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Big 12 basketball poised to stay strong after expansion

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Conference realignment moves are coming in fast and furious. Less than six weeks after Texas and Oklahoma sent shockwaves through college sports by jumping to the SEC, the Big 12 has responded with expansion of its own, adding BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to its ranks. And while these additions were made primarily with football (specifically the value of their football television rights) in mind, it’s hard to imagine things working out better from a men’s basketball standpoint for the Big 12, which has consistently been the sport’s best conference since the last round of realignment.

Even without Texas and Oklahoma in tow, the Big 12’s remaining eight schools have the mix of historical success and upside necessary to be a top hoops conference. Kansas is arguably the nation’s most consistent men’s program, earning a top-four seed in every NCAA tournament since 2001 in what is one of the most impressive streaks in the sport’s history. Baylor cut down the nets in men’s basketball in ’21 and would have earned a No. 1 seed in ’20, and saw its women’s program win the national title in ’19. Texas Tech reached the men’s national championship game in ’19 and just finished construction on one of the nicest practice facilities in the country. All eight remaining teams have earned at least one No. 6 or better seed in the last five men’s NCAA tournaments.

Big 12 basketball logo

Still, the future of the league in men’s basketball rested on these realignment plans. And the Big 12’s choices position it well to be as good on the hardwood as it has ever been.

BYU, which will join the conference in 2023 (the AAC trio will join no later than ’24), is a consistent contender. It invests heavily in the sport: Its men’s hoops budget is higher than half the Pac-12’s, and that’s before the influx of cash that a Big 12 TV deal will provide. The program has finished outside the top 100 in KenPom just once since 2000 and has been to 12 of the last 20 NCAA tourneys. Plus, coach Mark Pope is one of the best young coaches in the sport and has led the Cougars to consecutive top 20 KenPom finishes since taking over in Provo. There’s likely a ceiling on just how good this program can be given how the school’s strong religious focus impacts recruiting, but BYU certainly won’t be outclassed at a higher level.

The best program, historically, of the newcomers is Cincinnati. Its “program rank” on KenPom is No. 34, squarely in the middle of the eight holdover Big 12 schools. The Bearcats have been ranked for at least one week during the season in 25 of the last 30 years. They’ve won under multiple coaches and in multiple conferences. It’s a place made for success in men’s basketball.

Houston lacks the historical consistency of BYU or Cincinnati, but the program’s recent upswing under Kelvin Sampson has positioned it well to make things sustainable. The university has made huge investments in men’s basketball under Sampson, building a beautiful new arena and upping the program’s budget. The Cougars have competed for championships, produced pros, have elite facilities and are located in one of the nation’s biggest cities. There’s nothing stopping Houston from being a top-end program that eventually competes for Big 12 titles, even once Sampson eventually retires.

Of the four additions, UCF is by far the least equipped to win in men’s hoops. Its move up is reminiscent of TCU’s move to the Big 12 less than a decade ago—clearly driven by football success, with its presence in a major media market certainly helping. Still, UCF is one of the largest schools in the U.S., is located in an NBA-sized market and will become only more well-resourced on the hardwood with the financial influx from the Big 12. This program is far from a lost cause.

Conference Average KenPom Rank, Last Five Years

“Old” Big 12

42.6

Big 12 Holdovers

42.1

“New” Big 12

45.0

Big Ten

46.5

Big East

56.8

ACC

60.1

SEC

61.0

Pac-12

82.4

The numbers above help paint a clear picture: From a men’s basketball standpoint, the league shouldn’t falter much without Oklahoma and Texas, and the new additions won’t water down the league’s quality. Any five-year window will have unique quirks: Texas Tech was better under Chris Beard than the program will likely be in the future, Texas under Shaka Smart was worse than we’d expect Texas to be in a vacuum. These numbers also don’t consider that the schools from the new Big 12 should improve by moving into a better conference for recruiting purposes and increasing their budgets thanks to a better TV deal. Considering some left the Big 12 for dead six weeks ago, these expansions are certainly what I’d call sticking the landing.

The path forward is less clear for the leagues the Big 12’s expansion teams leave behind—namely the American Conference. From a basketball perspective, three schools stand out as most impacted by being “stuck” in the American: Memphis, Wichita State and Temple.

Memphis stands out as the biggest loser, particularly because its football program’s recent ascent made the Big 12 a realistic destination. It may still be realistic down the line, but in the interim, Memphis becomes by far the best men’s basketball and football program left in the AAC. Its hoops success hasn’t been maintained beyond the John Calipari era, but the program is well resourced, has a massive fan base and is clearly on the rise under Penny Hardaway. The AAC becoming less relevant in the bigger picture could certainly hurt Hardaway’s ability to recruit and get his teams to the NCAA tournament.

Wichita State, the league’s only school without football, left the Missouri Valley mostly to make getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in men’s basketball easier. All of a sudden, the new-look AAC doesn’t necessarily look like more than a one-bid league—two at the most. Wichita’s well-funded program might make it attractive to a basketball-centric league like the Big East or Atlantic 10, but Wichita State AD Darron Boatright has made it clear that the school is committed to the AAC.

Finally, Temple has the fifth-most Division I wins of any men’s basketball program, trailing only Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Duke. Like Memphis, it has invested enough in football that a move to a non-football-driven league like the A-10 or Big East isn’t feasible. But the departure of Cincinnati leaves Temple even more geographically isolated in the AAC and in a weak hoops conference. What gives?

We can certainly expect some trickle-down realignment to occur. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco will look to do the same thing the Big 12 just did: Poach from leagues below it. But realistically, there aren’t programs that can come close to replicating what Cincinnati, Houston and UCF provided the AAC both on the gridiron and the hardwood. So while the Big 12 is positioned to thrive once again in men’s basketball, it’s now the AAC that is on thin ice … and the positions of its top hoops programs are far more precarious than anyone might have expected just two short months ago.