Just when you thought the conference realignment carousel might have come to rest, the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins sent it spinning out of control again. Thursday’s report revealing USC and UCLA’s intention to join the Big Ten Conference by 2024 sent another round of shockwaves through the college sports landscape, an impact potentially similar to the fallout of the announced departure of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 to the SEC last summer.
Though football will undoubtedly be the main focus in the USC-UCLA story, the movement of the two Los Angeles-based universities will have a significant impact on other sports, including men’s and women’s basketball. In UCLA, the Big Ten would be gaining the school with the most national titles in NCAA men’s basketball history (11). USC, which won the 1983 and 1984 national titles in women’s basketball, was one of the first major brands of the NCAA women’s game. And that’s before you get to the impact on the schools left behind, including outstanding programs at Arizona (men’s and women’s) and Stanford (women’s) that look set to watch their conference become weakened.
ESPN’s team of Jeff Borzello, Joe Lunardi, Myron Medcalf, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel discussed the high-level basketball implications of the moves for the schools, the conference they’re reportedly leaving, and the league they intend to join.
USC’s first year in the Pac-12 (then called the Pacific Coast Conference) for men’s basketball was 1921-22. UCLA’s first season in the league was 1927-28. What is the historical importance of these moves for the men’s basketball programs at the two L.A. schools, and for Pac-12 men’s basketball?
Simply put, there is no Pac-8, Pac-10 or Pac-12 without UCLA (and, to a lesser extent, USC). The Wooden dynasty built West Coast basketball and can never be replicated in the modern era. The history, the championships and the geography are so unique as to be irreplaceable.
Think about it this way: The coming hole in the Big 12 from the departure of Texas and Oklahoma is seismic. A loss of the L.A. schools by the Pac-12 is two or three orders of magnitude greater. We’re talking the ACC without Duke and North Carolina or the SEC without Alabama and Auburn.
From a purely basketball perspective, it is hideous to even imagine a power conference with no Southern California footprint and even more distressing to speculate on the next set of dominoes to fall. Do the Pac-12 survivors make a basketball-only play for Gonzaga? With the geographic seal effectively broken, do the Zags instead revisit a coast-to-coast Big East of more like-minded institutions?
As for historic impact in men’s basketball, no right-thinking person could argue the Big Ten is a good thing for the Bruins or Trojans. Is either going to outgun the Michigan States and Indianas on a year-in, year-out basis? And the example of Nebraska football sliding toward irrelevance in the Big Ten is a not-so-insignificant corollary.
The whole thing strikes me a little like golfers bolting the PGA Tour for guaranteed millions elsewhere. If bank accounts are the priority, fine. But if doing the right thing in the long run actually matters, this ain’t it. I just hope I live to see the day when major college football breaks away into a separate professional entity.
In the meantime, the collateral damage to college athletics overall is mind-boggling. As is the short-term thinking at UCLA and USC. And, while we’re at it, say goodnight to the Pac-12 as we knew it. — Lunardi
What would the addition of USC and UCLA do to the strength of the Big Ten in basketball? How do the Trojans and Bruins fit?
Men’s: It’s obviously a significant boost for the Big Ten, although the league already landed nine NCAA tournament bids in each of the last two seasons and is regularly one of the two or three best leagues in the country. Its power has come mostly due to its depth, but the addition of UCLA in particular should help maintain a consistent spot near the top of the national rankings – and raise their hopes of winning a title for the first time since 2000
The Bruins add tradition, they add blueblood power and they add a program that appears destined to hover around the top 10 for several years. Mick Cronin is recruiting five-star talent regularly and it’s hard to see that changing soon. USC has won at least 21 games in six of the last seven seasons, gone to four of the last six NCAA tournaments and made an Elite Eight run in 2021. From a basketball perspective, the Trojans won’t be the headline of this realignment move — but under Andy Enfield, they’ve been as consistently good as any Pac-12 team.
I think the fit is a huge boost for the Big Ten’s brand. UCLA and USC will add some sexiness to the league. Combining Los Angeles with the Midwest, bringing sunshine to a cold-weather league during the grind of conference play? That’s a win. The geographical implications will have an impact on the recruiting trail for Big Ten schools. It will be easier for those schools to go into California, to go to the West Coast and get players – or at least it will open up those avenues a bit more. — Borzello
Women’s: The Big Ten has only one champion — Purdue in 1999 — in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, which began in 1982. Maryland is the Big Ten’s most recent participant in the women’s Final Four, in 2015, when the Terps were in their first year away from the ACC. In short, the Final Four, let alone NCAA titles, has been a sore subject in Big Ten women’s basketball.
