Gonzaga to the Big East? What now for the Pac-12’s basketball future?

Greetings, hoops fans, and happy July. Since this is the season for college coaches to convene in bleachers and folding chairs in hot spots like North Augusta, S.C., it seems a good time to talk college basketball. Ordinarily Brian Hamilton and I spitball topics on Shot Takers, but since it’s approximately 850 degrees outside, we figured we’d share the workload.

So welcome to Shot Takers, the mailbag version.

(And if any verified Bruce Springsteen ticket purchasers want to slip a few tickets in the mail, I’m fine with that.)

To the questions.

How much credence do you give to the Gonzaga-to-the-Big East rumors? — Thomas S.

Dana O’Neil: In normal times — back before the Los Angeles-to-State College commute became a normal conference swing — I’d say zero. Right now, I believe absolutely nothing is out of the question. For all I know, Hawaii could join the Atlantic 10, so why couldn’t the Spokane-to-Providence ride become a thing?

Here’s what I believe, having put out a few feelers about this very topic: Both sides are going to be very intelligent and choosy. Gonzaga is in a pretty nice position of power, or at least as much power as a non-football school can have these days. The Zags are doing just fine right where they are in the West Coast Conference and yet are wildly desirable to conferences looking to glam up the basketball side of things. They don’t have to jump, unless they want to.

The Big East, once the carcass of conference realignment, is perhaps the least vulnerable league out there. Everyone wants football, so no one wants what it has. It’s proven to be quite capable of competing at a national level and has a steady and committed membership. The caveat: The Big East’s deal with Fox is up in 2024-25, and if you hadn’t heard, Fox just spent a gazillion dollars on football. Fox and the Big East have been terrific partners, the league helping bolster FS1 and the network giving the league a TV home. But it’s fair to wonder how much money Fox has left to spend on college basketball, and it’s also fair to question if, as currently constructed, the Big East is attractive enough to garner a good deal. You add Gonzaga to the package, and maybe a few other hoops-minded schools, and suddenly the Big East has a lot more to offer.

If you asked me do I think it should happen, my answer would be yes. Will it? That’s trickier.

What do you think, Mr. Hamilton?

Brian: As our friend Andy Staples has astutely said on all things realignment: The only limit to any of this is the imagination of a commissioner or president or administrator. It’s foolish to wave off any potential outcome. I’m not inclined to believe Gonzaga is in any rush to change anything. But if I’m the Big East, I’m keeping the lines of communication open, if not red-hot with negotiations. Logistically, I’d imagine adding Gonzaga requires adding another West Coast-ish travel partner to have this make any sense from an athlete-welfare perspective; it doesn’t seem altogether sensible to do this and make teams fly three time zones away and back for one game. Finding said partner is probably one of the easier parts in this pretend (for now) version of reality, though. Money talks.

Here’s where I would really apply the pressure, if anyone in the Big East is inclined to do so: reconnect with some old friends who are absolutely going to be left behind in any Football Megaconference Structure and offer a lifeline. Under those circumstances, does the UConn model look so bad to say … Syracuse, especially? Or Pittsburgh? Or even Boston College? No one is arguing any of them should drop football. That’s a non-starter. But if you’re not playing football in one of the two or three leagues that matters — according to this thought exercise, anyway — why not play your hoops and other sports in a conference that definitely matters and put the gridiron product in the American or Conference USA or some such?

I’d love to say this is entirely my idea, but it’s generated by conversations with people in the sport, so I wonder how many legs it could have.

And also call Duke. Because why not?


If the Pac-12 is no longer the Pac-12, does Bill Walton stay? (Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

What do you think of the future of the Pac-12 from a basketball standpoint? It looks like Washington and Oregon might be leaving soon. What schools do you think the Pac-12 could add and, in particular, why or why not would they want to include Gonzaga? – Scott F.

