On Conference Realignment and the Consolidation of Power

Posted by rtmsf on April 27th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor.


College sports fans dodged a major bullet last week when the NCAA announced that the men’s basketball tournament would only be expanding to 68 entrants, rather than the 96-team field that had been widely rumored. However, the face of college sports as we know it is still in jeopardy, as the specter of widespread conference realignment still looms, with the much-speculated-upon expansion of the Big Ten as the key domino that could start a wave of changes leaving the college sports landscape drastically altered.

The elephant in the room issue is the consolidation of power away from the existing six BCS conferences and into a smaller number of “superconferences” with the possibility looming that once any realignment sorts itself out and we’ve got four 16-team conferences, those conferences break away from the NCAA and form their own structure. As Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins puts it: “At some time, the major conferences are going to have their own quasi-NCAA. They’re going to do their own thing.” Former Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel was even more specific, saying that eventually the Big Ten, ACC, SEC and Pac-10 would expand and ultimately leave the NCAA, even to the point of forming their own competing basketball tournament: “If you look at the history of what’s been going on for the last decade, I think it’s leading in that direction.”

We Promise It Won't Get This Complicated

The potential expansion of conferences detailed below is not the first shot fired in the consolidation of power, but the next step in an already-existing series of moves that has widened the financial gap between the biggest athletic departments and the rest of the supporting cast. And, as those at the top get bigger and bigger, the underdogs not only fall behind in terms of funding, but they may ultimately be left completely behind: no more Boise State and Utah to steal BCS bowl spots from big-money institutions during the winter, and no more Butler and George Mason sneaking into the Final Four in the spring. While that type of doomsday scenario is still several decision points down the line, what happens in the Big Ten over the next twelve months or so could be the monumental tipping point to drastically move things in that direction.

At present, the most widely rumored targets for Big Ten expansion are Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse from the Big East and Nebraska and Missouri from the Big 12, although as always occurs when the Big Ten thinks about expansion, Notre Dame is in the mix and likely their number one choice. With the Pac-10 also in the midst of contemplating expansion within the next year, these moves could send a ripple effect throughout all of the Division I conferences causing some conferences to get bigger, others to contract, and even some to disappear.  While the specifics remain conjecture and speculation at this point, there are enough common-sense scenarios out there to fuel theories to create one of the most helter-skelter flowcharts ever seen. We’ll take a look conference-by-conference at what could happen, and what kind of fallout might be created by each move, starting with our eleven midwestern friends.

Big Ten

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany confirmed last Wednesday that his conference is considering not only expanding to 12, but also perhaps even 14 or 16 teams. While some of the rationale for the expansion would be the addition of a football championship game for more revenue, the accumulation of more content and more markets for the Big Ten Network is probably more important to their plans. Delany noted that while discussions for this expansion are ongoing, the 12-18 month timetable that was originally announced in December is still the current framework.

Starting with the first domino, there is little doubt that the Fighting Irish would be the Big Ten’s first choice and the most logical fit for the conference, in terms of geography, academics and, frankly, football. Notre Dame and the Big Ten have flirted with each other many times in the past, but there is likely a greater chance that they will consummate their relationship this time around than any time before. For the Big Ten, the attraction is obvious: a huge fan base in historic “Big Ten country,” a ton of athletic history, and excellent academics. For Notre Dame, however, the question is a lot tougher. The Irish have been a football independent throughout their history and current athletic director Jack Swarbrick recently said that their “highest priority is maintaining football independence.” Notre Dame is currently in the middle of a television contract with NBC for the rights to broadcast home football games, a contract that runs through 2015 and an issue that will need to be confronted somehow if the Irish are eventually invited and accept Big Ten membership. The amount of the NBC deal (about $15 million annually) is not prohibitive enough to prevent them from considering membership in the Big Ten, whose member schools currently receive about $20 million annually from their television contracts. It is even possible that if the Big Ten and Notre Dame can come to an agreement, all this expansion talk will end right there: Notre Dame joins up, the Big Ten stops at 12 teams, the Big East poaches a team from CUSA like Central Florida as an additional football school and geographic partner to South Florida or a basketball-only school from the A-10 like Rhode Island or Massachusetts and the end-of-the-world scenario is averted. At present, however, it is being reported that Notre Dame is not being considered in the Big Ten’s expansion plans (a report that nobody in their right mind believes), but if Notre Dame is interested, the Big Ten will certainly be interested as well.

Figure 1: Big Ten Best Case Scenario

However, it is also realistic that with or without Notre Dame, the Big Ten is aiming for 14 or 16 teams to become the first superconference. While the addition of teams such as Missouri and Nebraska makes the most geographic sense, this expansion thing is not really about logic but about dollars, and Delany seems most interested in all the potential viewers that the bigger east coast markets present — notably Rutgers and Syracuse, but also Pittsburgh and potentially Connecticut. Adding three or even all four of those schools would effectively kill Big East football as we know it and potentially damage the Big East basketball enough to persuade a fence-sitting Notre Dame to leap off onto the Big Ten side as well. Swarbick himself admitted in March that “there are things that are large enough to challenge our ability to remain independent and remain in the Big East.” All four (or even three) of those flagship Big East programs bolting for the Big Ten could be one of those “large enough” things.

