UIC is ready to "Fire Up The Valley"
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Extra Points readers have known for a while that the UIC Flames were expected to join the Missouri Valley Conference, along with Belmont and Murray State. But things weren't official until yesterday afternoon, when UIC leadership, MVC leadership, and a throng of Flame athletes and well-wishers celebrated the occasion with a press conference and reception.
Extra Points HQ is only a few miles north of UIC, so I braved the freezing temperatures to head down and pick up a few more tidbits from the announcement. Here's what I learned, besides just how jarring it is to see so much Chicago iconography juxtaposed to Arch stuff:
Why did the MVC add UIC?
The MVC is one of the oldest and most prestigious mid-major conferences, and they've made it clear, they expect to compete at a high level, especially in men's and women's basketball. Belmont and Murray State, two of the other new additions, can claim a combined eight NCAA Tournament appearances since 2010, and both are near annual threats to win at least twenty games. They should bolster the league's NET rating for sure.
UIC has had some basketball success, (they made three NCAA Tournaments between 1997-2004), but nobody would confuse them for Belmont right now. The team currently has a 7-10 record, and hasn't won more than 20 games in a season since 2003-2004.
So why were they added?
A big reason, of course, is their location. They're not just in Chicago, but they're nearly right smack in the middle of the city, just west of the iconic downtown loop. Chicago is a major recruiting territory not just for athletes in multiple sports, but for students. "Any time you can add a presence in one of the great cities in not just the country, but the world, that's a positive thing." MVC Commissioner Jeff Jackson told me.
Both Jackson and UIC AD Michael Lipitz also pointed to UIC's strong facilities as another major asset.
What's next for the MVC?
The UIC addition happened relatively quickly, (Jackson described it as a "whirlwind marriage") but that doesn't mean the league is done making moves. Jackson told me that the MVC hasn't ruled out adding attentional schools, although he declined to add a timeline for when the conference could potentially make those other decisions. He also told me that the MVC could potentially revisit what sports the league decided to sponsor, in light of recent membership additions, or determine whether they should host other postseason events (outside of their iconic basketball tournaments in St. Louis) in Chicago...but nothing is concrete right now. There will be time for those conversations.
That may be especially important for UIC, since the school sponsors two sports, men's swimming and men's tennis, that are not currently sponsored by the MWC. Lipitz noted that the school is ""aggressively pursuing opportunities" for those sports, and hopes to share updates soon.
Jackson also told me that the MVC plans to play a 20-game league schedule for men's and women's basketball. "We're very comfortable with the concept of playing 20 games because we have such a deep bench of programs", he told me. "We don't have lower-rung teams."
What's next for UIC?
With UIC stepping up to a more competitive conference, it would be natural to think the athletic department would shift into new facilities projects. But Lipitz was quick to thank previous UIC administrations for making sure that the athletic department's physical facilities were already in a strong place. A new women's soccer facility is slated to open this summer, and the school hopes to build a new sports performance center, taking advantage of UIC's proximity to a major medical campus.
But while, as Lipitz noted, "You're never really finished building and investing in facilities,"UIC's next investments are more about people. Part of that, according to Lipitz, is making sure the department can "hire and retain the best coaches possible," a group that Lipitz says he's very excited about. Those investments may also mean improvements in department infrastructure, from revenue to alumni engagement. UIC's athletic apparel contract is also expiring soon, and given their location, additional MMR opportunities could be on the way as well.
New levels of competition will likely require new resources, but Lipitz pointed out that even with a great strategic plan, or integrated marketing solutions, or outbound ticket sales, the department wouldn't be able to reach their goals without quality coaching and success on the field. Those other plans are important, but he told me that in his opinion, "even the best marketing plan doesn't equal a winning program."
This is a building job, and there are unquestionably challenges. But it also isn't hard to see why both UIC and the MVC are excited.
I think I've said this a few times in this newsletter, but I'm generally very wary of the concept of Sleeping Giants waking up. Typically, there are good reasons why those programs are asleep, and demographics and geography are not destiny.
And let's be honest...right now, UIC isn't Belmont. UIC women's basketball has been near the bottom of the Horizon League for years, and the men's basketball team hasn't come especially close to the NCAA Tournament in a long time. While the campus is unquestionably changing, this is still more of a commuter school that sits in a big time pro sports market...if you aren't successful, it's easy to get lost in the crowd. I was one of the few reporters at this press conference, after all, even though Chicago has plenty of college sportswriters.
But it's also easy to see the potential. Beyond the facilities and the market, this is a school with a huge alumni base that has only scratched the surface on engaging them. It's the D-1 school in Chicago that's most accessible to all of Chicagoland, whether you're driving or taking a train. They're not hurting for enrollment, they have the money to keep up with their new conference peers, and they sit a short drive away from plenty of communities with great mid-major talent.
Plus, we know programs can turn around here. Loyola, UIC's neighbor to the north, wasn't a dominant Horizon League program, and some college basketball analysts thought the Valley had reached a little bit by inviting them. But after nailing some coaching hires, getting a little luck, and then taking advantage of every bit of that luck, Loyola turned into America's Darling.
That's not a comparison Lipitz is shying away from, agreeing with me that if nothing else, that Loyola presented a "blueprint for what is possible" and that Loyola would be an "apt comparison."
"Now, it doesn't just happen, right? You know you don't just shift conferences and all of a sudden, you start winning. It takes hard work."
For the Valley to remain one of the premier mid-major leagues in the country, one that routinely threatens for multiple NCAA bids, they'll need UIC to take a step forward, and they'll need the league's other new additions to continue the success they've enjoyed in the OVC.
There are no guarantees. But you can't fault the MVC or UIC for feeling excited about the potential.
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