Dribble Handoff: UConn, Gonzaga among teams that would benefit from a basketball-first realignment plan

Conference realignment continues to rock the foundation of college sports, dissolving geographical ties and separating schools into more distinct classes of wealth. While football is at the root of realignment, the fallout will certainly be felt on the court. Take Oregon, for example. Instead of a conference slate featuring nearby Oregon State and other teams in the Pacific time zone, the Ducks will be required to make several cross-country trips per season once they are members of the Big Ten for the 2024-25 season.

A reinvigorated rivalry between longtime Pac-12 foes Arizona and UCLA is another likely casualty with the Wildcats off to the the Big 12 and the Bruins joining the Big Ten in 2024-25. 

Of course, it’s not all bad. There are some intriguing new matchups that will be created, many of which our Cameron Salerno examined in a recent article.

For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are playing the role of College Sports Commissioner and putting basketball first. “If you could choose one realignment move for the sake of college basketball, what would it be?” Here are our responses to that prompt.

Maryland to the ACC

Enough is enough. Maryland does not resemble a Big Ten school, has never resembled a Big Ten school and does not belong in the Big Ten. That league can afford to lose one program and still muddle through somehow. Send the Terrapins back to where they belong — in the conference they helped form and build on the Atlantic coast. Maryland is an ACC school. It belongs in the ACC. Its return would bring stability to that league, up its hoops prestige all the more, and allow the football program a better chance at success. Conference realignment has led to a lot of idiotic dispersement of schools in leagues where they don’t belong (Boston College, Syracuse, UCLA, USC, the list goes on) and Maryland is near the top of that list. Get these reptiles back in their natural habitat. — Matt Norlander

UConn to the ACC

I know, I know, for Huskies fans, leaving the Big East after finally reestablishing your identity as a national powerhouse isn’t all that appealing. UConn and the Big East are synonymous, and there is no counter argument to the belief that staying in the league is best UConn’s long-term viability. I mean, the team won a national title behind a true coaching star mere months ago. I hear you and I respect that. It’s valid. Howevah, a jump over to ACC country might be a net positive both for the school and for the college hoops landscape writ large. There’s more exposure to be had playing the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world than playing the Villanovas and Xaviers. There’s substantially more money to be had, too. That’s all to say nothing of the value in consolidating even more blueblooded power into one conference. Geographically it wouldn’t even be a total stretch, either, with all the other teams in the ACC operating on the same time zone. It would take some time to get used to and there’s no guarantee it would go well, but on paper it’d make a ton of sense for the two to marry up. — Kyle Boone

Memphis to the ACC

To be clear, I do NOT believe the ACC should add Memphis now. Financially, it would likely make little sense. But eventually, I think, some combination of North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State and Clemson are going to leave the ACC, at which point Memphis should be an obvious option as a replacement.

I hope it happens.

It’s understandable, but still unfortunate, that a school that cares as deeply about basketball as Memphis has been stuck in so-so conferences for much of my adult life. Going forward, the Tigers will compete in a diminished American Athletic Conference, where they’ll have few peers (possibly zero) that can match their level of commitment to the sport. It’s not ideal. As you likely know, Memphis has long sought a Big 12 invitation, but that league has consistently passed Memphis over. So with the Big 12 no longer a realistic option, the Tigers’ best hope of improving their neighborhood might be for some big brands to exit the Atlantic Coast Conference (like several have indicated they would like to do), leaving the ACC in search of replacements. If that happens, Memphis would make sense for many reasons, and it’s worth noting that the Tigers did previously share a league with current ACC members Florida State, Georgia Tech and Louisville.

(Shouts to the Metro Conference.)

I get why when the Big 12 looked toward the AAC to replace Texas and Oklahoma, it preferred top-40 markets like the ones Houston, Cincinnati and UCF can provide. But one thing conference administrators have largely failed to grasp over the years when evaluating expansion candidates is that the University of Memphis matters WAY more in Memphis than the University of Houston matters in Houston, way more in Memphis than the University Cincinnati matters in Cincinnati, and way more in Memphis than UCF matters in Orlando. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another market in the country with an NFL, NBA or MLB franchise that cares as much about the local university’s athletic department as Memphians care about the University of Memphis’ athletic department even with the NBA’s Grizzlies also in town.

Simply put, Memphis has a football program that finished No. 17 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll just four years ago with a 12-2 record and conference championship, a men’s basketball program that’s made three Final Fours in three different decades with three different coaches, and enough support in and around the city to flourish in a major conference if it ever actually gets the opportunity to be in one. It was supposed to happen with the Big East — but it didn’t. Some thought it would happen with the Big 12, but that now seems dead. In this moment, there are no obviously great options. But if the ACC ever gets picked apart and finds itself in need of new members, Memphis is the place it should look. — Gary Parrish

Gonzaga to the Mountain West

Mark Few is an absurd 333-34 in conference action over his 24-year coaching run, and the Zags have never lost more than three league games in a season under his watch. In a six-year period from 2017 to 2022, Gonzaga lost just four total conference contests. But what do the Zags gain from obliterating the WCC every year? Sure, winning is fun. But the Zags would still win at a high clip in the Mountain West and also get challenged in a way that would better prepare them for the NCAA Tournament. The MWC has been a multi-bid league in the past five NCAA Tournaments, and the league had four representatives the past two years. The WCC is still at risk of being a one-bid league when St. Mary’s is not in peak form. With BYU off to the Big 12, the WCC is only getting weaker. Adding Gonzaga would raise the Mountain West’s national profile, and it would benefit the Zags by keeping them on their toes throughout January and February. — David Cobb

Gonzaga to the Big 12

The Zags joining the Big 12 is a match made in heaven. Gonzaga has been one of the most consistent programs on the West Coast and their addition would make the Big 12 even stronger. Look, the Big 12 was already really, really good and then the conference added BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF last realignment cycle. Brett Yormark next took the “Four Corner” schools from the Pac-12 (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah) to solidify the Big 12’s status as the premier college basketball conference in the country. Adding Gonzaga would make that argument even stronger. Gonzaga has won 23 or more games every season since 1997-98. One of the only programs to challenge Gonzaga in the WCC (BYU) is off to the Big 12. So why can’t the Zags’ join them? To make it an even number, I would pitch to try and add UConn to the Big 12 as a basketball-only school, too. But for the sake of this exercise, let’s stick to Gonzaga. The Zags could compete with every team in the conference. Sure, they wouldn’t dominate the Big 12 like they have the WCC, but every conference game would be must-watch. Think about it: Gonzaga-Kansas, Gonzaga-Baylor, Gonzaga-Arizona and Gonzaga-Kansas State. Those would all be better matchups than any school Gonzaga will face in the WCC. Cameron Salerno

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