Make Conferences Matter Again

-Jim Root

One of the best parts of college basketball is the rematch – one squad hunts for revenge, while the previous winner looks to re-assert its dominance. Take today’s Kansas-Baylor matchup – the Jayhawks can basically lock up a 13th straight Big 12 title with a sweep of the Bears, while Baylor desperately hopes to end the reign of terror that has been going on since Hitch and Revenge of the Sith came out in theaters (only one of those movies is good, and it wasn't directed by George Lucas).

On the other hand, don’t you wish we could see Oregon have to answer for the violent spanking it gave Arizona in Eugene two weeks ago? Tucson would be ablaze for that rematch, possibly a battle for a top-two seed out west come Selection Sunday, with the ‘Cats eager to prove that the initial stomping was just a mirage.

Alas, thanks to the almighty dollar, the double round-robin is nearly dead in major college basketball. By my count, only three of KenPom’s current top ten conferences play true balanced schedules (Big 12, Big East, MVC), and two of those conferences have had whispered discussions about adding new teams. The old Pac-10 always had this perfectly right – five natural pairs (2 Arizona schools, 2 Washington, 2 Oregon, 2 LA, 2 Bay Area), with each taking road trips to the four other pairs, augmented by a one-game intra-pair rivalry weekend twice per season. Unfortunately, aspiring super-conferences gobbled up teams (the now-Pac-12 itself grabbed the Mountain Time Zone, aka Utah and Colorado), and that perfectly-balanced schedule was ruined.

As a symmetry-loving weirdo, my dream collegiate hoop world all looks like Ye Olde Pac-10, with every conference playing 16-20 game schedules that feature home-and-homes between all members (or 14 games – I dare not touch the sacred Ivy League). So I did the natural, obvious thing: I stayed up for 72 straight hours, fueled by intravenous 5-Hour Energy and insanity, and re-created the conferences to my own liking, despite there being no possible way this would ever come to pass. I assigned every school a travel partner (except a select few - lookin' at you, Hawaii) for logical scheduling purposes and then pieced together my leagues from there. If you care more about my ideas for logistics, send me a message @2ndChancePoints or just make fun of me in the comments. 

Practical benefits to this approach include:

1.      Conference Records/Finish Matter – Comparing conference records is useful again! With massively unbalanced schedules in conferences like the ACC and the Big Ten, an 8-10 team could be every bit as good as a 10-8 finisher.

2.      Far Less Insane Travel – I made a major effort to use geography, particularly in smaller conferences, so Chicago State no longer has to spend half of its athletic budget on road trips to Seattle, UT-Rio Grande Valley, Grand Canyon, and Cal State-Bakersfield every year. This was obviously more of a minor concern with large schools with deep pockets (or deep-pocketed donors).

3.      New Twice-a-year Rivalries!!! – Kentucky/Louisville and Cincinnati/Xavier twice per season…is that something you might be interested in?

4.      More Conference Tournaments – Even more Madness in March seems like a positive to me. Nothing beats a winner-take-all conference tournament final, and now we have 3 more!  

5.      “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” – I am of the belief that playing all of your conference opponents twice a season will increase the bad blood and thus the competitiveness, as the old saying goes.

6.      Conference Records/Finish Matter – Did I mention this one yet?

And to be transparent, some downsides:

1.      Fewer At-Large Bids – I’ve added three conferences to alleviate the size concerns (from 32 to 35), which obviously then squeezes the number of available at-large bids down from 36 to 33 (I have no interest in expanding the tournament). Jim Boeheim and Seth Greenberg have already sent me angry cease-and-desist letters.

2.      Breaking Up Longtime Conference Rivals – For example: in order to put natural rivals like Clemson/South Carolina and Georgia/Georgia Tech together, the ACC and SEC became conflated in such a way that not all long-time members are in the same league. I’d rather see Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate 2x a year than keep Georgia and South Carolina together; I’m sure some SEC purists will disagree. Another glaring one: Florida is no longer in the SEC. I explain why below - I couldn't make it work! Peaceful picketing is allowed outside the 3MW offices, please apply for your protest permit at the city office.

