The Big 12 Conference presidents and chancellors voted on Friday to accept BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF into the conference, with the individual boards of those universities set to formally accept before end of day. Though the moves were largely inspired by football-related concerns, other sports in the Big 12 will also be impacted. Foremost among the sports are men’s and women’s basketball, with the shifting tides of expansion having a downstream effect on the makeup and power of the American Athletic Conference and West Coast Conference as well.
What will the addition of a Final Four program in Houston mean for the men’s basketball profile of the Big 12, annually one of college basketball’s strongest leagues? Will the additions in men’s and women’s hoops help mitigate the painful forthcoming loss of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC?
ESPN’s college basketball reporting team of Jeff Borzello, Myron Medcalf and Mechelle Voepel discussed the effects for the Big 12, the fallout for the other affected leagues, and the landscape of men’s and women’s college basketball as conference realignment took another dramatic turn:
How does the announced addition of BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF impact the Big 12 in men’s basketball? When coupled with the planned departure of Texas and Oklahoma, where does that leave the Big 12 in terms of national strength?
The Big 12 reinforced its basketball status with the four additions. Since 2014, the league has been ranked No. 1 by KenPom six times and No. 2 twice. Losing Texas and Oklahoma does mean two top-25 programs are no longer in the fold, but Houston has been one of the most consistent programs in the country under Kelvin Sampson and just made a Final Four last spring.
BYU has won at least 20 games in 15 of the last 16 seasons and now has a better chance of keeping Mark Pope as its head coach for several more years. Cincinnati was an NCAA tournament staple under Mick Cronin and is hoping to return to form after the hire of Wes Miller. UCF has had its moments, but the school’s athletic focus is on football and its status as a “sleeping giant” in basketball has waned.
It’s hard to say the league has logged a net improvement on the basketball side without Texas and Oklahoma, but with the additions — especially given Houston and BYU’s recent success — I don’t think there will be much of a drop-off. — Jeff Borzello
How do the four schools add to the Big 12 profile on the women’s hoops side?
Losing Texas and Oklahoma will be tough for Big 12 women’s hoops, but the schools that are being added bring something to the league that gives it a little boost after so much loss.
BYU is the most successful women’s program joining the Big 12. The Cougars have made 14 NCAA tournament appearances and advanced to the Sweet 16 twice (2002 and 2014). This past season, as a No. 11 seed, they upset No. 6 seed Rutgers in the first round before falling to eventual NCAA runner-up Arizona, a No. 3 seed. Nine of the Cougars’ NCAA tournament appearances have come under current coach Jeff Judkins, who has had only one losing season since taking over in 2001-02.
BYU’s last West Coast Conference title came in the 2019 league tournament, and its last WCC regular-season title was in 2016. BYU also has a tradition of successful women’s sports programs; the Cougars’ women’s volleyball team has reached the final four three times (1993, 2014 and 2018).
UCF tied for first in the American Athletic Conference last season with South Florida, and Houston was third. Both UCF and Houston — like BYU — should benefit from being in a major conference. The Knights fell to Northwestern in the NCAA tournament first round this past season, which was their sixth NCAA tournament appearance. Houston beat Arizona State in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament consolation game, but the Cougars’ last NCAA tournament was in 2011.
In contrast to its men’s hoops program, Cincinnati has struggled to make an impact on the women’s side, last making the NCAA tournament in 2003. Cincinnati coach Michelle Clark-Heard had success previously at Western Kentucky, and then won 24 and 22 games in her first two seasons with Cincinnati. Last season the Bearcats went 8-16, but perhaps the move to the Big 12 will help her build on what Cincinnati did from 2018 to ’20, which included a WNIT appearance. — Mechelle Voepel
What’s the men’s basketball impact on the American Athletic Conference, which is set to lose three programs including a 2021 Final Four participant in Houston? What about the WCC, which loses one of its top three programs in BYU?
