If Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference commissioner Rich Ensor had his way, the number of MAAC member schools for basketball would be 12.
It looks like the MAAC will be dropping down from 11 to 10 before it reaches 12 anytime soon.
According to multiple reports, Monmouth University in New Jersey will be leaving the MAAC next year for the Colonial Athletic Association.
Without specifically confirming that Monmouth would leave, Ensor said during the annual basketball midseason teleconference on Wednesday morning that the MAAC has been “reviewing our membership now for about six months.”
Ahead of the teleconference, he issued a statement on Tuesday that began: “The MAAC is aware of media reports on membership realignment impacting the conference. NCAA Division I conferences are again in a period [of] membership changes.
“A recent ESPN January story noted that of college basketball’s 32 Division I conferences, fifteen (15) have pending membership changes. As I have noted before, the MAAC is not immune from this process of realignment which occurs periodically in college sports, usually driven by schools seeking better affiliation for their football programs.”
On the subject of potential departure by Monmouth, Ensor said on Wednesday, “We’ve been reviewing our membership now for about six months, ever since we finished up our review with Robert Morris. We still wanted to get to 12, but Robert Morris just wasn’t the right fit at the right time.
“So it’s been ongoing. I think our immediate plans are still to get to 12 and then see what happens. We want to maintain a relatively high level, for competitive reasons, but also because of membership reasons within the NCAA structure.”
Monmouth currently plays basketball in the MAAC and football in the Big South. The CAA sponsors both sports, and with a move to the CAA conference, Siena would lose a conference basketball rival, while UAlbany would gain one in football.
The Hawks are expected to begin play in the CAA in 2022-23, but based on MAAC bylaws, Monmouth won’t be excluded from the conference tournament, which means Monmouth would also continue to be eligible for the 2021-22 NCAA Tournament.
If MAAC basketball drops to 10 schools next season, each would likely play 18 conference games, opening the door for two more non-conference.
“I think most of the coaches would like a 20-game schedule in-conference. They have problems getting home games against non-conference opponents,” Ensor said.
“I know Rick [Pitino at Iona] has a different view of it. He tries to go out and play the best opponents he can, and he’s not that concerned about the guarantee money. But many of our schools have to go out and earn a few dollars for the institution as part of their deal.
“Personally, I like getting it [member schools] to an even number, because then we don’t have to deal with bye weeks. It also makes the TV scheduling a little bit easier. So it could be 12 in my world, but that’s not necessarily going to drive the final decision on what the number is.”
Pitino stressed during the conference call that the MAAC needs to pursue quality programs that enhance the profile of the conference.
He knows first-hand the quality of Monmouth, after the Gaels survived 86-85 in overtime on Tuesday.
Wednesday morning, Pitino tweeted, “Really hate seeing Monmouth leave the MAAC. Terrific style of play, great arena and love King Rice. Good luck Hawks and much success!!!”
“If you’re not taking quality, quantity is only going to hurt the MAAC,” he said on the conference call. “We’re losing an outstanding program in Monmouth. Outstanding. Great arena. Terrific coach. They’ve done a fabulous job all those years. They bring a lot to the table. So losing a program like Monmouth is difficult for us, so we have to replace it with somebody as good as Monmouth.”
As of noon Wednesday, Monmouth head coach King Rice said he wasn’t in a position to shed light on a conference move.
“Guys, I’m a basketball coach at Monmouth, and my boss is [athletic director] Jeff Stapleton. And his boss is president [Patrick] Leahy. And president Leahy will tell me when we’re moving,” Rice said.
“I’ve seen all the reports. I know there’s meetings going on around here right now. But I have not heard from my bosses that this [is] what’s happening. They’ll tell me when it’s time, and then I’ll be able to speak on it more clearly. I’m honored that coach P thinks highly of what we’re doing.”
Ensor getting the MAAC number up to 12 remains a goal with or without Monmouth, but any addition would need to be finalized by June to have schedules ready by the fall.
Previous realignment within the conference includes adding Monmouth and Quinnipiac in 2013 to replace Loyola (Md.). MAAC membership has ranged from six, when the conference was formed in 1980, to as many as 12 in 1989-90.
The three-year contract between the MAAC and Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City to host the conference basketball tournament ends this year.
Conversations between Ensor and the arena have been delayed by changes in upper management at the casino authority that operates Boardwalk Hall.
MVP Arena in Albany would be an obvious option if there’s no contract extension in Atlantic City.
“It’s really in Atlantic City’s court right now,” Ensor said. “I gave them a couple more weeks to get back to me on a final offer. There’s been a leadership change down there. The casino redevelopment, which is a funding source for a lot of the MAAC Tournament, just changed their executive director, so I’m waiting for that to get settled.”
SPEAKING OF SCHEDULES
The Hall of Famer Pitino, who won national championships at Kentucky (1996) and Louisville (2013, since vacated), is in his second year at Iona, and said that one of the most difficult parts of coaching in a smaller conference is getting high-profile non-conference opponents on the schedule.
Based on early returns, Iona could put itself in the conversation for a rare at-large NCAA bid out of the MAAC. Among the Gaels’ non-conference games was a victory over Alabama, then ranked No. 10 in the country, in the ESPN Events Invitational in Florida in November.
“Because it’s been a one-bid league, that’s been the difficulty of the MAAC, and it’s up to us as coaches to schedule big-time teams and beat those teams so we can become a conference like the Mountain West, where in a given year you can get two, three, four teams in it,” he said.
“It’s all based on schedule. And that’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve encountered with the MAAC. It’s not recruiting. It’s not the play on the court. It’s scheduling, to get them in a home-and-home.
“So what I’ve tried to do more than anything else is get to neutral sites. This year, we’ve played Liberty, Kansas, Alabama … in the future we’re in the Battle of Atlantis. Next year, we’ve got another great non-conference schedule.”
Iona reached the NCAA Tournament as an at-large in 2012 under former head coach Tim Cluess.