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Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Conference realignment: The sad reality

By Eamonn Brennan

The college basketball fan lives a difficult life. The season is too short. The offseason is too long. The NCAA tournament, as brilliant a competition as any in sports, is under siege. And maybe the worst of it? Nobody cares.

Oh, it's not that nobody cares about college basketball. But there's a difference between most people -- those whose fandom shifts and glides with the seasons, moving thoughtlessly from one sport to the next -- and the die-hard college basketball fan, who year-round sees everything through the prism of the game he or she loves.

Most people follow college hoops from January to April. The die-hard follows it from April to April.

Most people start thinking about their brackets when the conference tournaments start. The die-hard begins thinking about his bracket when the Maui Invitational starts.

You might be a college basketball die-hard if ... OK, OK, I'll stop. You get the idea. College basketball fans are passionate, but they're outnumbered. And in case the die-hard college basketball fan needed yet another reminder of their downtrodden disparity, I give you ... Conference Expansionocalypse 2010.

Everybody's making moves. The cell phones are ringing, the tweets are flying, and the e-mails are being leaked. But the most recent and potentially most dire development to the college hoops fan is that of the Pac-10's rumored attempts at forming the Death Star of West Coast conferences: The Pac-16.

That plan, one of many discussed at the Pac-10 meeting this past weekend, involves raiding the southern half of the Big 12 and adding teams like Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and either Colorado or Baylor to the current Pac-10. It's a move that would complement Missouri and Nebraska's apparent angling for spots in the Big Ten, and it would effectively dissolve the Big 12 as we know it.

What's insane about this scenario -- OK, there's a lot insane about this scenario, but let's start here -- is the teams that would be left behind. There's Baylor, a rising hoops program under coach Scott Drew. There's Kansas State, a rising hoops program under Frank Martin. There's Iowa State, which is a traditionally proud hoops program currently mired in the rebuilding muck.

That's at least two programs who finished in the top three of the Big 12 conference standings in 2009-10 who could get left out to dry in several of the conference expansion scenarios. If you add Missouri, which is playing a delicate game of chicken with the Big Ten and its own conference at the same time, you get three in the top five.

 Marcus Morris and Quincy Hankins-Cole
Kansas is hoops royalty. Nebraska has zero NCAA tourney wins. Yet we live in a world where the Huskers might control KU's fate.
And that's before you talk about Kansas.

Remember Kansas? You know, one of the nation's premier hoops programs, a veritable cradle of the game, the place that employed James Naismith as its head basketball coach a mere six years after the Canadian doctor wrote the sport's first official rules, and a place that has pretty much done nothing but win at basketball since? The team that plays in one of college hoops' most revered fieldhouses and the site of many a basketball pilgrimage each winter? Yeah, that Kansas.

The Pac-10 doesn't want Kansas. The Big Ten doesn't seem wholly interested. The Jayhawks are, for the moment, on the outside of conference expansion looking in. Which says a lot more about conference expansion than it does the Kansas Jayhawks.

What it says is that college basketball doesn't at all factor into what conference expansion will produce. Those results might be elegant and simple -- Notre Dame joining the Big Ten and rounding off the expansion dominoes in one fell swoop.

Or it could be unwieldy: a Pac-16, a Big-16, the dissolution of the Big East, a joint deal between the Big 12 and the Pac-10, the SEC annexing itself from the NCAA and starting its own college football league on the moon. Everything's in play. But no matter what happens, basketball won't be a factor. And that's just a little bit depressing.

This isn't the first time someone has written this, by the way. A soul-crushingly handsome young fellow with a funny Irish name wrote about the potentially disastrous effects of Big Ten expansion on the Big East in late April, back when Big Ten expansion was the hottest topic in town. (Oh, how times have changed.) To be sure, the Big Ten's encroachment into Big East territory would mark a huge shift for college hoops; it would effectively neuter the Big East, potentially robbing it of two marquee basketball programs (Syracuse and Pittsburgh) in what is at its very core a basketball conference.

But at least Big Ten expansion seemed to show some signs of sanity in regard to college hoops. Picking up those two programs wouldn't be the focus of any expansion, but it would serve as a nice perk. If the Big Ten added Syracuse and Pittsburgh, or Syracuse and Connecticut, it would be grabbing up two of the nation's premier basketball programs in two important markets while simultaneously morphing into the best basketball conference in the country. The situation works in toto. That can't be discounted.

The Pac-16 would be a good basketball conference, sure, but that's clearly not the goal here. Texas (the state, not the school) is the target, and Texas, despite a couple of good basketball programs in Austin and College Station, is not basketball country. Same goes for Oklahoma. Oklahoma State, with its intense fandom and quirky Gallagher-Iba arena, is the one school mentioned that feels like it traditionally loves its hoops as much as its college football. One out of six ain't bad.

Ah, but what are you going to do? As always in conference expansion, this is nothing more than a lament. We hoops fans get it. We understand the game. College football makes the money. College football pays for everything else. College football is what moves the needle, and moving the needle is what conference expansion is all about. We're not naive.

We are, however, a little bit sad. No one wants Kansas? The Kansas? Really?

College basketball die-hards may understand the cold reality of conference expansion. But that doesn't make it any less insane.