Perhaps it’s because Gonzaga just faced Villanova and Creighton in a five-day stretch, but chatter about the Zags and the Big East Conference resurfaced again this week.
The topic was mentioned first in December 2012 when the Big East was restructuring into a basketball-driven, 10-team conference by bringing Butler, Xavier and Creighton into the fold.
The Omaha World-Herald posted an article earlier this week with the headline:
“Gonzaga to the Big East? Keep an eye on it.”
Creighton A.D. Bruce Rasmussen seems solidly in Gonzaga’s corner. He said in March 2016 that he would support Gonzaga and Wichita State if the Big East decided to expand to 12 teams.
Rasmussen, chair of the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee, recently spent time watching the Zags and other top teams at the PK80 in Portland and toured Gonzaga’s facilities prior to the GU-Creighton game last Friday.
Gonzaga A.D. Mike Roth said he’s visited with Rasmussen on several occasions about “what does the future look like, what are leagues doing, all those types of things.
“One of my jobs is to pay attention to the landscape. There’s no harm in having discussions.”
The Zags could be a fit in the Big East as far as being a private Jesuit school with a strong basketball tradition, Roth said.
“We’re very much alike when you think about it. The thing that hasn’t changed is we haven’t moved and they haven’t invented teleporting.”
The Big East’s westernmost team is Creighton in Omaha, Nebraska.
“That was a tough decision for them to bring in Creighton, although it was a great fit,” Roth said. “They struggled with how far away Omaha is. That’s a hurdle they may never be able to overcome.”
Roth hasn’t spoken with other Big East athletic directors, so he’s not sure how strongly they view geography as an issue.
Among other numerous unanswered questions: Would a move involve all sports or just basketball? Is there a suitable Western school to accompany Gonzaga? Would the Big East choose to divide into two divisions to cut down on travel?
“For Gonzaga to enter into the discussion it would have to take some sort of out-of-the-box thinking, probably involving TV partners and multiple parts of the country and time zones,” Roth said. “In some ways, that’s what the Big Ten did with (adding) Maryland and Rutgers when they didn’t have that East Coast footprint.”
NCAA.com’s Andy Katz, previously at ESPN for 17 years, mentioned recently that Gonzaga would love to join the Big East in a short write-up on the Zags in his power 36 rankings. Katz also acknowledged the geographical hurdle.
Gonzaga’s national brand has grown stronger since the original Big East scuttlebutt in 2012. The Zags reached the national championship game last season, made the Sweet 16 in 2016 and the Elite Eight in 2015.
The Zags continue to be a regular in the rankings, NCAA Tournament and at prestigious holiday tournaments. They’re close to opening the $24 million Volkar Center. The new men’s basketball locker room is nearly complete. The school recently unveiled $3 million scoreboard/videoboard updates.
The Big East is a basketball power, landing seven NCAA Tournament bids last season, including top overall seed Villanova. Since the formation of the new Big East, the conference has earned 23 NCAA Tournament bids, trailing only the ACC (28), Big 12 (27) and Big Ten (27).
The WCC has had seven bids in that same four-year span.
Conference realignment never seems far away in college athletics, but there are few clear signals about what’s coming next.
“It’s a murky, cloudy crystal ball,” Roth said. “What does the future look like for college basketball alone because of the trigger of the NCAA scandal (from the FBI investigation) things might change? Does it also trigger discussions of megaconferences for basketball? One piece that’s out there is do you follow the football model with a I-A and I-AA? Those are just some of the things people are floating out there.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few gets asked about conference shuffling every year at the NCAA Tournament.
“If there’s a movement that’s going to happen,” Few said last March, “we’re going to look out for what’s best for Gonzaga.”
“I actually think the Big East is positioned, if they want, to expand,” Few told the New York Times in March 2016. “If they wanted to expand nationally, I think that would be really, really crafty, and they could be a national basketball-only conference.”
Roth said Gonzaga’s stance hasn’t changed. The school is positioning itself in case the next realignment wave creates something in GU’s best interests.
“It isn’t happening right now, but I’m not ever closing the door on something that could happen potentially,” he said. “But one thing our fans and your readers have to understand: We don’t invite our way in. This is by invitation only.”