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John Blanchette: In the end, a change of scenery just wasn’t enough for Gonzaga

UPDATED: Tue., April 3, 2018, 8:55 a.m.

Joke that will be making the rounds this Gonzaga basketball off-season:

Fan 1: Did you hear the Zags have joined a new conference?

Fan 2: Hot diggity, it’s about time. Which one?

Fan 1: The Big Tease.

Well, that’s probably the way Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson will tell it, anyway. He’ll certainly tell somebody something. He can’t help himself.

In the shortest romance since Taylor Swift and, well, anybody, Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth made official Monday the ceasefire of flirtations between the Bulldogs and the MWC. That means a boffo 40th year in the West Coast Conference awaits the Zags — and likely a few more season ticket holders scurrying to Craigslist to peddle their seats for the next Loyola Marymount game.

When they were so looking forward to scalping a pair for a San Jose State game.

Heh, heh, heh.

Now the fan base can move on to further angst. It’s one thing to be sweating out whether a couple of blossoming young stars might bail early to meet their futures, and another to wonder whether the entire program needs to stand pat or take a walk.

Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s WCC lodge brothers can exhale … or mumble under their breath.

And the Mountain West? It took a minor dent to its dignity, helped along by the commish’s, uh, candor. If you’re going to talk about the big fish on the line, you’d better get him in the boat.

It’s not as if the Zags were going to just hop in without an invitation.

“The reality is, the Mountain West contacted us and asked us to consider joining,” said Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth. “We set the table early on by saying there were going to be some significant hurdles for us to overcome — never saying they were insurmountable. There were just things we needed to figure out.”

The WCC helped them, enacting some changes in scheduling (two fewer league games), tourney format (back to the double-bye for the top two teams) and NCAA and television revenue sharing the Zags had been urging for some time. In a conversation at the Final Four with Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Thompson maintained that the WCC was “offering some things that probably don’t make sense for our league.”

Except the MWC had made a similar TV allowance to keep Boise State’s in the league six years ago. But that was for football which made more sense. Apparently.

In any case, the Zags doing their due diligence on the pros and cons gave their vast constituency a chance for their own assessment. The conclusions should have been the same — that moving to the Mountain West would have been a change of scenery, and not a whole lot else.

Yes, there were likely to be gains in the RPI and road-trip noogies. Would that have translated into better NCAA tournament positioning? In the last six years, the Zags have been seeded 1, 8, 2, 11, 1 and 4 — a 4.5 average. In their 20-year NCAA run, they’ve been better than a No. 4 exactly three other times. Surely the recent tournament accomplishments speak for themselves.

The Zags can get there from here. They’ve been getting there.

Meanwhile, no one’s celebrating more than your local newspaper, where management was looking at having to hire an army of interns to field game-night calls from TV viewers wondering what lotto combination they have to punch on their remotes to find the CBS Sports Network.

So Gonzaga is staying. What now?

The changes the WCC adopted are likely being called “the Gonzaga rules” in some quarters already, no matter how smoothly they passed. If there’s even a hint that one school is driving the agenda, there’s bound to be some resentment — logical or not.

“But we made these changes collectively, and there’s potential benefit for all 10 members,” Roth insisted. “There was no change specific to Gonzaga, including the revenue distribution piece. All 10 have an equal opportunity to earn those and benefit. As for the scheduling, it’s an opportunity for schools to get more non-conference wins and that will help them and the conference.”

But beyond that, Roth senses a changing wind, that some recent turnover in coaches, ADs and presidents through the WCC has allowed some members to “realize the opportunity they have, not just to invest in their programs but invest wisely, because they see what can be done,” he said.

And not because Gonzaga has been doing it for 20 years. Just look at Loyola-Chicago’s splendid story that ended over the weekend. That’s a very WCC-ish institution — that in the previous 10 seasons finished below .500 seven times. Two years ago, the Ramblers’ RPI was 239.

“It’s another great example of what a run into March can do for your institution,” Roth said.

And that’s not a tease at all.


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