Conference realignment has become a hot topic this summer, and even if basketball doesn’t really register when these decisions are made, it’s invariably affected.
We know that Texas and Oklahoma will join the SEC, leaving behind the Big 12 and its eight other schools in the process. What we don’t know is when, and what we really don’t know is what next dominoes fall. But we do know there will be more coming, either this summer or in the not-so-distant future.
Conference realignment always impacts college basketball. The last huge shift in conference affiliations in the early 2010s brought about the collapse of the Big East as we knew it,collapse of the Big East as we knew it, a death we still mourn (yes, there’s a modern Big East, and that’s great, but we all know what it used to be), and brought to life the American Athletic Conference. What will it mean this time?
How Will Conference Realignment Affect College Basketball?
Goodbye Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Hello Texas-Texas A&M
These are pretty much all football schools, so the rivalries aren’t the same on the hardwood. But there is legitimate hatred among these in-state foes, and that extends to anything they do.
Will there still be Bedlam basketball? It’s easier to schedule these things out-of-conference in hoops than in football, but that doesn’t mean they’ll do it. Oklahoma State appears pretty bitter right now from the whole situation, and it’s understandable. The Cowboys might choose to not play the Sooners, at least in the early days of not sharing a conference with them. The loss of rivalries is perhaps the worst aspect of conference realignment, and this looks like it might be the latest casualty in basketball and all sports.
But this realignment means the return of one of college sports’ most heated rivalries: Texas-Texas A&M. Sure, we’re not getting it in the way we’d like, and I’m not someone who particular enjoys the upheaval of collegiate athletics in the name of money for a select few. But there are positives and negatives to all things, and this is at least one silver lining for the mayhem we’ve experienced this summer.
Does the Big 12 Expand, Combine, or disappear?
As of yet, we don’t seem to have a ton of clarity on this, but we do know that the Big 12’s eight other schools cannot continue on by themselves. This realignment means the conference must choose one of the options in front of it: expand, combine, or disappear.
This isn’t entirely up to the Big 12, because it requires all member institutions to fall in line and requires schools in other conferences to either accept their invitations into the league or accept the invitation to combine. There have been talks of the Pac-12 and Big 12 merging or otherwise partnering, which could be one direction the Big 12 goes, presuming the Pac-12 wants it, too.
Another option is to add more members. The obvious candidates would be the top schools in the AAC, like Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, UCF, and South Florida, as well as the biggest names out of the Mountain West, such as Boise State and Colorado State. BYU could also be in the mix, though that would be much more complicated. But the big question around this route is, would that save the Big 12’s power-five status? Would a conference comprised of Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF, and Boise State move the needle enough to keep the Big 12 at the prestige it currently holds? That’s a very big if.
Disbandment is still very much in the cards, and it’s the way that I envision this most likely playing out. If and when any other power conference offers a life raft to one of the eight Big 12 schools left behind, said universities will cling to it like a child to their mother’s leg. Kansas, Iowa State, West Virginia, and others who have a possible hope of being snatched up might publicly say that they’re all in it together right now, but the second the chance to save themselves comes up, that will be out the door, and you can’t fault them for it. Well, you can, but you can at least understand why.
At this point, all it will take is the ACC inviting West Virginia, the Big Ten inviting Kansas, the Pac-12 inviting the Texas schools or any similar situation for it to all fall apart. It’s possible some Big 12 teams would agree to move to the AAC even. That’s why I think we’re experiencing the final days of the Big 12. Whether it comes before the end of 2021, in 2025 when the league’s grant of rights expires, or a few years after that, I would be pretty surprised if there’s a Big 12 in 2030. There are good odds it doesn’t even make it that far.
So Long, Round Robin
The last conference realignment brought about an era of large leagues with 12 to 15 members, and in-conference basketball schedules have become a mess. Teams only play a handful of their conference foes twice in a season, and it can be years between teams traveling to one another’s arenas. Some conferences, like the Big Ten, don’t protect matchups, so games like Indiana-Purdue and Michigan-Michigan States sometimes only have one meeting in a season. Put bluntly, it sucks.