Brian: I’m not sure moves made by Washington and Oregon are relevant to the discussion, because I don’t see a path ahead for the Pac-12 even with both of those schools in the fold. Or at least not a good path. The status quo as of July 20, 2022 isn’t going to work. Consistent visibility and attention on a national scale is already a challenge for Pac-12 schools, and especially on the basketball end of operations, and it’s not getting any easier without massive brands like UCLA and USC in the fold.

The Pac-12, as we knew it, is basically done.

(A take that, of course, guarantees it will survive and thrive as never before. You’re welcome, George Kliavkoff.)

So what do you do, if you have to do something? Well, the options for repairing the basketball damage aren’t all bad. Gonzaga, San Diego State, Saint Mary’s, UNLV … you can create a model for any of them, if only it were that easy. How do members without a football program work? How concerned are current schools about the academic reputations of the additions? Even the infinite space of the interwebs isn’t enough to delve into the nuances and complications in each case here.

There are so many problems, in fact, that I wonder if the end result is a Pac-12 paralyzed and ultimately gutted into oblivion. The Big Ten takes some, the Big 12 takes some, and any leftovers scramble for whatever crumbs they can find. So to answer the question about the Pac-12’s basketball future … it ain’t sunny, in my mind. Bill Walton weeps, Dana.

Dana: I still want to know who gets Bill Walton in realignment? This is a critical part of negotiations, if you ask me. Is the Conference of Champions what’s left of the Pac-12, or does the nickname travel with UCLA to the Big Ten? Someone please, for the love of God, consider this.

To the question as posed by Scott. So “leaving soon” is the biggest part of the question. I have no doubt that Washington and Oregon want to leave soon, but where are they going? This is the question. The Pac-12/Big 12 partnership is dead, though that doesn’t mean a Big 12 raid of the Pac-12 is off the table. But the way these things work, I think if conferences desperately wanted Oregon and Washington, they would have been poached by now. Maybe I’m wrong.

But for purposes of actually answering the question, let’s posit that they bolt. I agree with you, Brian. As the league currently exists, it’s not terribly viable. With or without the Ducks and the Huskies, the Pac-12 needs a boost. Once again, there sits Gonzaga in the catbird seat. But here’s the thing — the league needs the Zags more than the Zags need it at some level. If you’re Mark Few, why do you want to go up against your geographic rivals for recruits and so forth in conference? There’s nothing to gain by it. Few schedules whom he wants, when he wants, and steals Oregon and Washington’s lunch money in the process.

After that, all of the other schools work geographically, but how far do they move the needle? UNLV, if this were 1990, sure. Alas, it is not. Saint Mary’s, San Diego State and onward are all good, solid programs that even lumped together don’t equate to the swag of USC and UCLA. I’m trying to envision an exit strategy for the Pac-12. I just don’t see it.

What player, team, and coach (must be from different schools) are you most looking forward to watching in 2022-23? — Shane H.

Dana: I like the challenge in this because, obviously, one could go all in on one team (Hello, Duke, Carolina or Kentucky). But sticking to the rules, here goes:

Player: Emoni Bates. Look, I naturally want to see Oscar Tshiebwe, Drew Timme, Armando Bacot and the clear-cut cast of stars that will dominate the college hoops news this season. But give me a little intrigue, a little drama. I think we can all agree that Bates’ freshman year did not go as planned at Memphis, and not just statistically. He had a back injury, and while he was out, the Tigers actually played better. This did not go unnoticed, and when he returned, Penny Hardaway opted not to mess with what he had. Bates barely got on the court in the NCAA Tournament. So he announced a transfer, with allegedly a long line of suitors interested. Except he ended up at Eastern Michigan, which is not just east of Michigan; it is not Michigan. No doubt Bates will be quite the draw in Ypsilanti, and in the MAC, but can he actually live up to all of his hype? Hand me the popcorn, please.

Team: Kentucky. When last we saw the Wildcats … well, for the sake of Big Blue Nation’s sanity, let’s not discuss that. In any other state, at any other school, John Calipari — with one national title, four Final Fours and seven Elite Eights — would not be feeling even the slightest twinge of heat. But he’s at Kentucky, where he hasn’t won a title since 2012, got booted in the first round by Saint Peter’s last year and missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Throw in the canceled 2020 season, and the Wildcats have not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2019. Ignite the flame.

