When UB succeeded in dragging the State University system kicking and screaming into the era of Division One sports they were alone among public universities in the Empire State. So rather than forge rivalries against the other three University Centers UB focused on joining the local 'Little Three' of private schools Canisius, Niagara, and Saint Bonaventure.
But the other University Centers eventually caught up and copied UB's ambitious plans. That is of course something of a reoccurring pattern in all things SUNY, but that's another story.
From 1946 to 1958 the Western New York "Little Three Conference" was a sanctioned body by the NCAA which as its name implied had just three small members. All three schools in the former conference are Roman Catholic institutions located in Western New York. You know them as Canisius, Niagara, and Saint Bonaventure.
|Team||05-09RPI||10-14 RPI||05-09 vs||10-14 vs|
They became the Big Four when Buffalo joined. At the time Bulls basketball was outclassed most of the time by the established programs. For the most part those roles have changed. Saint Bonaventure remains a hard nut to crack but the Bulls have by and large blew by the Golden Griffins and Purple Eagles.
By 2005 UB had achieved parity with the Little 3. In terms of RPI they were competitive and they were beating Canisius and Niagara on the court regularly.
There were no games versus Saint Bonaventure from 2005-2010; all we really have to go on during that span is RPI. What's happened since 2010 is that the Griffs and Purps have started falling behind the curve while UB and Saint Bonaventure have surged. Aside from Big 4 bragging rights and fan interest neither UB nor Saint Bonavanture gets a lot of out playing the other two members of the Big 4.
Which brings us to my point. One of the biggest UB stories over the last two years has been the increased emphasis on the school's place in New York. UB isn't alone. As smaller conference schools see the gap between 'haves' and 'have nots' widening, and money becoming more important than on-field success when it comes to moving up, nearly every school in the state is touting their connection to New York, the massive city that bears its name, and the accompanying media clout.
My "SUNY4" would consist of Buffalo, Stony Brook, Albany, and Binghamton. The four New York Research centers sit atop the SUNY pyramid as "Doctoral Granting Institutions" and are the only New York State Universities currently in Division One athletics. Buffalo is the only member of the SUNY 4 not sitting in the America East conference, having made the jump at a time when the Mid American Conference was expanding.
Remember here that we're just talking basketball, and that if we introduced other sports - except for maybe lacrosse - the gap between UB's situation and the others' would be even wider.
Anyway, to give you an idea of how bad the America East is they have *one* team right now above .500 as nonconference play ends: the Hartford Hawks. Overall the conference's RPI ranking is 24th out of 43. For context, the MAC is 12th, the MAAC is 22, and the A10 is 7th. This isn't entirely new, either: One of the reasons we can't dismiss the rest of the SUNY 4 entirely is because Albany and Binghamton have made the Big Dance out of their weakling conference, and Stony Brook has likewise advanced to the NIT three of the last five years.
|Buffalo (34)||Buffalo (34)|
|S. Brook (60)||Canisius (114)|
|Albany (202)||Bona (204)|
|Bingo (342)||Niagara (206)|
Despite the rather moribund nature of the Atlantic East the two large state schools, Stony Brook and Albany, have begun to grow into decent little programs. It's possible Stony Brook may find their way into the Colonial Athletic Association, where the Seawolves are a football affiliate, should the conference need to expand again.
When lined up against the "Big 4" this season one notices that outside of Binhamton the SUNY 4 stacks up quite nicely. Of course RPI is far from a perfect measure of strength but our SUNY brothers in Stony Brook did just take down a ranked Washington squad.
So now with the SUNY 4 beginning to play up to the level of the Big 4 and the MAAC playing down to the level of the America East, what do we make of UB's choice in yearly rival circuit? Should UB add the SUNY 4 and Drop the Big 4? Should the Bulls try and do both? Or should they just keep playing the Big 4?
Regardless of whether or not UB continues to play the Big 4 there is a risk in adding the SUNY 4, and it's all about the perception being built that UB is the New York State's main research university and Athletics program. Being the only school in the Bowl Subdivision has given White an appropriate venue to sell the New York Bulls Initiative. The idea is to promote UB as the states de facto flagship to the college sports world.
We're not trying to sell the idea to Albany, Bingo, and Stony Brook because they are not buying. Stony Brook is building so as not to fall further behind Buffalo, Albany is pouting about UB's hubris and the loss of their own Nano College, all the while Bingo is pretending graduate programs don't count and clinging to their admittedly strong undergraduate offerings as proof they are the best SUNY school.
People in New York understand the no-flagship model of the SUNY system but to most folks in the world it's odd not to have a school, or two, carry the state's name. The college sports world needs a school to carry the New York name and UB is better positioned than anyone to pick up the Empire Mantle.
If UB engages the SUNY 4 in football I'm not at all worried about Bingo or Albany and only worried slightly about Stony Brook even approaching a substantial amount of wins over the Bulls. When a P5 power loses to an in-state FCS school there is a bit of shame but the games are seen for what they are, outliers that are going to happen with frequency. If however you lose to that school say four straight years, then it's a problem.
The same would be true in hoops. Imagine the glee in certain segments of the print media around the state if UB dropped games two years in a row to Stony Brook.
The flip side of that is the opportunity for UB to own the SUNY 4 as they have come to own Niagara and Canisius. Should UB undisputedly stake a claim as the biggest dog in the SUNY 4 it might make recruiting easier throughout the state, though not a lot of kids are picking smAlbany over Buffalo as it stands now.
There is also a risk to dropping the Big 4 from our schedule. Right now UB enjoys a lot of media attention in their games against the other Western New York D1 teams. The students also enjoy having a crosstown rival or two - though the scheduling this year completely took the students out of the picture. Playing Canisius and Niagara means two game a year which are either home or so close to home that they might as well be home games - look at the recent women's basketball game at Canisius for proof of that. Olean is not too far away when we play the Bonnies.
It would be a shame to lose those games in a world when far-flung conferences have already destroyed a lot of local rivalry games. The relaunch of the Big 4 Classic downtown shows that there is the chance for growth in local interest towards college basketball.
Of course UB could just decide to do both, but that would consume roughly half of their out of conference games. Were UB in a conference like the American, with its huge footprint, that might not be so bad. It would keep the out of conference costs down and maintain interest in Western and greater New York. But in the MAC it means 6 games in NY, 6 or 7 games in Ohio, and 2-4 games in Michigan every season.
It's hard to build a national brand when half of your hoops schedule is played in states that border Lake Erie. If New York State is the brand we want to sell nationally could they do it with 6 out of conference games not tied to the Empire State?
If I had to add three games this year I would have dropped Cornell, South Dakota State (Which was already just a return game from the defunct Bracket Busters), and perhaps Robert Morris. So what do you think Buffalo should do?