Stephens: Conference USA still best option for WKU

Brad Stephens

Conference realignment has worked its way to Bowling Green.

Louisville, Middle Tennessee and others have been swept by a changing sports landscape over the last three years, and the realignment is continuing.

ESPN reported Tuesday Tulsa will announce it’s leaving C-USA for the old Big East Conference. Big East sources told ESPN Tulsa’s move is “imminent.”

That leaves an open C-USA spot that multiple outlets have reported will be filled by WKU.     

The Toppers have been Sun Belt Conference members since 1982 and losing them would be a big blow to the Sun Belt.

But making the jump will be the right move for WKU.

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson has done an admirable job keeping the league alive after C-USA raided FAU, FIU, MTSU and North Texas.

Benson added four full members, Appalachian State, Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Texas State, two football-only members, Idaho and New Mexico State, and one non-football school, Texas-Arlington, in the last 10 months.

Recent additions of Georgia Southern and App. State, Idaho and NMSU allow the league to form two six-team divisions and begin playing a football title game in 2014.

When talking about WKU receiving a potential CUSA bid, Benson said he hopes the recent moves cause WKU to “look at the Sun Belt and say, ‘we can get anything we want playing out in the Sun Belt.'”

Unfortunately for the Sun Belt, advantages in basketball, geography and television make C-USA a better fit for WKU.

The SBC was once a good basketball league. J.D. Barnett’s VCU teams and Gene Bartow’s UAB teams were top competition for WKU’s men in the 1980s. The same goes for the women, as Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech were good foils for the Lady Toppers in the 80s and 90s, respectively.

But that’s all ancient history.

This year the league ranked No. 15 in men’s conference RPI. It was worse in 2012 (No. 19), 2011 (No. 24) and 2010 (No. 23). A future C-USA featuring WKU, MTSU, UAB, Southern Miss and Charlotte isn’t exactly the ACC, but it’s a better hoops environment than the Sun Belt.

Then you look at the layout of the conference. Should WKU stay in the Sun Belt, the only commutes of less than six hours would be Georgia State (5 hours) and Arkansas State (5 1/2 hours).

As for the new C-USA? MTSU is an hour and a half away. UAB is four hours away. Marshall is also about a four hour drive.

As far as geography goes, that’s about the best deal WKU’s going to get.

C-USA would also mean more national TV appearances for WKU.

This year, thanks to the school’s deal with ESPN3 and ESPN Full Court, WKU fans across the country were able to watch the Toppers. But taking advantage of that deal meant either shelling out extra cash for ESPN Full Court or hooking up a computer for ESPN3.

When WKU is in C-USA expect a lot of games broadcast on the CBS Sports Network, a channel offered by Direct TV, Dish Network, Insight, Comcast and most other providers.

Alumni in California or New York can flip to CBSSN and see the Toppers without having to crack open a laptop or pay for a special college basketball package.

Add revenue WKU will get as part of the C-USA’s TV deals and the TV factor significant.

This isn’t to discredit what Benson’s done since taking over the Sun Belt last year. He was thrust into a tough situation after taking over for former commissioner Wright Waters. Benson’s a classy leader who’s been an advocate for all Sun Belt schools, WKU included.

But WKU has to look out for its own interests, not just the Sun Belt’s.

For the Toppers, their best interest is C-USA.