For decades, the Big Ten was one of the best athletic conferences in college sports. There were a variety of reasons for that distinction yet beneath all of them stood one general principle: the Big Ten was anchored in the Midwestern portion of the United States.
People quibbled when the conference first added Penn State in 1990. There were far more quibbles this century when Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland found their way to the Big Ten. None of those radically shifted the balance of power or the conference’s geographic center of gravity.
Now the conference has made a decision that completely ignores that piece of its history. Rather than adding new partners that slightly stretch the Big Ten’s physical footprint, the conference strapped on its spurs and headed west, seeking a gold rush in good ol’ Californ-ia.
USC and UCLA are headed to the Big Ten, with football money, as always, to blame, with a veiled sprinkling of academics and membership in the American Association of Universities dusted on top.
This decision was driven by football and made for football, yet it impacts every sport beyond the gridiron, particularly the sport we cover here: men’s college basketball.
The good news: The Big Ten is insanely good at basketball now. If it wasn’t the best and deepest conference in the sport last week, it is now. One of the now-16 members of the Big Ten (still a funny thing to say) has made the Final Four in 14 of the last 21 tournaments (dating back to 2000).
Laugh at the geography all you want, but now we (probably) get to see UCLA play Indiana every year. Same for Purdue. And Wisconsin. And so on.
It doesn’t take long to get past the good news and into the follow-up questions.
For example, when UCLA plays a Tuesday night game at Ohio State, what time will that game will be played? The same question stands for a weeknight Michigan State at USC game. One of the two fanbases is getting shafted there.
Even if those games are great and the timing isn’t an issue, building a schedule for a 16-team league isn’t easy. The ACC, currently sitting at 15 basketball teams, plays 20 conference games. Each team has two designated “rivals” that it meets home and away every season, then rotates which four other teams it plays twice in a season, with eight opponents it meets just once.
Which school are we signing up to be annual rivals with a team 2,000 miles away? Doesn’t feel fair. Want to do East and West Divisions? Screw you Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Northwestern – you get a California road trip that the East teams don’t have to consider.
There will be a solution, it just won’t be easy and it will take a fair amount of jet fuel to solve it.
Here’s another fun one: where are you going to host the Big Ten Tournament? Do you want to tell your new friends they have to fly to Indianapolis or Chicago every year? Do you make half your league fly three time zones for a tournament? Do it in LA some years? Vegas? Move it around the country every year? Have fun figuring this out.
So, most importantly: What happens next?
That’s likely above my paygrade and will, as always, be dictated by football. I thought both of these ESPN+ peaks into the future by Bill Connelly and Pete Thamel gave a good look at the current situation.
Notre Dame is the biggest domino but feels safe as an ACC-affiliated independent for now.
The Big XII, which was on death’s door a year ago when Texas and Oklahoma chose to skip town, is now somehow poised to be in the third-best circumstances after the Goliaths in the SEC and Big Ten. How did that happen? Well, adding UCF, BYU, Houston, and Cincinnati was very smart, but the majority of the Big XII’s strength, in my view, comes via geography.
If the SEC and Big Ten are reticent to extend their footprint further into the Pacific Time Zone, the powers of the West Coast (Oregon, Washington, and Stanford) could be looking to make a change. If the Pac-12 is left for dead, The Big XII could scoop up the Pac-12 programs it likes best.
That could mean all ten of the remaining schools and the Big XII could become a silly-sized behemoth that stretches from Orlando to Seattle (but is centered in the middle to slightly-West-of-middle of the country, with logical geographic reasons to break into divisions). Or the Big XII could just simply make it’s pitch to two or four or six Pac-12 schools. Oregon, Washington, and Stanford are the prizes, with Cal, Utah, Colorado, and the Arizona duo a tier below. The Big XII could add all eight of those, leaving poor Oregon State and Washington State at the orphanage. Or the Big XII could scoop whichever of those eight don’t have their sights on the SEC or Big Ten.
Apparently, the conference is already looking into these ideas:
If the ACC wants to establish itself on the solid ground a step below the Big Ten and SEC, it has a few options. Follow the Big Ten’s playbook and raid the West Coast. Convince Notre Dame that the time for independence has ended. Or do your best to steal a school from the Big XII, which now seems unlikely.
The ACC also needs to defend the schools it currently has in its fold. The Athletic mentioned UNC as one to watch, as the flagship school from the most populous state that currently has no Big Ten or SEC school. The last time the realignment winds blew, UNC and Duke felt like a package deal, if they were going to move. There doesn’t seem to be much of that talk this time around, a real concern for basketball fans. If they became non-conference opponents, the Blue Devils and Heels would almost certainly cut to one game per season and it would likely come much earlier in the year, much to the hoop junkie’s chagrin.
The Pac-12 (or Pac-10, again) is left in scramble mode. Fighting for a merger with the Big XII to make a mega-conference that has a seat at the table feels like the best way for the conference to remain nationally relevant. Adding the most attractive schools from the Mountain West seems futile at this point. San Diego State and Boise State aren’t scaring the Big Ten or SEC, or even ACC or Big XII.
Then there’s the creative options. Does adding Gonzaga to the conference as a non-football member do anything? If you’re Gonzaga, is that even an attractive option? Or did USC and UCLA just open the door to the world of a cross-country conference, giving the Zags-to-Big East rumor even more to chew on?
I suppose the biggest, most important question in all this, to me, comes when these conferences are so bloated, they cease to make sense. Will conferences continue to bloat or are we destined to see programs kicked to the curb? Currently, 16 has remained as the proverbial glass ceiling. We are poised, however, to see one of the Power 2 (Big Ten and SEC) continue to add schools or see one of the lesser power conferences choose quantity over quality (as in the Pac-12/Big XII merger idea).
In the last major round of re-alignment, that led to the death of the football-relevant Big East, we did not see any schools kicked out of a conference, but we did see some left for dead. UConn made out the worst, in theory, having to slum it in the American Athletic Conference for a few years, before deciding enough was a enough and putting some value on its basketball program again by returning to the football-free Big East (The Huskies did, of course, win a national title early in their time as members of the AAC, but then saw the program drift into relative obscurity).
Washington State and Oregon State seem the most likely to face that fate this time around. Quite frankly, no one in the world’s of football or basketball is probably too upset about that. The Mountain West could scoop them up, and any other un-claimed Pac-12 schools, beefing up that conference, but still leaving it well outside the balance of power.
But when does a conference choose to give the heave-ho? Is Vanderbilt’s academic stature enough to keep it within the SEC? The same could be said of Northwestern in the Big Ten and Boston College (my alma mater) or Wake Forest in ACC. Is Kansas basketball good enough (read: financially-viable enough) to prop up the dismal Jayhawk football program? What is Rutgers actually bringing to the Big Ten?
If you asked for what I think happens by (let’s say….) 2040, I would not be surprised to see the bottom three or four schools in the pecking order of the growing mega-conferences booted to the streets in favor of bigger money, less geographic and historical fits. Maybe we end up with a conference that is Wake, BC, Vandy, Northwestern, Pitt, Syracuse, Temple, Rutgers, and one or both Virginia schools. Maybe Maryland. Is that kind of the pre-2005 Big East? Yes, it is. History repeats itself.
Where does this leave us?
You can look at conference re-alignment as a terrible thing that will ruin college sports or you can crack a beer and watch Colorado and UCF play their annual rivalry game. As long as the conferences don’t rift to such a degree that the NCAA Tournament is in jeopardy, I’m along for the ride.
But to be safe, check back with me on that last point in a few months or so…
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.