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Friday, July 19, 2019

Though Football-Driven, Conference Realignments Could Change the Face of Women’s Basketball

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Photo Caption: Recent conference realignments have kept the sign makers busy as Colorado has already jumped ship for the Pac 10, and Nebraska has departed for the Big XII, leaving it in reality, if not in name, the Big X (not to be confused with the Big Ten, which now features 12 schools). Meanwhile, five more Big XII schools are expected to receive invitations from the Pac 10 this weekend, and more movement may be afoot in the Big Ten, Big East, SEC and elsewhere.

Credit: Billboard graphic courtesy istockphoto.com; school and conference logos property of Big XII, Pac 10, and Big Ten conferences and respective institutions; original art work by Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson

By Sharon Crowson

Much of the talk in college sports these days involves the restructuring of three of the six major conferences.  While this is being driven by football (read that, “money”), the impact it would have on women’s basketball will be enormous.

Thursday’s announcements that Colorado will move to the Pac-10 and Nebraska will join the Big Ten (which has, in fact if not in name,  been the “Big Eleven” since Penn State joined the league in 1990) appear to be only the beginning of what promises to be a major revamping of the landscape of college sports.  If reports from many sources are to be believed, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State may join Colorado in jumping ship for the Pac 10, with formal invitations expected to go out over this weekend. And though Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney was coy about further plans for that conference’s expansion, reports continue to circulate that the Big XII’s Missouri and even the Big East’s Rutgers may join Nebraska in heading for the Big Ten. 

There are other rumors, of course, such as Texas A&M’s flirtation with the SEC. If the Aggies do head south, the Pac-10 may extend its next invitation to Kansas, with an eye to expanding its league to a 16-institution, two-division conference. Baylor was once mentioned among the possible defectors to the Pac-10, but its President and Athletic Director spent the day touting the benefits of a revamped 10-team Big XII. Still, they’re hedging their bets, arguing publicly that the Texas schools of the Big XII should be a “package deal,” staying or leaving the league as a group.

Still, the six to the Pac-10, three to the Big Ten and four left out scenario seems the most likely right now. Big XII Commissioner Dan Beebe has spent the past few days with his finger in the proverbial dike, trying to stem the tide of further defections and reassuring both members and media rights purchasers of the “value added” by a 10-team Big XII. But he declined to address concerns about the league’s fate in the face of other possible departures, dismissing such questions as “premature.” While the Big XII may remain viable with 10 teams, it would likely be forced to disband in the event of deeper losses, leaving Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State without conference affiliations for the time being.

Photo Caption: Colorado has already accepted an invitation to join the Pac-10, and Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are expected to receive formal invitations this weekend. Texas A&M is courting the SEC, and if it does not commit, the next Pac-10 invitation is expected to go to Kansas, with the goal being to form a 16-institution, two-division league.

If this all comes to pass (and while it seems likely, it is far from certain), the world of women’s college basketball will be changed to its very core.  The huge winner would be the Pac 10.  A league that was largely viewed, correctly or not, as Stanford and friends would add perennial top women’s programs Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma to the fold.  It would also gain a better than average Oklahoma State squad and a Texas Tech program that is trying to return to its former powerhouse status.

Perhaps just as important, it would gain a large number of games in the Central Time Zone which will lead to more television exposure and results that can be reported more timely on the East Coast.  Stanford coach Tara Van Derveer has said many times that she feels the time difference is a major factor in the lack of respect given to the league. Moreover, the Big XII was the strongest conference in the nation in women’s basketball last season, finishing the season as the No. 1 ranked league in conference RPI. The addition of five teams that finished the 2009 season ranked in the Top 25 would boost the RPI of the Pac 10 and all of its member schools, placing the reshaped conference at or near the top of national rankings.

Of course, Vanderveer must be careful what she wishes for. While Colorado won’t make much difference in the overall conference picture, the addition of Texas. Oklahoma, and A&M would make the top of the Pac-10 far more competitive than it has been in the past. Last year, Stanford ran the table in conference play, and the Cardinal, the No. 2 women’s program in the nation is second only to Connecticut in recent Final Four appearances. With the addition of the Big XII powerhouses, Stanford fans would no longer be able to count on an annual conference championship. (The Stanford women have won 10 of the last 10 regular-season Pac-10 championships (three of them shared), and seven of the last 10 conference tournament titles.)