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Checking in on… the Big East

Posted by rtmsf on February 12th, 2010

Rob Dauster of Ballin is a Habit is the RTC correspondent for the Big East Conference.

The top of the Big East is stacked.  Syracuse is a legitimate national title contender. Villanova may end up as a 1 seed, and West Virginia and Georgetown both look destined to 2 seeds. Hell, Pitt might even be able to play their way into a top four seed if they can figure out their issues down the stretch.

So like I said, the top of the Big East is stacked.  But what about the rest of it?

Once you get past Pitt, the Big East basically turns into one giant question mark. Marquette, Louisville, Notre Dame, South Florida, Cincinnati, Seton Hall, UConn. What is the difference between these seven schools? Do any of them actually deserve a bid?  After Louisville lost to St. John’s last night, they probably don’t. The reason why might be a little different than you think.

Clearly, none of those seven teams are great teams, and some would struggle to even put them in the pretty good category. But they also aren’t terrible. They are all rated somewhere between 42d (Louisville) and 66th (Marquette) in the RPI. According to Kenpom, Marquette is 18th, Louisville 23rd, and the other five teams are sitting somewhere between 50th and 73rd.

The problem becomes separation. The seven teams in the middle of the Big East are all pretty average, meaning that during Big East play, they are going to beat up on each other. Usually, the MO for teams in the middle of the major conferences is to defend your home court against the teams you should beat, squeak out a couple on the road, and then hope you can topple one of the big boys in the league. If you can get to .500 or better in the major conferences with a couple of decent wins and a marquee win, that generally is enough to earn an at-large berth.

But this season, no one is beating the best teams in the Big East. Beating Villanova and Syracuse are season-changing wins, but Villanova has only lost to Georgetown and Syracuse has only lost to Pitt.* Wins over Georgetown or West Virginia aren’t quite marquee wins, but even those are hard to come by. The Hoyas lost to South Florida and Marquette, while WVU dropped a roadie to Notre Dame.

*Think about this. Let’s assume that Pitt had lost to Syracuse. They would then be 16-7 overall and 6-5 in the conference with wins over UConn, Cincinnati, Louisville, DePaul, St. John’s, and Seton Hall and losses to Seton Hall and South Florida. Is that really all that different from Louisville, who is 15-9 and 6-5 with wins over South Florida, Providence, St. John’s, Cincinnati, UConn, and Rutgers and losses to St. John’s and Seton Hall?

The issue isn’t that the middle of the Big East is terrible. They aren’t.  The problem is that they aren’t good enough, and that Syracuse and Villanova are too good, for the teams needing a marquee win to get that marquee win.

Let’s take a quick look at what those seven teams need to do to earn a bid (RPI numbers don’t include games from Thursday night):

  • Louisville: The Cardinals’ decent RPI (42) will no doubt take a hit after they lost by 19 to St. John’s on Thursday. With just a 1-6 record against the RPI top 50 (to be fair, they have wins over UConn (RPI 51) and Cincinnati (RPI 52) in addition to the win over South Florida) and losses to Western Carolina and by 22 to Charlotte, the Cardinals desperately need a couple of wins to bolster their resume. They will get the chance, as they play Syracuse twice and get Georgetown at home. My guess is that Louisville needs to go 5-2 over their last seven games for a shot at the tournament.
  • South Florida: Its weird talking about South Florida being on the bubble. They have a couple very good wins (Georgetown, Pitt) and just one terrible loss (Central Michigan). More than anything, the Bulls just need to add some depth to their profile, meaning they just need to pick up some more wins. I think USF has a good chance to earn a bid if they can get 10 wins in the league, assuming they don’t drop one to Providence or DePaul.  Beat Villanova on the road, and the Bulls will get in with a .500 league record.
  • UConn: The Huskies are in big trouble. They have just one quality win (Texas), and even that win is looking less and less impressive. Their RPI (51) is only remaining respectable because their SOS is so high. But UConn will have plenty of chances to boost their resume as five of their last seven games come against teams with a RPI of 52 or better, including Villanova and West Virginia.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats, despite the lower RPI, may actually be in better shape than UConn. They have a great win over Vanderbilt and another good win against Maryland, but Cincy hasn’t done anything on the road this season and absolutely needs to pick up a couple more quality wins. Cincy will have their shot to close out the season, as they head to West Virginia, get Villanova at home, and play at Georgetown.
  • Notre Dame: The Irish lost to Seton Hall on Thursday night, which may have all but done them in. ND is now 6-6 in the league and 17-8 overall, but their only really good win is against West Virginia. The Irish played such a weak schedule in the non-conference that they didn’t leave themselves much room for slip-ups like losing to Rutgers or Loyola Marymount.
  • Seton Hall: By beating Notre Dame, Seton Hall also keeps their thin hopes alive. The Pirates are like the Huskies. They don’t really have any horrible losses, but they haven’t really beaten anyone either. The Pirates only play one more game against teams outside of the bottom four in the league. They will likely have to win out for a chance to play in the tournament.
  • Marquette: The Golden Eagles are an interesting case. With so many close losses, they are fairly high on Kenpom’s rankings, but sport a 66 in the RPI. They also have a couple very nice wins – Georgetown and Xavier – but not much else. 5-2 down the stretch, with a couple good wins, will get Marquette in.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Kris Joseph, Syracuse

