This season the Great West Conference wasn’t the worst conference in college basketball according to Ken Pomeroy, no, that distinction fell to the SWAC. But this isn’t an opportunity to rag on small Division I conferences that don’t have many financial resources, rather, it’s an opportunity to look at the successes that the conference had this season as it tries to establish itself in college basketball circles.
The GWC was created for scheduling convenience, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Having seven members that you can schedule 12 home-and-home contests, even if it means flying from Newark, NJ to Orem, Utah, is a valuable commodity in college basketball circles. Unfortunately, as the Dakota schools move onwards, the conference is going to suffer. South Dakota will be joining the Summit League after the 2010-11 athletic schedule wraps up. The loss of the Coyotes means the loss of the program that won the original conference tournament and earned a bid to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
Unfortunately the second team to win, North Dakota, will also be leaving in 2012 for the Big Sky Conference. The Fighting Sioux won the Great West Conference Tournament this season with a 77-76 double-overtime victory over South Dakota and went on to lose to Air Force in the first round of the CIT. The loss of these two teams in going to deal a big blow to the conference’s hopes of establishing a legitimate timeline for becoming an NCAA Tournament automatic qualifier and for developing respect around the nation.
What it hasn’t stopped teams from doing is working on their national reputation. Tucked in amongst all the losses the conference suffered were some notable wins. Utah Valley defeated Oregon State, Florida International and Seattle. NJIT defeated Fairleigh Dickinson and Longwood. The Highlanders also lost close games to Long Island (89-82), Army (63-60) and Manhattan (75-70). After going 1-30 just two seasons ago NJIT finished 15-15. Jim Engles, the NJIT head coach and a former Columbia assistant, is one of the rising stars in college coaching business. (He’s also a finalist for the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award.)
Other good wins for the conference included victories over Middle Tennessee, Binghamton, Eastern Michigan, Louisiana Tech, Eastern Kentucky and Texas State. The conference had a 32.0% winning percentage this season after a 24.6% last season in non-conference play. That’s an additional 9 wins (and actually 10 fewer losses).
It’s possible that in the future the Great West Conference will remain a lose affiliations of schools that continue to launch careers and athletic departments into other places in Division I. But for now it’s also the happy home of a few college basketball programs and one in Newark that’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.