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West Coast Complication: Exploring the future for Gonzaga and the West Coast Conference without BYU

Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert (24) is fouled by BYU guard Trevin Knell (21) during the second half of a West Coast Conference Tournament final NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, March 9, 2021, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

In late July, when Oklahoma and Texas formally notified the Big 12 Conference they’d be leaving to join the SEC, it’s unlikely fans of Gonzaga’s basketball program batted an eye.

On the outset, the shakeup only impacted the SEC, the Big 12 and whichever conference(s) the Big 12 looked to poach from as it tried to replace its two marquee football names. It may have been difficult to envision how a move rooted in major college football would impact the basketball-minded, midmajor West Coast Conference, GU’s home since 1979.

But the realignment dominoes kept falling and less than two months later, aftershocks of the seismic OU/Texas move finally reached Spokane, Gonzaga and the WCC.

On Friday morning, the Big 12 extended membership invitations to BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston. Without a conference affiliation in football, there aren’t many gridiron ramifications when it comes to BYU’s move. As for the basketball side, since joining in 2011-12, the Provo, Utah, school has offered more value and exposure to the WCC than anyone besides Gonzaga. BYU’s win total since 2011-12 (233) ranks third behind the Zags (314) and Saint Mary’s (249), but the program’s national reach as a Latter-day Saints institution extends much farther than that of Saint Mary’s. The Cougars have been able to match the Gaels in NCAA Tournament berths – four – since joining the conference. When WCC teams convene in Las Vegas for the conference tournament, fans from Gonzaga and BYU tend to outnumber their peers by a substantial margin.

The full repercussions of BYU’s exit may be up for debate – some believe it to be more destructive than others – but there’s no disputing it hurts the conference’s brand, reduces opportunities for exposure and impacts its ability to secure multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, which in turn limits the total “units” the WCC can earn from postseason play.

“They never really did dominate, but they were very competitive and they helped bolster the strength of the RPI of the conference, the metrics, the analytics, the things people like to look at. BYU was always in a good position to help boost up other teams in that conference,” said Sean Farnham, an ESPN college basketball analyst who’s worked 10 WCC men’s basketball tournaments as a sideline reporter or analyst. “So now it’s going to fall on other teams to try and pick up that slack in its current state.”

BYU’s departure will put the WCC – and to a lesser extent, Gonzaga – in a vulnerable position once the Cougars officially join the Big 12 in 2023-24. The WCC will conceivably become a nine-team conference, which creates complications, especially when it comes to the conference basketball tournament. From a GU perspective, BYU’s exit eliminates two or three high-profile games for the Bulldogs, who only get a handful of quadrant one/two opportunities in WCC play as is.

As commissioner Gloria Nevarez alluded to in the final, and most important, line of a conference statement on Friday morning, “The WCC continues to attract interest in membership and will be deliberate and thorough in evaluating our best path forward to position the Conference for continued success.”

Unlike the Big 12, which instantly identified four schools (for now) to boost the profile of a conference without Oklahoma or Texas, the WCC won’t be as aggressive in the short term when it comes to expansion, or at the minimum, replacing BYU.

“The last times I’ve had these conversations both with peers within the conference, other ADs, and also then with the commissioner – this was prior to this Big 12 situation – the discussions have always been, we’re not in a hurry,” said former Gonzaga AD Mike Roth, who retired last week after 24 years at the helm of the Bulldogs’ athletic department. “The West Coast Conference isn’t in a hurry to make a move to bring in another school unless we determine that other school is like 100% a perfect fit.”

In essence, the WCC won’t try to jam a square peg into a round hole. For now, the conference hasn’t identified a round peg that fits the conference like BYU did a decade ago. Speculation about BYU’s departure from the WCC surfaced last week, leading to more speculation about to whom the conference could turn next.

“If BYU makes the move to the Big 12 if I’m the WCC I’m calling @GCU_Lopes immediately,” Farnham wrote in a tweet Wednesday that elicited mostly positive responses from Gonzaga fans.

Grand Canyon’s upstart basketball program has amassed a win/loss record of 102-53 in eight seasons, with just one sub-.500 record in 2019-20. During non-COVID-19 years, it’s not abnormal for the Antelopes to fill each of the 7,000 seats in the Phoenix-based GCU Arena, which is known for its frenetic game-day atmosphere and fervent student section.

“Here’s what I know: They have one of the best home environments in the entire west region of the United States. Their student section’s unbelievable,” Farnham said.

“… They’re invested and they want to compete and they want to win and I think when you look at programs, that would be my No. 1 question. You don’t want to add a program just because it fits the mold.”

Bringing GCU into the fold would also come with a fair amount of pushback. Although GCU claims it’s made the conversion to a nonprofit organization, the U.S. Department of Education has been reluctant to recognize it as such, causing the school to file a lawsuit earlier this year. Others making an argument as to why GCU doesn’t align with the WCC may point to GCU’s total enrollment (115,000) and on-campus enrollment (25,000).

