Here we are again. After a few months’ reprieve, the conference realignment discussions have returned. And not even just the discussions, either. The movement was significant enough to get Colorado to return to the Big 12 after years in the Pac 12.
A statement from the Commissioner. pic.twitter.com/UtGgY5WnTf— Big 12 Conference (@Big12Conference) July 27, 2023
And the speculation only seems to be growing from there. Many have already suggested more Pac 12 teams could be on the move in the weeks ahead, potentially even including nationally relevant schools like Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
It’s been hard to separate the fact from fiction.
Still, this is the newfound reality for college fans, or at least until enough movement happens and/or enough money settles to demand some level of normalcy. The question now is: what happens next and—specifically for Big Ten fans—what does it mean for the league?
So, what should Big Ten fans expect next?
Well, before we dive into that, we should revisit some of the basic tenets of conference expansion:
- Only money matters.
- The TV networks decide what makes money.
- Nothing is off the table.
While it pains me to write the sentences above, it’s reality for college fans. Nothing is off the table and the TV networks are currently holding the sport hostage. So, if you’re wondering what’s going to happen next, you have to think like a TV executive, because the university presidents have (sadly) deferred their authority to them.
So, with that, let’s dive into a few things to keep in mind moving forward.
1. The Pac 12’s demise figures to be a tree falling in an abandoned forest for college basketball fans.
We’ve all heard the saying about a tree falling in a forest — if there’s no one around to hear a tree fall, did it make a sound? And while philosophers can debate the question for years to come, it’s a nice analogy about where the Pac 12 is as a basketball conference right now: a an afterthought for well over a decade, at least for college basketball.
Let’s put things in perspective. The Pac 12 has not only missed four of the last five Finals Fours, but hasn’t won the national title since 1997 and hasn’t even played in the national championship game since 2006, when UCLA did it in an earlier rendition of the league. Add in that the Pac 12 hasn’t finished above third as a conference on KenPom since 2009 and you get a nice feel for how irrelevant the league has been nationally.
For further reference, here’s a list of the last NCAA Tournament appearance for each current Pac 12 program:
- 2023 - Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, USC
- 2021 - Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State
- 2019 - Washington
- 2016 - Utah
- 2014 - Stanford
- 2013 - California
- 2008 - Washington State
Eight of the schools have (at least) an active two-year drought and a handful are flirting with decade droughts. The last time the Pac 12 had a genuinely good Selection Sunday was before the Trump presidency in 2016, when seven teams made the cut. Unsurprisingly, not a single one of those seven teams advanced to the Final Four.
Now, this isn’t to say every team in the Pac 12 has stunk. Arizona had some remarkable squads with Sean Miller, UCLA has been on a tear lately, and Oregon had some capable teams with Dillon Brooks and Payton Pritchard. It’s simply to point out the Pac 12 has paled in comparison to leagues like the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, and the SEC over much of the last 15 years. It simply hasn’t been a great unit from top to bottom.
In short, while it’s going to be disappointing to lose some of the history of the Pac 12 and its rivalries, it’s hard to see the national college basketball landscape moving much with the current rendition of conference realignment. UCLA and USC already jumped ship last summer. The only major wildcards sitting out there are Arizona and Oregon. They have a chance to strengthen the Big 12 even more if they move there, but little else will change much.
2. Keep an eye on the potential for the formation of a smaller western league.
As noted above, I’m not losing any sleep over the demise of the Pac 12, at least related to its impact on college basketball. Most of the programs have simply struggled too much to put much emphasis on it.
However, there are a variety of programs out west with some degree of national relevant, led most notably by Gonzaga. Here are a list of notable western teams from last season without clear links to one of the top conferences:
- Arizona State
- Boise State
- Montana State
- Saint Mary’s
- San Diego State
- Utah State
- UC Santa Barbara
That’s nine teams with something to sell, at least on the basketball front. All these programs are candidates to move, especially the programs like Arizona and Arizona State who were in “power” conferences for decades.
However, perhaps the more interesting question is whether some of these leagues “team up” to form a west coast version of the Big East. The West Coast Conference has improved considerably over the last few years, but adding a team like Arizona would change it permanently. Don’t hold your breath on this. Just something to keep an eye on. Other Pac 12 teams like Oregon State and Washington State could also be candidates.
3. Don’t expect any new Big Ten teams from this bunch.
While it’s always tantalizing to discuss potential new Big Ten teams and how they might fit into the conference, it’s important to keep things realistic over the coming weeks and months. Whether people want to admit it or not, the Big Ten already had the option to add anybody else from the Pac 12 and passed. There simply isn’t enough money associated with any of the other schools for it to be worth it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Big Ten is done adding teams. Where eyes should be focused is on the ACC. The league signed what is generally viewed as an ironclad grant of rights agreement through 2036. However, that date is gradually drawing nearer and doesn’t prevent ACC schools from jointly deciding to throw out the agreement, which is possible. However, don’t expect any significant updates on the ACC front for at least a year or two.