Near the end of this June's realignment madness, when the Big 12's blowup seemed imminent, I was working on a magazine story about where Kansas would land. I had called the Jayhawks "helpless hoopsters in a football world," and it looked as if they'd be the biggest victims of the league-shifting madness. I talked to Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who was still lobbying folks in Texas to save the Big 12; to the head of the Kansas Board of Regents, whose interest was to keep KU and Kansas State in the same conference; and to a source at the Big East, which I thought was the Jayhawks' most logical, albeit ill-fitting, destination.
The source said that the Big East would, hypothetically, have interest in Kansas and Missouri if they were left stranded. Neither of those teams would've made the Big East significantly better in football, but they would have protected the league from losing its BCS bid if any of its current members defected. From a basketball standpoint, though, those additions would've been monumental, creating an 18-team mega-conference with so much talent that we'd have to speculate whether 11 of them could make the NCAA tournament in a given season. It would've resulted in an unwelcome power imbalance, nationally ... but also an insane Big East tournament. I was far more intrigued by that outcome than the idea of the Big 12's refugees being absorbed by the Mountain West.
Anyway, none of it happened this summer -- the story, the Big 12 breakup, the Big East expansion. But five months later, on Monday, the Big East did make its football-insulation move, poaching TCU from the Mountain West. And this one comes with no residual benefits for basketball -- other than making DePaul less lonely in the Big East cellar. The Horned Frogs will be little more than a blight on the country's best basketball conference.
TCU spent the past five seasons as an also-ran in the Mountain West; its best finish was seventh (at 6-10) in 2007-08. Its highest rating in kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings during that stretch was 124th, in '08-09. Because the efficiency rankings are best way evaluate teams from different leagues on the same plane, we can use them to project where TCU would've ranked in the Big East from 2006-10:
2009-10:TCU Efficiency Ranking: 178Big East Teams with lower efficiency rankings: 0 (Closest: No. 172 DePaul, No. 156 Rutgers)
2008-09:TCU Efficiency Ranking: 124Big East Teams with lower efficiency rankings: 3 (No. 135 South Florida, No. 141 Rutgers, No. 198 DePaul)
2007-08: TCU Efficiency Ranking: 169Big East Teams with lower efficiency rankings: 0 (Closest: No. 164 Rutgers, No. 126 St. John's)
2006-07:TCU Efficiency Ranking: 152Big East Teams with lower efficiency rankings: 1 (No. 166 Rutgers)
2005-06:TCU Efficiency Ranking: 229Big East Teams with lower efficiency rankings: 0 (Closest: No. 162 South Florida, No. 108 St. John's)
Those numbers indicate that the Big East is adding a team that would have finished 17th, 14th, 17th, 16th and 17th, respectively, in the league over the past five years. TCU's '09-10 team was, improbably, worse than the DePaul squad that went 1-17 in conference play that season. The Horned Frogs give the league a new TV market (Dallas-Fort Worth, which is the nation's fifth-largest), but they will not make for quality hoops TV.
The Big East's schedule-makers will be faced with a few dilemmas. In its current, unbalanced arrangement, its 16 teams play each other at least once (each team has three home-and-home series, then single games against 12 other opponents). To ensure that all 17 teams meet, the league would have to cut down to two home-and-home series per school, which would potentially eliminate some marquee rematches. Will ESPN and CBS allow the league's TV content to be diluted in that fashion? Additionally, if Big East hoops expands to 18 teams -- in the event Villanova doesn't jump up to FBS football, and another school is needed -- will the conference switch to two, nine-team divisions?
There's also the question of the Big East tournament, which would have trouble making room for 17 or 18 teams. It already stretches for five days at Madison Square Garden; adding a sixth day at such a busy venue would be difficult. On-campus play-in games could be held to whittle the field down to 16, or the worst two teams could be excluded ... or, they could choose to shrink the bracket to a more-manageable 12 and make it a four-day event. The league's basketball execs have until 2012 to solve this, but I don't envy all the logistical issues they'll have to address.
So: Is there any reason to be excited about this, if you're not a Big East coach in dire need of another guaranteed win? Perhaps if you're a Marquette fan: Buzz Williams, whose coaching roots are in Texas, has quietly made the Golden Eagles the league's No. 1 destination for Texas recruits. His roster has six players with ties to the state:
1. Joe Fulce: from Plano, Texas; transferred from Tyler (Texas) JC2. Chris Otule: from Richmond, Texas3. Erik Williams: from Houston4. Jimmy Butler: from Tomball, Texas; transferred from Tyler (Texas) JC5. Junior Cadougan: attended high school at Christian Life Center in Humble, Texas6: Jae Crowder: transferred from Howard College (Big Spring, TX)
Williams should be the first one lobbying for a home-and-home series against the Horned Frogs, as he's the one who stands to benefit most from the increased TV exposure in the South. He's started to reel in top-150 recruits from the Midwest (Vander Blue from Madison, Wis., and Reggie Smith from Chicago are freshmen this year), but Williams' strongest recruiting ties remain in Texas.
Pitt's Jamie Dixon might be the only coach with genuine, good feelings toward TCU -- because it's his alma mater. The YouTube clips of his Raycom-broadcasted buzzer-beater against Texas and the subsequent postgame interview are college hoops classics, in part because the shot won a 1986 Southwest Conference title, in part because he seems so innocently giddy over what transpired. "We were just trying to get what was available," Dixon tells his interviewer. The result was a miracle.
The Big East took what was available on Monday, but bagging the Horned Frogs was no miracle. It was a marriage of football interests, monetary convenience and basketball inconvenience. TCU is a football school that the nation's toughest hoops league will awkwardly accommodate, and then, most likely, try to ignore.