August 5, 2023 

Discussion: A women’s basketball future without the Pac-12

Michelle Smith, Alex Simon and Matthew Walter share their thoughts on the changing Pac-12 and conference realignment

The Next’s Michelle Smith, Alex Simon and Matthew Walter have all covered Pac-12 women’s basketball. In the wake of five schools announcing their departure from the Pac-12 on Friday, the three of them shared their thoughts about the dissolution of the 108-year-old conference and what comes next for the teams that are departing and those that are left behind.

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Michelle Smith: Welp, the Pac-12 as we know it is gone. How are we all feeling?

Alex Simon: At first, it’s just sadness. There certainly is a lot that has been said about West Coast college sports fans over the years, and it’s clear that there may not be the same amount of fans for Pac-12 schools by volume as there are in other places. But there are an awful lot of people who still care about it, and it’s not hard to see that a ton of them are going to be wildly disconnected after this.

Matthew Walter: I have been watching the Pac-12 since I was a kid and to see the conference dissolving is devastating. It has meant a lot to a lot of people on the West Coast with great rivalries and many great matchups in every sport over the years. It brought a lot of great people together and they will no longer have those opportunities. A lot of people care about it and to see it disappear is heartbreaking.

Michelle Smith: Honestly, I’m just trying to get past my feelings to form some cogent thoughts. It’s just devastating. Some of the most consequential players in the history of the women’s game have come out of the Pac-12 — Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Nneka Ogwumike, Jennifer Azzi, Kelsey Plum, Sabrina Ionescu — national champions, the game’s (and soon the sport’s) winningest coach in Tara VanDerveer. It is unimaginable to me that one year from now this conference as we know it will cease to exist.

Smith: How do we think this alters the national landscape? How does a school like Stanford maintain its status as a national powerhouse, how does this change the recruiting landscape for schools like Arizona and Oregon? I have so many questions.

Simon: I think it’s fair to assume the schools and their coaches don’t even have the answers to that yet, either.

For Stanford specifically, this may not make a massive difference in some ways — they have always recruited nationally and played challenging nonconference schedules before the Pac-12 was as good and deep as it is now. They can go back to that.

For the others? Man, it’s really hard to know — does not playing in California at all change how Colorado, Arizona and presumably Arizona State and Utah can recruit the state? And do Oregon and Washington need to look more Midwest? Or is the Big Ten too national now for it to matter regionally?

I don’t think anyone knows.

Walter: The national landscape will change completely. The Big Ten probably becomes the best women’s basketball conference in the country. How Stanford maintains its status depends so much on what conference they join, but I expect the strength of what Stanford has built and their history will keep them in the upper echelon of the country. I don’t think anyone’s recruiting landscape is going to change. People are already recruiting both nationally and internationally at that level, so I don’t think it will change anyone’s recruiting footprint.

Smith: Here’s where I think the recruiting landscape may change a little bit. The Pac-12 has been really good over the past eight years or so, at keeping the West Coast kids on the West Coast. Say what you will about the Pac-12 Network, but there were a lot of women’s games on television, and it offered kids who lived in the region an opportunity to stay close to home, to have their parents watch them play and to be on television. That goes away now.

Smith: How do the competitive prospects of Oregon, Washington, UCLA and USC figure in the Big Ten? I think they are good and that some of those established Big Ten programs may not be very happy to see them coming. The Pac-12, last year’s substandard postseason aside, has been incredibly competitive and these are all programs that will push the best teams in the Big Ten. I also think Colorado, Utah and Arizona will figure quickly into the mix in the Big 12. And I’m sick for Cal, Washington State and Oregon State. The former because the Bears have had such a difficult few seasons, while the Cougars and the Beavers are competitive programs with great coaches and no real home at this moment.

Walter: Both the Big 12 and Big Ten have TV networks and I think that [players’ families] will still be able to watch them at home thanks to those conferences’ deals with ESPN and Fox.

I think all four of the teams moving to the Big Ten will be competitive, but it won’t be easy. The Big Ten already has the likes of Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and the list goes on. I think they will all compete at a high level right away and that is why the Big Ten just became the best women’s basketball conference in the country.

For Arizona, Colorado and Utah, they will help to raise the standard of women’s basketball in the Big 12. Not one Big 12 team made the Sweet 16 last year with six total teams making the NCAA Tournament as a whole. Both Colorado and Utah made the Sweet 16 a year ago and with Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the SEC, the four Pac-12 additions will move right in and be ready to compete with the likes of Baylor, Iowa State and others. It’ll be interesting to see the Big 12 with eight new members over the span of two years.

Simon: I would think the Big Ten women’s basketball scene could be insanely good. All four schools heading there have had high-level success in their time. It may be tougher, but all four have the women’s basketball capabilities to be successful.

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Smith: I worry about the impacts on these athletes in terms of academics, travel and injuries related to fatigue. Am I being a worrywart mom?

Simon: I don’t think you’re a worrywart at all. In fact, I think we’ll eventually look back at this as “The Day College Sports Died As We Knew Them.”

Every single decision being made here is putting aside everything that college sports supposedly stood for in the name of money. There is nothing about these decisions that prioritize the “student-athlete” experience. Congress and the Supreme Court have already been looking hard at college sports before these moves, and I have to imagine these moves will only accelerate massive changes that will come, with the big one being these athletes becoming employees.

Walter: I agree with Alex, I have real concerns about how all these moves affect the future of all college sports. It is obvious these decisions are being made just thinking about football and not any other sport. I can’t imagine being UCLA and having to play a road game at Rutgers in basketball or baseball or any other sport. I think “The Day College Sports Died As We Knew Them” is a great phrase for this. Is this the beginning of the end? Only time will tell but I have a suspicion it might be.

Smith: It’s interesting to already see some female student-athletes from the departing Pac-12 schools discussing on social media the strain that cross-country travel will put on their studies, their mental health and their families’ ability to see them play. They didn’t ask for this. They had no say in it, but I think many nonfootball athletes may start to have their say in their own way and if that is the impetus for Congress to take a look at this, that will be interesting to watch.

Simon: It feels like a true and honest “cutting off our face to save our nose” situation for college sports writ large, but this is a failure of leadership. Pac-12 leadership of past and present, for bungling this so many different times each step of the way. School presidents and leaders at individual schools, for prioritizing greed over well-being. And on the NCAA, for being so entirely powerless that they couldn’t legitimately stop its own conferences and schools from blowing the landscape up in a way that will forever change it.

I happen to love college football. But man, do I hate what that specific sport has done to the rest of the college sports landscape.

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

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1 Comment

  1. Steve Sprenger on August 7, 2023 at 4:54 pm

    My family and I have watched Oregon State Women’s Basketball and Volleyball since 1988, and yes we watched and got to know Michelle. I will say that the increased exposure has brought more fans and recognition for the programs and the athletes, but I have also seen the affects of extra stress and the gotta win (rough and tumble) that is promoted to appease some of the fans, with a loss in the finesse and good sportsmanship. And coaching has suffered as well, some are classy and some act more like Marine drill instructors (totally unnecessary). We will miss watching all of the great player that make the games exciting, but we will be there none the less.

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