My thoughts on Big 12 expansion are pretty simple -- if the conference wants to go ahead with it, beyond BYU, which is far and away the best option, I don't really care that much. Cincinnati and UConn are maybe the second-best options and I don't think that other schools are going to go along with all this Houston nonsense unless it's as part of a move to 14 teams.
The other big markets that are available, like Ohio and Florida, don't have schools that can command them, as Cincinnati and South Florida and Central Florida probably don't move the needle much. So, which other school or school should the Big 12 add? I don't really care, but I suspect that a big determining factor will be how much those schools are willing to give up. And I guess that's cool -- we can't pretend that all this is about anything other than money, anyway.
I see all of realignment through a basketball lens. And realignment has mostly been terrible for basketball. But the one good thing it has done is create the perfect basketball conference.
That conference is the Big 12.
It is perfect. A ten team, double round robin death march. It is terrific basketball -- and when it isn't terrific it is at least competitive -- and I know no one cares about this but me. But if we are going to smash this thing up -- and we will at some point -- it is going to destroy something amazing.
Last year was a point where a high fraction of teams in the Big 12 were peaking, and this will be a bit of a down year, but the future is exceptionally bright. Because the Big 12 has become a conference filled with coaches who can build and run programs. Sure we lost Tubby Smith, which was a big loss -- he is the great and under-appreciated tactician of his generation -- but we picked up a couple of good ones in the trade. Jamie Dixon has an unimpeachable track record and Brad Underwood seems to have found a strange glitch in the college game that almost certainly should make him succeed so long as he recruits. And add these guys to Bill Self, Lon Kruger, Bob Huggins, and Shaka Smart; the bar in this league is crazy high. Steve Prohm is a rising star in the profession, Bruce Weber has been to a Final Four, and Scott Drew has probably done the best job of building a basketball program since Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, and they are considered weak links in the league.
But I guess everyone wants to smash it all so Texas can play Washington State at 11 PM EST.
Of the schools mentioned, the only school that makes any sense would be BYU. Although the addition may mean Texas gets pounded into oblivion by a white, dual threat quarterback every year (Taysom Hill hurdling Longhorns still gives me nightmares), it makes the most sense from a football perspective. Its program has a strong history, good fan base, and an expansive television market, and their basketball program is fairly competitive on top of that. The cultural fit may not make the most sense, but that seems like a silly reason to count the Cougars out. You could argue they are the only good possible addition in a corps of lackluster candidates.
After BYU, it’s really a toss up. If Moneyball were a movie about Big 12 expansion, Brad Pitt would have said, “There’s BYU, then there’s fifty feet of crap. Then there’s the rest of the Big 12’s options.” It’s hard to get excited about the other teams.
I can't see any combination of two or four schools which creates a logical and stable Big 12 which stands much of a chance of surviving past 2025. Adding UCF or UConn, or Memphis or Cinci, isn't going to change the reality that the Big 12 is clearly the “5” of the Power 5.
Being in a weaker position, though, gives the Big 12 the luxury of being able to take chances the other power conferences can't take. The Big 10 and the SEC -- and, to a slightly lesser extent, the ACC -- are simply too good to consider any remaining schools outside the Power 5, even if they sought to expand their numbers and geographic reaches even further.
The Big 12 isn’t too good. We’ll sleep with anyone.
Screw it, I say, and go for 16 and plant our flags anywhere and everywhere.
The Big 12 can take advantage of its relative weakness to seize the opportunity to remake itself into the largest and most geographically diverse power conference, establishing roots simultaneously in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest in the eastern half of the country in addition to the Rockies out west while locking up the last few currently plausible expansion targets down the road when the other power conferences make the inevitable move to 16.
Add six schools instead of just two or four, and the conference as a whole begins to look almost geographically cohesive. Bring in UConn, swing through West Virginia to Cincinnati, over to Memphis, down to Houston and back to Orlando, and suddenly the Big 12 has itself a potentially interesting eastern wing which might simultaneously be geographically cohesive.
(Oh, and, yes, BYU. Adding one isolated western school at the same time we add five out east does seem to mock the concept of a geographically cohesive eastern-focused expansion, but beggars can't be choosers. BYU is the only no-brainer expansion target out there, and it's pretty much a national school instead of a western school in terms of its profile, so I'll conveniently ignore the issue of weekday road trips from Provo to Storrs for a women's soccer match.)
Of course this is more likely than not to fail. But standing pat or not being particularly aggressive with expansion leaves the conference with a shelf life of less than a decade anyway. If the goal of expansion truly is to give the conference a chance to survive for our lifetimes (and not, the cynics would argue, a mere cash grab), the swing for the fences and remake the Big 12 into the first national power conference.
As the lone inhabitant of BON’s Jackson, Mississippi office, I am a strong proponent of inviting Memphis to the conference so I can see the Longhorns play a mere three hours away. I do, by the way, think there are legitimate reasons to add the Tigers (beyond just avoiding adding two teams called the Cougars). While Houston claims its large media market, it’s a market the Big 12 has already captured; Memphis is a smaller market but not a tiny one, and unlike the Coogs, the Tigers really do enjoy broad support in their city. Memphis also brings a high-ceiling football program, entry into SEC territory for recruiting purposes, and an excellent basketball program. Plus, FedEx likely makes it possible for Memphis to accept a smaller media-payout cut for the first few years than many other candidates. Finally, from the perspective of the Kansas States and Iowa States of the world, it’s important to remain among the 10 most desirable programs to gain entry for one of the 10 P4 spots that would be available if the Big 12 implodes (4 in PAC-12, 2 each in SEC/ACC/B1G). Memphis at least gives the Midwestern little guys a fighting chance.
OK. That said, I actually agree with Jeff at base: I like the 10-team league both for football and basketball (though having only 9 baseball schools is lame). If we must expand by two teams, I guess I’d go with BYU and Cincinnati. If it’s to be four teams, Houston looks like they’ve played the Texas political process perfectly and should therefore be in line for one of the spots (though like Wes, I don’t see the non-Texas Big 12 schools giving one of only two spots to the Coogs). That leaves, in my view, UConn and Memphis to fight it out for the last spot. I really, truly, not-just-selfishly believe Memphis is the better choice for the reasons listed, and geography, and good lord UConn football is awful.
One last thought: obviously Texas and OU won’t agree to extend the GoR past its 2024 end date, at least not now. And I think that’s an obviously wise choice: nothing stops them from extending it if, in 2022 or so, the Big 12 looks like the best option going forward. If one or both of the Red River Rivalry schools wants out at that point, the GoR and the conference will have the same date of death. No reason to make that call now.
The only enjoyable part of Big 12 expansion is how badly it irritates our ESPN overlords.
Outside of the obvious choice, BYU, a school with a nationwide fan-base that would strengthen the conference in basketball and football, there is no good candidate for expansion. You can file through the resumes of commuter schools and make an OK case for a few of them, but it just doesn’t do much for me. Texas traveling to Cincinnati or Memphis for ESPN’s “Thursday Night Football” would probably be the low point for this program. Especially when you look at the great slate of games A&M plays every year.
In 10 years, this conference will no longer exist in a recognizable form. If we need a few schools to kill time before the implosion, give me BYU and Tulane. At least then we could add a few solid road trip destinations to complement Ames and Lubbock.