Welcome back, folks! This is the first post looking ahead toward next year, and I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you who stopped by and read even one word last season. It was an amazing ride and I look forward to doing it again this year. Before I start previewing which teams should be watched in the upcoming season, though, I think it would be a service to everyone to take a moment to look at the drastic conference realignments that are taking place this summer.
The 2013-14 season will provide us our first glimpse of a world of college basketball that has just seen the Big East – arguably the highest-profile conference in the nation – undergo a complete overhaul and has profoundly changed the landscape of the sport for years to come. Classic rivalries have been split apart, and while these new pairings will undoubtedly forge new ones, getting used to this unfamiliar look of college basketball will take some time, to be sure.
The demise of the old Big East affects more than just that one conference, of course. First and foremost, the creation of the new American Athletic Conference will be the new home for many of the dislocated schools. The AAC features many of the Conference USA constituents of the early 2000s – national champions Louisville, Memphis, and Cincinnati, notably – as well as household names from the northeast in Connecticut, Rutgers, and Temple. The AAC will be rounded out by Houston, SMU, South Florida, and Central Florida.
Staying behind with the Big East moniker are many of the conference’s old standby Catholic programs, such as Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, St. John’s, Seton Hall, DePaul, and Providence. Joining these schools are a few of the most well-known (formerly) mid-major programs in America: Butler, Creighton, and Xavier. The Bulldogs – who just lost head coach Brad Stevens to the NBA’s Boston Celtics – are not strangers to relocation, switching affiliations for the second time in as many years, after spending one season in the Atlantic Ten. The Musketeers and Blue Jays will also have to make the adjustment to playing in a much deeper league.
Three former Big East programs will be a part of neither that conference nor the new AAC, but instead will head to the Atlantic Coast Conference, joining the likes of Duke, North Carolina, and may other prominent schools. Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse will all begin next season playing in the ACC. With the Orange signing on here, we will get a chance to see two of the game’s 700 Club, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, coach against each other on a yearly basis. One can hardly argue the downside in that proposition; however, it should be noted that Syracuse’s presence in Madison Square Garden will be sorely missed come Big East tournament time. The addition of these three programs has to launch the ACC to the top of the ladder in terms of the top shops in the country, and they seem to be the clear-cut winners of the realignment shuffle.
While the Big East and ACC made huge changes in the offseason, the Big Ten, Big XII, Pacific 12, and SEC all sat out this round of musical chairs. A few of the more prominent mid-major conferences got in the mix, however, with the Conference USA taking on a slew of new programs. The C-USA will expand to a staggering 16 squads, but they lost their marquee team in Memphis, the one program that was keeping the conference even remotely relevant on the national scale. That having been said, they cherry-picked a handful of the country’s rising names from the smaller conferences, including Middle Tennessee, Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, and North Texas. It remains to be seen how all of these teams will fair when they all get thrown in the deep end together, but the C-USA could provide some great competition. This will, in turn, give some of these smaller programs a better shot at picking up decent, if not spectacular victories. Still, it’s hard seeing them as more than a one-bid conference at this point, but they could provide a lot of entrants to the other tournaments.
If some of the other mid-major conferences look a little different, it may be due to contraction rather than expansion. The Atlantic Ten, for instance, lost a great deal of panache when Temple, Xavier, and newcomer Butler all walked out the door this offseason. The conference will add the George Mason Patriots for next season, one of the top programs in the Colonial over the past decade. The A-10 still has a solid core of teams in VCU, Saint Louis, La Salle, Dayton, St. Joseph’s, and Richmond to make this one of the more solid mid-major conferences.
The Mountain West, on the other hand, was busy picking up a couple new teams to round out their ranks at 11 members. Following Boise State’s move from the Western Athletic Conference in years past – which is a natural move, considering this conference was born of the breakup of the WAC – are Utah State and San Jose State. The Aggies from USU have had a lot of success in the past few years, and will look to try to make the transition to the bigger leagues when they join what was one of the strongest conferences in the nation last season, regardless of any “mid-major” moniker which might be assigned to it.
Speaking of the WAC, a mass exodus has taken place, but the conference added half a dozen new teams at the start of this month. The conference is a shadow of itself, absorbing some scattered remnants in Cal State Bakersfield, Texas Pan-American, Utah Valley, Chicago State, and Missouri-Kansas City, as well as Division I newcomer Grand Canyon University. In fact, all of the turmoil in the WAC has forced the conference to stop sponsoring football due to the departures of some of its key constituents. The adoption of four of the Great West’s member schools also spelled the demise of that conference entirely, now defunct after only a short time operating at the D-I level. The Great West’s final team, N.J.I.T., will compete as the nation’s lone independent squad next season.
In addition to Grand Canyon, three other schools are making the jump to D-I this year as well, including a pair from the Southland Conference. Both Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian will be a part of the league this year, which also added former D-I Independent (and Sun Belt) program, New Orleans. The final newcomers are Massachusetts-Lowell, and the River Hawks will compete in the America East Conference.
There were a few other small moves that almost flew under the radar for me. The Missouri Valley Conference replaced Creighton – clearly no easy task – with Loyola of Chicago, and the Ramblers have to know that they aren’t going to be expected to fill the Blue Jays’ giant void. The rest of the teams in the MVC might be breathing a sigh of relief and rubbing their hands together at the prospect of a life without two yearly matchups against one of the better programs in the country. Taking Loyola’s place in the Horizon League will be Michigan’s Oakland University.
Other moves include Charleston heading to the Colonial, Boston University and Loyola of Maryland joining the Patriot League, and Denver moving to the Summit League. The Metro Athletic took on two squads from the Northeast Conference in Monmouth and Quinnipiac. The Sun Belt likewise went through some changes, adding Georgia State, Texas State, and Texas-Arlington.
It seems that realignment has affected about half of the nation’s conferences in one way or another, and it has completely changed the dynamic of college basketball as we will know it from here on out. The new rivalries that will form out of all of this chaos should be the focus of the discussion on the matter, rather than lamenting over the fact that we won’t be seeing any more of those ridiculous Syracuse-Connecticut or Louisville-Notre Dame multi-overtime games.
Yes, it will take some getting used to the new American Athletic Conference. Yes, the surface tension on the Big Dance bubble just got a lot tighter, with one more automatic qualifier bid going to the AAC, leaving one fewer at-large bid. No, this is not the last time we are going to see realignment, with various contracts already in place which will affect many of the nation’s biggest leagues.
All things considered, in a world of constant change and uncertainty, one thing is for sure: there will be a new tournament in March, and a new champion in April. And in the end, isn’t that all that really matters?