The Value of Switching Conferences

By: Luke Benz
Dec 20th, 2017

Prior to the 2017-18 season, three men’s college basketball teams changed their conference in hopes of increasing their chances of making the NCAA Tournament. In the most notable move, mid-major powerhouse Wichita State left the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) to join the American Athletic Conference (AAC). It seemed like an easy call, as adding teams like SMU, Cincinnati, Temple, Houston, Memphis, and UConn to the conference schedule would give the Shockers plenty of opportunities for resume building wins. In a move to fill the void left by Wichita State, the MVC added Valparaiso from the Horizon league, which in turn added IUPUI from the Summit League.

With conference play fast approaching, I seek to examine how much value each of these teams added by switching conferences. Using my NCAA hoops model and tournament projection system, I simulate each team’s current schedule and their schedule using the conference slate from their previous conference. I then compute several metrics to evaluate if/how much of a difference switching conferences has made.

Team/Conference RPI Rank Strength of Record Rank Quality of Resume Rank Wins Above Bubble Rank At-Large Rank
Wichita State–AAC 9 16 13 18 11
Wichita State–MVC 17 31 38 31 24 
Valparaiso–MVC 61 101 116 95 86
Valparaiso–Horizon 128 131 115 138 121
IUPUI–Horizon 277 265 277 269 270
IUPUI–Summit 282 273 306 276 280

We see that Wichita State sees the greatest tangible benefit (as it is a lock for the tournament), with their conference jump being the difference between being a 3-seed and a 6-seed. That is, for a team of their strength, the opportunities that being the the AAC provides over being in the MVC is worth on average about 3 seed lines come tournament time. While Valpo isn’t projecting as an At-Large contender this year, it also reaps big benefits by changing conference. Were the Crusaders to get an automatic bid, Valpo would likely be a 12 seed compared to a 15 seed they’d get for winning the Horizon League. Not only that, but being in the MVC conference, a frequent 2-bid league, means that Valpo has put itself in a position to threaten for at-large bids in years to come. In fact, with a stronger non-conference schedule, they very well might’ve competed for an at-large bid this year. Meanwhile, IUPUI has gained the least by switching conferences. This somewhat a product of their lackluster play this season, but also indicative of the fact that the Summit League isn’t much of a step down from the Horizon League. In fact, my rankings peg the median Summit League team as roughly 3 points better than the median Horizon League team this year.

Obviously it’s dangerous to make any serious conclusions from such a small sample size, but the early indication is that Valpo and Wichita State made the right move. A better study may look at these numbers over several years, but this study offers a quick and dirty approximation to what a more thorough study should yield. Many thanks to Bart Torvik and Ken Davis, whose article inspired this study.