Some of the league’s programs have made breakthroughs in recent years, though. Michigan went to the Elite Eight for the first time this past season, and Indiana did the same in 2021. Still, the Big Ten has not been a league you expect to see in the season’s final weekend. There are programs that, save for a very few bright spots, have consistently struggled, like Illinois and Wisconsin. Others such as Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State and Penn State are past Final Four programs who last season were in the bottom half of the league.
Maryland was the 2006 national champion, and the Terps are always going to be competitive, even though they’ve been disappointed with some recent NCAA finishes. Iowa was a No. 2 seed last season and traditionally is a pretty good team that typically hits its head on the glass ceiling of the second weekend of the tournament, if not before (the Hawkeyes lost in the second round this past March). Iowa’s only Final Four was in 1993. Rutgers has been to the Final Four twice, most recently in 2007, and is now under new management with Coquese Washington taking over after longtime coach C. Vivian Stringer retired. Ohio State is usually very competitive in the Big Ten, but like Iowa, its lone Final Four was 1993.
So what can UCLA and USC bring to a conference that hasn’t had a title to celebrate in this sport in 23 years? Kind of the same frustration of being good, but not quite good enough. UCLA is in the running with Florida State as probably the best programs in the NCAA era to not reach the women’s Final Four. The Bruins won the AIAW championship in 1978, and they have been a competitive program under coach Cori Close the last several years. But they are still waiting for their NCAA final four breakthrough.
USC won two NCAA titles, in 1983 and ’84, and went to the 1986 Final Four, but that was all before the Pac-10/12 started sponsoring women’s sports in the 1986-87 season. USC hasn’t won a conference regular-season title since 1994, Lisa Leslie’s senior season. That was also the last time USC made it past the NCAA tournament second round. USC has had some of the greatest players in women’s basketball history, including Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper, Leslie and Tina Thompson. The Trojans are entering their second season under coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who does have Final Four experience, having led Cal to the national semifinals in 2013. In terms of what the Los Angeles schools bring right now to the Big Ten, it doesn’t necessarily put the league any closer to another Final Four appearance, but also doesn’t take it further away. — Voepel
What does the subtraction of USC and UCLA do to the basketball strength of the Pac-12?
Men’s: The SEC secured 31 bids over the past five NCAA tournaments. The Pac-12 secured just 18 over that same stretch and USC and UCLA claimed seven of those 18. The Pac-12, in men’s basketball, had already been fighting to maintain its “Power 6” perch in recent years. Gonzaga is widely acknowledged as the best program on the West Coast, and some of the top West Coast prospects have recently ignored Pac-12 schools to compete across the country. Now, it moves forward without USC and UCLA, which will cost the Pac-12 two of the four reasons (add Arizona and Oregon) that it remains a relevant Power 6 conference.
Without USC and UCLA, the Pac-12 will lose two of its best programs, its largest city and its most nationally recognizable brands. Players in the Pac-12 not only picked USC and UCLA because of their combined history and respective legacies, but league opponents enjoyed the opportunity to compete against the Bruins and Trojans on two of the biggest stages in college basketball. That was an important element of the Pac-12’s appeal. And it’s gone now. Without UCLA and USC, the Pac-12 is more closely aligned with the Mountain West and the American in men’s basketball than it is with the Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and ACC. There will be years when this league, as it stands now, is a one-bid league. I am not convinced Arizona and Oregon can stop the fall of the Pac-12 that had commenced years before USC and UCLA decided to make a move. — Medcalf
Women’s: In recent years, UCLA has made more noise than USC in the Pac-12 despite the Trojans’ storied legacy, although neither team broke through to dethrone Stanford and, to a lesser extent, Oregon. UCLA last won a Pac-12 tournament title in 2006, USC in 2014, and neither has earned the regular-season conference crown since 1998-99. UCLA has been a consistent NCAA tournament team over the last decade, though the Bruins boast just one appearance past the Sweet 16 this millennium, in 2018. But if there’s some solace for the Pac-12, it’s that it still managed to send six teams to the 2022 Big Dance, despite UCLA missing March Madness after a down season riddled with injuries.
