Actual human engagement returned to McCarthey Athletic Center on Thursday night, and not a minute too soon.
Surely it doesn’t hurt that school is back in session at Gonzaga University, and with it the requisite uptick in volume. Also, the visiting team from Loyola Marymount keeping it within two touchdowns at halftime was a welcome touch. Of course, unlike the previous Thursday’s opponent, this one seemed to be trying to, you know, win.
But 10 minutes from the end, it was the same old, same old – Bulldogs by a bundle, and an early, steady drizzle to the parking lot. That the Lions kept battling and narrowed the final to 73-55 disguised the ability gap some.
For those of you who start channel surfing for other amusements at halftime, the spread in the Zags’ 12 home games this season has averaged out to 34 points – 37 if you toss out the lone thriller decided by fewer than 18. Such a pace could produce Gonzaga’s most lopsided home report card, though the best of the West Coast Conference is obviously still to come.
Nonetheless, there must be a ticket holder or two who’s weighing his four-figure outlay and wondering if a do-over on Gonzaga’s romance with the Mountain West Conference that had everyone hyperventilating last March would restore some drama on game night.
Evidence both mathematical and anecdotal has revealed this to be the season of the Great WCC Revival – all 10 teams at .500 or better up to New Year’s, a 15-14 mark against the Power 6 leagues and no fewer than five teams in the top 125 of college basketball’s new yardstick, the NET.
It just so happens that Gonzaga is still Gonzaga, and more so at home.
In the meantime, a look at the Mountain West shows four teams 200 or lower in the NET – twice as many as the WCC. The various conference rankings have the WCC at No. 8 or 9; the MWC is no higher than 10, and as low as 16. By the time the NCAA committee meets to settle the seeds, they’ll have to be reassured that the 85-58 loss to New Mexico on No. 10 Nevada’s data sheet isn’t the computer having a seizure.
Now, this season is this season and not the next or the one after. One year does not a trend make.
And naturally, if you take Gonzaga’s considerable contributions to those metrics and add them to the MWC’s, all the WCC’s blue sky gets pretty gray in a hurry.
But algebra aside, it’s safe to say that Gonzaga is content with its decision last spring to keep the company it has kept for 40 years.
“It was never, ‘Where can we continue to have success?’ ” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “It was, ‘Where can we keep building on this success the best?’ And in our view, it was this league.”
Gonzaga’s pro-con list was exhaustive and vetted again and again. The Mountain West offered some big buildings and supercharged atmospheres, and some schools with impressive basketball pasts – UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State. But none of the programs – even nouveau power Nevada – measured up to Gonzaga’s achievements of the past two decades in any substantive way.
And the WCC had, for lack of a better term, the home-court advantage.
“A lot of that was cooperation and support from our peers,” Roth said, referencing the league’s willingness to budge on matters from scheduling to revenue distribution, both past and future. “And in the end, we’re so similar, most of us.
“There’s really nobody like us in the Mountain West, not even Air Force.”
But it was intriguing – if only because “it’s really nice to be wanted,” Roth said. “They reached out to us, and everybody likes to be asked to the dance.”
But it’s nice to effect positive change, too. The scheduling initiatives that Gonzaga pushed for – cutting back to a 16-game conference schedule, and allowing teams to book more winnable games – is one reason for the conference’s surge this year. It let Gonzaga add Texas A&M and North Carolina to the mix, yes, but a team like Loyola also made hay with early wins over UNLV and Georgetown. And now the revenue distribution is more of a meritocracy.
“Success drives it all, for every school,” Roth said. “If you build a program and have success, you’re going to reap the rewards of that success financially and in other ways.”
And however persuasive the Mountain West’s pitch, it came up short in one area.
“They couldn’t tell us, ‘We can help you get to a Final Four,’ ” Roth said. “We were able to do that in the WCC, and believe we can continue to.”
And some drama like that can’t come soon enough this season.
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