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The Future of NCAA Women's Basketball: Austin Murphy and Conference Realignment

The May 3rd edition of Sports Illustrated had an interesting article from Austin Murphy regarding the realignment of the major conferences. The article focused on the changes in the college football landscape, as the money making (*) sport and the sport that gets the most attention in college sports is college football.

Over the past twenty years, conferences changing their membership lists should be no surprise. Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990, expanding the conference to 11 teams (and giving the conference a rather inaccurate name). In 1991, Arkansas and South Carolina joined the Southeastern Conference. Two years later, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor abandoned the Southwest conference to join the (former) Big Eight, spelling the beginning of the end for the Southwest Conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference picked up Florida State in 1991 and then raided the Big East in 1994, spiriting away Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College out of the Big East.

Currently, college sports is ruled by the six BCS (Bowl Championship Series) conferences: the ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten, the Big Twelve, the Southeastern Conference and the Pacific (Pac 10). However, if one read the above paragraph, you'd recognize that conference alignments are never fixed. The SI article gets underway with a mention of Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, who mentioned that the "timing is right" for an expansion in twelve to eighteen months.

One rule in collegiate sports is that if football drives conference realignment, the other sports will have to follow. This includes our favorite sport, women's basketball. The article mentions three possible expansion scenarios, each with increasing impact on the sport scene.

Big Ten Plus One: The first scenario has Missouri becoming the twelfth team of the Big Ten. Sensing weakness in the Big Twelve - and wanting to increase the allure of their own national sports network - the Pacific Ten grabs Colorado from the Big Twelve and Utah from the Mountain West conference. The Big Twelve replenishes itself with the addition of Brigham Young and Texas Christian from the Mountain West. (This leaves the Mountain West as a six-team conference.)

Using the ratings from RealTimeRPI.com, how does each conference change in strength?

The addition of Missori to Big Ten women's basketball won't have Ohio State or Michigan State trembling in terror. Missouri would come into the Big Ten as the weakest team, probably replacing Northwestern (at least for a little while). The addition of Colorado and Utah will not affect the balance of power in the (hypothetical) Pac-12.

The teams added don't significantly affect this new version of the Big 12. Furthermore, the Big 12 actually gets stronger by swapping out some of its weaker members. The relative strength of each conference to each other doesn't change. But who is the real loser in this rearrangement of colleges? Texas Christian. The Horned Frogs women's basketball team finished as the Mountain West's regular season champion - they were eliminated in the quarter finals of the Mountain West tournament but went on to the NCAA Tournament where they were eliminated by Dayton.

But in a reconstituted Big 12, TCU wouldn't even be in the top half of participating teams. TCU would probably be buried under a mountain of Texas A&Ms and Oklahomas and Baylors and Texases and Iowa States. They'd have to play an extra game in the Big 12 tournament and would probably slip out of national notice - the NCAA would have to send seven or eight teams to the tournament from the Big East to get TCU in with the way things stand now. TCU might love the football money they get, but women's basketball would be a tradeoff - it might be easier for TCU to recruit but performance might suffer.

Big Ten Plus Three: The Big Ten decides to become a fourteen-team conference. The three teams that get added...Missouri...and Rutgers and Nebraska. Mama, hold the phone! The Big 14 would want Rutgers for the New York connection, and New York has always been a hotbed of women's basketball talent. The Pac-10 add Colorado and Utah as indicated above. The Big Twelve drops to the Big Nine. The Big Nine could pick up TCU and Brigham Young as in the other scenario, but that would leave the last team to be either San Diego State, New Mexico, Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado State or Air Force - which would probably kill the Mountain West conference dead and leave the Colonial Athletic as the most powerful of the mid-majors.

So how does the Big 14 shape up? Rutgers gets itself out of the tough Big East conference and if Nebraska's amazing 2009-10 is The Shape of Things to Come, then the Big Ten's landscape is changed and Jim Foster and Suzy Merchant have some competition. (And C. Vivian Stringer might get Iowa as a regular conference opponent.) The Big East loses a tiny bit of its luster, but could probably find a replacement somewhere for Rutgers. The Big Nine would be a very strong basketball conference - the Big Twelve Minus Nebraska, Colorado and Missouri would still be very, very strong. There's no real loser here, except for maybe San Diego State, a strong Mountain West team now playing in a weaker conference.

Big Ten Plus Five: According to Murphy's hypothesis, in order for the Big Ten to pick up Notre Dame as a football member, they have to wreck the Fighting Irish's Big East membership. So they do. Missouri, Nebraska, and Rutgers all come to the future Big Sixteen. The Big Sixteen grabs Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame, sensing the momentum shift, leaves the Big East to join the Big Sixteen.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, having a history of successful Big East raiding, senses blood in the water. They extend the Atlantic Coast to the Mideast by picking up Cincinnati, Louisville, Syracuse and West Virginia out of the Big East - and the ACC becomes the next sixteen team conference. The Big East is reduced to a nine-team conference of schools from the Northeast...and South Florida.

The Southeastern Conference wakes up and determines not to be left out of the land-grab. The Pac-10 probably still takes Colorado and Utah, although it isn't mentioned in the article. The Pacific Ten wants Texas, but the Southeastern Conference wins the bidding war. Since Texas is technically southern, the SEC picks up Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. The Big Twelve is reduced to the Big Six and has to pick up spare parts from the Mountain West and the WAC.

This leaves five "superconferences" - The "Big Ten", the Pac-Twelve, the SEC, the ACC and the still-big-but-not-as-big Big East. (What becomes of the former Big Twelve no one knows.) These five superconferences then abandon the NCAA and form their own intercollegiate sports organization.

The Big Sixteen becomes more interesting. Notre Dame is more than a match for the Ohio States and Michigan States, and Notre Dame will be playing Michigan, Purdue and Indiana on a regular basis. As for the ACC, the addition of its four former Big East clubs don't really change the balance of power in the ACC, which will leave Duke and North Carolina breathing a sigh of relief. The Big East teams give the ACC the best of both worlds - they bolster the level of competition but aren't powerful enough on their own to change the ACC landscape.

The biggest winner is the Southeastern Conference. It could be a beast of a conference, with seven or eight of its 16-prospective teams regularly ranked in the Top 25. (Tennessee vs. Oklahoma! Texas vs. Vanderbilt!) The Big East takes a major hit, but in terms of women's basketball remains relatively strong.

The loser in this scenario? Baylor. Baylor would be one of the left-over teams in the (former) Big Twelve and would be left scrambling. Even though Baylor has a strong women's basketball team, they don't have a strong football history and football drives each of these realignments. So who would Baylor be playing? Iowa State and Kansas State? Or do they become the bigwig in some mid-major conference? And would Britney Griner transfer if Baylor stops becoming a "big-time" school?

Okay. Enough of the wishful thinking game. "Pet," you say, "nice try, but this could never happen." True, maybe it won't happen the way that Austin Murphy proposes it will. But I'll bet that something will happen. Conferences will realign to get bigger pieces of the football money stack, and women's basketball and all of the other sports will be dragged along with wherever football decides to go. So if you're a fan of a Big Six team, enjoy those matchups next year with your hated foes...because in a year or two, it might be an entirely different set of teams you'll have to learn to hate.

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(*) College football makes a lot of money, but spends it just as quickly - according to many studies, college football does not add to the net profit of a university.