Evaluating hoops’ winners and losers of conference realignment
While it appears that the realignment carousel in Division I collegiate athletics has come to a halt — at least for now — plenty of college basketball programs will be getting used to new surroundings this season. In all, over 50 schools were affected in the 2013-14 round of realignment, an upheaval that has radically changed the athletic landscape over the past three years. As power conference schools chased the football dollar, the domino effect reverberated throughout the NCAA. Many schools in lower and mid-level leagues changed their associations as the news from president’s and athletic director’s offices cascaded down throughout almost all of the conferences. Realignment has been widely panned by college basketball fans and pundits alike who lament the extinction of great, historic rivalries such as Kansas-Missouri and Syracuse-Georgetown. While that is absolutely true, realignment is not all bad. New, interesting rivalries will now be created such as Duke-Syracuse, Memphis-Louisville (an old rivalry resurrected for at least one year) and Xavier-Butler (a continuation from last year’s Atlantic 10). Undoubtedly, many more new rivalries will emerge over the long term.
Let’s take a look at the winners and losers of this year’s round of conference realignment.
The ACC: When word first leaked that Syracuse and Pittsburgh were discussing an exit from the Big East, some people may have thought it was a joke. Alas, it was real and it happened very quickly. ACC commissioner John Swofford successfully raided the Big East yet again, pulling off a 48-hour coup that effectively drove the final nail into the coffin of what we all knew as the Big East. Now the ACC has effectively become the old Big East, a 15-team behemoth that is absolutely loaded at the top. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame join legendary programs Duke and North Carolina, along with a collection of schools that have been historically solid. This year’s ACC will be great, but in the long run the battles at the top of this league will be second to none with the powerhouses sure to be involved. What we saw in the Big East over the last decade should become commonplace in the new-look ACC. It will get even better next season when Louisville replaces ACC founding member Maryland, which will depart for the Big Ten.
The Big East: While the Big East may not pack the punch at the top that it once did, this 10-team league will be a basketball lover’s dream. It certainly represents a new era, with only four founding Big East members from 1979 now remaining along with Villanova (1980). An 18-game round-robin schedule will make this league as competitive as any other major conference in 2013-14. While Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton are considered by most as the league favorites, none of the three clearly stands out. Additionally, nine of the conference’s 10 teams are ranked at least No. 63 or better in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ratings and even DePaul (No. 10 in the league) checks within the top 100 at No. 84. The Big East ranks second in overall strength, according to Pomeroy, better than the ACC but behind the Big Ten. When you look at the recruiting success of this conference in the 2014 class, the future looks even brighter. Fourteen ESPN top 100 players have committed to Big East schools and five 2014 recruiting classes already rank in the top 20 (Seton Hall (No. 4), Georgetown (No. 5), Xavier (No. 10), Providence (No. 16) and Marquette (No. 19). Clearly, Big East head coaches are using the basketball-first league and national television exposure (thanks to Fox Sports 1 and its 12-year commitment to the league) as huge selling points in the recruiting process. Financially, it was a no-brainer for this group of schools. With FS1 now on board, most of these Big East schools are taking home more cash than ever before.
Memphis: While the American Athletic Conference may not be the most ideal league for a program that once had its sights set on the old Big East, the AAC is still a significant upgrade from what had become a very weak Conference USA. Now alongside the likes of Louisville (for one season), Connecticut and Cincinnati, the Tigers will be faced with regularly stronger competition that should better prepare the team for the NCAA tournament, even if it loses an extra game or two. Now in his fifth year as head coach, it’s time for Josh Pastner to ensure his program takes the next step in 2013-14. Despite losing Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas from last season’s roster, Pastner welcomes the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, a six-man group headlined by Austin Nichols and Kuran Iverson. With Louisville only in the league for one season and the conference tournament on its home floor, Memphis has the opportunity to do some serious damage not only this year but over the long run in the new American.
