Money continues to fuel latest round of conference realignment

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Money continues to fuel latest round of conference realignment

So much for that peace and quiet.

When Notre Dame became the 14 12th member of the ACC in September, plenty figured the latest conference expansion and realignment cycle had finally reached an endgame. The dust had settled, with Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Texas A&M, Missouri, West Virginia, TCU and Notre Dame (in a limited fashion) joining up with new or different power conferences that didn't always fit geographically.

The Big 10 had 12 teams and the Big 12 had 10. The Pac 10 changed its name to the Pac 12. The ACC and SEC grew to 14 full members.

Make no mistake, money is driving these moves. That's easy to confuse with greed, but with TV contracts skyrocketing in payouts, schools began to look toward financial security instead of traditional rivalries and associations. That's why Texas won't play Texas A&M, Mizzou and Kansas are done and the same goes for Notre Dame and Michigan after 2014.

So when rumors began flying about the Big 10 adding Maryland and Rutgers on Saturday, one observer of -- and participant in -- realignment wasn't exactly taken aback.

"I guess we've all learned never to predict that," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said Saturday of stability in conference movement. "If this occurs, the timing is a surprise to me, sort of this happening when, not the fact of it but the timing of it is a little of a surprise."

For Maryland, the move was almost entirely financial -- that was overarching theme of Dr. Wallace Loh's press conference from College Park Monday. The cash-strapped athletic department in College Park needed a lifeline, with the Big Ten and its lucrative network providing just that (Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel reported Maryland projects it'll earn 100 million more in the Big 10 though 2020). For the Big Ten, Maryland delivers the mid-Atlantic market for the Big Ten Network.

The same goes for Rutgers, which will be announced as the 14th member of the Big Ten Tuesday afternoon. The Piscataway, N.J.-based school is the closest FBS program to New York City, meaning the Big Ten Network will have serious pull on the nation's largest city.

"In this case, we were there at 12 quite happy, but change kept happening," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Monday. "Conferences were outside their region over and over and over again. We thought given what had happen around the country, this was a natural response, and if they were interested in us, we were certainly interested in them."

It's about the money, too, for Rutgers -- most reports have the Big Ten's payout to its members at 24 million annually -- but it's also about keeping a program in a dying conference relevant. The Big East will be lumped with the Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA in having one bid to one of college football's access bowls that'll be set up with the playoff format in 2014. The Big Ten provides far more stability for Rutgers than the Big East, which may wind up losing Boise State and San Diego State, too, according to a few reports Monday.

For the ACC, they'll need to add another member to avoid having the headache of an odd number of teams. Most likely, John Swofford & Co. will pick at the Big East carcass, with UConn and Louisville potentially being attractive options. The conference would love to get Notre Dame in as a full member, but given the school's deal with the Orange Bowl and NBC, that's unlikely.

And on the flip side, Notre Dame isn't regretting its decision to join the ACC, even if the conference is in flux for the immediate future.

"It doesn't have any impact," Swarbrick said of Maryland's then-rumored move. "It has absolutely zero impact, and it wouldn't change anything about our decision-making process. If we were going to engage in it today, it wouldn't change at all."

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After getting another signature win at Maryland, does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

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USA TODAY

After getting another signature win at Maryland, does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

Does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

The Golden Gophers went on the road and defeated a ranked group of Maryland Terrapins on Wednesday night, and they did so in impressive fashion, scoring an 89-75 victory in College Park.

Team this win with the win at Purdue back on New Year's Day, and there's no better pair of league victories to be found.

More importantly though, the Gophers, at 9-6, are now the No. 4 team in the Big Ten standings.

It's all a part of a quality NCAA tournament resume for the Gophers, who are closer to lock status after Wednesday's win than they are to being on any sort of bubble. With mediocrity running rampant through the Big Ten this season, Richard Pitino's 21-win squad should be well on its way to an appearance in next month's Madness, which would be the program's first since he took over as head coach.

The resume looks pretty strong at this point, especially after Wednesday. Minnesota can now claim wins over Purdue, Maryland and Northwestern — all three of those conference victories coming on the road. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Gophers beat Arkansas, the Razorbacks seemingly heading to the tournament themselves. The only loss from the non-conference portion came on the road at Florida State, one of the highest-ranked teams in the country.

So it's safe to say Minnesota will go dancing.

Wednesday's 14-point beatdown of the Terps saw the Gophers shoot 50 percent from the field on the night and 54.5 percent from the field in the second half. Five players scored in double figures: Dupree McBrayer with 18, Nate Mason with 17, Akeem Springs with 16, Jordan Murphy with 15 and Amir Coffey with 13. Minnesota didn't win the rebounding battle but scored 15 points off 10 Maryland turnovers and marched to the free-throw line, going 17-for-20 from the charity stripe while Maryland was just 8-for-13 there.

The second half was a rout, the Gophers outscoring the Terps 55-40 over the final 20 minutes and rattling off two separate 9-0 runs to burst away from the No. 24 team in the country.

The overtime win at Purdue on the first day of 2017 might go down as a bigger win considering the Boilermakers are closing in on the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That win, too, came by an impressive-enough margin, 91-82. But Minnesota dominated Maryland over the final nine minutes or so and turned in a double-digit victory on the road against a team that lost to that same Purdue team on that same court by just a point two and a half weeks ago.

The Gophers are now on a six-game winning streak and are piling up wins in a fashion that's making them look like one of the Big Ten's finest. A 3-1 start to conference play that extended its overall record to 15-2 was dampened by Minnesota's five-game losing streak that featured losses to higher-echelon teams like Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland, plus road losses at Penn State and Ohio State. But since have come six straight wins. While the caliber of opponent hadn't been terribly impressive until Wednesday, the Gophers can now boast nine conference wins. Only three teams have more.

It's now worth watching how high Minnesota can climb in the Big Ten standings before the conference tournament just two weeks from now. If the season ended today, the Gophers would already be in possession of one of those highly coveted two-day byes. But Minnesota is just a game back of Maryland and just two games back of Wisconsin, who the Gophers play in the regular-season finale.

Like Pitino told his team after Wednesday's win: "No more talk about (just making) the NCAA tournament. We're talking about seeds in the NCAA tournament."