Dribble Handoff: Predicting how conference realignment will impact these college basketball programs

Written by on August 18, 2021

Much of the talk about conference realignment in college sports thus far has centered on its football ramifications, as historical gridiron powers Oklahoma and Texas gear up for admission to the SEC by 2025, at the latest. But there will be implications for basketball as well, especially as the Big 12 — a strong basketball league — figures out its path forward amid the changing landscape.

With reigning national champion Baylor, historic power Kansas and strong programs like West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, the Big 12 would still boast a solid basketball roster even after the departure of the Longhorns and Sooners. But there is no guarantee the Big 12 will survive, and even if it does, its construction could end up looking different.

Could schools from the American Athletic Conference or Mountain West get invited and get a bump in basketball prestige as a result? What if the Big 12 disintegrates and a school or two are left without a desirable home in the fallout?

With these questions looming over college basketball, our team of writers is looking into the crystal ball for this edition of the Dribble Handoff and responding to the following prompt: When the dust settles on realignment five years from now, which men’s basketball program will be benefiting or suffering most as a result?

Oklahoma State

Let me address one point in the question at hand first. “When the dust settles on realignment five years from now.” I’m not sure any dust is ever settling. College sports has, for eons, practically, undergone significant shifts in its power-conference structure once every 8-12 years. Most recently was the splintering of the old Big East into the American, the creation of the new Big East, in addition to the Pac-10 becoming the Pac-12, the Big 12 being reduced to 10 teams and the ACC bloating to a needless 15. Prior to that, we saw the Big 8 become the Big 12; we saw the dissolution of the beloved Metro Conference, and many more examples. So the idea that the SEC’s expansion to 16 teams — in what amounts to a super league in college athletics — signaling one final, and major, change … well I’m not convinced. Let’s talk in 2040. 

With that out of the way, which school will benefit or suffer most? I’ll go with the suffering side. Give me Oklahoma State. Oklahoma did its rival and Sooner State brethren dirty by negotiating in secret with Texas. When you consider the historical context, it’s easy to argue that there aren’t five more important and passionate rivalries in college sports than Bedlam. Will the series continue? What guarantee will we have of that? OSU benefits significantly from its Big 12 association, but also its proximity and attachment to OU. Kansas will always be a draw in basketball. Baylor will benefit from losing Texas as an in-state competitor in men’s and women’s hoops. But OSU, to me, seems like it’ll be alienated more than most others and could suffer some drip-drip-drip drain on the benefits of its conference affiliation. The idea that Oklahoma and OSU won’t be in the same league is idiotic. It didn’t need to be this way. Matt Norlander

If the Big 12 expands, Cincinnati will be a logical call. Likewise, if the Big 12 disintegrates and the AAC takes any of the leftovers, the AAC will increase in prestige, thus helping Cincinnati. The Bearcats are limping through a clumsy transition from Mick Cronin to John Brannen to Wes Miller as coach, but the program’s track record under Bob Huggins and Cronin is strong, and Miller is a proven builder. He took over at UNC Greensboro midway through 2011-12 season after it had struggled through three straight campaigns with single-digit victories. When he left, he departed with five straight 20-win seasons on his resume.

Cincinnati’s football program is also thriving, and with that sport being the driving force behind realignment, the Bearcats are well-positioned to benefit as the conference landscape shifts. Miller seems like a quality hire who can help the program thrive in a time of transition, much like it did while venturing to new leagues under Huggins and Cronin.  David Cobb

It’s possible that one (or more) of the remaining Big 12 schools could get invited to another Power Five conference — perhaps Kansas to the Big Ten, West Virginia to the ACC or some Texas-based schools to the Pac-12. As always, we’ll see. But the most likely scenario, most seem to believe, has the eight remaining Big 12 schools sticking together, if only because they might be stuck together, at which point adding members could become a priority. As Cobb noted, Cincinnati would be among the best options. Houston, BYU, Boise State, SMU and/or UCF might also make sense. But if things shook out a certain way, Memphis could emerge as a big winner thanks to A) a respectable football program that’s appeared in seven straight bowl games, B) a traditionally strong basketball program that’s about to enroll a top-five recruiting class for the second time in the past three years, C) a top-50 television market and D) an incredible amount of corporate backing headlined by FedEx, which was instrumental in getting Memphis a Big East invitation before that league ultimately split.

Will it happen?

It’s impossible to say for sure. But Memphis could bring a football program built to compete, a basketball program setup to flourish, and — who knows? — possibly a title sponsor for the Big 12 Championship Game or Big 12 Tournament or both. Don’t ever forget, the main reason the Grizzlies are in Memphis is because FedEx is in Memphis, and the main reason the PGA Tour just gave Memphis a FedEx Cup Playoff event at TPC Southwind is because FedEx is in Memphis. This Fortune 500 company swings a big stick in the world of sports. So it’s not a stretch to suggest it could aid Memphis’ attempt to capitalize in realignment once again. Gary Parrish

Kansas will likely be fine in this round of realignment because it has a top-shelf basketball program on which to lean. Same for Baylor, so long as Scott Drew calls Waco, Texas, his home and for West Virginia so long as Bob Huggins is still on the sidelines. But the same likely doesn’t apply to its Big 12 brethren at Kansas State. The Wildcats basketball program has as many losing campaigns in conference play since 2000 as winning ones. And under Bruce Weber, their recruiting has consistently been among the worst in the league. Things are trending the wrong direction.

Staying put in the Big 12 likely won’t benefit K-State; only twice since 2015 has it finished in the top half of the league’s regular season race. Leaving for another conference doesn’t seem a promising path, either, nor does it seem likely it’d be targeted if the Pac-12, Big Ten or ACC chose to expand. Rock, meet hard place. There are no imminently appealing options for Kansas State and five years from now it’s possible — maybe likely — that it could be in an even more challenging spot than the one it finds itself in now. Kyle Boone


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