Cincinnati accepts invitation to join Big 12, what it means for women's lacrosse
The University of Cincinnati was one of four institutions to accept invitations to join the Big 12 conference on Friday. BYU, Central Florida, and Houston are the other three schools set to join the Power 5 conference in the latest episode of conference realignment.
As current members of the American Athletic Conference, Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston are scheduled to join the conference in 2024. However, multiple reports believe the schools will be able to join the Big 12 in 2023, a year earlier than expected.
The move to the Big 12 is a huge milestone for each of these institutions, especially those in the AAC. Thanks in large part to success in football as well as athletic facilities, media markets, undergraduate enrollment, and many more factors, each of these schools are now in a prime place to grow long-term.
There's plenty to read about the impact of this move, from the Big 12's standpoint to the AAC's as well as the trickle down effect it may have after that. But for this, we'll focus on how this impacts Cincinnati's women's lacrosse program.
The program began in 2008 before joining the Big East the following year. They won just four conference games, their first coming in 2013 followed by two more in 2017 and their final one in 2018.
Cincy's best season to date came in 2019, their first as a member of the new AAC lacrosse conference. The Bearcats went 12-7 overall and 4-1 in conference play, falling to Florida in the conference championship game. It's also been their only season they finished above .500. After a shortened 3-4 season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bearcats went 7-10 this past year, losing to Florida in the AAC semifinals.
Gina Thomas's crew will have at least a couple more seasons left in the AAC before the athletic department officially moves to the Big 12. But when the move is complete, where will the Bearcats reside for women's lacrosse?
For starters, the Big 12 sponsors every sport Cincinnati has to offer, except for women's lacrosse. Cincinnati will be the first school in the Big 12 that has a lacrosse program, women's or men's.
There's two paths to choose. The easy option for the women's lacrosse program is to try and stay in the American. But that might be weird on the American's side for a couple of reasons.
First, there would be a former full-time member still involved, but as an associate member. We saw this recently with Robert Morris leaving the NEC for the Horizon League. Despite the Horizon not sponsoring men's or women's lacrosse, the Colonials were left without at conference home until the women went to the MAC and the men went to the newly formed ASUN. Would be a bit weird to breakup with someone and ask them if you could still live at their place.
Second, four of the six schools in the conference would be associate members (Cincy, Florida, Old Dominion, Vanderbilt). Perhaps that might not be an issue as we're seeing with the ASUN men's lacrosse conference which has five associate members (Bellarmine's the only full ASUN member). However, this is possible thanks to their lacrosse partnership with the Southern Conference.
The second path is If Cincinnati had to find another conference, which feels like they will have to do. The obvious option, and perhaps the best fit, is the Big East, the conference they were in for 10 years.
The Bearcats would have conference foes that are in the midwest with Butler and Marquette, both of them bus rides away compared to just one in the AAC with Vanderbilt.
But the big plus would be igniting an immediate rivalry in women's lacrosse with in-state foe Xavier. The Musketeers are scheduled to start play in 2023 as an independent, but will join the Big East in 2024, which could be in the same academic year that Cincinnati is officially in the Big 12. The campuses are roughly three miles apart and produce one of the best college basketball rivalries in the country, the Crosstown Shootout.
With eight teams potentially in the conference and needing at least six for an automatic qualifier, it would make it easier for geographic outlier Denver to find a new conference that would be more suitable for them while not negatively affecting the program or the Big East. Joining San Diego State and UC Davis in a rebuilt MPSF would be a start. But there would have to be at least three other new programs located in either the Pacific or Mountain Time Zone for it to get serious traction. That is unless the Pac-12 is open to inviting all three as associate members and increasing to nine women's lacrosse programs (SDSU is already an affiliate member for men's soccer).
As for Cincinnati, a return to the Big East makes all the sense in the world. And perhaps soon enough, women's lacrosse begins to enter Big 12 country. Especially in Texas.