The Big Ten is looking into expanding. Unlike NCAA tournament expansion, which seemed destined to land on 96 teams before the NCAA came to its senses and settled on 68, the Big Ten seems rather certain about this course of action. In the next 12-18 months, the conference will finalize its attempts to add teams. Whether the final tally will include 12 teams, 14 teams, or 16 teams, the Big Ten is likely about to get bigger.
This expansion is driven by two things: money and football. Saturday afternoon football is, after all, where the majority of athletics department revenue comes from. Where money and football are concerned, Big Ten expansion is win-win.
But hey! Wait a second! College basketball is a pretty big part of the college sports scene, isn't it? Forget college football, and forget money -- what about fans who are more worried with how Big Ten expansion will remake the college hoops scene? Just what are we supposed to think of all this? Make no mistake: If the Big Ten expands, college basketball will be remade in a way that barely resembles what we've known for so long. Strap in, folks. College hoops is about to get weird.
This is all hypothetical, of course. Still, let's take the most frequently bandied group of expansion teams, plug them in to the Big Ten, and see what comes out. This should be fun.
It's no secret Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and company have been focusing on a host of Big East teams ripe for poaching. Those teams include some combination of Syracuse, Rutgers, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Connecticut. There's also a chance the Big Ten goes after Big 12 members Missouri, Nebraska, or even Texas, though Texas especially seems like a long shot.
Let's say the Big Ten expands to 16 teams by adding five to its current 11-team conference, and let's say those five teams are Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Nebraska, and Missouri. There could be more teams joining from the Big East. There could be fewer. What does that give us, exactly? To be blunt, it gives us the best basketball conference in the country, hands down. Adding Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Missouri would give the Big Ten three more marquee basketball programs while at the same time robbing the Big East of two of its best basketball schools.
Look at the combination of recently or historically successful programs in the Big Ten in this scenario: Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Missouri, Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Indiana. That gives the Big Ten seven elite programs and a host of teams -- Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and the like -- that should theoretically compete for Big Ten titles every year. It's formidable.
The balance of power in college basketball would shift dramatically. No longer would the Big East's 16-team conference be able to boast of its superiority based on sheer depth. If Notre Dame or Connecticut joined instead of, say, Nebraska, that imbalance becomes even more severe. But whatever the combination, the Big Ten would become the premier basketball conference in the country. Maybe the expansion cake is baked with money and football, but for the Big Ten itself, that's some tasty icing.
The implications of this shift aren't just in sheer basketball power. The Big East is, by and large, a basketball conference. Many of its schools are basketball powerhouses when compared to their football cohorts; some, like Villanova, Georgetown and Marquette, don't even field Division I-A football teams. Losing that basketball cachet would cripple the Big East, something Big East officials have already admitted.
Big Ten expansion would also do something else: create a whole new set of rivalries that look very little like what we're used to. Syracuse-Georgetown has been Big East's premier showdown for decades. That rivalry would have to be settled once a year out of conference, if at all. Missouri would lose its annual Border Wars with the hated Kansas Jayhawks. The Illinois-Missouri rivalry would no doubt heat up. Pittsburgh vs. Penn State, as lopsided as the basketball programs are, would gain some in-state steam.
Teams competing for the top spots in the Big Ten would become natural rivals; Michigan State-Syracuse could become the conference's biggest match up of the season. Even weirder, the Big Ten would get to show these new teams and their newly forged rivalries on more nights of the week on the Big Ten Network, rather than ESPN. That's nice icing for the conference, too. But that doesn't make it any less strange to envision.
The bottom line is that if you're a Big Ten hoops fan, expansion will make your conference pretty freaking awesome. There's no other way to put it. You'll have more teams, better teams, teams with long histories of success added to an already good group of 11. But if you're a fan of college basketball in general -- or the Big East specifically -- the Big Ten's growth will fundamentally alter the way you enjoy college basketball, likely for the worse. The Big East will lose. The remaining teams in that league will be scrambling for a conference-saving remedy of their own. The rivalries that have formed the backbone of college hoops in the past will struggle to maintain their prestige -- or, worse, dissolve. College basketball will look like nothing you've ever seen before.
Whether you like that or not, it's going to happen. Things are going to get weird. Like all major changes, it's both exciting and, at times, terrifying. Get ready.
And for the Big East fans out there, well, hey, at least the NCAA tournament isn't expanding to 96 teams! That's something, right? (Sorry.)