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Blanchette: Zags, so far, keep faith in WCC

Sat., Jan. 26, 2013, midnight

Confession: At the first mention of the “Catholic 7,” the reflexive question was, “When’s the trial date?”

Now research has revealed that while rooted in a certain context of protest and revolution, the group is not an evolutionary incarnation of the Catonsville 9 or the original Chicago 8.

At the very least, the Catholic 7 will have a better TV contract and conference RPI.

It’s a sign of the nervous times in college athletics that when the seven private universities of the once-proud-but- now-a-punch-line Big East Conference more or less declared an impending secession back before Christmas, the after-shudders were felt in Spokane.

The headlines all but screamed, “Catholic Super League!”

And, really, can there be a conversation about such a thing in college basketball without a mention of Gonzaga?

So naturally the subject came up when West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich flew into town for the Zags’ blistering of BYU on Thursday and stayed for a Friday morning campus forum about the state of college athletics.

The Cliffs Notes version: Picture one of those ballpark fan free-for-alls where they drop $1,000 from a helicopter.

For an example, Zaninovich produced a slide at his presentation charting conference-to- conference movement in just the last 2 ½ years. It looked like Jackson Pollock illustrating the Big Bang Theory.

The football-driven money grab has inevitably turned college basketball into something of a chew toy, and the first real manifestation of the resentment is the Catholic 7 – Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and DePaul.

On the table is a 12-year, $500 million deal from Fox dependent on the seven adding five additional members. The likely pool includes Butler, Xavier, Creighton, St. Louis and Dayton.

The wild-card school you already know.

To this point, the principals at Gonzaga have maintained there have been no overtures, no discussions, that they’re monitoring a situation in which the 7 must finesse scads of details before there’s another significant development.

Which, of course, isn’t a “no.”

As the manager for a no-football conference that has nonetheless dipped its toe into expansion with the outside-the-box addition of BYU and, next year, the less sexy annexation of Pacific, Zaninovich enjoys the fact that someone in the lodge is making a move for basketball reasons. Even if he’s unsure just how it might relate to his league.

“I want to say this carefully,” he said, “but in my mind this is less about Catholic institutions than it is about basketball-focused schools, NBA arenas and major markets.”

Whatever appreciation those schools might have for Gonzaga’s basketball profile, it seems unlikely that they see themselves in quite the same way, religious affiliation notwithstanding. Or how did Zaninovich put it?

“If you’ve spent any time with New Yorkers,” he said, “you know they think nothing exists outside of New York because everything they need is there. Chicago is viewed as the end of the earth.

“It’s just easier for them to look inward.”

And they can likely get to their target number without leapfrogging time zones.

Zaninovich pointed out what should be obvious: There is no such thing as simply a basketball conference. Women’s hoops, volleyball, soccer, baseball – all must make the same round-robin trips the men’s basketball team does. That’s true of, say, West Virginia competing in the Big 12, too, but the difference between football and basketball TV money weighs into that equation.

There has also been the rather amusing report that the Catholic 7 wants to divvy up its TV take as it sees fit, cutting any additional teams in for a lesser share. Never mind that four of those schools (Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and DePaul) have far less basketball appeal, or recent success, than a Butler or Xavier. And having just concocted this move after years of chafing as second-class citizens in a league scurrying all over the country for football cred, this hardly seems like the way to start a business, or appeal to new members.

Zaninovich would understand that dynamic. He oversees a conference with ultra-Alpha basketball dog, even with the emergence of Saint Mary’s on the national scene and the addition of BYU. Still, Gonzaga has never indulged in the kind of strong-arming that just got Boise State a bigger share of the pie to return to the Mountain West Conference.

“Most every conference has some imbalance,” he said. “We look to manage initiatives that in no way hinder individual schools’ ability to grow, but will also benefit growth across the league. The reality is, none of our schools are going to be any good if we have too many schools that are bad.”

It’s what adds some tension to Gonzaga’s “monitoring.” Life in the WCC is comfortable; staying relevant as a national program might require change that’s uncomfortable.

Depending on if the conversation ever gets that far, of course.


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