The enormous impact on men's basketball as the Pac-12 nears extinction

ByMyron Medcalf and Jeff Borzello ESPN logo
Monday, August 7, 2023

For a brief moment Friday morning, the college sports world looked like it might remain stable. Word coming out of the Pac-12 was optimism that the league would stick together, with the realignment of Colorado last week from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 being the only move.

Within five hours, the landscape of college sports forever changed. The Pac-12 was essentially finished as a power conference -- and perhaps as a conference, period -- and the Big Ten and Big 12 added multiple schools to their membership, while questions about what's next for nearly every major conference were asked all weekend.

To recap: Oregon and Washington left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, while Arizona, Arizona State and Utah headed to the Big 12.

It's a potentially stunning and sudden end to a league that can be traced back more than 100 years, with four of the first six members of the conference -- California, Oregon State, Washington State and Stanford -- the last ones standing. (Or the ones left out in the cold.) Just over a decade ago, the Pac-12 was one of the biggest brands at the table, even passing up a chance to add Texas and Oklahoma. Now it's on the verge of extinction.

The Apple Cup rivalry games between Washington and Washington State? Those will be less frequent, at best. Ditto for the Oregon and Oregon State rivalry once known as the Civil War.

The ACC and SEC were not involved in this round of realignment, but they're not exempt from the discussion. The SEC is undoubtedly watching and weighing whether it needs to respond to the Big Ten's expansion with its own, while these moves come on the heels of Florida State's president saying it might have to consider leaving the ACC.

Realignment discussions are primarily centered on college football -- and ESPN already tackled most of the relevant football questions -- but there are widespread ramifications for college basketball too. What does this all mean, and what questions are left to be answered?

Here's what we know

Borzello: The biggest headline coming out of Friday was the death of the Pac-12 as we know it. Arizona, Arizona State and Utah seem poised to leave the Pac-12 for the Big 12, while Oregon and Washington were officially announced as Big Ten schools beginning next August. This comes just a week after Colorado officially left the Pac-12 for the Big 12. Only Stanford, California, Oregon State and Washington State remain. The Big Ten will be at 18 schools once USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington join, while the Big 12 will now have 16 teams with the addition of the "Four Corner" schools.

Medcalf: We know that the Big 12 -- the pound-for-pound leader in recent years -- is the undisputed leader of men's college basketball. The Big 12 has finished first in KenPom's conference ratings in eight of the past 10 years, a remarkable stretch. The league has also captured two of the past three national championships. And Texas and Kansas State reached the Elite Eight last season. The Big 12's status as the sport's kingpin was strengthened, however, when it gained Arizona in the realignment chaos. With Houston on its way to the Big 12 too, men's college basketball's most dominant assembly is the Big 12 after what appears to be the end of the Pac-12, at least as we know it. The gap between this league and the rest of college basketball could expand in the years to come.

Here's what's still in the air

Borzello: What happens to the four remaining Pac-12 schools? Could the Pac-12 recruit from the Mountain West or West Coast Conference and try to rebuild around Stanford, California, Washington State and Oregon State? Sure, but it's more likely the Mountain West attempts to lure them, not the other way around -- especially considering San Diego State would have had to pay more than $30 million had it tried to leave the league for the Pac-12 a few weeks ago. There has been some Big Ten and ACC speculation surrounding Stanford and Cal for academic reasons (and in Stanford's case, its incredible all-around athletics), but it's hard to imagine a power conference trying to land the Beavers and Cougars. Then there are the questions surrounding the ACC's membership, whether the Big Ten and SEC are content with their current collection of schools and even where UConn stands. Simply put, realignment is never really over.

Medcalf: We don't know about the future of the ACC, one of the most important leagues in college basketball. While a lot of the chatter has centered on Florida State and the impact the loss of FSU football would have on the ACC, the league also features the greatest rivalry in men's college basketball: Duke-North Carolina. The Pac-12 has lost its status as a major conference and it does not appear to have a path to regain that, even if it decided to emphasize basketball. But a potential ACC breakup could send some of college basketball's most reputable teams -- UNC, Duke and Virginia -- to other leagues and change the landscape of the sport. The grant of rights in the ACC complicates any potential movement in that league, but it's the next conference to watch. Any moves would have significant implications in men's college basketball.

And ... what it all means

Borzello: Once UCLA and USC decided to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten last summer, Pac-12 basketball was really going to be predicated on whether Arizona was a national power. Even if only the Wildcats left the Pac-12 and everyone else stayed, its status as a major basketball conference would have been hanging by a thread. The league hadn't won a national championship since 1997 and it had only two Final Four appearances in the past 15 years. Now basically everyone's gone. It will be interesting to see whether a few more highly ranked recruits from the region opt to play in the Mountain West or West Coast Conference given the lack of a true power conference with a West Coast identity.

While the Big Ten and SEC will be considered the "Power Two" in football, the Big 12 might be the heavy hitter on the hardwood. Kansas is as consistently successful as anyone in the sport, Baylor has been fantastic in recent years under Scott Drew, it's adding Houston -- 93 wins the past three seasons -- this season, and now Arizona is entering the fold.

Medcalf: The Pac-12's value in college basketball has declined in recent years. But the Big 12's additions will lead to more bids on Selection Sunday. The Big Ten and SEC will benefit in the postseason, too. I think men's college basketball will continue to grow and thrive in the new climate, despite all of the changes. It's not as if it has been that easy to follow 360-plus teams even before this week's developments. The NCAA tournament will still be one of the most electric events in sports. But what will all of this mean for seeding and automatic berths if entire Power 5 leagues disappear? And if the mega-leagues boost their conference schedules, what will be the incentive to add mid-majors to their nonconference slates or even to reignite some of the intraconference matchups we hope to see? While it's too early -- the NCAA's contract with CBS/Turner goes through 2032 -- to envision a world without the NCAA tournament, realignment's goal is clear: Make as much money as possible. If that's the mindset, then what's stopping the most powerful leagues from pushing for a new event that might only feature the top schools, while excluding the rest, to keep all the cash attached to the postseason? Anything seems possible at this point.

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