Perhaps those factors won’t matter if the Antelopes, who qualified for their first NCAA Tournament in 2021 under new coach Bryce Drew, continue to put a winning product on the court and bring capacity crowds to GCU Arena.

“It gets the WCC in another media market and a big one in Phoenix,” former Gonzaga guard Dan Dickau said.

Other robust media markets the WCC may tap into include Seattle (Seattle U) and Denver (Denver U). Adding the Redhawks and/or Pioneers would widen the conference’s footprint, but it’s uncertain either would enhance the conference’s profile on the court. In 2020-21, Seattle U finished 12-11 and registered a Ken Pomeroy metrics rating (213) that was lower than every WCC team other than Portland (321). Denver went just 2-19 and finished 17 spots lower than Portland on the KenPom scale.

“Is Seattle U committed to being an NCAA Tournament team? If the answer is yes, then let’s see it,” Farnham said. “But in recent history, I don’t think you can say that. So I would put a pause there.”

As the WCC keeps its options open while planning for BYU’s imminent departure, Gonzaga will employ a similar approach. Three years ago, the Bulldogs entertained conversations with the Mountain West, although staying in the WCC became more attractive when it trimmed its conference schedule from 18 to 16 games and offered the conference’s top two seeds automatic byes into the semifinals of the WCC Tournament.

If the Bulldogs decide to end a 40-plus year marriage with the WCC, it’s possibl e they’d revisit the Mountain West as a potential landing spot. The MWC doesn’t appear to be a substantially stronger option than the WCC on paper. According to KenPom metrics, the old WCC (with BYU) was the nation’s eighth-best conference with an average rating of 4.94. The new WCC (without BYU) falls one spot below the Atlantic 10 with a rating 3.93, but it’s still one place ahead of the MWC (3.21).

The Mountain West comes with other inherent hurdles. Gonzaga would be the only MWC school without a football program and the only MWC school with a religious affiliation. The WCC also owns a television contract with ESPN, which generates more revenue and exposure than the Bulldogs would get in the MWC and CBS Sports Network.

“I’m not trying to diminish CBS Sports Network, but the reach of CBS Sports Network versus being on ESPN twice a week is a massive difference just as far as homes that channel is just in,” Farnham said. “So I think you have to make sure you understand the media rights component of any move you make as well.”

In 2017, Gonzaga was floated as a potential option for the Big East as the basketball-minded conference considered expansion possibilities. As it exists, the Big East, loaded with programs from New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, would provide obvious logistical challenges to a western-based school like Gonzaga, as appealing as it might be from a men’s basketball standpoint.

“How much practice time do you lose, OK, when are we playing? We’re playing Thursday, we’ve got to leave on Tuesday,” Farnham said. “OK, that means the kids are only in school one day. Monday.”

That’s not to mention the Big East, presumably, would also have to absorb GU’s Olympic sports.

“What are the costs that become associated with that?” Farnham said. “And is that sustainable?”

The current environment may not be suitable for Gonzaga to link up with the Big East, but if expansion efforts led to the conference breaking into multiple divisions – including a division comprised of western-ish teams – it may become a more practical option.

“If the Big East were to ever expand in the way that kind of I think a lot of people thinking it might, there’d be a western group and an eastern group. Or maybe even broken into three sections, who knows,” Dickau said. “Obviously, GU being on the West Coast, I imagine they would be grouped with as far West Coast teams as possible and you look at, just as a theory, if it was say Saint Louis University, Marquette, Creighton. Those aren’t all the way to the East Coast.”

The constantly evolving realignment landscape can be hard to follow, let alone forecast. Despite the general stability the WCC has enjoyed since Gonzaga’s arrival in the late 1970s, it’s unclear what the conference will look like in two years when BYU moves along, let alone a decade from now.

“I think if you look at the WCC in five to 10 years, I hope it’s still there, but if you look at all this alignment, it’s hard to say,” Dickau said. “Who would’ve thought the Big 12 would’ve got poached the way they did the last couple months?”

Even in the wake of BYU’s move, Gonzaga remains in a strong position – that is, one in which the Bulldogs will be able to control their future.

“They were (among the) top seeds in the NCAA Tournament before BYU even showed up,” Farnham said, “so nothing is going to change.”

Gonzaga qualified for 11 consecutive NCAA Tournaments prior to BYU’s arrival in 2011-12. Despite 20 opportunities from 2012-21, the Cougars never won a WCC regular-season league title or conference tournament championship, conceding 17 of those to GU and four to Saint Mary’s (the Bulldogs and Gaels split the 2016 regular-season title).

“The West Coast Conference has been around for a long time and I guess I could safely say – but again, I’m very biased, will acknowledge my bias here – that the West Coast Conference was pretty darn well established by Gonzaga’s success prior to BYU coming into the league,” Roth said.