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Going to the Well: Big East Conference Expansion & Women's Basketball

Yesterday the Big East announced that it would be picking up five schools to "strengthen and fortify" its conference profile after Syracuse and Pittsburgh defected to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Two of the five schools - Boise State and San Diego State - shall be football-only. The other three schools - Houston, Central Florida and Southern Methodist - shall join as all-sports members.

The above is good news for Big East football, which was in danger of losing its BCS automatic qualifying berth. However, what does this mean for Big East women's basketball? What are these three schools like? Are they any good?

To answer the first question, we have to keep in mind all of the shuffles of conference expansion - in two or three years the conference map will look very different and these shifts will affect four of the six power conferences. Before the 2011-12 season began I assigned a rating to each of the Division I women's basketball schools, a rating that became the basis for a series of posts about the Top 100 Programs in Division I Women's Basketball. Let's average those ratings across all schools and derive the Top 31 Conferences in Division I Women's Basketball (*).

1 Big 12
2 Big East
5 Big Ten
6 Pac 10
7 Mountain West
8 Atlantic 10
9 Missouri Valley
10 Colonial
12 West Coast
13 Mid-American
14 Sunbelt
15 WAC
16 Horizon
18 America East
19 Big Sky
20 Patriot
21 Big West
22 Ivy
23 Big South
24 Summit
25 Southland
26 Ohio Valley
27 Northeast
28 Atlantic Sun
31 Independent

(*) - Note that we consider the Independents a pseudo-conference. The Independents include the Great West, a conference whose tournament champion does not have an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

Now, let's take a closer look at each of the three teams. A side note: if you think the letter grades are too harsh, there were only seven schools that got "A" grades - Connecticut, Tennessee, Stanford, Texas A&M, Duke, Oklahoma and Baylor.

Central Florida

Program Grade: D+ (#145 overall)
Average home attendance last three years: 770, 589, 480
Recruiting gets: none
NCAA previous five years: 2009, 2011 (first round both times)
WNIT previous five years: none
Seasons over previous five years: three losing seasons, one 20+-win season (2011)
Conference tournament victories previous five years: 2009, 2011

If there was such a thing as "D+ with a bullet", it would be Central Florida. Joi Williams has been around for just three years at UCF but in her first year she managed to take the Knights to a surprising win in the Conference USA tournament in 2009 and last year she not only got UCF the Conference USA championship but its first 20-win season since 1998-99. The "D+" rating is just UCF stuck with the two seasons before Williams arrived where the Knights went 18-42; the team shouldn't be sitting at the bottom of the Big East. Attendance, however, is pretty poor; maybe a few visits from UConn will help.

The big question is going to be if Central Florida's coaching staff can win the Big East recruiting game. There is many a team that has jumped to a bigger conference and found recruiting much more difficult - Central Florida didn't have it easy when they went from the Atlantic Sun to Conference USA. The big loser in UCF's arrival is South Florida - the Bulls might have a Big East rival but they also no longer have Florida to themselves.


Program Grade: C- (#94 overall)
Average home attendance last three years: 484, 434, 712
Recruiting gets: none
NCAA previous five years: 2011 (first round)
WNIT previous five years: 2010 (first round)
Seasons over previous five years: two losing seasons, one 20+-win season (2011)
Conference tournament victories previous five years: none

Houston's 2011 season was a great one, one that pushed them into the Top 100. The Cougars went 26-6 and finished with a perfect 16-0 regular season record but lost to Tulane in the Conference USA tournament. Ranked #24, they then lost to West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Houston's Joe Curl has been with the program since 1999 (he was forced to miss the 2007-08 season due to medical issues) and won his 200th game in 2011. One could say that this team is a lot like Central Florida's in that they are probably better than their letter grade indicates (they went 24-35 from 2006-08)

Southern Methodist

Program Grade: C (#83 overall)
Average home attendance last three years: 831, 964, 927
Recuriting gets: G De'Amber Wilhite, Class of 2011
NCAA previous five years: 2008 (first round)
WNIT previous five years: 2009, 2010 (first round both times)
Seasons over previous five years: three 20+ win seasons (2008, 2009, 2010), one losing season
Conference tournament victories previous five years: 2008

The losing season mentioned above is not much of a blemish - the Mustangs went 14-16 last year and 7-9 in Conference USA. (They lost a couple of senior guards.) However, it appears that recruit De'Amber Wilhite has disappeared. She suffered a right knee injury before her senior season and as far as I can tell, she didn't play during her entire senior year in high school.

If they don't have De'Amber Wilhite, they'll make due with head coach Rhonda Rompola who has been at SMU since 1991-92 and has won over 300 games there. The change to the Big East will be old hat for Rompola, who has seen Southern Methodist playing in the Southweast Conference, the WAC, and Conference USA.

(* * *)

We now compare the above teams to Big East teams. My current rankings:

Connecticut A+
Notre Dame B+
Louisville B+
Rutgers B+
West Virginia B
DePaul B
Pittsburgh B-
Georgetown B-
Marquette C+
St. John's C+
Syracuse C+
South Florida C
Villanova C-
Providence D+
Cincinnati D+
Seton Hall D+

The three schools might be punching bags in the Big East for a little while. Time will tell if their coaches are able to recruit in the new environment.

Now we turn to the final question. Let's look at the ranks of the power conferences with the following changes:

SEC: Texas A&M and Missouri added
Big 12: Texas A&M and Missouri subtracted, Texas Christian and West Virginia added
Big East: Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia subtracted; Central Florida, Houston and SMU added
ACC: Syracuse and Pittsburgh added

Running the numbers again, the Big 12 remains at the top of the conference list. The Southeastern Conference jumps to second place and the Big East falls to third place. As for Conference USA - the conference left standing in this game of musical chairs - they fall from 11th to 13th among the women's basketball conferences.

It seems to be the fate of Conference USA. The last time they lost teams to another conference was in 2005. Some of those teams from the Conference USA were teams like Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, and South Florida. I suppose we can't blame the Big East for going back to the well when it worked so well the first time.