My plan to hold off discussing conference realignment until the end of hoops season has been undermined by the tidal wave of stories flooding newspapers and blogs over the past couple weeks. I'm still going to wait to write up a long-form set of thoughts on the topic, but I started getting warmed up Tuesday night, joining the outstanding Iowa bloggers at Black Heart Gold Pants for their weekly podcast. Joining me as a guest was Bill Connelly from Rock M Nation; together, we tackled the topic of whether Missouri and/or Texas would leave to join the Big 12, and if so, under what circumstances.
What's really interesting about conference realignment -- both right now and in most every instance -- is that it is live, high-stakes game theory in action. Which school(s) hold the trump cards? Which conference(s)? How much information does each party have? When is the optimal time to make a first move? To wait and see? Should you signal/countersignal? Remain silent?
The answers are different each time the 'game' of conference realignment is played, and varies from school to school, conference to conference within each iteration of the game. Last time around, the ACC's grabbing of Miami, BC, and Virginia Tech was the key move that set all the other decisions into action: the Big East raided Conference USA to replenish its ranks; Conference USA picked up teams from both the MAC and WAC; and so on.
So we're in the early stages of another round of the 'game,' and this version is setting up to be one of the most interesting yet, for a few reason:
- Neither the Pac 10 nor Big 10 especially need to make a move, and it's possible that the optimal outcome for both Conferences would be not to expand. However, if one Conference sits still but the other expands, the one to move second could be greatly disadvantaged, depending on the first move made and the chain reactions it sets off. Alternatively, while we would assume that the school to move first would be picking up a school it wants, the first move could set off a chain reaction that makes available one or more even more desirable schools, benefiting the Conference moving second.
- There is the possibility this game of realignment will set off a long-lasting, far-reaching chain reaction. If the perception that this realignment is likely to result in a massive, far-reaching shake up begins to grow more widely, there potentially arrives a perception point at which outside players who would be otherwise inclined to sit out begin considering joining the game. Or making a preemptive move, even.
- Certainly the way this game looks like it's setting up to be played, the far, far and away most important piece of information (and potential prize) is the University of Texas. UT could sit still/let the Big 12 get raided and rebuild around itself, go to the Big 10, go to the Pac 10, or (no joke) venture off onto the Independent trail. It's not difficult to see the impact Texas has on this particular game set up. The most valuable information in the game will be knowing what Texas wants to do; accordingly, if UT is smart it will realize that (A) schools typically situated in a strong position within this game are working to leverage from two options (Stay or Go), or perhaps three (Stay or Go1 or Go2), and (B) Texas can treat as viable four different options (Stay or GoP10 or GoB10 or GoInd).
From such a position of strength, if Texas can relatively cleanly decide what it's preferred objective is (Wild Card: disgusting, self-defeating, cry-festival at the State Legislature), it should be able to move information in ways that make near-certain the moves unfold as Texas prefers. At this point, with ample time before any first domino might fall and multiple suitors coveting its membership, the best move for the University of Texas is no move. (With how much both the Pac 10 and Big 10 would benefit from adding Texas, UT should have the influence to intervene to stop either Conference from making a first move early in the game, should UT see such a move as unfriendly to achieving its preferred objective.)
I could fill 100 pages discussing the various players, scenarios, and strategies of this year's 'game', but I'll wrap this introduction for now and direct to you to the podcast for a full half hour of realignment talk, in which I discuss why Texas holds the power, the potential viability of Texas forging ahead on its own network, and finally, my belief that while the most likely outcome is preserving the status quo, if Texas does in fact leave for one of the two, it would be to join the Pac 10.