggest issues now, as with many conferences today, is whether they feel a true obligation to remain a Midwestern Athletic conference. “Is it a value of our league to be geographically contiguous? That’s something we’re talking about right now—the advantages and disadvantages of a close proximity.”
It’s no surprise that teams are reaching out to the Horizon League, because LeCrone wasn’t joking when he said they aim to compete at a very high level. Some of the schools the Horizon League has helped develop over the years include Butler, Cleveland State, Wright State, Valparaiso, Xavier, St. Louis, Dayton, and a three-year stint with Marquette. All of those teams have made the NCAA tournament in the last 10 years, many of which have made some serious noise in the tournament.
The last topic LeCrone commented on was how the league’s headquarters are located in Indianapolis, even though they now lack a team in the city. While he understood that the question wasn’t a concern, just a comment, he said Indianapolis is the best place he could be located.
“This is the perfect place to have a league office. The NCAA is located here, and it’s considered the amateur sports capital of the world. We look forward to helping host NCAA events and becoming close colleagues with the NCAA.” He then gestured out the window of the conference room, where one can see Georgia Street, the site of the Super Bowl Village from earlier this year. Indianapolis truly is a sports capital.
The Horizon League’s future looks prosperous, even with the loss of its most nationally prominent member. It’s mostly due in part to John LeCrone’s ability, and the ability of his staff, to maintain an internal focus. While it is a simple question on the surface, asking themselves who they want to be first and foremost will lead to a long, successful future ahead of them.