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Missouri makes most sense for Big Ten expansion

5/8/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten expansion has been a hot topic this week, with Penn State head coach Joe Paterno stumping for a 12th team and league commissioner Jim Delany essentially shooting it down

It's worth reiterating that expansion is not a front-burner issue for the Big Ten right now. But things always change, and it's undeniable that the league loses something -- certainly from a marketing standpoint and possibly from a competitive standpoint -- without a championship game that ends the regular season on the same day as the other BCS conferences.

Let's also reiterate that Notre Dame has been and always will be the best option for Big Ten expansion. The two parties last talked in 1999 but didn't get too far. Notre Dame obviously has some tremendous advantages as an independent, and purely from a business standpoint, joining a league doesn't make much sense. The dilemma for the Big Ten is whether to add a 12th team or wait until its home-run choice decides it wants to join a league, which may or may not happen.

I've heard just about every suggestion for a 12th team this week. There are the usual suspects (Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Iowa State, Missouri, Louisville, Cincinnati, Connecticut), a few reaches (West Virginia, Nebraska) and several fuhgetaboutits (any MAC school, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois).

Of all the realistic possibilities, Missouri makes the most sense. 

Before getting to Missouri specifically, consider the two leagues producing the candidates -- the Big East and the Big 12 (North division). You have to consider geography, the fan bases and how the programs mesh with the Big Ten culture.

Whether you want to admit it, there remains a cultural disconnect between Penn State and the rest of the Big Ten, and geography plays a role. Fans of Big 12 North teams just seem a lot more like Big Ten fans than those of Northeast teams. They live in similar places, they value similar things. Expansion isn't about getting Penn State a rival. The Ohio State rivalry is growing, the Michigan rivalry will grow when Penn State starts winning more and even the Michigan State series has started to get legs.

When I look at the Western half of the Big East, I see some options in Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia that just don't fit the total package the Big Ten seeks. Academic rankings do play a role. Pitt is a little closer to what the Big Ten wants, but Pitt might not want to leave the nation's best basketball conference to join a new league. 

That leaves the Big 12 North, with Missouri and Iowa State as the most realistic options. Both schools rank among the top 100 national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. Both already have rivalries in the Big Ten, Iowa State-Iowa and Missouri-Illinois. Given their locations, both schools could spawn new rivalries -- Iowa State with Minnesota and Wisconsin, Missouri with Iowa, etc. 

But from an athletics standpoint, Missouri is the clear choice and here's why (tip of the cap to colleague Graham Watson, who formerly covered Missouri for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and provided me some very helpful information): 

  • Missouri has elevated its profile in both football and men's basketball the last few years, competing for the Big 12 title in football two years ago and reaching the Elite Eight in hoops last year. There's little doubt that Missouri could be a first-division team in both sports in the Big Ten if it joined the league today. 

  • The school has upgraded its facilities, which are some of the best in the Big 12. It would have little trouble recruiting at the same level as most Big Ten programs. Heck, Missouri already recruits against Illinois and other Big Ten schools. 

  • Missouri would give the Big Ten a greater presence in the St. Louis market. Sure, it's not New York, but New York will always be a pro town, while St. Louis could become a true Big Ten city with fans of both Missouri and Illinois, two teams that happen to play there every year in football and basketball.

  • Though Missouri was an original Big 8 member with strong ties to the league, it seemingly would have an easier time leaving than, say, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas.

  • As for rivalries, Missouri-Kansas could become what Missouri-Illinois is now, at least in football. The two teams could play every year in football, perhaps at a neutral site like Kansas City. The Mizzou-Illinois rivalry is already strong, and an Iowa-Mizzou rivalry would be very exciting to see. There would be some disappointment about losing the Kansas rivalry in basketball, but there's no reason why those teams couldn't still play once a year.

  • The Big 12 likely would have an easier time replacing Missouri than the Big East would with Rutgers, Pitt, etc. While Arkansas has always been discussed as an addition to the Big 12, the rise of the Mountain West opens up possibilities for teams like TCU and Utah. 

If and when the Big Ten decides to expand, Missouri should be at the top of Delany's list. But will the Big Ten be willing to add a 12th team and risk passing on Notre Dame down the line?