But it's very difficult to play as an independent in Division I, let alone compete. Schools without a league affiliation often struggle to fill their schedules. The wind up playing on the road more often than not, taking long bus trips to play power-conference teams, and ending their seasons in February without the finality of a conference tournament -- or a snowball's chance of an NCAA Tournament invitation.
The Great West conference solves all three problems for its member schools -- but not right away. The teams will have a league schedule starting next season, and a conference tournament in March of 2010, location to be determined. But due to NCAA bylaws, the league will not be eligible to send its champion to the "Big Dance" for another few years.
Earning the Automatic BidThe NCAA requires the following of any league before it will grant an automatic bid to its champion:
- At least seven schools that are fully-fledged members of Division I
- At least seven "core" members that have been in Division I for at least eight years
- At least six "core" members that have been in the league for five years
Basketball vs. FootballThe Great West has a separate membership for football, and plays in the "Football Championship Subdivision" (formerly known as I-AA). The Great West Football schools -- Cal Poly, UC Davis, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Southern Utah and Northern Colorado -- may link up with the basketball group at some point in the future. But to do so now would mean they'd give up the postseason eligibility of their present conferences, so no such move is likely in the short term.
Another Challenge: GeographyIt will be interesting to see how the fledgling league sets up its schedule; the road trips are going to be a bear. In the Big East, you could start south on I-95 in Providence and come within shouting distance of UConn, St. John's, Seton Hall, Rutgers, Villanova and Georgetown in a seven-hour drive. The Great West, on the other hand, has outposts in Edinburg and Houston, Texas, Orem Utah, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota, and Newark, New Jersey.
- Orem to Newark is 2,176 miles
- Grand Forks to Houston is 1,394