This now will become the league of Wilt, Oscar and the Big E. It will be the league of Off Night, the Mayor, K-Mart and Hakeem the Dream, the league of Huggs, and the General. Why can’t Bill Self and Scott Drew get some appealing nicknames?
Basketball doesn’t matter when it comes to conference realignment, we are told so often. We are told this because it is true. It matters, though, once conferences are realigned and the ball begins to bounce for keeps in gymnasiums and arenas from coast to coast.
The newly renovated Big 12 Conference, expected to be announced Friday afternoon, almost certainly will not command the sort of television deals in place for the past decade, a decade that included traditional football powers Texas and Oklahoma as members. If you work in the athletic department at one of the eight universities the Longhorns and Sooners abandoned, this most likely is of considerable concern to you. If you’re a sports fan, particularly a college hoops fan, it’s of no consequence.
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With Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and UCF arriving to replace Texas and Oklahoma whenever they depart, with Baylor the reigning NCAA champion and four different members (Kansas, Texas Tech, Houston, Baylor) reaching the Final Four since 2018, the new Big 12 is going to be a dynamite basketball conference.
“If college athletics were driven by basketball, this would be an upgrade on the court,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, the leading broadcast authority on Big 12 basketball, told Sporting News. “With no disrespect to both Texas and Oklahoma, who’ve enjoyed a lot of success in recent years, neither school can sell out a meaningful Big 12 game in the middle of a conference race. How can you have a top-5 team with Kevin Durant or Buddy Hield and not be sold out? Adding the 22,000-plus fans at BYU, plus two schools at Cincinnati and Houston that have rich basketball traditions and more recently sell out their buildings … the league is not any worse for the tradeoff. But football drives college athletics, so it’s certainly not ideal for the Big 12.”
In exchanging Texas and Oklahoma for Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and UCF, the league picks up programs with a combined dozen Final Four appearances and two NCAA championships in their histories in exchange for two programs with a combined eight Final Four appearances and no titles.
Oscar Robertson, for whom the U.S. Basketball Writers Association player of the year award is named, led Cincinnati to consecutive Final Fours in 1959 and 1960, and the Bearcats then made three more in a row and won the title in 1961 and 1962. Elvin Hayes led Houston to Final Four appearances in 1967 and 1968, and then Hakeem Olajuwon and the “Phi Slamma Jam” crew got there in 1982, 1983 and 1984.
Since the start of the 2010-11 season, the new Big 12 members have made a combined 18 NCAA Tournament appearances, four Sweet 16s and one Final Four – including the Cougars’ trip to Lucas Oil Stadium last March — all while operating outside the Power 5 sphere of influence and without Power 5 money and exposure. The departing members made 14 appearances with two Sweet 16s and one Final Four.
Since 2010-11, the “new Big 12” ranks third among conferences in NCAA Tournament appearances, behind only the ACC and Big Ten, fourth in March Madness victories and Sweet 16s reached.
“Talking to some of the people I know that are fans of the conference around here, I feel like it has a chance to make for a really good basketball conference,” Nate Bukaty, co-host of The Border Patrol program on Kansas City’s WHB radio, told SN. “Texas and Oklahoma are very good basketball programs, but they’re obviously not basketball schools. Houston and Cincinnati come in with a lot of tradition and strong followings. From a basketball standpoint, it’s got a lot to offer.
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“I think it’s enough to make people feel better. Good is, I guess, a relative term. Unfortunately we’ve all been told – and it’s a point of frustration for a lot of KU fans — that basketball just doesn’t matter. What KU fans are probably most concerned about is just ending up in a conference where they can maintain that sort of national powerhouse basketball program and make the kind of money that Power 5 schools make in athletics.”
Depending on how severe the financial hit is for the holdover Big 12 schools, there may be some challenges to maintaining their current “standard of living”: keeping pace from a facilities standpoint and continuing to pay star coaches the level of salaries to keep them from looking elsewhere for jobs.
But Houston and Cincinnati have managed, even if one or both have had to stretch at times, to push their facilities to a high standard. The Cougars’ old Hofheinz Pavilion received a $60 million upgrade and was transformed into the Fertitta Center. Obsolete Robertson Stadium was replaced by TDECU Stadium for $130 million.
The Bearcats’ Shoemaker Center got an $80 million renovation to modernize its seating area and other aspects of the building. Iconic Nippert Stadium – one of the five oldest in college football – was entirely revamped in 2014-15 for $86 million.
Hiring Kelvin Sampson to coach the basketball program in 2014 once more restored Houston to national relevance. The Cougars advanced in the past three NCAA Tournaments, losing on late shots against Michigan (second round, 2018) and Kentucky (Sweet 16, 2019) before staging their own late comeback in the second round against Rutgers this past March en route to crashing the Final Four.
Cincinnati has a new coach in Wes Miller, hired away from UNC Greensboro after five consecutive 20-win seasons and winning 78 percent of Southern Conference games in that period.
“Cincinnati has high hopes for Wes Miller, and if he can build the kind of program that Mick Cronin did and Bob Huggins before him, that becomes a great addition because there’s a natural rivalry with West Virginia,” Fraschilla said. “Can Houston maintain the level Kelvin has it at now? The likelihood is, it’s doable. BYU over the past couple decades is a top-40 basketball program. In some ways, Kansas going to BYU on a Monday night and playing in front of 20,000 people is going to be pretty cool. BYU can compete with anyone in the country because of the incredible history and fan support.”
Texas and Oklahoma may be different programs, as well, when they eventually arrive in the SEC. UT hired Chris Beard, who has had success including a Final Four trip at Texas Tech and has recruited well since his arrival in Austin. Porter Moser, who took Loyola to the Sweet 16 this past season and Final Four in 2018, now is in charge of the Sooners. But the guys they replace, Shaka Smart and Lon Kruger, also have Final Four resumes.
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UCF is the one addition whose basketball has not been elite, but it’s also extremely new to this level of college athletics. As recently as 2004 and 2005, the Knights were making consecutive NCAA appearances – as champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference. Their one appearance since elevating to the American Athletic Conference came in 2019, when coach Johnny Dawkins and 7-6 center Tacko Fall made 40 minutes of life miserable for Duke and superstar Zion Williamson before a game-winning tip attempt by Aubrey Dawkins – Johnny’s son – rolled off the rim.
“UCF has a football program that puts them in the top two-thirds of the Big 12, maybe better,” Fraschilla said. “It’s going to be a question of whether Johnny Dawkins can use the Big 12 to elevate the program. That’s the one basketball wildcard; they don’t have a longstanding basketball tradition, but they have an incredible university that’s growing and a market that continues to grow.
“What I think is going to stabilize Big 12 basketball is there’ve been very few years where the bottom is just horrible. The monetary hit is obviously enormous, but if the league can stabilize on the gridiron, the basketball can continue to be an outstanding league.
“This is the best-case scenario for what has been a shocking five or six weeks.”