I've been kicking around this story idea for a while, using saved notes dating back to one day last summer when basketball seemed way off in the distance.
I was prompted to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) this weekend when reminded of those thoughts after reading a post on www.winthropfans.com. Someone by the screen name Big Stuff (appropriately enough) wrote about the possibility of the Big South Conference expanding.
Big Stuff had men's basketball in mind. That's where I will steer my comments along with a bit of conference history.
The conference is set to grow from 10 to 11 members when Campbell returns for the 2011-12 athletic seasons. Campbell was a founding member back in 1983. The Fighting Camels left for the Atlantic Sun Conference after the 1993-94 season.
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Movement among schools to and from the conference has been common over the years. Who could forget when Augusta and Armstrong State used to play at the Winthrop Coliseum? Elon, Davidson and UNC Greensboro spent time in the league before jumping ship for the Southern Conference.
The Big South tested its geographical boundaries with Towson State, Maryland-Baltimore County and Birmingham Southern. All left after short stints.
The most recent additions - VMI, Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian - have helped the league become eligible for a Football Championship Series (FCS) automatic bid. Winthrop has discussed, but doesn't have football, so it's time to give men's basketball a shot in the arm through expansion.
Big Stuff's idea is to add one more school, giving men's basketball 12 teams. Kennesaw State, Georgia State, USC Upstate and Longwood were mentioned as potential candidates. Each school was scrutinized by others on the message board for its good and bad characteristics, its probability of accepting an invitation from the Big South, and so on.
This is my thinking.
Expand to 14; add better teams. Let's have our cake and eat it, too. Quality and quantity, I say!
Let's go, Big South. Go back into A-Sun territory where Gardner-Webb and Campbell already have fled. Go get Belmont, East Tennessee State and Lipscomb.
Here's the quality. Heading into tonight's action Belmont, ETSU and Lipscomb are first, second and fourth, respectively, in the A-Sun. Belmont is 18-3 overall. ETSU has been to nine NCAA tournaments. Lipscomb was the A-Sun's preseason favorite.
The strength of the Big South, with its Tennessee presence, would be better. Who knows, maybe the conference could become a two-bid conference into the NCAA tournament.
Big Stuff's four schools are a combined 20-56 this season. They do nothing for the conference's RPI, let alone ticket sales around the league.
Besides, the conference is a better fit for the Tennessee schools.
The A-Sun's geography doesn't make any sense, especially for a Mid-Major conference. There are three Florida schools and three in Tennessee. Campbell, located between Raleigh and Fayetteville, N.C., expects to save $60,000 a year on travel costs alone by moving to the Big South. A reasonable assumption is that the Tennessee schools would be in for a reduction in travel expenditures as well.
It's a boon for the conference. The new Big South would benefit by adding its largest (by far) metro area, Nashville, Tenn., with the addition of Belmont and Lipscomb. The moves would expand the league's geographic footprint into Tennessee for the first time.
The facilities at all three schools are better than most in the Big South. ETSU's Memorial Center is similar in age and size to the Winthrop Coliseum. Lipscomb plays in the 5,028-seat Allen Arena (built in 2001) and Belmont has the 5,000-seat Curb Center (built in 2003).
By the time the Tennessee schools hit the Big South only Charleston Southern and Presbyterian will have inadequate facilities. Coastal Carolina and UNC Asheville will move into new buildings next season.
Men's basketball would have 14 teams split into a two seven-team divisions. I know some will argue about playing an unbalanced schedule where schools play two games within their division (home and home) and one game against the other division (rotating home and away each year).
The larger conference adds one game to the conference slate and eliminates a non-conference game. Solution ... take Lander or Queens off the schedule.
The Big South truly would be big with 14 teams. The, now poorly-named, Atlantic-10 also has 14 teams. Only the Big East would be larger with its current membership at 16 schools.
Winthrop would be the easternmost school in a West Division comprised of Belmont, ETSU, Gardner-Webb, Lipscomb, Presbyterian and UNC Asheville. The East Division would have a more traditional makeup, with Campbell, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, High Point, Liberty, Radford and VMI.
There is a lot of potential here. Gardner-Webb left the A-Sun to save on travel. Campbell returned to its roots and will save a bundle.
Is it too far fetched to see three more A-Sun schools make a money-saving move in an uncertain economic climate and bolt for the Big South? I'd love to see it happen.