But the Big 12 was different. With just 10 teams, it was able to schedule a full round-robin schedule with everyone playing everyone twice: once at home, once on the road. That made it one of the best conferences to watch every season, and it made the regular season champion feel very legitimate – unbalanced schedules, at least to the degree they can be mitigated for, were no concern.
Well, that’s pretty much dead now. Either the Big 12 is dying, merging or partnering with another league, or it will add members, and I don’t see it inviting just two schools to get back to 10 if that’s the way it goes. So enjoy the round robin for as long as Texas and Oklahoma are still awkwardly in the conference, because that’s an almost-certain casualty in basketball from this realignment.
Big 12/SEC Challenge Must Die
I don’t really see how this can continue. Not only are the leagues even more imbalanced members-wise, but the SEC just seriously screwed over the Big 12. Why would the Big 12 continue a series with the SEC after what it just did to it? It seems much more likely to me that the Big 12 will begin a similar series with the Pac-12 and drop the one with the SEC once that becomes possible. That is, of course, assuming the Big 12 continues to exist.
Either way, the Big 12/SEC Challenge’s days are numbered.
Could This Kick Off Something Much Larger?
It sucks for college basketball to potentially lose the Big 12, which has been one of the best men’s basketball leagues in the country for the last several years. It sucks that incredibly prestige programs like Kansas men’s basketball and Baylor women’s basketball have no idea where they’ll be playing in the future and could be severely affected in a negative way from this through no fault of their own. But this could suck a whole lot worse if it leads to what it very well might.
The SEC is the most stable, established conference there is. You can bet on its safety and existence moving forward. The Pac-12 is in a somewhat similar boat, mostly because of its isolated geographic location. The Big Ten is fairly comfortable and cohesive, too, and I don’t see it falling apart in the coming years.
But the ACC? Other than a grant of rights agreement that runs until 2036 and the backing of ESPN (which seems to have its hands all over Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC, just like it was heavily involved in the implosion of the Big East), there isn’t a ton to keep these schools together. Florida State, Miami, Clemson, and Virginia Tech are football behemoths (to varying degrees) that relatively do not care about basketball. Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse, and Louisville are basketball behemoths (to varying degrees) that relatively do not care about football, though the athletics departments do via their bottom lines. There’s no real reason for Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech to share a league. There is plenty of more money to be made for the ACC’s big fish in the SEC and Big Ten, and consolidation is the name of the game in conference realignment.
Will schools like Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina, and Virginia ditch the ACC for the SEC and Big Ten this year or very soon? I don’t think so. Will they jump ship within the next 10 to 15 years? I would be surprised if they didn’t. The richer are getting richer. In 2028, will Clemson be able to reject an SEC offer when their payouts will be so much larger, their recruiting footprint will improve, and they’ll join the ultimate football super league?
Now, what that conference realignment would mean for basketball is something much more seismic than what we’re seeing right now. Would it mean the separation of the Tobacco Road schools? Which schools would be left behind, because there’s no way all 14 ACC members would be snapped up by the SEC and Big Ten? What happens to Notre Dame basketball? These are all the similar questions that come from the current Big 12 situation but with even more programs that have long-standing history within the sport.
Sorry, Kansas State
Kansas State is pretty much screwed.
I was recently in Manhattan, Kansas, for the first time during my first trip through Kansas in my life. I do not mean this in an insulting way, but it was probably the worst power-five campus and town I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a good number. Certainly nothing about it screamed, “lifeline worthy.”
Kansas as a state doesn’t have a ton to offer to any power conference. The Kansas City market is something, but the Jayhawks are closer to that and have a strong hold on that market than the Wildcats do, so if you’re going to snatch up a Kansas school, you take KU first without question. K-State has put together competitive football the last couple of decades and had some pretty good basketball teams, but that’s not what matters in conference realignment. The academics aren’t there, the money isn’t there, and the location isn’t there. Everything points to Kansas State being screwed.
At this point, K-State’s only hopes are either for the Big 12 to expand and somehow use that to remain a power conference or for the league to partner or merge with another power league and use that as leverage to stay near the top of the college sports food chain. If the league disbands, KSU will find a home in the Mountain West or AAC at best. No power conference will come knocking on Manhattan’s door.
A lot of the Big 12 is facing a grim reality, but none have it worse than Kansas State. Sorry, Wildcats.