More than just a handful of schools are keeping an eye on the Big 12 meetings this week. If, ultimately, the conference decides to expand, that would leave holes in other big-time conferences, meaning the benefits could trickle down to the mid-majors.
Who might get the call-up depends on who the Big 12 takes. Here is a basketball-focused look at some of the candidates if the Big 12 decides to expand east:
Army (Patriot League, Independent football)
If the American loses one or more teams, it’s always possible it will bring Navy in for all sports and let Army come with them (this depends one how many teams leave, because one would assume the league would want to maintain an even number for football).
Army-Navy would quickly become the highest-profile game the conference has to offer in any sport and would be a significant step up in basketball competition for the Black Knights.
#MACtion fans might not want to hear it, but a move to the American would make sense for the Bulls. While they’re busy building up their athletic brand, the AAC would offer significantly more in TV money and exposure. The basketball program has scheduled aggressively in recent years and would be able to take a step back from that, knowing games against the remaining crop of Cincinnati, UConn, Houston and Memphis await.
Massachusetts (Atlantic 10, Independent football)
UMass is in an unusual situation. After refusing to join the MAC in all sports, its football team was essentially thrown out, leaving it as the nation’s least established independent. Should UConn be invited to the Big 12, the Minutemen would be a natural replacement as a New England team with a stake in the Boston and Springfield markets.
On the court, the transition may not be as seamless. The American, minus two of its most successful members, would be arguably a worse conference than the A-10 and would force UMass to travel significantly more. Flights to East Carolina, South Florida and Tulane would quickly replace bus trips to natural rivals like Rhode Island, Fordham and St. Joseph’s. Such is the cost of committing to big-time football…
Northern Illinois (MAC)
Northern Illinois appears on the outside looking in on the Big 12 expansion talks, but it would be a prime target for the American. Back when the AAC was the Big East, it added DePaul in basketball mainly to control the Chicago market, and Northern Illinois would provide some footing there again. The Huskies' basketball program has trended up in recent years after reaching a low point in 2012 when it won just five games. Northern Illinois went .500 in the MAC last year and recorded its first overall winning season since 2006.
Rice (Conference USA)
Rice is a logical replacement for Houston if the Cougars get a Big 12 invite. The Owls are located within Houston itself, so they’d help the AAC recover that market. Though their football and basketball teams aren’t the strongest, it’s important to remember that the AAC is really the old Big East — a conference that has stressed location and market potential since its founding.
Western Kentucky (Conference USA)
It seems like the Hilltoppers are always good, but never great — at least since their memorable 2008 and 2009 NCAA Tournament runs. A move to the AAC might give them that extra boost. Though it doesn’t scream "major market," Kentucky is known as a basketball-crazed state. In a stronger league and against bigger-name opponents, Western Kentucky just might be able to break through.
Wichita State (Missouri Valley)
The Shockers are looking to bring their football program up to the FBS, so that means they’ll likely need a new home for all their sports. Rumors have swirled already about talks between them and the American, Mountain West and even Conference USA. If the AAC can land the Shockers, that would help make up for losing Cincinnati, UConn or Memphis. Wichita State would be even better off than Western Kentucky, given its larger market, more successful program and already rabid fan base. In reality, the AAC should be looking at Wichita State regardless of whether the Big 12 expands.