The college sports landscape has been hit by an earthquake. First, Colorado left the Pac-12 for the Big 12. Then on Friday, Washington and Oregon joined the Big Ten, while the Big 12 was set to add Arizona, Arizona State and Utah.
While football is dictating all of this movement, all other college sports will also feel a major impact. To gauge just what this round of realignment will mean for men’s basketball, The Athletic’s Brian Hamilton, Brendan Marks, Brendan Quinn and Kyle Tucker assembled for roundtable discussion.
The Big Ten now has a full Western flank with the Pacific Northwest schools joining. Do Oregon and Washington make Big Ten basketball better, worse or not affect it much at all?
Hamilton: Competitively, they’re depth additions. For all its potential, Oregon has reached a Final Four only twice — and the first time was 1939. Washington hasn’t made an Elite Eight or Final Four since 1953 and hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2010. This does not suddenly put the end to the Big Ten’s national championship drought in sight. But neither are the programs utter dead weight upon arrival, which means that winning in the Big Ten will be harder, which theoretically means those who manage to win probably will be rewarded with higher seeds come the NCAA Tournament time. So that’s a plus.
But that’s also the rub and the potential downside: It’ll be a grueling 20-game league schedule that now includes the possibility or likelihood of multiple round-trips across multiple time zones. How much will anyone have left in the tank for March? If nothing else, the arrival of the four West Coast schools means Big Ten programs better redouble their investment into athlete recovery plans and technology.
Tucker: For all the reasons already stated, I’m not sure the Ducks and Huskies significantly improve the quality of hoops in the already loaded Big Ten. But they certainly don’t water it down. Especially in Oregon’s case. If you can add a program with five Sweet 16 appearances in the last decade — plus a pair of Elite Eights and a Final Four since 2016 — never mind the fact that we’re talking about Nike founder Phil Knight’s baby here, that’s a value add to any basketball league.
To me, though, the biggest thing Oregon and Washington (and any more meat the Big Ten might pick from the Pac-12’s carcass) bring to the table is making previous defectors UCLA and USC not quite so far-flung from the entire rest of their new conference. If, say, Stanford and Cal are future additions, at least all those programs could play a healthy number of games on their own coast. Football, playing mostly on Saturdays, doesn’t have to think much about that. But for basketball and other sports, which play multiple times a week and during the week, this is no small consideration.
Marks: “Better,” to me, would insinuate that either Oregon or Washington has a legitimate chance of upending the conference immediately, of vaulting to the proverbial front of the pack. That … is not the case. Washington has pumped out a number of solid pros of late — which, cool, good for those players — but we’re talking about the program, which has all of one NCAA Tournament win in the last decade-plus. Maybe that changes going forward with a proliferation of incoming transfers, a la Kentucky castoff Sahvir Wheeler, but it’s not a superb track record. And Oregon, for all the $upport it receives from Nike, has only been marginally better. But the Ducks at least are typical NCAA Tournament entrants, and their 2017 Final Four appearance was the Pac-12’s second-most-recent, trailing only UCLA’s magical First-to-Final-Four run in 2021. Still, fan support in Eugene has publicly wavered some — as Dana Altman is quick to remind us — as local fandom seemingly mirrors realignment at large: Football over all.
Has Oregon lost its edge, on and off the court? ‘You gotta have guys who want it’
As far as competitive balance, then, count me down as not seeing a huge impact here. That said, there will be dramatic consequences, mostly to scheduling — expect the league to steal the NBA’s model of West Coast swings, if it’s smart — and athlete welfare. (But considering the entire country seems to have punted on that larger point, I digress.) TL;DR: In terms of Oregon and Washington potentially upsetting the Big Ten’s balance of power, based on what they’ve been historically and lately, I’m here: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Quinn: Both feel like high-ceiling, low-floor programs, despite some recent struggles. That’s good, I suppose. But I’m not sure sure either particularly adds anything significant. If anything, they feel particularly Big Ten-ish — programs capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament, but that you don’t expect to go to Final Fours or win national titles. The league already has plenty of that. Now’s here’s more. Maybe that add an extra 0.5 NCAA bids per year.
That said, when I spoke to Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell today, he lamented how difficult it was just to go 10-10 in the Big Ten last year. And Rutgers still didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament. Now the schedule will include potentially two or so cross-country trips for conference games? A long, grueling schedule just got that much more longer and grueling.
But at least the networks get more inventory!
The “Conference of Champions” is dead, for all intents and purposes. How much worse off is college basketball for not having a functioning Pac-12, and what will you miss most about it?
Hamilton: Maybe I’m just plain dead inside, but the Pac-12 as an idea or entity in men’s basketball was more kooky than absolutely necessary. It hasn’t annually been a great league lately. It had an even longer national championship drought than the Big Ten. It didn’t even have the best men’s basketball program on the West Coast as a member. (Though maybe Gonzaga will now be part of whatever is left of the league.) If the basketball loss people lament the most is no longer getting a kick out of Bill Walton, then what exactly did you have going for you anyway?
