Earlier this month, the Big 12 publicized its pursuit of potential new members after months of speculation about expansion. Those contenders have been measured by their football prowess. We understand. That's the driving force in collegiate athletics.
But we'd like Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12's commissioner, to consider the hardwood implications of any expansion-related decisions. We're here to help. If basketball were the only part of the equation, here are the best options to increase the league's on-court swagger (in reverse order):
Coach Leon Rice inherited a Boise State program that finished below .500 in five of the nine seasons before he was hired prior to the 2010-11 season. Boise State has won 20 or more games in each of the past four seasons under Rice. The Broncos captured the 2014-15 Mountain West conference crown, and they reached the NCAA tournament twice (2013, 2015) in recent years. Last year's squad failed to hit its ceiling. But Boise State continues to assemble the personnel to compete on the national stage.
The Big 12's best venues possess unique personalities that have helped the league send 70 percent of its membership to the two most recent NCAA tournaments. It's difficult to grab a home win at Kansas, Iowa State or Oklahoma State. New Mexico's rowdy, sunken home atmosphere, the Pit, fits with those intimidating Big 12 home venues. The Lobos finished in the top 25 in attendance last season. They haven't reached the NCAA tournament since 2014, but their loyal supporters remain.
8. SMU Mustangs
We know. Weird stuff has been happening at SMU. The Emanuel Mudiay situation. Last year's NCAA issues and the postseason ban. Larry Brown's offseason departure. But the Big 12 should consider SMU, and not just because it's a growing program based in America's ninth-largest city. The Dallas-based program also makes sense because the Mustangs have turned Moody Coliseum into one of the game's most underrated venues. Their fans nearly filled the arena (capacity 7,000) every night (6,907 average attendance) last year. You can build on that support.
We'll talk basketball later. Do you know how many Big 12 schools would fly to San Diego early to "prep" for SDSU? All of them. Yes, the beach is nice. And that's included in this evaluation. Last season, the program nearly averaged a sellout (12,209) all season. Its student section, "The Show," is one of college basketball's most vibrant groups. They turn Viejas Arena into a party every night for an SDSU program that has become a national player under coach Steve Fisher. The school has won five of the past six Mountain West championships. And did we mention the beach?
6. UNLV Rebels
Yes, Marvin Menzies is the program's fourth basketball coach since January. It's a long story. But the Runnin' Rebels boast a legacy and location that position Menzies to hit the reboot button in the coming years and help UNLV regain its national standing. The school might never experience the Larry Johnson Era again, but it can rise and become a perennial NCAA tournament team.
5. Temple Owls
If you want to add more grit to the talented Big 12 basketball scene, throw Temple into the mix. Temple also brings continuity. The program has had just five coaches since 1942. Fran Dunphy has been with the program since John Chaney retired in 2006. Plus, the Owls would enhance the talent pool in the Big 12. They've reached the NCAA tournament in seven of the past nine years.
4. BYU Cougars
The Cougars could pursue their initial, prospective admission to the Big 12 as a football-only transition. The goal, per BYU brass, would be full membership if the Big 12 welcomed the program to the league. The Cougars would not hurt the conference's basketball stock, either. They've won 25 or more games in eight of the past 10 seasons. The outliers were 24- and 23-win campaigns in 2013 and 2014, respectively. BYU has missed the NCAA tournament only twice since 2007.
Cincinnati hasn't missed the NCAA tournament since 2010. Coach Mick Cronin has rebuilt the program in the post-Bob Huggins years with a tenacious defensive style that keeps the Bearcats alive, regardless of the opponent. They're always in the mix. They always have a chance. The Big 12 wants to add a successful program to its fold. Well, Cincy has failed to finish a season in KenPom.com's top 50 just four times since 2002. They've missed the top 100 only once in that stretch. The Bearcats are solid and consistent.
The rich history of the program that Larry Finch built and Penny Hardaway, Lorenzen Wright and Derrick Rose blessed with their talents would enhance the Big 12's dominance on the national scene. Memphis expects the best from its Tigers. "Struggles" in the post-John Calipari years included four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 2011 through 2014. The school boasts great facilities and boosters, and the passion in the Memphis community for college hoops rivals that of any fan base in the country.
Name the only program with four national championships since 1999. It's not Duke (three national championships in that stretch) or North Carolina (two). The answer is Connecticut. The Huskies won in 1999, 2004, 2011 and 2014. Due to academic issues, they were banned from the postseason in 2012-13. But UConn is a modern powerhouse with 10 Elite Eight appearances since 1990. If the Big 12 decides to make a basketball-only decision, UConn should be its first choice.