That said, expectations have been high that both programs could be turning a corner in future seasons. UCLA secured ESPN’s No. 1 2022 recruiting class, headlined by Kiki Rice, the No. 2 overall player. Things have also been looking bright for USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who welcomes some intriguing transfers as well as freshman Aaliyah Gayles, the nation’s No. 7 recruit who is recovering from being shot multiple times at a party in late April.
That doesn’t even account for the recruiting void the Pac-12 now has in southern California, the loss of enticing branding and NIL opportunities that Pac-12 athletes could access at the L.A. schools, or the legacy of excellence the conference can no longer claim with the loss of USC. While the loss of USC and UCLA is certainly not ideal, there are signs of life elsewhere to suggest that the Pac-12 women’s basketball scene can thrive should the likes of the Oregon schools, Arizona, Utah and Colorado pick up the slack. — Philippou
If the Pac-12 seeks expansion, which schools should basketball fans of the league be hottest or coldest on?
I know Gonzaga doesn’t have football, and the Pac-12’s power brokers likely won’t be as interested as a result. But I’m calling the Zags today if I’m a Pac-12 executive.
The Big Ten and the SEC have essentially told the other Power 5 leagues that they’re the kings of collegiate sports. A Gonzaga addition won’t change the Pac-12’s football needs. But it would give the Pac-12 a perennial national title contender in men’s basketball with a tradition of producing NBA lottery picks and prospects. From there, it’s time to break all the rules about sport offerings, regions and tradition — It’s time to survive. BYU has not officially joined the Big 12 yet, but the Pac-12 should at least ask about its exit fee.
I’d be less excited about adding Mountain West schools such as Boise State and San Diego State, because that would probably ruin that conference. But I think the Pac-12 has to consider a merger or some new, nontraditional relationship with the Big 12. If that doesn’t work, the league has to reach out to Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Oklahoma State. If the Pac-12 can land two or three of those schools, it can widen its footprint and maintain its competitive value in men’s basketball, especially if Kansas and Baylor are interested.
The Pac-12 can’t replace USC and UCLA. But if it wants to remain a viable Power 6 league, it will have to think outside the box. Its future is on the line. — Medcalf
How does the departure of these programs change the Pac-12’s basketball brand, and how does it change the UCLA and USC basketball brands? Are there recruiting implications?
Although UCLA hasn’t won a regular-season championship since 2013 and USC has won one since 1961, the perception of the league is going to take a hit. UCLA was the league’s biggest brand and USC, despite not matching the school’s past gridiron success, is a national brand in athletics. Taking those two programs away is going to be a hit for a league that has received only three NCAA tournament bids in three of the last four NCAA tournaments and seen only two teams reach the Final Four in the last 14 years.
Even in some of the bleaker campaigns over the last decade, the league could count on Arizona and UCLA being national stories regardless of record, Oregon being a factor in the Top 25 and USC being an NCAA tournament contender. Now, the league is resting most of its national hopes on the Wildcats and Ducks. The Pac-12 can’t really afford for Washington to continue its current stretch of mediocrity or the bigger names like Arizona State and Stanford to struggle. For a league struggling to gain consistent national relevance, especially during the regular season, taking two of its biggest brands is an enormous hit from a cachet perspective.
The recruiting implications for UCLA and USC will be interesting. Those two schools along with Arizona have owned the West Coast from a recruiting perspective over the last decade, building great relationships with the AAU programs in California and essentially splitting up most of the talent. Due to its national brand, UCLA should be fine regardless. But USC might have to tweak its pitch a little bit, much like Maryland has had to alter its pitch since moving from the ACC to the Big Ten. Players in the Washington D.C. area didn’t grow up dreaming of playing Illinois and Nebraska, they wanted to play Duke and North Carolina. Similarly, players in southern California want to play UCLA and Arizona, not Rutgers and Northwestern.
Because the two rivals are moving leagues together, though, the impact should be somewhat mitigated. And now, these two huge athletic programs can go into Chicago and Indianapolis and other talent-rich Midwest cities and pitch the idea of consistently playing in front of family and friends while spending the rest of the year in sunny California. — Borzello