I dread what this means for the non-football athletes who have to slog cross-country to play a game. Practically, this is ghoulish. Sentimentally, it’s meh.
Tucker: To my colleague’s point, it’s absolutely Walton and his mind-altering affinity for the “Conference of Champions” that I’ll miss most. Gotta think the fans and media in that league will miss covering a conference tournament in Vegas. And that’s … it? I hate to see the Pac-12 get demolished. I hate it for the athletes, especially those in non-revenue sports, whose well-being got zero consideration here. But outside Walton and others paid to do so, I’m not sure anyone was just obsessed with, focused on, in love with Pac-12 basketball. Too much dead weight, not enough top-end. I’ll probably enjoy watching UCLA and Arizona play better competition on a nightly basis.
Marks: Fans of college basketball, especially those on the West Coast, are obviously worse off. I’ll be honest: As a hoops junkie myself, I’m embarrassed how often I’ve gotten home from an evening ACC game … just in time to catch the second half of some random Pac-12 contest. I’ll miss that, and so will fans of the sport at large. Even if the league hasn’t delivered an NCAA Tournament winner since Arizona in 1997, it was at least inventory, something to watch and abide by — especially once football season passed. Us East Coast viewers sometimes are at odds with West Coast tipoff times, but ball is ball, baby. You mean there’s live action on, late at night, some in-the-minute entertainment to satiate my degenerate-like sleeping habits? Gimme.
Look, I’m not going to pretend like Pac-12 basketball is some historic, multiple-time-winning championship entity that somehow dissolved into the ether. It wasn’t. Let’s keep the rosy flair to Pasadena. But for generations of West Coast fans who grew up with hoops dreams, it was something to strive for, to be part of. Opportunity lost is sad, at least to me, even if the opportunity was only ever so upwardly mobile.
Quinn: I don’t think it’s a question of losing the Pac-12, rather than it’s losing a an entire power conference. The dispersion of power-conference clout at least created a degree of inherent scattering of NCAA bids. Consolidating the six basketball power conferences to five, and (this is inevitable, right?) eventually to four, will make it easier and easier to control NCAA bids going to those leagues. And, in time, those leagues saying, hey, why not just have our own tournament? And then the skies will darken. The earth will split open, sending plumes of hot lava spewing high into the sky. The laughter of wild-eyed university presidents and blood-thirsty TV execs will shake the trees. The oceans will empty and the all-powerful football schools will take control of the NCAA Tournament, ending once and for all the lone bastion of purity in high-level college sports.
Or something like that.
Undoubtedly there will be some great basketball matchups coming out of this. Arizona-Kansas? UCLA-Michigan State? Yes, please. But how concerned are you about the impact on conference tournament fields and the NCAA Tournament selection? Is the Big Ten going to get 13-14 bids?
Hamilton: Like I said before, the first worry for the Big Ten and the Big 12 should be grinding each other into a thin paste before they even get to March. It’s on the leagues to come up with a generally sane schedule format that doesn’t wipe out all the contenders before they have a chance to contend.
And, yes, there are going to be a lot of bids going to Big Ten and Big 12 teams. A lot. But the rest of the college basketball world, on both the men’s and women’s side, still can put together challenging non-conference schedules. They can give themselves chances at Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins. If you’re good enough, you’re going to get in. There aren’t any doors shut because there are two more teams in the Big Ten.
Tucker: In short, yes, I’m concerned about both. Because nobody wants an 18-team (or 20-team, at some point?) conference tournament. It would be a logistical nightmare, take a solid week to play and feature some truly horrific matchups. But the great thing about conference tournaments has always been that everyone gets a chance to make the big dance, and do we really want to start excluding a half-dozen teams from that opportunity? As for NCAA Tournament selection, I’m less concerned in the long term because we’re obviously hurtling toward significant expansion of the field and we gotta fill that 128-team (I hope I’m kidding) bracket somehow.
Marks: No one — no one — needs a Monday afternoon Washington-Nebraska Big Ten tournament game. (If you’re protesting that idea, please, go touch grass.) The regular season is going to be obscene, just a two-month-long slugfest with far too many teams to seriously matter on a larger scope. The conference tournament? You either have the same, or you punt on inclusivity, which does actually seem somewhat plausible given the ruthless nature of this wave of realignment. In lieu of that aforementioned Washington-Nebraska snoozefest, why not just … not invite those teams? Keep the structure at 12, or 13, or any reasonable number in that range, and the teams who don’t qualify? Well, tough luck.
