Wandering schools find a home in the Great West

For Division I independents like Texas-Pan American, memorable basketball moments tend to include long bus rides, 40-point shellackings at power-conference arenas and an annual psychological thud when the season ends in February instead of March. That's why head coach Tom Schuberth tries to schedule as many two-day, four-team mini tournaments as he can during November and December.

"From our perspective, those tournaments are outstanding," said Schuberth, whose team went 18-13 last season but managed only one runner-up placement in five weekend events. "I get really excited about them, there's a lot of uncertainty going in. If we win our first game, then we're playing for a title. If not, we can still go home with a split. Without being in a conference with a championship to play for, it makes it even more thrilling."

UTPA dropped out of the Sun Belt a decade ago, but its days of playing solely for championships at the Iowa Realty Invitational and Montana State Classic are drawing to a close. This summer, the school and five others joined up with the Great West Conference, a league that will begin basketball operations for the 2009-10 season. The GWC, in addition to altering the hoops landscape as the 32nd Division I conference, could also significantly impact the shape of the NCAA tournament's bracket in the next decade.

The league was originally conceived as a collective for football teams transitioning from Division II to the I-AA level (now known as the Football Championship Subdivision). A group of upwardly mobile western universities -- Cal Poly, UC Davis, North and South Dakota State, Southern Utah and Northern Colorado -- came together under the Great West umbrella in 2004.

"The premise of it was just to let the student-athletes at these schools play for something," said Great West commissioner Ed Grom. "The conference was built to let schools without a home come together as a league … with weekly awards, standings and at the end, a championship."

But after four years, Great West football is no charity case. The alliance has built itself into an gridiron powerhouse, currently placed fourth of 14 leagues in the Sagarin FCS ratings, behind mid-major conferences with names very familiar to basketball fans: the Colonial Athletic, Missouri Valley and SoCon. Following in the same spirit as the headline-grabbing upsets pulled off by those leagues in recent years, GWC football teams have upended FBS schools such as Minnesota (North Dakota State) and San Diego (UC Davis).

And after a quiet announcement on July 10 that it was expanding to all sports by inviting six formerly nonaffiliated schools -- UTPA, NJIT, Houston Baptist, Utah Valley and D-II transitionals North Dakota and South Dakota -- the Great West has become huger than huge. Perhaps not in basketball stature quite yet, but the 2,176 miles from Newark, N.J., to Orem, Utah, will represent the biggest heel-to-toe geographic footprint of any of the Division I conferences based solely in the continental United States. (The WAC, which includes Hawaii, is 4,034 miles end to end.)

Call it what you will, but the Great West is never going to be a bus league.

"These schools are used to it," said Grom of the extensive travel. "They've been traveling all around the country as independents, so the amount of travel won't be new to them. Don't get me wrong, some schools were hesitant to dive into this. But in the end, the presidents and athletic directors saw the benefit of what the Great West can provide. There's a real reward at the end of the season."

Some of the far-flung future GWC rivals are already well-acquainted, and won't have any trouble locating airports, hotels and restaurants during road trips. Pan American, NJIT and Utah Valley State were part of the short-lived United Basketball League, a five-team scheduling consortium put in place for the 2006-07 season, which gave Div. I independents home-and-home series to fill out eight spots in their 29-game schedules.

Welcome to the Great West

Though all teams that have satisfied their Div. 1 transition requirements are eligible for postseason play, the Great West won't be able to send its conference champion to the NCAA tournament until 2020.

"The familiarity will help us all out, definitely," said Schuberth. "We know some of those teams pretty well. But it's exciting to get to go to places we haven't been. Sometimes the unexpected can be a great positive."

Two of the Broncs' exciting annual destinations will be Grand Forks, N.D., and Vermillion, S.D., respective homes of the Universities of North and South Dakota. Not to be confused with the Bison and Jackrabbits of North Dakota State and South Dakota State, longtime independents that found homes during the Summit League's 2006 expansion, both are just beginning the four-year move from Division II to the NCAA's top flight.