Coach: Jon Scheyer. Sorry, I know this is not exactly thinking outside the box, but it’s not every season that the winningest coach in college basketball retires, and his 34-year-old assistant takes over and attracts the nation’s best recruiting class. The pressure on Scheyer was always going to be tremendous, but with the talent he’s got coming to Durham, it’s going to be extraordinary. Scheyer is a Krzyzewski disciple, but he is not a Krzyzewski clone. I’m curious to not only see how he coaches, but his demeanor, his approach and selfishly, his availability to the media. This could be a whole new Duke in more ways than one.

Brian: To avoid repetitiveness, I’ll consider Dana’s answers spoken-for. Or maybe they’re just entirely wrong?

Or how about both?

Player: Baylor Scheierman, Creighton. For those who need a refresh, the 6-6 reigning Summit League Player of the Year brought his 16.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game – along with 46.9 percent shooting from 3-point range – to Omaha. Scheierman was such an impactful player that there was at least a touch of worry that he’d end up in the final NBA Draft pool instead of seeing the transfer through. Put that sort of piece in Greg McDermott’s system, and it is understandable why Bluejays fans have the vapors about the possibilities.

And yet! Up-transfers are tricky. Do Scheierman’s track record and talent verify him as an All-Big East level performer from the jump? Most seem to think so, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case, but we can’t know until he’s in the throes of nightly power-level competition. Which is why this is so fascinating. Creighton has its best chance to snag a Big East title and legitimate hopes for a deep NCAA Tournament run if Scheierman’s production translates. If Scheierman isn’t that dude, and those grand aspirations fizzle, it may require multiple visits to Kros Strain Brewing to numb the pain.

Team: Houston. Kelvin Sampson is very excellent at coaching basketball and now has, probably, the most talented team he’s assembled at Houston. We get to watch him figure out how to fit a five-star talent (Jarace Walker) into the mix with established guards like Marcus Sasser, who just as easily could be earning pro money right now. And the Final Four is being held roughly five miles from campus. The ability is there to get that far and win the program’s first national championship after multiple close calls. Meanwhile, the Big 12 awaits, and that sort of run would be a hell of a way to storm into a new league in a matter of months. A massive opportunity, and no small amount of pressure to go along with it.

Coach: Sean Miller, Xavier. I was sitting with a power-conference athletic director not terribly long ago when I got hit with a pop quiz: What’s the best basketball job in the country? To rescue me from my overthinking, I was given the answer, at least in this person’s estimation: Xavier.

So let’s say that’s something remotely close to true – that it’s a school with a passionate following and a history of winning and the necessary resources to compete for championships, but located in a media market that won’t dissect every substitution or play call. Pretty ideal situation. Now add the hyper-intense coach who’s won 70-plus percent of his games — including a 120-47 record in five seasons at this very place a little more than a decade ago. And, well, that coach has been through the wringer lately, and probably wants to win big to change his career-arc narrative some. I don’t know that Miller will upend the entire college basketball paradigm in Year 1, but it’ll be fascinating to see what sort of foundation he lays.

With all of the hype around UNC and Duke, why will Tony Bennett win the ACC again? — Andrew M.

Brian: I dare say Andrew favors the program from Charlottesville. Call it impeccable journalistic instincts.

To answer honestly … I don’t think Virginia will win the ACC. But to answer in the spirit of the question, and imagine the circumstances under which Virginia might come to be ACC champions? That’s not difficult. This is a very old team, and old wins in college basketball lately. Reece Beekman continues along the old-fashioned college basketball growth chart and does lead-guy stuff that he did in flashes as a sophomore. Armaan Franklin starts hitting 3-pointers competently again. Kadin Shedrick evolves into a Defensive Player of the Year menace at the rim. Meanwhile, the newcomers at Duke — from the players to the head coach — don’t quite get it right and a hangover from the run to the national title game derails UNC more than anyone expects it would.

