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Big Ten considering expansion with ... Arizona State?

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The Big Ten has had talks with Arizona State hockey. What does that mean for other sports, and the conference in general?

Courtney Pedroza-House of Sparky

A few months ago, Arizona State shocked the college hockey world with the announcement that they would move their successful program into the Division I ranks, the first school in the Southwest to do so. Heck, there's only one other D1 program in the south, period. That's exciting news for Sun Devils fans, but it does lead to the onerous question: just who are the going to play?

From just glancing at a map, there are a few options that seem like they would make some sense for the Sun Devils, like the NCHC (which has a few programs in Colorado) and the WCHA, which has programs from Alabama to Alaska. In fact, those conferences have talked with Arizona State about membership. But another conference is also apparently interested.

The Big Ten. No, seriously. From the Star Tribune:

Arizona State and the Big Ten both confirmed they've discussed a hockey future together. An outside school competing in one Big Ten sport already occurs in men's lacrosse with Johns Hopkins.

Two other conferences with a major presence in the Midwest, the WCHA and the NCHC, are also engaged in conversations with the Sun Devils.

"I think being in a conference with like institutions is important," {Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer} Heppel said. "[Arizona State] is going to have to think about that from an institutional and sport perspective. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have a historic relationship.

So on one hand, that seems a bit crazy. Recent east coast additions have eroded the Big Ten's midwestern identity a little bit, but at least Maryland and New Jersey physically touch other Big Ten states, and came with a built in rivalry (Penn State). Maryland and Rutgers are also similar schools, academically, to other Big Ten institutions. They're both in the AAU and they're both academically selective.

Arizona State is none of those things. It's over 1,200 miles away from the nearest school in the Big Ten, and over 1,600 miles from the closest hockey playing Big Ten school. Despite the high number of midwestern ex-pats in Phoenix, Arizona State is as far away from a midwestern campus as you could possibly get, and while nobody is likely to confuse Michigan State and Nebraska with Harvard, at least nobody writes jokes like this about them for popular TV shows.

Of course, the Big Ten recently added an associate member to help bulk up another sport, bringing in Johns Hopkins for Big Ten lacrosse. This is a slightly different scenario, as Hopkins is an academically elite powerhouse, already in the Big Ten footprint (Baltimore), an already has an established, elite program. They're also already rivals with Maryland. Arizona State, while successful at other levels, will be a new program without those connections.

That doesn't mean this potential move is entirely without merit though. Bringing Arizona State in could give BTN and Big Ten hockey additional exposure in the west, especially in a huge city like Phoenix that has a bunch of Big Ten graduates living there already.

While it isn't an academically selective research powerhouse, ASU is still a huge school near a major city that does do a lot of research, so it wouldn't be like adding say, Union College, or some tiny northeastern liberal arts college with a 3,000 person enrollment that might feel even more alien in the Big Ten.

And while Arizona State would never in a million years join the actual Big Ten, a hypothetical associate membership could still be beneficial. From conference realignment aficionado Frank The Tank:

At the same time, the Big Ten has the opportunity to make this into a broader relationship beyond hockey. For example, imagine if Arizona State commits to playing 1 or 2 Big Ten football teams per year, 2 to 3 non-conference basketball games, and several non-conference baseball games (where the Big Ten legitimately needs help from a powerhouse in that sport like ASU). That's not a huge commitment from either Arizona State (and they may have wanted to schedule those types of non-conference games on their own, anyway) or the Big Ten, yet it starts building a more in-depth presence in the Phoenix area, which is a key market for Big Ten alums.

So maybe bolting on a weird fit for one sport might be worth it if the conference is able to leverage a relationship for basketball and football. The Sun Devils have a future home and home scheduled with Michigan State, and recently had one with Illinois. Could they shoehorn additional games, especially for some of the Big Ten squads that struggle a little to get bigger names to go their stadiums, like Iowa? Could they help provide some RPI help for an Ohio State or a Purdue? Revenue sport scheduling is a complicated beast, and perhaps any additional help you could get is worth it.

Ideally, any Big Ten expansion for hockey would come from Big Ten member schools, as there are several schools that have either successful club programs, or potential access to recruits, like Illinois, Nebraska, or Maryland. But making the Division I jump requires a large amount of money that isn't forthcoming yet (although the Star Tribune did say that at least three Big Ten schools are quietly considering adding the sport).

Regardless of whether the Big Ten adds Arizona State, it's worth asking if associate memberships for other sports would be a good idea for the league. Frank also floated the idea of MIT to the Big Ten for rowing, an arrangement that would add another research powerhouse to the Big Ten brand, and a move that I think would bother exactly zero Big Ten fans. Would the Big Ten be better served to try and pluck another hockey established hockey program from another league? Perhaps an academically inclined baseball team (the Big Ten has only 13 baseball programs, since Wisconsin doesn't have one). Or should the conference throw institutional fit out the window, and just to grab an awesome program in a cool city, geography be damned?

It isn't clear, but if the conference is willing to seriously entertain adding a hockey team all the way in Arizona, they're clearly willing to entertain some out of the box thinking. Maybe it's time fans do the same.