College basketball: Realignment has trickle-down effect

Realignment is changing the landscape of college basketball, and while some are reaping the benefits, others are left to adapt or die.

With just over a month before the start of the 2021-22 season, a new wave of college basketball realignment news has dropped. Those moves are starting to shed some light on what the sport will look like in future years.

Of course, the biggest move of all was Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC. However, college basketball’s tectonic plates are gearing up for movement all over the country.

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Texas, Oklahoma lead newest wave of college basketball realignment

When Texas and Oklahoma announced they would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, it sent shockwaves through the national media. The schools made the decision primarily for football reasons, as is commonplace in college sports. Still, the addition of those schools will also help boost the SEC in basketball. While there are already a number of good programs in that league, Texas and Oklahoma should pick up some of the SEC’s dead weight. They could make it one of the top conferences in the entire country.

In response to the departures, the Big 12 acted quickly. They brought its membership back up to a more name-appropriate level by adding four schools. In addition to Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston from the AAC, the Big 12 also added BYU. In doing so, the conference expanded its footprint from coast to coast and north into Ohio, while also securing a massive media market in Houston and an extremely dedicated fanbase in Provo. The Big 12 should also remain one of the country’s top leagues on the whole.

Products of college basketball realignment becoming targets

Though realignment essentially produced the league, the American has been on the short end of the stick ever since. First, its resident national champion — Connecticut — decided it was time to head home to the Big East. Now, the conference will lose two of its most consistent programs. Houston was in the Final Four just last year.

According to the buzz earlier this week, the AAC nearly responded by adding Air Force and Colorado State from the Mountain West. From a basketball standpoint, it would have been a net downgrade for the MWC, though not an abject disaster. The Rams are most certainly a team on the rise under Niko Medved. Still, the Falcons have been mired in a run of losing seasons for some time now.

In the end, according to Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports, those moves don’t appear to be happening. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco later released a statement denying that any new membership offers were made. As for programs like San Diego State and Boise State — which Thamel also confirmed are staying put for now — how long will those schools be able to fend off attention from more highfalutin suitors? If the Big 12 came calling, that might be a horse of an entirely different color.

In a similar vein, one might naturally assume that Gonzaga would be keen to finally “play somebody” and join up with the Pac-12 or Mountain West — especially with BYU leaving the WCC. Problem there is, the Zags don’t play football, and more importantly, they don’t seem particularly interested in jumping up to another league. These same rumors swirled in 2011 and 2018 (and probably every year in between and since) and Gonzaga has stood its ground. Though it would be incredibly fun, realignment is seemingly unlikely to happen in the Bulldogs’ immediate future.

Realignment boom started with Southland exodus

Even if the biggest spike of this round of realignment has come and gone, the carousel is surely not done spinning. It is worth remembering, though, that this most recent wave has been building for some time now.

Sure, a few teams move around in seemingly every offseason since the turn of the millennium. And of course, new teams join the ranks of Division I every year. (Welcome, St. Thomas!) And yes, sometimes schools make the uncomfortable decision to drop down a level or two. (Rooting for you, Hartford.)

Those things generally do not change the entire complexion of multiple leagues, though. At least, not in the same way a mass exodus does.

Just ask the Southland Conference.

In recent years, schools like Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State have been the league’s flagbearers in basketball. It is no secret that it has been a top-heavy conference, though. The haves finally decided to ditch the have-nots, joining up with the WAC along with Abilene Christian and Lamar. ACU is still a relatively new Division I member, but their upset of Texas in the NCAA Tournament last year gives them instant panache. Those four schools will soon be joined in the new “super WAC” by Southern Utah, who is leaving the Big Sky after this season. To make room, Chicago State is leaving the league but has not found a new home yet.

Back in the Southland, with Central Arkansas also leaving for the ASUN, the conference is now left with a much different geographic footprint. The league still maintains a presence in Houston, San Antonio and Corpus Christi, and will add the Dallas suburbs when new Division I member Texas A&M-Commerce joins up. Still, the rest majority of the Southland now lies in Louisiana. While the departure of the bigger Texas schools may provide a clearer path to the NCAA Tournament, it also means a higher likelihood of the league champion ending up in a First Four matchup.

Low-major leagues facing an even harsher reality

Speaking of top-heavy leagues losing their best basketball programs, Belmont is also on the move. The Bruins made waves when reports came out that the school would be leaving one Valley for another. Belmont will soon begin competing in the Missouri Valley Conference, after dominating the Ohio Valley for years. The move immediately raises their profile, giving them a better shot at grabbing at-large bids if Casey Alexander can keep the program running at a high level. He will have to do it against stiffer competition, though.

Elsewhere in the OVC, Murray State may also be looking for new digs now that its rival is pivoting westward, though nothing has been announced. Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State, however, have confirmed their travel plans. Like Central Arkansas, those schools are heading for the ASUN. That news may bode well for Murray State and Morehead State in the short-term, but it is a net negative for the league. The OVC must adapt, lest it rejoins the shadowy realm of the guaranteed one-bid leagues.

Another league in a spot of peril is the MEAC. With North Carolina A&T gone to the Big South, and both Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M leaving for the SWAC, the good news is that travel costs will be lower. The bad news is that the league is down to just eight members. With finances always an issue, the MEAC may struggle to keep the ones it still has. Last decade, the league saw two members, Winston-Salem State and Savannah State, drop down from Division I for fiscal reasons. As one of two conferences in Division I consisting of only HBCU schools, it will not be that easy for the MEAC to add new members, either.

More realignment news will almost certainly come out in the coming months. As leagues contract and expand, it begs the question of whether all 32 conferences will still be here five years from now. In the meantime, while new leagues will mean more money for many schools, the trickle-down effect is already affecting smaller conferences around the country.



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