The greatest symbol of conference realignment's destructive effect on college basketball has always been the Kansas Jayhawks. For two years now, one of the bluest of the blue bloods has drifted in the breeze, watching helplessly as the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC raid its league and threaten its future. That this could happen to one of the nation's most storied basketball programs, the saying goes, makes it possible anywhere. No hoops program, no matter how successful, is truly safe from a fresh post-realignment dystopia.
There are now a host of Big East schools that know exactly how Kansas feels.
Still, Sunday was different. Because of the key players, the dual defections of Syracuse and Pittsburgh -- on the same weekend Big East icon Dave Gavitt passed away, no less -- to the ACC felt as basketball-focused as any realignment move ever could. After all, if there are two conferences that might conceivably be more concerned about basketball than football (if that is even possible in realignment), it's the Big East and the ACC.
Whatever the motivations, this much is true: The Big East is essentially a basketball league. Now, without Syracuse and Pitt and whomever else the ACC snaps up -- Connecticut is lobbying hard, and you'd assume Rutgers would be next in line -- there are at least three groups of basketball programs around the country with drastically uncertain futures. They are:
The Lameduck Big 12 Members From Plains States
At one point, it seemed as if the Big 12 might just survive another round of conference expansion. By Sunday night, it seemed all but doomed. Texas' move to the Pac-12 is now more likely than ever, and even with Pac-12 university presidents balking at the need to add four more teams, if the Longhorns come calling (bringing Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech with them), the league would be silly not to pick up the phone.
Which leaves ... Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri. According to the New York Times' Pete Thamel (at the link in the previous paragraph), Missouri has made a hard pitch to become the 14th member of the SEC. The SEC doesn't seem all that interested. At least not as its first choice. Where do the other four in the Big 12 go? Do any of them fit in the Big Ten? Does Missouri? The Big Ten might be excited to add a couple of schools in the Kansas City market and the surrounding area; it could benefit from the toehold Kansas and Missouri have in KC. But if the Big Ten really wanted to do that, it would have done so in the first round of conference realignment (when Mizzou was practically begging its way in the Big Ten).
Even if one of the three or four teams listed goes to the Big Ten, that doesn't much help the rest of the Big 12 maintain its relevance. There are simply few good options. Perhaps some sort of merger with the remaining Big East schools? Which leads us to ...
The Classic Basketball-Playing Big East
Say Connecticut and Rutgers head to the ACC, as many expect. What's left of the Big East? You can do the math. If conference realignment is all about football -- or at least must have some football element inherent in the consideration -- what happens to the schools that don't play FBS football? St. John's, Villanova, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Providence and Seton Hall fall into this category. Without big-time football (or football period, in some cases), what can those teams offer a league? Anything? So what happens? Do they -- along with Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia and South Florida -- try to band together and hope the Big East can survive as a basketball-only league? Or do those small, old-school Catholic universities end up in a quasi-mid-major limbo, with the resources (or lack thereof) to boot?
Which brings us to another group that suddenly finds itself under siege. That group?
The Geographically Awkward "Southern" Big East
It's easy to forget this, but it wasn't all that long ago that Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul and South Florida left Conference USA in the dust to become members of the Big East. Captain Hindsight might say that was a bad decision. Either way, the current realignment roller coaster has left these schools in the lurch. Who would want DePaul as a conference member, and why? Where would Louisville fit? The SEC already has the state of Kentucky pretty much covered. Does South Florida end up in the Sun Belt? (Shudder.) And while Cincinnati offers a potentially intriguing market, it's not like it commands that market in the same way Louisville delivers its city.
And what of West Virginia? The Mountaineers have decent basketball and football traditions and a dedicated, geographically distinct fan base. But in the parlance of conference realignment, the Eers don't "deliver" a "major market." Their state doesn't really include one, unless you're willing to consider the entire state -- population: 1.8 million -- a major market unto itself.
All of these schools have, with varying degrees of similarity, essentially become the new Kansas. The Jayhawks earned that title during their precarious march through the first wave of realignment; it just seemed difficult to understand why one of the biggest and most successful programs, in one of the enterprises' two revenue-producing sports, was such an afterthought.
As we've learned, it's a combination of geographic and financial motives, some of which don't always make sense. (I'd think a conference would want Kansas or Louisville basketball if only for the regular-season ratings alone. No? Anyone?)
The good news is the last sentence in this paragraph from Thamel's report Sunday night (emphasis mine):
Texas A&M will become the 13th member of the Southeastern Conference once its legal hurdles are cleared, and Missouri could be No. 14. The SEC has no interest in approaching Missouri. But if the Big 12 dwindled to the point where Missouri had nowhere to go, Missouri may look to the financial security of the SEC. Despite Missouri’s reservations about joining the SEC, to do so would be safer than exploring the unknown. (The Big East and the Big 12 are expected to attempt to work out some formation between whatever universities are not snapped up.)
Lest we forget, the Big East as it currently is (minus Syracuse and Pittsburgh, and let's throw in UConn and Rutgers, too) is not a bad basketball league. It's still pretty good, actually. Now throw in Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor and Iowa State. That's a viable hoops conference, kids.
A Big East and Big 12 leftover sandwich may not make much sense, and it may be far too early to draw many conclusions therein. But it also may be the best news any of the schools in the above categories can hope for. It's a lifeline, however temporary, against the ever-rising tide of conference realignment. The cool kids are picking lunch tables, and somebody's bound to get left behind. Just like in high school, the castoffs may have to band together to survive.