This just in: Universities compete in sports other than football.
One of the most interesting parts of the conference expansion madness was how little college basketball mattered in the discussions. How little? Kansas, #3 in all-time wins and home of the guy who invented the game, was this close to being homeless.
Fear not, the Pac-12 is going to continue playing basketball. The question is just when, where and how often. And if you’re going to like any of the changes.
As in football the goal should be to compete nationally. What maximizes exposure for the conference to get as many teams as possible into the NCAA tournament and prepare those teams for deep runs?
The SEC model is to use the same divisions that are used for football. The schedule is clean in that you play each team in your division twice and each team in the other division once for 16 conference games.
If the Arizona schools succeed in the fight to get in the same division as the L.A. schools it would allow the UA to continue its basketball rivalry with UCLA. But at what cost?
In football, recruiting Southern California is essential but in basketball you’re doing yourself a disservice if you get cut off from the Pacific Northwest. Arizona’s regular trips to the states of Oregon and Washington allowed the Cats to sign players like Damon and Salim Stoudamire, Jason Terry, and Marcus Williams (OK, bad example).
The ACC model combines all 12 teams into a single league, but not all teams are created equal. Not only do Duke and North Carolina play each other twice every year but the second Blue Devil/Tar Heel showdown is always the final game of the regular season.
This is accomplished by giving each school two “permanent partners.” Why make Boston College travel down to Miami every year? Why is Wake Forest paired with Georgia Tech instead of the one of the other schools in the state of North Carolina? Who cares! ESPN gets to show two UNC/Duke games a year!
The Pac-12 won’t go that far. I expect every team to play an annual home-and-home series with its natural rival and then rotate everyone else. But if Sean Miller can get Arizona back to the Lute Olson level the conference needs to be prepared to take advantage of it.
Arizona’s 11 conference championships are more than anyone in the Pac-10 era (UCLA is next with eight followed by OSU with five and Stanford with four). Yes, all 11 happened under Olson but the UA continued to lead the Pac-10 in attendance during the Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell “eras” so the foundation is still there. If UCLA/Arizona returns to its status as the premier hoops rivalry in the west the Pac-12 needs to rig the schedule to feature it.
The next issue is the number of conference games. In the ACC and SEC each team plays 16 league games. The Big Ten went from 16 to 18 games in 2008. The Big 12 (12-team version) plays a 16-game schedule.
Dropping from 18 to 16 games would allow the Pac-12 to hold off on the start of the conference season until January of each year. With the extra two out-of-conference games teams could schedule more home games and made-for-TV matchups to try and build the best possible tournament resume.
The worst change is going to be the end of the tidy travel schedule. The annual weekend trips down the “Oregon Trail” will be a thing of the past. Gone are the road trips to L.A. to see the Cats play twice. Some years you won’t play in Seattle. Some years you will but your next game will be in Salt Lake City. Or Berkeley. Fans will have to keep a copy of the schedule handy to see where their team plays next.
And when their team plays next. Last year Duke at various times played ACC games on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Kentucky played at least one conference game on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Pac-10 fans will no longer be able to count on basketball as their Thursday night must-see TV.
It hasn’t been a good summer for basketball-first fans. Their favorite sport didn’t have a seat at the conference realignment negotiating table. In the Pac-10 there will be grumbling when the 2011-2012 league schedule looks like it was put together with a dart board. There will be complaining when people miss a game because they forgot their team had the late Tuesday night slot in Boulder.
Keep that schedule handy.