Then again, the bottom of the league may drop even lower than it is now. The Washington and Oregon schools have grown accustomed to their annual drubbings, and though Arizona State has made forays into the national Top 25 in recent years, the heightened level of competition will be one more hurdle for the Sun Devils and other schools attempting to build their reputations to surmount.

Obviously the huge losers in all the reshuffling would be a “Big XII” conference left with just four schools (or, more likely,  the four Big XII schools left without a league).  The presidents of the four institutions are all heavily lobbying their counterparts in the league to allow the conference to survive.  They aren’t likely to have much success, since the prime motivation seems to be to follow the dollars.

At this point, it isn’t known what would happen to the four, but, whatever their ultimate destinations, it will likely have huge impact on women’s basketball.  Baylor was a Final Four team this year and has all the pieces in place to win a national championship in the near future.  Iowa State is a perennial Sweet 16 team.  Kansas State has struggled the past few seasons, but has a strong history in the sport and Kansas looks to be rebuilding.  In today’s climate, trying to compete as an independent looks to be both athletic and economic suicide.  It seems certain that the four will either have to join already existing, likely mid-major conferences, or form their own league. The Mountain West is one possibility, the Missouri Valley another, and it’s not beyond imagination that TCU, Fresno State and Boise State might be interested in joining them to form a new league in an attempt to obtain the BCS status that their football programs deserve.

The addition of Nebraska, with or without Missouri and/or Rutgers, is likely to improve the league overall, but would not have the kind of impact on Big Ten women’s basketball that the incorporation of the other six schools could have on the Pac-10. Nebraska had a magical 2009 season, but one which was heavily dependent on the individual talents of Kelsey Griffin and may not be repeated—at that level—in the near future. Still, Connie Yori has been steadily improving her program and the Huskers are likely to do well in either conference.  Rutgers has been struggling, but they are still an annual visitor to the NCAA tournament and C. Vivian Stringer has proven that she knows how to win in the Big East. Missouri has not been a particularly good team, but they recently hired a promising young coach, Robin Pingeton, and they may be getting better.  All told, the realignments would leave the Big Ten as the weakest of the major conferences in women’s basketball, although one that is steadily improving.

One thing that could radically affect the Big Ten’s status is the potential addition of Notre Dame.  The Big Ten has coveted the Irish for many years, but Notre Dame officials have been adamant about remaining independent in football, while its other sports compete in the Big East.  That arrangement would not be acceptable to the Big Ten.  Many Big Ten officials think, or hope, that Notre Dame will ultimately not be able to maintain its quasi-independent status.  Some feel that this major realignment may finally force the Irish to back down and enter the Big Ten. And once again, while the move would be driven largely by football and its attendant revenues, the addition of one of the nation’s top programs would greatly enhance the profile of the league’s women’s basketball program.  In addition, if the league adds Notre Dame, they would likely add another Big East team, with Pitt being their first choice.

Should Notre Dame take the jump, the Big East would lose its second-best women’s program, a traditionally strong one and an improving one. Despite the enduring dominance of UConn, such a move could well take the Big East out of contention as the nation’s top conference.

Photo Caption: Nebraska has already thrown in its lot with the Big Ten (which has been an 11-team league since Penn State joined in 1990). Missouri and Rutgers are both potential additions in the near term, and Notre Dame has long been a target of Big Ten expansion hopes.

Of course, the dust has yet to settle on the proposed realignments. There are already verbal wranglings over whether—and if so, how much—of a penalty may be due to the Big XII from the institutions taking their leave, and many speculate that any major contraction of BCS athletic options to four or five super-conferences could result in legal, and even political, fall-out.

Yet, however this all ends up, one thing is certain.  The face of college women’s basketball will be very different from what we have known to date.

Originally published Fri, June 11, 2010

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
Rank remains unchanged since last week
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.