Hypothetical question: What would the college basketball world be like right now if Louisville had stayed in Conference USA?
Now that the two have locked up 1 and 2 seeds, it's as good a time as ever to wonder what if?
Usually when throwing around the "What if?" in this part of the college sports country, it's about what if the Big East never lost Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College? How would the football conference look? Would the basketball side be as dominant?
But what if the Cards stayed where they were? At that time Louisville was on their way to national prominence. In 2005, the last season UL was in C-USA, they reached the Final Four. Not too shabby for a mid-major.
At the same time Memphis was also on the rise. John Calipari had turned things around at Penny Hardaway's alma mater. But as off 2005 they were still on the cusp. Who can forget them missing the tournament because Darius Washington missed two free throws in the conference tournament championship game with no time remaining and his team down one? And then collapsing at the free throw line in tears.
Since then Calipari has led Memphis to a championship game and gotten the best player in his class twice, with Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins.
Still, would either program be the same if Louisville had stayed?
For Louisville, I believe it would have. Rick Pitino is a proven winner and he had no problem doing it in the C-USA. He got the program to the final weekend in the conference and seemed prime to make it a constant. It also helped him that Kentucky was on the way down, making UL the power of the region.
But Memphis, maybe not. The player that changed their program, Derrick Rose, came only after Memphis had established themselves as kings of the mid-major. At the same time their success up to that point had been enough to show Rose that he could go to C-USA and not become irrelevant.
Not to say Memphis would have become irrelevant with Louisville there. Just not as important. Unburdened by battling for recruits in the region, knowing full well that if anyone substantial came along Calipari could snatch them up, Memphis moved their recruiting to a nation scope. A program can't be big-time these days without recruiting nationwide.
It seems unlikely that so many major recruits as Memphis and Louisville have been able to grab the last 3 years would have agreed to go to C-USA without a guarantee of dominance and prominence. Look at Gonzaga. They have been able to recruit in the WCC and get some big recruits like Austin Daye but no other team has been as successful.
So what would have become of Memphis and Louisville if the Cards never left? Louisville would be largely unchanged. And Memphis would have been right on their tail, but probably not at the level they are now.