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Gonzaga discusses possible move to Big 12 with conference commissioner Brett Yormark

Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few takes questions from the media before the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 matchup against the Arkansas Razorbacks in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Conference realignment chatter for months has centered mainly around college football.

That hasn’t stopped Gonzaga from being proactive behind the scenes in discussions with at least three power conferences.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported Wednesday that Gonzaga Athletic Director Chris Standiford met with Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark in the Dallas area last week about the possibility of joining the conference. The Zags were in town to face Tennessee in an exhibition game.

The Zags also have been in contact with the Big East and Pac-12.

The Big 12 is regarded by many as the best men’s basketball conference in the nation. The Big 12 has produced the past two national champions. Kansas won the title last season and Baylor captured the 2021 crown with an 86-70 win over Gonzaga.

There is interest in the Zags with the program’s rise to national prominence and a streak of 23 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Gonzaga has made the Sweet 16 in seven consecutive tournaments and lost in the 2017 and 2021 NCAA championship games.

“I’ve been here in this business of college basketball a long time,” coach Mark Few said after Gonzaga’s exhibition win Wednesday over Warner-Pacific. “I’ve been lucky enough to be on committees with great people, and kind of help and influence college basketball. At the end of the day, like I’ve always said, we’re going to do what’s best for Gonzaga. So we just have to analyze everything and where we’ve been and what we’ve done so far has been great. Let all the chatter happen and we’ll do what we’ve got to do.”

Gonzaga, which joined the West Coast Conference in 1979, has won or shared the conference regular-season title 10 straight seasons.

“I would say we’ve had contact through intermediaries or otherwise that are measuring interest,” Standiford said last week about Pac-12 and Big East, before the Big 12’s interest was known.

Standiford called those talks “exploratory.”

“We talk to a lot of people because it’s such a dynamic time,” Standiford said. “There’s so many different elements in college sports that everybody’s trying to figure out what the ecosystem is going to look like through these TV contract changes.

“So they’re not substantive conversations about anything other than measuring interest, what do you see the interest being, and a lot of them are value conversations when it comes to Gonzaga. We like to understand what are the things that other people value and make sure that aligns with us and the experience we want for our students. I think it’s a very dynamic time.”

Yormark, hired as Big 12 commissioner in late June, has stated the conference is exploring expansion options and has interest in the Pacific time zone. The conference, which is losing Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, is set to add BYU, Houston, Central Florida and Cincinnati.

“I can’t speak for (other conferences),” Standiford said, “but I can tell you at this point and time we believe we have an amazing product, an amazing opportunity to really innovate and be different in the college landscape, and have it be more than just football.

“I think the football narrative is certainly driving the economics, but there’s a lot of different things about Gonzaga University and our student-athletes that bring value.”

The Pac-12, rocked by the announcements in July that USC and UCLA will join the Big Ten in 2024, is considering expansion. San Diego State is probably the most frequently mentioned school as a potential addition.

There has also been speculation about SMU, UNLV, Fresno State and Boise State.

Could Gonzaga be considered?

“I think what you’re seeing with the first run is football,” Few said last week on John Canzano’s radio show in Portland. “The next run you’ll see will be programs in the basketball realm that can move the needle and actually generate TV review, generate eyeballs and have a brand.”

Gonzaga checks those boxes with 15 consecutive seasons with at least 25 victories.

“We just need to look and kind of make a really solid, prudent decision,” Few said. “So far, what we’ve been doing has been working pretty good also, but the landscape is changing and we’re aware of that.”

There is a lot of land between Gonzaga and most of the members of the Big East. Creighton, in Omaha, Nebraska, is the closest school to Spokane.

“Geography is not unimportant,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman told The Athletic last month. “If you’re bringing in someone as a full member, you’re bringing in another 13, 14 or 15 sports, and you (have) to think about that.

“… It’s not insurmountable, but it’s on the pecking order.”

Standiford said GU wants to be prepared if an opportunity arises.

“Probably being aware of what’s going on and being in a position to be informed in the moment is probably the most important thing I can do for our president and the university as a whole,” he said.

Gonzaga considered moving to the Mountain West Conference in 2018 before deciding to remain in the WCC.