And both are also grateful for not having to wander the tough roads that their instate rivals had to traverse during their transitions.

"It couldn't have been done with any success without the Great West stepping in," said South Dakota head coach Dave Boots, who over two decades built the Coyotes into national-poll mainstays and guided them to 10 NCAA tournaments at the Division II level. "Playing an independent schedule every year, while dealing with [the transition], would have been an absolute nightmare. Finding games in January and February is really tough."

All Great West teams will meet for the inaugural conference title at a yet-to-be-determined location in March 2010. But per Division I guidelines, the Great West's two Dakota entries won't be eligible for the national postseason until 2013-14. And while negotiations are ongoing with a number of other league-less schools, including ex-Summit Leaguers Chicago State and Div. II transitional Seattle, the league is still well short of a long-term goal that is much more lucrative and powerful than any weekend-tournament trophy: a golden ticket to the Big Dance.

Texas-Pan American has never been to the NCAA tournament, but it's been an able qualifier since the 1970s. Fellow non-football school Houston Baptist is returning to Division I after a long finance-related absence (the Huskies made the 52-team field in 1984) and stands to become postseason-eligible again by 2014-15. NJIT and Utah Valley will have completed their transitions once conference play begins in 2009-10. NCAA men's basketball rules require conferences to pass a three-step eligibility check for auto-bid qualification: at least seven fully fledged Div. I members, seven that have been Div. I for at least eight years (known as "core members"), and six core members who have been league mates for five years. The current membership wouldn't meet all of those guidelines until the year 2020.

But while a seemingly logical step would be to accelerate the race by inviting current Great West football members to leave their respective conferences to play hoops, the league commissioner says that's not going to happen.

"If the Great West held existing automatic bids, the invitation would probably be out there," said Grom. "But without that 'AQ,' it wouldn't be very smart for a school like Cal Poly, which is in the Big West where all its sports are eligible, [to leave] and come to a league where none would be."

So the question won't come to the forefront until the middle part of the next decade, but the Great West could eventually find its quorum somehow. And the issues raised by the 32nd conference will be the same as those broached at the turn of the century, when the Mountain West splintered from the WAC in 1999. After a two-year wait, the MWC was granted an automatic bid in 2001. The event created a seismic shift in Bracketville, hastening the creation of a "play-in" game in Dayton, Ohio, once the NCAA chose to expand the field to 65 instead of paring the number of at-large bids from 34 to 33.

"I can't fathom any scenario where they'd take away another at-large," posited Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin, whose four-year term on the selection committee coincided with the Mountain West's emergence. "When you look at the current state of things, I've long been opposed to a 128-team doubling of the bracket size, but I think the next logical step might be taking a look at a four-game opening round to have 68 teams. There'd be symmetry, and if a conference came along and earned automatic qualification, you wouldn't have to take away a bid."

But if there are no conference splits after the NCAA's moratorium on league movement expires after the 2011-12 season, and this particular league ends up forcing the bid issue, the GWC might be known by a different title and acronym altogether. With its rapid expansion, the league name has quickly become a misnomer -- any organization with the Great West title that counts a New Jersey-based school as a member falls into the same logic loophole that once put the Atlanta Braves in the NL Western Division, and maintains to this day that the Dallas Cowboys are NFC East members.

"It made sense at the beginning," said Grom. "The ADs sat in a room for a day and a half trying to come up with a name … some of the other ones considered were the 'Great American' or 'Great USA.' Finally, they agreed on Great West, because all the schools were out there. The name is very visible, because of the quality of our football, but since we're an all-sport league with a larger footprint, we'll probably be looking at the name again in the next few years to make it more geographically sound.

"But Idaho was in the Sun Belt for a while, and Denver still is in that conference, and you know that's not really where they're located. The Big Ten Conference is really 11. So, really, what's in a name?"

Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.