The Big Ten, Expansion and UConn

This past weekend was a big one in the world of sports. The NBA playoffs started, the NHL playoffs are in full swing, there were some great baseball games (and the Red Sox got swept) and UConn continued to dominate Big East baseball. However, if recent reports are to be believed, by far the most important event in sports this weekend was taking place in a conference room somewhere in Washington D.C. at a meeting of the Association of American Universities. The report, which comes courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, indicated that the heads of the Big Ten schools (all AAU members) were meeting to decide if they should accelerate their expansion talks, which were once projected to take 12 to 18 months. It seems like the Big Ten is leaning that way, and that if they do expand, it is very possibly they could look to become a 14- or 16-team league. As an added kicker, there is a series of BCS meetings scheduled for later this week, so if the Big Ten is looking to expand, that would be the logical place to start the talks.

At this point it seems pretty clear that within the next few years, the Big Ten is going to get bigger and that there is a very good chance the entire face of college sports could change as a result. I obviously have no special insight into the actual machinations of Big Ten officials, but below the jump I'll break down some of the possible future alignments and what they would mean for our beloved huskies.

As far as I'm concerned, the best case scenario, and the one that almost certainly won't happen, is for he Big Ten to steal Notre Dame away from the Big East, turn into a 12-team league and call it a day. This would give the Big Ten the championship game it so badly wants, would allow the Big East to remain relatively intact (they'd have to add another basketball only member, but that would not be a huge obstacle), and get Notre Dame off my local NBC-affiliate every Sunday. Of course, that last part is the reason why this will never happen. As long as Notre Dame remains Notre Dame and collects piles of money to be an independent, it won't join up with anyone else, despite the fact that they are a great fit for The Big Ten.

I should probably note that when I saw "best case scenario," I'm speaking like a fan and not say, Jeff Hathaway, who I'm sure would sell his first-born to secure UConn's financial future by being the 12th team in the Big Ten. I've grown up with the Big East, I rather like it, I love its brand of basketball and I hate the idea of losing the non-football schools as basketball rivals.

Since Notre Dame is not going to jump, that means the Big Ten is probably looking at an expansion to 14 or 16 teams (unless something really weird happens, like Texas deciding to bolt the Big XII and become member number 12, which would be great for UConn and the Big East, but is also incredibly unlikely). A big expansion is going to set off a chain reaction of conference jumping, and in all likelihood, kill the Big East as we know it. Why? Because the Big East could like survive losing one team (with the possible exception of Syracuse, which is probably irreplaceable) by replacing them with someone like Central Florida, but losing two or three teams would be a deathblow. Not only would two or three teams be much harder to place, but the SEC and ACC would likely react by trying to make themselves bigger.

Perhaps the simplest hypothetical would be what CBS's Dennis Dodd was getting at today when he listed UConn as the Big Ten's second best prospect (!). Dodd's theory involves the Big Ten looking to capture the northeast market by grabbing the triumvirate of Rutgers, Syracuse and UConn as part of a 14- or 16-team expansion (which still doesn't excuse Dodd ranking UConn as 2, instead of say, 'Cuse). That would instantly kill the Big East of course, with the 8 non-football schools probably forming some sort of Catholic League. I imagine in this scenario some combination of USF, WVU and Louisville would be poached by the ACC or SEC and perhaps Pitt might come along for the Big Ten ride (with Mizzou as the 16th team?). Anyway, the details of exactly who would go are tough to sort out, but it would work out mostly well for UConn, though as Meacham pointed out in the comments the last time we talked about the Big Ten, it will be a lot harder to build a winning football program when you have to compete against Ohio St. and Penn St. constantly. As for anyone who didn't get picked up? Well, they'd be royally screwed. Sorry Cincy.

 

There is also the chance that the Big Ten goes on a raid in our backyard but doesn't grab the Huskies. In that case, they'd probably make a move for Pitt, Rutgers and 'Cuse, which, hopefully, would leave UConn to be snatched up by the ACC. I know that sounds like anathema, but in a lot of ways, it would be my preference, especially if Cuse didn't go to the Big Ten and jumped to a new super-powered ACC instead. Imagine an ACC north division that included (among others) UConn, Syracuse, Maryland and of course, BC. Yes, I know, BC is the root of all evil, but boy would it be fantastic to rekindle that football rivalry (not to mention the automatic win it would be in basketball every year). Plus, the ACC has better football than the Big East, but it isn't anywhere near the Big Ten, so I think UConn could grow quite nicely. As a final perk, Coach K would finally be forced to travel to Gampel. I don't know about you, but Duke opening their 2012 ACC schedule in Gampel Pavilion and being destroyed by a triumphant Coach Cal would make my life.

Obviously there are a massive amount of moving pieces and possibilities to explore, and its fun to put together fantasy scenarios, but there is also a nightmare scenario that needs to be discussed. That, of course, is what happens if the Big Ten winds up killing the Big East but UConn can't find a new home. I do not think this is incredibly likely, but it certainly is a possibility, especially if the Big Ten decides to just take Pitt, Rutgers and 'Cuse, and for whatever reason the ACC stands doesn't reach out to UConn, and instead opts for something like a L'Ville/USF combo or standing pat. To be honest, I'm not sure what UConn would do in that spot, except be totally screwed. The football program needs a nice, safe conference home if its going to survive and prosper like we all want it to, and with the ACC, Big East and Big Ten all ruled out, I'm not sure there is a home, expect maybe something like Conference USA. I do not think it will happen, but it certainly could, and if it did, UConn sports could border on irrelevant very quickly, especially since as much as we hate to admit it, Coach Cal will be moving on eventually. 

Like I said, my first preference would be to just maintain the Big East as is. It is not perfect, but the basketball is great and I love the rivalries. That's probably not going to happen. On an institutional level, the Big Ten is probably the better move for UConn, as it will be far more lucrative than the ACC could be. On a personal level, I'd love to see an ACC-north scenario that reignites the UConn-BC flame, keeps the Huskies playing Syracuse and establishes a basketball powerhouse along the eastern seaboard.

I certainly can't see the future, so I don't know how this will all shake out, but if I had to make a gut prediction, I'd say that 'Cuse, Rutgers and Pitt leave for the Big Ten, leaving the ACC to pick up some of the pieces between UConn, L'VIlle and WVU. That is far from the sexiest option, and certainly my least favorite of any beside the "UConn left alone in the cold" nightmare, but it is my fear. I'm interested to see yours, so comment away.

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