The Mountain West: 2012-13 was a banner year for the Mountain West. The conference put five of its nine teams in the NCAA tournament, despite the disappointing showing that ensued. League membership expands to 11 schools this season as Utah State and San Jose State are welcomed aboard. Utah State is the headliner, a program that has won at least 21 games in each of the last 14 seasons. In that time, the Aggies have made seven NCAA tournament appearances but have only advanced once (2001). It remains to be seen whether Utah State can compete on a nightly basis in a stronger league, but other Mountain West opponents surely aren’t looking forward to traveling to Logan and encountering one of the best crowds in all of college basketball. While Stew Morrill’s Aggies are the only noteworthy addition, the Mountain West being a winner in realignment has more to do with what it avoided than what it gained. San Diego State and Boise State were primed to move their football programs to the old Big East and one could logically assume that a change in membership for the basketball programs may have soon followed. Now that the old Big East is no longer, this is not a lingering concern. Stability has returned to the Mountain West for now and that is a good thing for what is a quality hoops league that more people should pay attention to.
The ACC: This isn’t about the top teams in the ACC, as they will be greatly enhanced by realignment; what this refers to are the prospects of the lesser programs in this conference. As we saw in the old Big East, teams can get buried in a hurry, making it almost impossible to climb the conference ladder and get back to respectability. While the ACC is strong from top to bottom this season, a school like NC State may actually be a decent squad but still finish well under .500 in league play and in 11th or 12th place. The saying in the old Big East was that the teams just ate each other alive, and the same can and probably will happen in the new ACC. However, the greater concern here is over the long term. The best example may be Boston College, a program that had a great run in the Big East years ago but moved to the ACC and got buried, only now again showing signs of life some eight years after joining the league. It begs the question: How will up-and-down programs like Virginia Tech, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami (FL) and even Wake Forest be able to compete over the next decade given what this league has become?
Connecticut and Cincinnati: These Big East castaways were desperately hoping for an invitation to another league such as the ACC. Instead, they have been relegated to the lesser American along with the likes of UCF, Houston and SMU. Quite a status change from where they used to be, wouldn’t you say? It’s not the end of the world but it’s certainly a net negative for these two schools, especially the three-time national champion Huskies. Connecticut may very well be the biggest loser in all of conference realignment. This is a program that has experienced tremendous success as a founding member of the original Big East and was left hanging out to dry as the dominoes fell all around it. The Huskies will be fine this year with Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier and Omar Calhoun returning to Storrs, but a long term presence in the American is not ideal. UConn can make the best of it, but you have to wonder how long it will be able to stay in this league. The ACC still has room for one more school and it is only logical that Connecticut would get that invitation if one is forthcoming. As for Cincinnati, the Bearcats are back in what is something that basically resembles the old Conference USA it was in before joining the Big East in 2005. Cincinnati has the coaching, talent and tradition to make the best of its move to the American, but to come down to this off the high of the Big East is certainly disappointing.
The Atlantic 10: Just one season after equaling a conference record by sending five teams to the 2013 NCAA tournament, the Atlantic 10 will take a massive hit thanks to realignment. Recent Final Four participant George Mason (2006) enters, but Butler, Xavier, Temple and Charlotte are all departing for new conferences. Two of those programs made the NCAA tournament last season and there will be no replacing them. This was a quality league last year and it will be up to VCU, Saint Louis and La Salle to maintain that momentum this season. This league features a number of middle-of-the-road teams that could surprise (such as Massachusetts) but nobody that jumps off the page at you. The A-10 has been through these raids before (did you know Villanova, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Rutgers and West Virginia were founding members in 1976?) but this new age of college athletics could knock this conference down to a level it has not seen before. It’s unfortunate because a lot of good basketball has been played in this league over the years.
The Missouri Valley, Colonial and WAC: The big one here is Creighton, a member of the Missouri Valley for decades, moving on to bigger and better things in the new Big East. The Valley is still a great league with a reigning Final Four participant, Wichita State, included, but the prestige of this terrific mid-major league undoubtedly takes a hit with the departure of the Bluejays. Over in the Colonial, George Mason, Old Dominion and Georgia State depart, replaced by the College of Charleston. That means the top two programs from a league which landed three NCAA Tournament teams as recently as 2011 will no longer be around. It’s a huge hit for a conference that hit a nice high point before the realignment process began in earnest. The WAC, on the other hand, has been absolutely decimated. This league loses seven schools in 2013-14, all of which finished 11-7 or better in league play last season. Realignment has rendered the WAC unrecognizable with teams like Grand Canyon, UMKC and Utah Valley filling the void created by the departures of Utah State, Denver, Louisiana Tech, and so forth. The WAC will be among the nation’s worst conferences this year, a sad fall for a league that was highly respected for the better part of the mid-2000s.