Realistically, an 18-team Big Ten — we gotta fix that name, by the way — isn’t getting 13 or 14 teams in. At least not every year. The league is going to cannibalize itself, and there will be true cellar-dwellers regardless. (Maybe that cellar is just in a different time zone than it was previously.) You’re still going to have your annual powers, like Purdue and Michigan State and Indiana (?), and, sure, maybe the middle is a little meatier than it had been. I could see, in a good year, maybe you challenge for the old Big East record of 11 teams. But the grind of this conference schedule, I predict, is going to just absolutely wear some teams down, to the point where they run out of gas by season’s end. I doubt the NET is around long enough, at least in its current iteration, to factor in here, but that’ll be a headache, too. Realistically, though? We’re just going to have a larger section of “the bubble” composed of those middling Big Whatever teams.
Quinn: I’ll add a thought. I, for one, am a fan of nonconference basketball, especially any scenario when a non-power conference team gets a shot at a high-major. The Big Ten’s move to 18 teams (and inevitability of other leagues following) will provide plenty of network content and a likely move to cross over the 20-game conference schedule threshold. This will, inevitably, further limit nonconference scheduling, further dilute any chance of parity, limit opportunities for traditional rivals in different conferences to play, and shrink the landscape more and more. Perhaps I’m too much of a fatalist, but the writing is on the wall.
As for the original question here — I predict that the Big Ten will somehow manage to go 18-for-18 on NCAA Tournament bids, and still somehow only put two teams into the second weekend.
What’s your ultimate takeaway/emotion from this latest round of realignment madness?
Hamilton: It’s time for football to be its own thing. And it’s not even a knock on the outsize importance placed on the sport. It’s a simple matter of logistics. Largest roster. Fewest competitive dates. Minimized impact of long trips, since they almost always happen over a weekend. Football is not like any other sporting enterprise any school takes up.
So why not treat it as such? Let it function in its own space with its own affiliations, while the rest of the sports settle into leagues that make more sense given location, the pace of competition and travel. So what if Oregon is in the Big Ten for football and some version of a Pacific coast league for everything else? Notre Dame has an independent football program, a bunch of sports in the ACC and a hockey team that’s an affiliate member of the Big Ten. No one wanders the streets of South Bend in an existential stupor. It can be done, and it should be done.
Tucker: Can I just say ditto here? Ditto. Football, go do your thing. Basketball and everyone else, let’s reboot conference affiliation and get back to grouping based on geography and tradition. Please? Thanks. Nobody can or will stop the football money grab, and we get it, but that doesn’t necessarily have to blow up good sense and sentimentality for all sports.
Marks: Sadness, mostly. I’m not delusional in thinking that the ra-ra sanctity of college sports was going to stick around forever, but this isn’t even college sports anymore. I agree with Hamilton wholeheartedly: centralize football’s leadership, and let that monolith be its own thing, NFL Jr. or whatever the power brokers prefer. Because any conference commissioner today is realistically doing two jobs: working on football … and then everything else. Why?
I feel for the schools who, through no lack of want-to, are now being told they’re essentially second-class athletics departments. I feel for the athletes at those schools, who just want to compete and get better and all the other reasons they signed up for college sports in the first place. I feel for the fans, who just want to fully hate their rivals and wish regional misery on others; a former athletic administrator told me once, in a different era, that college football “became a lot more fun once you accept your team will never win a national title.” So much for that. So, yeah, mostly I feel sad. The people in charge of college athletics never had skin in the game, but now they’ve made sure there’s no soul left in it for the rest of us. Shame.
Quinn: Perhaps I’m a prisoner of the moment, or maybe just worn down by so many rounds of realignment, and some of the ghoulish behavior and backstabbing that comes with it, but the carelessness with which an entity like the Pac-12 was simply nuked from existence felt especially indifferent. Like most of you out there, I’ve long known college sports will eventually reach a point of being totally unrecognizable. Friday simply felt like a massive accelerant in that process.
The question I keep asking myself is, does anyone actually want this? Outside of the TV stakeholders and university presidents wanting to pump that annual budget from $55 million to $70 million, does anyone — students, fans, viewers, players, coaches — want to see Washington and Oregon in the Big Ten or Arizona in the Big 12? Does anyone want all of the power, money, prestige and opportunity in college sports confined to a shrinking number of schools? Does anyone at Oregon think being in the Big Ten will give the program a better chance to reach the CFP than if it had stayed in a diluted Pac-12? Is anyone at Washington trembling with excitement for the long-awaited chance to compete against Iowa, Purdue and Maryland? I imagine the feeling at each school isn’t one of excitement for opportunity, but gratification for not being left behind. Is that a win? Maybe. But plenty of schools — Nebraska, Missouri, Maryland, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, on and on — might explain that a sense of self is worth something.
In the end, this is all just a reminder that college football should’ve broken away from *college sports* a decade or two ago. They exist in different worlds. But the ill-conceived structure will continue to be followed and feckless leadership will do nothing to blow it up and make it make sense.
(Top photo of Oregon’s Jacob Young and Washington’s Terrell Brown Jr. (23) and guard PJ Fuller (4) in 2022: Stephen Brashear / USA Today)