This would be the scenario, I think, that turns Andrew into an oracle. What do you think, Dana? Are we looking at a significant Bennett bounce-back next winter?

Dana: A significant bounce-back I can envision. A Tigger-fueled leap above Duke and North Carolina? Not sure about that. As you explained, things would have to go wrong for the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, as much as they’d have to go right for the Cavaliers. I will add the caveat, though, that I am a huge, huge believer in age and experience, and that if things do get wobbly at the top, I could foresee a wizened Virginia team upsetting the ACC applecart.

To me, the more significant question is: Can the Cavaliers respond from a very un-Tony Bennett-like year? The answer to that, I firmly believe, is yes. Last year, Virginia was average at best on both ends of the floor, slipping to 21-14 and its first NCAA Tournament miss since 2013. Plenty of coaches might have panicked in that situation. Bennett does not do panic. He did not rush into the transfer portal to plug any leaks, but instead doubled back on his own tried and true methods — of finding players who suit his style and then getting them old. Fans, who are also known as critics, might argue that there isn’t enough different about this Virginia team than that Virginia team to put much stock in a rebound (and many of those fans/critics will mention Kihei Clark predominantly in that critique). You point out accurately, Brian, some things need to —- Franklin needs to remember how to shoot, and Shedrick needs to develop consistency.

But let’s presume here that the roster under Bennett’s tutelage will, in fact, get better — there is a body of work to support such a claim. It’s hard, if not downright impossible, to imagine a scenario that Virginia isn’t back on track. That may not equate to Andrew’s hopes being realized, but it will look a lot better than last year.


Kevin Willard is already making recruiting inroads at Maryland. (Julio Cortez / AP)

What are your expectations for Kevin Willard in terms of anticipated finish/outcome in his first year as HC of the Maryland Terrapins? How did he do piecing together this year’s team? – Barry E.

Dana: I think it depends on how you judge things, Barry. If we’re looking at pure standings, the Terrapins should be better than last year, but this is not a quick fix. Willard needs time to reconfigure this team into the style that he prefers — tough, gritty grinders — and even as a lot of teams in the Big Ten transition post-graduation/NBA, you don’t just skyrocket up the standings. Short answer: be patient.

Here’s what I like, though. Willard is bringing in Jahmir Young from Charlotte via the transfer portal and, as our Sam Vecenie points out, Young is the first player from DeMatha Catholic to come to Maryland in 15 years. That is no small thing. The DMV is loaded with talent, but that talent hasn’t found its way to College Park very often, as Maryland fans know all too well. If Willard can make serious inroads on the local scene, that’s the pivot the Terps need.

Willard has an established reputation as a guy who squeezes out everything in his players. At Seton Hall and Iona, he had to — neither school was going to be the destination for the hottest recruits on the market. Now, with both the name brand of Maryland and the finances and facilities available, he can attract better players … and still squeeze everything out of them. I thought this was a no-brainer hire from the get-go, and while I can’t offer you an exact finish, Barry, I think you can count on significant improvement.

Brian: Middle-of-the-pack, probably, is about the best Maryland can hope for this season? There are probably five to seven Big Ten teams that will appear in most preseason top 25s, in some order, and the Terrapins won’t be one of them. Those frontrunners aren’t invulnerable. It could be that a Big Ten without a no-doubt Final Four contender leaves an opening for a scrappy Willard bunch to cause a ruckus.

But the most important roster Kevin Willard pieces together is the one in 2023-24. Or 2024-25. At the risk of being glib and reductive and agreeing with Dana … I can’t really be overly interested in or concerned about whom Maryland has or what Maryland does this year. It’s about a build and inroads made, much of which will occur outside the walls of the arena or practice facility. To that point: I can be interested in looking at the current list of commitments in the Class of 2023, and seeing the name Jahnathan Lamothe, and noting that he’s a four-star guard prospect from … Baltimore. As Dana said, this is a good sign. Kevin Willard needs it to be a sign of many more to come.

(Top photo of Gonzaga’s Mark Few: James Snook / USA Today)

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