Towson State and the University of Maryland Baltimore County are discussing joining the Big South Conference, and their entrance into the league next week is a strong possibility.
Officials from the conference visited both schools recently, and Big South commissioner G.F. "Buddy" Sasser confirmed the talks yesterday.
"We are hoping something is going to materialize before the Christmas holidays," said Sasser. "We really believe that, if those schools join us, they will be very positive additions to our conference."
Towson and UMBC are members of the East Coast Conference, which has lost its automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament and has been riddled by membership losses the past two years.
Rider will leave after this season, joining Lafayette, Lehigh, Bucknell, Delaware and Drexel as recent defectors from the ECC.
The Tigers had expressed interest in joining the Northeast Conference, but their application was withdrawn this week.
Northeast commissioner Chris Monasch said of Towson that "no bid was made that our presidents could evaluate."
Towson apparently was turned off by an NEC requirement that a school spend five years in the conference -- enforced by a $250,000 penalty for an early departure -- a factor that weighed against its desire to move into a more prestigious league soon.
"I would say by this time next week everybody will know what's going to happen," said Towson athletic director Bill Hunter.
"We're just waiting for everything to take its course. It's all going to fall into place."
UMBC also has rejected the NEC as not fitting its profile, but athletic director Charles Brown has said: "We will be in a conference next year, one in which we're capable of coming with all our athletic teams."
Brown said, "We're leaning toward the Big South," but other options are being considered, including stronger leagues such as the Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic 10.
"It's a matter of who wants us and if we're ready to go there," he said.
The Big South stretches from Virginia to South Carolina. It earned an automatic NCAA bid this March after Coastal Carolina beat Jackson State in a tournament play-in game last year and took Indiana almost to the wire in a first-round NCAA game. The Big South also has an automatic bid into the Division I baseball tournament for the league champion.
The conference is composed of Radford and Liberty in Virginia, Coastal Carolina, Davidson, Campbell and UNC-Asheville in North Carolina and Winthrop and Charleston Southern in South Carolina. and In the fall, Davidson will leave to rejoin the Southern Conference.
If Towson and UMBC apply to the Big South, three member schools have to endorse them, then the league's executive committee (made up of school presidents) has to approve them by a two-thirds majority.
According to Sasser, that all can be done quickly -- by telephone conference call.
"The schools are weighing the situation right now," he said. "I really think some type of decision will be made prior to the break."