Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Conference realignment has not been kind to college basketball. There are exceptions to this statement: The Atlantic 10, who over the past year added VCU and Butler, very much won out. But on the whole, hoops leagues have watched flagship programs jump ship to chase lucrative media rights contracts and better positioning in the increasingly football-oriented college athletics landscape. The winds of change prompted high-profile departures from the Big East (West Virginia, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse), pillaged the CAA (Old Dominion, Georgia State, VCU) and swiped thriving outfits from other leagues. While the reasons sometimes differed – with a few exceptions, football and TV money reigned supreme; the variant motives were more a matter of degree than type – the overall result was mostly unilateral. Hoops conferences were weakened, either by losing teams to football-savvy and/or more monied leagues, taking on substandard replacements or having natural rivalries eroded. The good news is we’re witnessing a temporary conference-hopping lull after a summer teeming with realignment buzz. The college hoops offseason is a long and frustrating stretch that challenges the outer limits of creative resolve. Filling that gap with realignment news, particularly when that news includes negative consequences for the sport’s competitive balance, is not fun. We should probably enjoy this peace while it lasts, because conference loyalty is hardly the same enduring relationship it used to be. These are massive changes with lasting impacts. College hoops may never be the same.
Through all the program-hopping and controversial departure dates and spiteful conference tournament bans (I’m looking at you, CAA), there is no league that learned the perils of realignment in a more devastating way than the Western Athletic Conference. Over the past two decades, the once-thriving mid-major outfit has suffered a slow and agonizing decline, with a whopping 24 schools leaving for greener pastures. The extended bout of membership attrition prompted the WAC to steep to new levels of realignment hopelessness. That’s no disrespect to Cal State Bakersfield and Utah Valley, which the league announced Tuesday will gain full membership by July 1 of next year and begin competition in 2013, but is this the best the WAC can do? When your membership has been whittled down to four and league administrators have relegated football to the BCS ranks (a tell-tale sign of league futility), the answer is, almost invariably, yes.