With 14 teams in the conference by 2012, MIAA?could split into divisions

The Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association has continued its growth and, as of Friday, the league has grown to 14 teams after Northeastern State out of Tahlequah, Okla., and Central Oklahoma, in Edmond, Okla., accepted invitations from the MIAA to join.

The growth might not be done yet, as Lindenwood, in St. Charles, and the University of Nebraska-Kearney are other schools being considered to join the MIAA.

A 16-team MIAA would almost force the conference to go into two divisions. But, even if the league stays at 14 teams, a two-division league is still possible.

Both Northeastern State and Central Oklahoma come from the Lone Star Conference and were part of a 14-team league that had two divisions.

The Oklahoma additions make the MIAA in four states now, seven teams in Missouri – Missouri Southern, Missouri Western, Northwest Missouri, Truman State, Southwest Baptist, Central Missouri and Lincoln.
Washburn, Pittsburg State, Emporia State and Fort Hays State are all in Kansas, while Nebraska-Omaha, obviously, is in Nebraska.

“I think it will be interesting to watch the schedule because we are to the point we can’t play everyone home and home in basketball, so I’m not sure what they will do,” Missouri Southern men’s basketball coach Robert Corn said.

As the conference has expanded in recent years, scheduling basketball games has been made easier. Of the 27 maximum games allowed to play by the NCAA, 22 games this upcoming season will be league play as Lincoln returns to the MIAA.

On the other side, though, it means only four non-conference games to get ready for the conference season.

“It used to be a two-month grind with conference games in January and February, but now you have a three-months grind in December, January, February of high volume play,” Corn said. “You would like to have a few more non-conference games. They are very important. The reason is you are trying to get confidence in your players and get ready for the conference season. You want, number one, a challenge, but you also want a chance to win.”

In recent years, Fort Hays State returned to the MIAA, while Nebraska-Omaha joined from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, which brought the team league to 12 teams.

The MIAA has been the dominant force in football on the national level for years. The MIAA has been represented in the last six national championship games and Northwest Missouri broke through with a national title last year.
Since 1990, the MIAA has had a member in the national title game 11 times and has won four championships.
UCO and NSU are not exactly powerhouse football programs, but they will provide solid competition for the teams. The Bronchos – whose defensive coordinator is former NEO A&M head coach Steve Patterson – were 4-7 last year, while NSU was 1-8.

Dating back five years, UCO has gone 4-7, 7-4, 4-6, 5-6 and 3-7, respectively. In that same stretch, the RiverHawks were 1-8, 0-9, 3-6, 4-5 and 2-7.

The Lions, coached by Bart Tatum, are pretty similar to UCO and its results. Starting in 2005, Missouri Southern has gone 3-7, 5-6, 6-5, 4-7, and 3-7.

Tatum talked about the expansion Saturday.

“Well, I think the biggest negative to me is not crowning a conference champion,” Tatum said. “There will be pseudo champions from the divisions. You will have to go to divisions, but there won’t be a championship game. How will that affect the playoff picture? I think it muddies the water. I know the presidents that are in favor of the expansion into new markets and more visibility and all that makes sense. You will have travel issues and whether the distribution of the divisions is equitable. To me, there are as many negatives as positives. There are negatives in not playing everybody in the conference. I hope divisions will get the respect that each champion will make the playoffs and at least one or two more. That is the quality of teams you have in the conference. Each year, we are six or seven teams deep and that was before the expansion.”

Tatum noted scheduling wise, in 2013, the team was set to play 11 games, all league games when Southwest Baptist was set to rejoin. Lincoln starts league play in 2011, and in 2012 the two Oklahoma schools will be in the conference. If further expansion does allow Lindenwood and Nebraska-Kearney into the MIAA, there could be as many as six football teams joining from 2011 to 2013.

Lindenwood was in the NAIA championship game last year so there is talent in that program. Nebraska-Kearney was 11-2 last year and made the second round of the Division II playoffs. Dating back to 1997, the Lopers have had only one season under .500 and were 73-35 the last 10 years.

The trip to Oklahoma for games is nothing new to the Missouri Southern softball program. In his two years at the helm of the Lions softball team, Bill Gray has saw his team venture south and play a total of 10 games against the MIAA’s newest additions.

“We will go south a little bit more, but they are both teams we are pretty familiar with,” said Gray. “We play Northeastern State on an annual basis. My first year here, we went down to Central Oklahoma during spring break. Both athletic programs will be very competitive in the MIAA. In softball, UCO is always good and Northeastern State has always had a solid program. They have gotten better obviously the last few years. They split with us in a four-game series last year.”

Gray noted the addition of the two Oklahoma schools could help the school’s recruiting as they could have more of a presence in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City area. There are two players on the roster from Oklahoma for the Lions heading into the 2011 season.

Like the other sports, there is still no determination as to what will happen in regards to divisional play, but starting in 2012, the two Oklahoma teams will be in the MIAA.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Gray said. “Those schools make the league that much tougher. There are no weekends off, everyone is good in the MIAA. They (UCO, NSU) have been playing in a tough conference, not only with long travel, but good competition.”

In basketball, for instance, both of the Oklahoma schools will provide quite a challenge and make winning the MIAA title even harder.

“No doubt, our league is an excellent league and with the addition of the two schools and the other schools, it is a very competitive league,” Corn said. “It makes you work hard to get to that high level because you don’t want to fall down. It makes you work hard to keep the program in the upper tier. If you win the MIAA (basketball) conference championship you have a good shot at winning a national championship and that is the case in several sports.”

The UCO men sported a 22-7 record last year, its fourth year of winning 20-plus games. The last three years have been stellar, particularly the 2007-2008 season when the Bronchos went 28-7 and advanced to the Division II Elite Eight, falling in a heartbreaker to Augusta State, 106-104, for a spot in the Final Four. For the last two years the team has made the Division II playoffs in the South Central Regional – the same region the MIAA winner advances too.

The womens’ basketball team at UCO is also competitive, sporting three straight years of 20-plus win seasons and three consecutive berths in the Division II playoffs as well.

The RiverHawks and Lady RiverHawks at Northeastern State are also pretty solid. The women were 28-7 and lost in the South Central Regional Championship game to eventual national champion Emporia State. The RiverHawks were 20-9 last year.

Stats dating back further in years were not available on the NSU athletic website.