I think the biggest ripple effect here involves Memphis and Gonzaga, whose leagues have become weaker. If there were ever a time for both schools, the anchors of their respective conferences, to look elsewhere, it’s now — even if their potential destinations are less than obvious.
We’ve watched other teams and leagues make preemptive moves so they can control their futures through realignment. Houston, Cincinnati and UCF have six combined NCAA tournament berths since 2018. But their locations matter too. All three schools exist in major metropolitan areas with populations over 2 million people. The diminished footprint, especially in respect to recruiting, is a major concern for a league that won’t easily find three comparable programs. The move will also cost the AAC three good coaches, including Kelvin Sampson who, upon arrival, will be one of the Big 12’s leaders.
With all of this chaos, I’m not sure how the AAC will keep Memphis happy. But that has to be the goal because a league that finished seventh in KenPom’s rankings could finish outside the top 10 with these moves. That’s why a Memphis team with Emoni Bates this season and a good football program might be having conversations about finding greener pastures instead of preserving an unstable conference. Memphis hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament under Penny Hardaway and now it will lose three opportunities for quality wins in conference play. That’s not good.
And BYU added a lot to the WCC. Not just its talent but its crowds and support in Provo — and its legitimacy. In their most fruitful years, Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s all elevated the profile of the WCC, which has been a multi-bid league in seven of the last nine tournaments. The chances of sending multiple schools to the postseason, however, are significantly diminished without BYU.
I think BYU’s departure also accelerates the conversation about Gonzaga’s future. How long can a premier basketball program remain in the WCC? Gonzaga will maintain its status as a powerful squad either way. Still, nothing seems certain about their future. A school with Gonzaga’s basketball profile could find a home in a bigger conference. And without BYU, it might believe it has to do that. — Myron Medcalf
The American was already reeling from the loss of UConn in women’s hoops, how much does this move further weaken the league?
Let’s just say that UConn fans, already grateful the Huskies have left for the Big East, are breathing a sigh of relief again now. It’s not as if the current incarnation of the Big East is a big challenge for the Huskies; they went unbeaten in league play this past season. But at least the Big East makes sense geographically for UConn. And while it probably will never reach the heights the old Big East did on the women’s side, it’s far better than what remains of the American.
South Florida has been a good program under coach Jose Fernandez. The Bulls and UCF both finished at 12-2 atop the American last season, with USF winning the league tournament championship game over the Knights. USF made its seventh NCAA tournament appearance (all coached by Fernandez) and won its first-round game over Washington State before losing to No. 1 seed NC State.
One can rightly speculate that South Florida will remain as the American’s top women’s hoops team, but it’s not a league that is going to provide the Bulls with much national attention at this stage. — Mechelle Voepel
What new rivalries should fans be excited about? Are there any major rivalries that will be lost with the planned moves?
Houston is the program that immediately jumps out as one that could generate some new rivalries immediately. The Cougars are already battling the likes of Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma State on the recruiting trail, and there is obviously a regional element that lends itself to rivalries. BYU and UCF could struggle from a rivalry standpoint, simply due to location, but Cincinnati’s proximity to former coach Bob Huggins and West Virginia should make their early matchups interesting.
As previously mentioned when Texas and OU announced their moves, we lost Bedlam. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State was one of the better in-state rivalries in both football and basketball, but that’s not off the table on a consistent basis. Texas will take its rivalry with Oklahoma to the SEC, where it will also reignite its rivalries with Texas A&M and Arkansas. The Texas vs. Texas Tech games this season should be interesting, given Chris Beard’s move from Lubbock to Austin. — Jeff Borzello
It would be nice to see Houston elevate to challenge the Big 12’s other Texas programs, especially nearby Baylor. But that will take some doing. At one point, the Big 12’s programs in the Lone Star State were all national contenders — Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Baylor has lost coach Kim Mulkey, the program’s architect who won three NCAA titles, and with Texas A&M gone to the SEC, Texas on the way to the SEC and Texas Tech having really struggled to be competitive in recent years, the Texas element of the Big 12 is just not as exciting. — Mechelle Voepel