Most of the criticism of Texas A&M's eventual move to the SEC has dealt with contextual concerns. The Aggies have been criticized for undermining common sense with greed. It has been pilloried for allowing a Texas-related inferiority complex boil over into an Eric Cartman-esque stage exit. ("Screw you guys ... I'm going home.") But the criticism has also touched on what a move to the SEC will do for Texas A&M football. The Aggies aren't exactly a powerhouse these days. Won't wins be even harder to come by in the SEC? And wouldn't that be bad for the program in the long run?
Now that the Big 12 has reached out to BYU, and BYU hasn't exactly shot down the possibility, I find myself asking the same questions about the Cougars.
To be clear, these questions -- as with anything expansion-related -- should really be asked about football. But let's ignore football for a moment. Let's also ignore all of the various reasons BYU might be averse to joining the Big 12 (its attempts to be independent, its religious and academic cultures, its hoops team's recent move to the West Coast Conference, and so on). For the purposes of this post, let's focus on one thing: Would a move to the Big 12 be good for BYU basketball?
I'm not sure. On one hand, it would surely increase the program's profile. Last season, if hoops fans wanted to watch one of the most popular and entertaining college hoops players in decades (does the name Jimmer Fredette ring any bells?), they had to seek out BYU hoops on obscure cable networks, illegal web streaming services, or YouTube clips. In the Big 12, BYU basketball would be regularly featured during primetime hoops viewing like ESPN's Big Monday and CBS' weekend offerings. Its large and diffuse fan base would have the opportunity to see many more of its games, and the school would surely attract some casual fans along the way.
But would it actually win? In recent years, at least, it seems so. The past three seasons, BYU has finished No. 21, No. 10 and No. 13 in Ken Pomeroy's final adjusted efficiency rankings. In 2009 and 2010, BYU would have had a better adjusted efficiency profile (and yes, adjusted means "adjusted to competition") than all but three Big 12 teams. In 2011, by Ken's metric, the Cougars were better than every Big 12 team but Kansas and Texas. That recent run of success is hard to isolate from the Jimmer Era, but there's little reason to expect a total drop-off in overall quality, especially relative to, say, the average Big 12 team.
The only question is whether BYU is actually better off playing its regular seasons on the fringes. Which is better for a program like BYU? To try to schedule the nonconference as well as possible, then dominate the WCC on the way to a stockpile of wins and consistent NCAA tournament berths? Or is it better to fight tooth and nail with the big dogs in the Big 12? The former option -- thanks to the temerity of high-major teams in scheduling quality mid-major foes -- is more limited. But the latter option -- thanks to the unique challenges of recruiting at a place like BYU -- might be far more difficult.
I'm not sure there's a "right" answer. Nor will basketball factor much in whatever BYU decides to do. But any football-driven decision could have a major impact on the way we see BYU basketball in the coming years. Will BYU be a quasi-mid-major with quirky national cachet, or a high-major player with a unique competitive challenge? Can Cougars hoops hack it, year in and year out, in a league where making the tournament isn't a cause for celebration but the minimum requirement for a program's viability?
If you're a BYU fan, which would you prefer?