The Big 12 Conference have many solutions to potential expansion, and many of those solutions can be found on the west coast.
But it may not be the Big 12’s ONLY solution.
Basketball At The Forefront?
A recent piece in Sports Illustrated debated what each conference needed to do after USC and UCLA bolted for the Big Ten. The Big 12’s name came up, of course. Here’s the relevant bit from Richard Johnson:
“Perhaps you mean the Power 2? I am already of the opinion that the Big 12’s move to hire Brett Yormark as its new commissioner (and also interviewing an Orlando Magic executive as a finalist) signals a future where enhancing basketball is at the forefront after Texas and Oklahoma leave. Despite the ACC’s long grant of rights, if everything is on the table now in college sports—and it certainly seems to be—perhaps an ACC raid is in order. Either way, the Big Ten’s yet-to-be-announced rights agreement will certainly vault it in line or above the SEC.“
Now, the Big 12 could ‘enhance’ their basketball by adding some schools from the Pac-12. But, the most relevant athletic programs in the Pac-12 are headed for the Big Ten. The Pac-12 hasn’t been the deep juggernaut the Big 12 has been the past few years.
Going into 2022-23 Ken Pomeroy — he of the eponymous KenPom ratings that Baylor head coach Scott Drew loves — has the Big 12 as the best conference in basketball. The Pac-12 is No. 6, and it’s about to lose its two best basketball assets.
Meanwhile, the four schools the Big 12 will add next July — BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — will essentially nullify the losses of Oklahoma and Texas from a basketball standpoint. It may even, long-term, make the conference more competitive in basketball.
What Does the Big 12 Want to Be?
What the Big 12 wants to be now isn’t clear. A superconference? A quality conference with a manageable membership that plays all sports? A hybrid with a football base and an enhanced footprint for basketball?
Only the Big 12 knows for sure.
But what if Johnson is right and the Big 12 want to enhance basketball? They can’t do it at the expense of what they have for football. That would undermine their future television contracts and the revenue it needs to generate. Even if the Big 12 absorbs the Pac-12, a new league isn’t going to keep up with the SEC or Big Ten from a revenue standpoint. Same goes for a merger with the ACC, which has one of the top basketball leagues in the country. The money would probably be a little better, though.
Let’s say the Big 12 doesn’t try to bloat itself with a raft of new membership, either by choice or by forces outside its control. It probably means the Big Ten and SEC have gone ‘super,’ the schools that are reportedly talking to the Big 12 on Tuesday go a different direction and the Big 12 will still be a quality conference. But it also means the Big 12 will need to find solutions to enhance itself wherever it can.
That’s where a hybrid solution is interesting because you have a base of 12 football teams and you could expand the basketball footprint by brining on anywhere from two to four schools to expand to 14 or 16 teams. But to do it in a way that matters — say, to ESPN — you have to add schools that move the needle.
There’s one that does that, and it’s on the West Coast. You may have heard of it? Gonzaga?
The Case for Gonzaga
The Bulldogs are the basketball prize that isn’t yet part of a power conference. Remember the rumors from April? Gonzaga to the BIG EAST? Yeah those made no sense.
The Big 12 would make more sense. Gonzaga would join a league where it matches up well with the current membership and allows itself to truly test itself on a regular basis in the best conference in the country. They would also bring the Big 12 a program with a national profile. This is something ESPN would truly love, and let’s be honest — part of this is getting ESPN interested.
The Big 12 would give Gonzaga more revenue. The Bulldogs probably wouldn’t get a full share, but even a half-share is more than that they’re getting from the West Coast Conference. Gonzaga would also add to the Big 12’s prestige as the country’s best basketball conference.
If you look at KenPom’s preliminary rankings for next season, there isn’t much difference between the West Coast Conference (8.04) and the Pac-12 (11.27). Note that the Pac-12’s rating includes UCLA and USC. The Bruins went to the Final Four in 2021. Both went to the NCAA Tournament last season. That gap will certainly narrow after USC and UCLA leave, assuming the Pac-12 does nothing (which, of course, it won’t).
If the Big 12 wanted to go further, it could enhance the footprint by adding Gonzaga’s WCC rivals like Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara or San Francisco (the last giving the Big 12 a Top 10 television market). That would lessen Gonzaga’s travel. Or, the Big 12 could enhance it with basketball-only programs in the Midwest like Wichita State. Plus, there’s nothing that says you can’t add Pac-12 schools and Gonzaga, too, right?
But adding Gonzaga might be enough to accomplish an enhancement of the Big 12’s basketball footprint while preserving its future membership for football. The Bulldogs are the only program that makes sense competitively because they can walk in the door tomorrow and hang with the best of the league.
Adding Gonzaga may not be Plan A, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a possibility.
Matthew Postins can be found on Twitter @PostinsPostcard