3.      Less $$ for the Conferences – the players aren’t getting paid any of it anyway, so I’m actually not sure this is a bad thing…

Now on to my new conferences...

Top 10 Leagues (in my humble opinion):

I made sure to end up with Missouri and Kansas in the same conference, because that was an awesome rivalry in its prime and those two teams should play each other twice a year (and because I’m a giant homer). Currently, Kansas would probably win the two games by 100 combined points, but someday the Tigers will bounce back! We want Keatts!

This is obviously the most entertaining tier of teams - 95% of your at-large bids are going to come from this group of 105 teams. Re-arranging the conferences out west was a lot of fun - St. Mary's still plays Gonzaga twice a year, but now they both have some worthy conference opponents with to tussle with, rather than win every WCC game by 137 points (approximately). 

Florida is probably the biggest "huh?" let me explain. One of the main reasons I started this whole exercise was to get Kentucky vs Louisville 2x per year, so I had to put the Cardinals in the SEC. The other pairs felt natural (and are longtime conference members), so I didn't mess with them. Florida/LSU are the only ones without a clear in-state rival, so I had them with each other, but I couldn't go over 11 teams per league, so I kept the Tigers with their SEC brethren and by way of compromise, guaranteed Florida has four combined games against Miami and Florida State every year. 

It's awesome to see most of the "old Big East" back together, admittedly with a few extra twists throw in (Maryland as a Georgetown rival, Temple as a Nova opponent). Basically, I'm just hoping for another UConn/Syracuse 6-OT game at Madison Square Garden. 

The Midwest and Central are both juicy new groups - Iowa and Iowa State leave their longtime homes, but they'll have the CyHawk rivalry twice and some natural border state games to build new bad blood. And again - Crosstown Shootout twice a year!

I feel kind of bad for Pepperdine/Loyola Marymount/Air Force (especially Air Force), so if you want to swap them with, say, San Diego/San Fran/Hawaii below, I'd have no issue. Major step up for New Mexico State, but I think they're up to the task. 

Next 12 Leagues (again, subjective):

First and foremost, changing the Atlantic 10 (and its 14 teams) to the Atlantic 8 felt weird. That conference is now a bit unbalanced, but a lot of the Original 13 Colonies-area of the US became ultra-jumbled and ultimately hard to balance out - I did my best with the demands of the rules I arbitrarily made!

Removing a team from the MAAAAAAAAC hurt my soul - their 20-game schedule that includes conference games at the start of December is a joyous gauntlet - but it had to be done to help create the hodgepodge Eastern Conference (is it as weak as the 2008-2011 NBA East??? No one cares? Okay).

The DMV is a blast; the constant rivalry games between the six schools in that area would be great to watch week after week. Adding the coastal road trip down the Carolinas would add some nice intrigue despite making basically no sense with the league's moniker. 

I've always thought the "West Coast Conference" is a weak league name, hence why I gave the "Big West" to the better Tier 1 league and shoved most of the old Big West teams here. 

Not being able to unite all of the Ohio schools was painful, so here's hoping the Horizon and MAC can play some entertaining crossover games in the non-conference. 

Will this step down in competition finally be enough for South Florida or Tulane basketball to matter? Doubtful; Bobby McKillop and Tacko Fall would be dominating them. 

Final 13 Leagues:

This is where geography really became the driving factor. Schools of this size probably shouldn't be traveling out of their time zone (sorry to the Summit and the Big Sky - those states are too damn big), so I organized them by region as much as possible. I'm particularly proud of the Great Lakes Conference, a nearly-perfect picture of symmetry wrapped around Lake Michigan. Chicago State won't be any more competitive in that one than they are now, but at least they won't have to go as far to lose!

Also, please note my mildly amusing conference name of Baby Texas, as well as the goofy inclusion of Grand Canyon and Northern Arizona - I will admit that part is a little half-baked, but at this point, the bags under my eyes weigh 15 pounds. I need to sleep - let me know if you can fix something like that without skewing everything else!