Losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC may be crushing for the Big 12 from the perspectives of financial and football strength, but with reigning national champion Baylor and blue blood Kansas still around, losing the Sooners and Longhorns won’t be as devastating on the hardwood. But how will the additions of BYU from the WCC and Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the AAC impact the conference’s standing in the college basketball landscape?
Expanding to 12 teams — and maybe even 14 temporarily until Oklahoma and Texas transition out — could force the league to recalibrate its scheduling setup, altering the simple current format in which every team plays each other twice. But if BYU and Houston stay on their current trajectories, and Cincinnati gets back on track under new coach Wes Miller, the newcomers could keep a strong hoops near the top of the fray. Even UCF, not typically known for basketball, nearly knocked off Duke in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Here’s what the four new members of the Big 12 bring to the table in realignment.
2020-21 record: 20-7 (NCAA Tournament first round)
NCAA Tournament appearances: 30
Best finish: Elite Eight 1980
BYU will be added to the Big 12 because of the strength of its wide-reaching brand, because of the historical quality of its football program that’s played in a bowl game in 15 of the past 16 seasons, and because of Salt Lake City’s television market that ranks 30th nationally. Basketball has almost nothing, if not entirely nothing, to do with it.
But that doesn’t mean BYU won’t enhance the Big 12’s basketball product.
No, the Cougars have never made a Final Four — but they have played in nine of the past 14 NCAA Tournaments, won games in two of them, and produced a national player of the year in 2011 (Jimmer Fredette). So this has been a consistently good program for an extended period of time under multiple coaches. And it’s a program that also draws well at the Marriott Center — evidence being how the Cougars finished 25th in attendance in the pre-pandemic 2019-20 season. Is BYU a better basketball program than either of the basketball programs the Big 12 is losing? Honestly, no. But it is a quality program that’s being led by a high-level coach in Mark Pope, who has been impressive through six seasons at the Division I level. So this is a nice addition to the Big 12 in the sense that it’ll provide the league with yet another quality basketball program that should be able to annually compete for a bid to the NCAA Tournament. — Gary Parrish
2020-21 record: 12-11 (Did not make NCAA Tournament)
NCAA Tournament appearances: 33
Best NCAA Tournament finish: Champion 1961, 1962
Bob Bowlsby and the Big 12’s presidents really did manage to preserve most of the integrity that was jeopardized with the OU and Texas news. So kudos. From a basketball standpoint, I’ll argue that this forthcoming 12-team union will be more robust than the 10-team Big 12 as it’s currently constituted. (The only minor defect is round-robin play will soon go the way of the dodo in the Big 12.) How does Cincinnati fit into all this? Fairly well. The school in effect edged out Memphis to receive the final bid, in no small part because its media-market rank (No. 37) and its location (Ohio) offer a lot of promise for the Big 12’s objective of becoming the most stretched out league, geographically, in the country.
Speaking of geography, UC will immediately become the natural locational rival for West Virginia, which is a nice boost for WVU and a bonus for the conference. The Bearcats also boast the best basketball history of any program joining: two national championships, six Final Fours and 33 NCAA Tournaments. That beats the other three incoming members. In fact, UC ranked No. 10 all time in my ranking of the best programs in the history of men’s hoops.
This is also a program that’s thrived on its inter-conference flexibility over the decades. Cincinnati has been in the MAC, Missouri Valley, Metro, Great Midwest, Conference USA, Big East and the AAC since the 1950s. It’s never dropped off, really, and now comes the next step in the school’s evolution. UC hired Wes Miller this spring. If he’s the right guy, then Cincinnati is the addition that can help keep the Big 12 No. 1 or No. 2 in overall strength in men’s basketball going forward. — Matt Norlander
2020-21 record: 28-4 (Final Four)
NCAA Tournament appearances: 22
Best NCAA Tournament finish: National runner-up 1983, 1984
When I think of Houston I think of Phi Slama Jama and the golden era of the program in the 1980s. That’s a testament to just how good the program was that decade — they made three consecutive Final Fours beginning in 1982 — but also an indictment on just how much it slipped in the 90s and early 2000s. (From 1990 to 2010, the Cougars made just three NCAA Tournament appearances.)
Houston has undoubtedly turned the proverbial corner as a program under the direction of Kelvin Sampson, though. The leap from Conference USA to the AAC has done wonders for its national profile and Sampson has taken the team to new heights, with consecutive regular-season conference titles and a Final Four showing in 2021 — the first since 1984 — setting a new standard of excellence. That’s the bar moving forward.
Jumping to the Big 12 should only up its chances of sustaining that success. Sampson and his staff have consistently done more with less in recruiting by winning with underrated recruits or transfers looking for a new home. In the hotbed of talent-rich Houston, recruiting should boom thanks to the Big 12’s profile, recent on-court success and the allure of playing for a legend in Sampson. Making the jump from any conference is a challenge but Houston seems uniquely positioned to make that transition as seamlessly as any of the other potential additions. — Kyle Boone
2020-21 record: 11-12 (Did not make NCAA Tournament)
NCAA Tournament appearances: 5
Best NCAA Tournament finish: Second round 2019
UCF will assume the lowest spot on the basketball totem pole in the new-look Big 12 as the Knights have just one NCAA Tournament victory in their history. The program only joined Division I for the 1984-85 season and had never achieved an NCAA Tournament seeding higher than No. 14 before landing a No. 9 seed in 2019 and knocking off VCU in a first-round game.
UCF nearly pulled off an upset of the No. 1 seed Duke team featuring Zion Williamson in the second round of that tournament, but that dramatic loss to the Blue Devils constitutes the program’s all-time high-water mark. The Knights are just 15-21 in a weak AAC over the past two seasons. Moving to a more prestigious league would give coach Johnny Dawkins some fresh ammo in recruiting, but this program has work to do before it’s ready to compete with the likes of Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, etc.
In the short run, Dawkins’ 2021-22 team is looking up as it returns nearly every contributor after closing the 2021 regular season AAC slate with four straight wins. If UCF can parlay that roster continuity into an NCAA Tournament trip and build some momentum, it would help in the transition to a new league. It’s a lot easier to quickly build a competitive roster in college basketball than in college football, but without a firm basketball identity or legacy to draw upon, UCF should be prepared to spend a few seasons paying dues as a basketball doormat in the Big 12. — David Cobb