Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE
Twenty college basketball teams have switched leagues for the 2012 season. 29 more will do so before 2013.
The college basketball universe ain't what it used to be, and that will definitely be evident when the season kicks off in early November. This season will feature some of the biggest changes brought about by the recent wave of conference realignment. New rivalries and new conferences are the new norm in college athletics. So let's take a moment to catch up on what's happened.
Here are the five most important moves taking place this season.
1) Missouri moving from the Big 12 to the SEC: Hands-down, the biggest basketball move of the year features Mizzou leaving its hated rival Kansas to play in the SEC. The Missouri-Kansas games last year were some of the best in college hoops, and it's a shame that the rivalry has been shelved for the forseeable future. The SEC has to be thrilled with this move, however, as the Tigers add another high-quality basketball program. Missouri joins Kentucky and Florida in the preseason top-20.
On the rivalry front, look for things to heat up between Missouri and Arkansas in a hurry. Razorback head coach Mike Anderson coached left Missouri for Arkansas in 2011, a move which didn't sit well with Tiger supporters in Columbia. It won't approach the intensity of the rivalry with Kansas (I mean, there was an actual Civil War between groups from those two states), but it could become one of the SEC's better basketball rivalries in a hurry. That said, Missouri will definitely miss the Big 12 tournament, which is played within state borders in Kansas City.
2) West Virginia moving from the Big East to the Big 12: This is one of the more interesting moves geography-wise. By moving to the Big 12, WVU gives up on games against rival Pitt, and against nearby Louisville and Cincinnati. Instead, the Mountaineers will have to gear up to go to places like TCU, Texas Tech, and Iowa State. The WVU travel itinerary also takes a downgrade on the conference tournament front. Instead of traveling to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament, the Mountaineers will go to Kansas City instead.
Always a tough out in the Big East, West Virginia should certainly be able to succeed in the Big 12. Competition-wise, the Big 12 is top-heavy this year with Kansas and Baylor as the only consensus top-25 teams. West Virginia has been a consistent participant in the NCAA tournament lately, and I don't see any reason that would stop now.
3) Texas A&M moving from the Big 12 to the SEC: The Aggies are finally out of Texas's shadow. As a prize, they take their first SEC basketball road trip on January 12 to...defending national champion Kentucky. Still, it's easy to picture A&M thriving in basketball in the SEC much like it did in the Big 12. The Aggies made six NCAA tournaments in a row before finishing with a sub-.500 record last year.
One has to wonder about the rivalry aspect of the move, however. A&M could develop decent rivalries with LSU and Arkansas, but those games won't come close to matching the fan intensity the Aggies saw in the Big 12. Trips to Lubbock, Waco, and Norman will be replaced by trips to Athens, Gainesville, and Knoxville. Will Aggie fans care as much? Only time will tell. As for the conference tournament, the SEC tournament is held in Nashville this year. Compared to Kansas City, it's probably a wash for A&M.
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4) Butler moving from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10: The Bulldogs were able to parlay their recent NCAA tournament success into a nice league promotion. The Atlantic 10, despite the upcoming losses of Temple and Charlotte, will be a step up for Butler competition-wise. The league tournament moves to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this year. That's a great opportunity for more media exposure. Geographically, it's a bit of a stretch, but not an egregious one. St. Louis, Xavier and Dayton will provide good Midwest rivalries. It's especially exciting to think about an annual Butler-Xavier showdown. Those have been two of the best non-BCS programs east of Gonzaga.
5) VCU moving from the Colonial to the Atlantic 10: VCU will give up conference rivalries with Old Dominion and George Mason, but will pick up a natural cross-town rival in Richmond. The two teams shared the spotlight when both made deep tournament runs in 2011. It's also easy to picture VCU and George Washington developing a history, especially if the Colonials can resurrect their program. If there's one downside for Rams in the Atlantic 10, it will be that they'll actually have to travel for the conference tournament. In the past, the CAA tournament has been played at the friendly confines of the Richmond Coliseum.
Conclusion: By 2014, almost a fifth of all Division I basketball teams will have switched leagues within three years. A lot of pundits have sounded the alarm that realignment will ultimately harm college hoops. I won't try to touch that argument here. It will definitely be strange watching West Virginia, not Missouri, take on Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. And it's a long way (literally and figuratively) from Hinkle Fieldhouse to the Barclay's Center. Whether the college basketball world will be better or worse has yet to be seen.