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John Blanchette: Mountain’s ‘landscape’ offers Gonzaga potential dream of upward mobility

Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth watches the Zags defeat South Dakota State from the tunnel area during the second half of a first-round NCAA  Tournament game on March 16, 2017,  in Salt Lake City. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth watches the Zags defeat South Dakota State from the tunnel area during the second half of a first-round NCAA Tournament game on March 16, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

You know the best fit for Gonzaga University in the college athletic universe?


It’s the Big East Mountain West Coast Conference.

But even that wouldn’t be ideal. As in the ordering of any combination plate, there’s always going to be not quite enough of something you really want and a little too much of something you only sort of want.

Also, this particular entree doesn’t exist.

There is the Big East, the Mountain West and the West Coast Conference, and they have little in common other than some sort of never-to-be-fully-requited amore with Gonzaga and all it’s become – and hasn’t become – in the great sweatscape.

But we’re talking about it again because Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune on Wednesday got MWC commish Craig Thompson to acknowledge that, yes, he has had discussions with several schools – he said six “presidents and/or athletic directors” – about what the league may have in mind for expansion.

Gonzaga, the Spokesman-Review’s Jim Meehan confirmed with athletic director Mike Roth, is one of those schools.

Naturally, it’s just “exploratory” (Thompson’s word) and “paying attention to the landscape” (Roth’s phrase). In other words, enough to shake or stir the martini, but not pour it.

But it does seem to be increasingly evident that the school, its athletic stewards and a significant portion of its supporters will not rest until something is done in the way of a change of scenery, or circumstance.

And so maybe this needs to happen, whether it’s exactly the right thing or not.

A marriage with the Big East – gossiped about since the secession of the league’s Catholic core five years ago – is unlikely, if not impossible. Gonzaga is a handsome suitor, but not dreamy enough to overcome the geography – which is a problem for GU, as well, what with volleyball and soccer needing conference games, too.

Mountain West schools are at least in the same or adjacent time zones, and see an instant gain.

“Obviously,” Thompson told Zeigler, “they would enhance our basketball enterprise.”

Possibly even their television enterprise. Spokane may not be a big-market bump, but Gonzaga is now a national name.

So what does the Mountain West do for Gonzaga?

The just-as-obvious answer is to provide better – at least on the average – basketball competition. Maybe goose a few more dollars via the conference TV package. Be less of an RPI drag on the Zags’ NCAA resume each year than the WCC’s low-end teams.

Oh, this just in – 2017 conference RPIs: WCC 9, Mountain West 10.

See, even the black and white of this issue isn’t black and white.

Now, last year was the exception, not the rule. This year, the Mountain West is ninth in conference RPI to the WCC’s 13th. Not so many years back, the Mountain West sent five teams to the NCAA tournament, and was traditionally a multibid league – until last year. And this year again, more than likely. Which sounds a lot like the WCC without Gonzaga – though the MWC has at least developed and formalized a strategy for improving its lot, something the WCC has shrugged off.

But surely there has to be more to a move than an RPI lift, doesn’t there?

Because the Zags would be throwing in with a collective of large state universities – though not necessarily all prestigious, flagship institutions – plus a service academy, odd new bedfellows indeed. Plus there’s that football thing, which the Zags don’t have. There is talk about Brigham Young rejoining the league, too – with football, without football, who knows?

It’s a far cry from the WCC: mostly small, faith-based, like-minded institutions, as they say.

But here’s the thing: It’s clear that from an athletic standpoint – that is to say, a basketball standpoint – Gonzaga and the rest of the WCC are no longer like-minded at all, and that may go even for Saint Mary’s, regardless of its ascension into prominence.

It’s reflected in budgets, resources, ambition, scheduling and commitment.

It’s very much OK if other WCC schools don’t want to go in on basketball the same way; you make your own priorities. But it’s not OK to fund, say, field hockey at Pacific on money Gonzaga earns going to the Final Four. Or to make the Zags essentially pick up the tab for the conference office.

Losing such a sugar daddy would hurt, surely. But there’s also a thought that the dominating presence of GU, Saint Mary’s and now BYU atop the standings has stunted opportunity at those other schools – that a similar breakthrough is next to impossible now. Might be something to that.

The more truly like-minded schools for the Zags are, alas, on the East Coast. Life might be easier – if poorer – without them on the West Coast.

Is it time they head for the hills?

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