Don’t look now, but Jospeh, who is the Orange’s sixth man, has become the second leading scorer for the Cuse. We said he would be the x-factor for this team, and it looks like he has become just that. He’s long and athletic like Wes Johnson, he can get out and run the floor in transition, he attacks the rim, and he makes plays on the defensive end. This past week, he averaged 15.5 ppg and 5.0 rpg. His two threes against Cincy sparked a late run.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Georgetown Hoyas

The Hoyas certified themselves as a Final Four contender by going 2-0 this past week, including a beatdown on then-#2 Villanova. Georgetown jumped out to a 50-31 lead at the break on the strength of hot shooting from three, and sealed the game by controlling the ball offensively and hitting their free throws. In the other game this week, Georgetown went on the road Providence and avoided an upset by overcoming a halftime deficit. Austin Freeman continued his fantastic play, averaging 21.0 ppg for the week while Greg Monroe posted averaged of 15.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, and 9.0 apg.


1. Syracuse: 24-1, 11-1

Last Week: 2/7 @ Cinci 71-54, 2/10 vs. UConn 72-67

Next Week: 2/14 vs. Louisville, 2/18 @ Georgetown

2. Villanova: 21-2, 10-1

Last Week: 2/6 @ Georgetown 90-103, 2/8 @ West Virginia 82-75

Next Week: 2/13 vs. Providence, 2/15 vs. UConn

3. Georgetown: 18-5, 8-4

Last Week: 2/6 vs. Nova 103-90, 2/10 @ Providence 79-70

Next Week: 2/14 @ Rutgers, 2/18 vs. Syracuse

4. West Virginia: 19-4, 8-3

Last Week: 2/6 @ St. John’s 79-60, 2/8 vs. Nova 75-82

Next Week: 2/12 @ Pitt, 2/17 @ Providence

5. Pitt: 18-6, 7-4

Last Week: 2/6 vs. Seton Hall 83-58, 2/8 vs. Robert Morris 77-53

Next Week: 2/12 vs. West Virginia, 2/18 @ Marquette

6. Marquette: 15-8, 6-5

Last Week: 2/6 @ Providence 82-79

Next Week: 2/13 vs. South Florida, 2/18 vs. Pitt

7. Louisville: 15-9, 6-5

Last Week: 2/6 vs. Rutgers 76-60, 2/11 @ St. John’s 55-74

Next Week: 2/14 @ Syracuse, 2/17 vs. Notre Dame

8. Notre Dame: 17-8, 6-6

Last Week: 2/7 vs. South Florida 65-62, 2/11 @ Seton Hall 87-90

Next Week: 2/14 vs. St. John’s, 2/17 @ Louisville

9. South Florida: 15-8, 5-6

Last Week: 2/7 @ Notre Dame 62-65

Next Week: 2/13 @ Marquette, 2/16 vs. Cincinnati

10. Cincinnati: 14-9, 5-6

Last Week: 2/7 vs. Syracuse 54-71

Next Week: 2/13 @ UConn, 2/16 @ South Florida

11. UConn: 14-10, 4-7

Last Week: 2/6 vs. DePaul 64-57, 2/10 @ Syracuse 67-72

Next Week: 2/13 vs. Cincinnati, 2/15 @ Villanova

12. Seton Hall: 13-9, 4-7

Last Week: 2/6 @ Pitt 58-83, 2/11 vs. Notre Dame 87-90

Next Week: 2/14 vs. Louisville, 2/18 @ Georgetown

13. Providence: 12-12, 4-8

Last Week: 2/6 vs. Marquette 79-82, 2/9 vs. Georgetown 70-79

Next Week: 2/13 @ Villanova, 2/17 vs. West Virginia

14. St. John’s: 13-10, 3-8

Last Week: 2/6 vs. Louisville 60-79, 2/11 vs. West Virginia 74-55

Next Week: 2/14 @ Notre Dame, 2/17 vs. Seton Hall

15. Rutgers: 12-12, 2-9

Last Week: 2/6 @ Louisville 60-76, 2/8 vs. Caldwell 70-62

Next Week: 2/14 vs. Georgetown, 2/16 @ DePaul

16. DePaul: 8-15, 1-10

Last Week: 2/6 @ UConn 57-64

Next Week: 2/14 @ Seton Hall, 2/16 vs. Rutgers

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