Quest for “national conference” via Gonzaga or UConn additions could pose problems for Big 12

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas forward Landen Lucas (33) stuffs a shot by Connecticut guard Rodney Purvis (44) during the second half on Saturday, March 19, 2016 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.

If you view a college athletic conference primarily as a bundle of brand equity and disparate assets to be auctioned off to the highest media-rights bidder, you probably love the direction the current conference-realignment cycle seems to be headed.

If you place a certain emphasis on regional cohesiveness and historic rivalries, as I do, you may find yourself a little bit perturbed by the suggestion — recently analyzed at length by the same reporters and columnists that always seem to be on top of this stuff — that Gonzaga and UConn are considered serious candidates for Big 12 Conference expansion.

I must admit that I do not feel I have been in this business long enough to have earned my keep as a “tradition” guy. And I certainly would like college sports to deviate from tradition in a variety of ways, many of which you will undoubtedly have the privilege of reading about if you continue to follow this column. I will even concede that many things that seem perfectly normal to me because of when I grew up, like Boston College being in the Atlantic Coast Conference, likely appall a certain segment of college sports fans (in that case, those who grew up with the old Big East).

I also fully understand why the idea of Kansas playing annual games against Gonzaga and UConn holds a certain appeal. With the recent unveiling of its 2023-24 nonconference schedule, the Kansas men’s basketball team now faces the very real prospect of playing both those teams this season. The Jayhawks could run into the Bulldogs at the Maui Invitational in late November, depending on seeding and results, and then they will meet the defending-champion Huskies for sure on Dec. 1 back in Lawrence. Both these matchups would draw immense viewership and national attention. Now imagine if you could have them every year — that is, I assume, the value proposition for Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark and company.

Because clearly, this move would be motivated by basketball, especially conference-contract and March Madness dollars from men’s basketball — even as UConn wields the nation’s most famous women’s college basketball team. Let’s set aside the hackneyed term “blue blood,” referring to a group of elite schools in which the Huskies are sometimes included and sometimes not (a debate so meaningless that I would like the term to be exclusively applied to horseshoe crabs, some of which they probably still have in Connecticut, from now on). There’s no denying that adding these two schools to the Big 12 would create one of the greatest concentrations of power in college basketball history.

And yet, what about everything else about this move?

Let’s start out with the geographical elephant in the room. Yormark wants the Big 12 to become a “national conference in our makeup from coast to coast,” as he asserted on a conference call last week and reiterated Thursday speaking to Kansas media. The Big 12 is already well on its way to abandoning its status as a Midwestern league with the incoming additions of BYU and UCF, but these wider expansions will be the end of its historical regional footprint.

Annual travel from Gonzaga (in Spokane, Washington) to UConn (Storrs, Connecticut) or UCF (Orlando, Florida) might be easier to stomach for a men’s or women’s basketball program than, say, a so-called “non-revenue” sport like soccer. The Bulldogs’ women’s soccer team played exclusively in California, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Washington last year except for one game in Philadelphia. (There’s an argument to be made that the increased money from basketball revenue lifts all boats, but how much of that money will get reinvested in soccer, exactly?)

Not to mention the academic toll that travel takes on student-athletes. Or the fact that — as has been remarked in a variety of research studies, perhaps most notably a 2017 paper from the Université du Québec en Outaouais that I love writing about — teams traveling west across time zones face a disadvantage in evening sports competition, because they have to play after their “circadian peak” of physical performance has already passed. Congratulations on your home-field advantage, Gonzaga.

I delved into Kansas’ history with Colorado in my last blog to emphasize the extent and robust nature of the history between the teams as the Buffaloes remain the most prominent candidate for Big 12 expansion. I would now like to underline just how little KU has played either Gonzaga or UConn in any sport besides men’s and women’s basketball.

(But first, if you must know, the Jayhawk men’s basketball team is 1-1 against Gonzaga, having lost in 2020 to 20-point performances from Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme, and 3-0 against UConn. The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review reported in March 2020 that KU and Gonzaga would play a home-and-home series in 2022 and 2023, but it hasn’t materialized, possibly due to the pandemic. As for women’s basketball, KU is 0-2 against UConn despite holding the Rebecca Lobo-led unbeaten national champions to their lowest regular-season margin of victory in 1994-95, and the Jayhawks have never played Gonzaga.)

photo by: Photo by Chris Tilley

Kansas junior Ochai Agbaji guards the ball during a game against Gonzaga in the season opener on Thursday. The Bulldogs earned a 102-90 win over the Jayhawks in the third annual Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off on Thanksgiving Day at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers on Nov. 26, 2020. Photo by Chris Tilley

KU has also never played UConn in football, although the two teams had similar resurgences in 2022, and has never played Gonzaga because the school does not sponsor football. The Jayhawks have not met the Huskies or Bulldogs in volleyball or soccer, either.

In fact, as far as I could tell, KU has only ever played one on-campus match against either school in a sport other than basketball. That came just five years ago, when the Jayhawks beat the Bulldogs 6-1 in women’s tennis in Lawrence. (Anastasia Rychagova won a pair of matches.) The remaining contests — KU softball vs. UConn in 2012 in Charleston, South Carolina; KU baseball vs. Gonzaga in 2010 in Peoria, Arizona, and in 2012 in San Antonio, Texas — have all taken place at neutral sites. Perhaps that’s because these teams, lacking the national prominence and reach of their schools’ men’s basketball programs, would never see the need to play against each other unless brought together in a more logistically convenient location!

It’s not clear yet whether Gonzaga would have a chance of joining the Big 12 as a basketball-only member, an outcome that could spare some headaches for much of the student-athlete population. But while UConn is currently independent for football and in the Big East for basketball, the Big 12 would take on the Huskies for all sports, according to reports from Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports and Brett McMurphy of Action Network. If you take on one of these schools like this, you take on everything about it, encompassing its physical location and its full repertoire of sports teams, far beyond the dollar value of its men’s basketball program.


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