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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga optimistic series with BYU will continue after Cougars depart for Big 12

Gonzaga forward Anton Watson battles BYU's Caleb Lohner for a rebound during GU's home victory last January at the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The days of Gonzaga and BYU squaring off at least twice annually in two of the top home-court environments in college basketball are coming to an end.

But both programs anticipate the rivalry will continue, even after the Cougars leave the West Coast Conference following this season for the powerful Big 12. That would align with both programs’ philosophies of scheduling marquee nonconference matchups.

BYU’s impact on the WCC, its pending departure and what’s next for the WCC were recurring topics of discussion at the conference’s basketball media day recently at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

“My first thoughts are happy for them, they found a great landing spot,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Their effect on the league has been huge. It’s one of the greatest things we’ve done as a league in the 30-plus years I’ve been in it. They’re a national program and they act like a national program. Their game day is as good as anybody’s, and we’ve been everywhere.

“It’s been a healthy rivalry with some phenomenal games and different characters involved over the years, highly competitive. I’m sure we’ll continue to play in some fashion or form moving forward.”

The addition of the Cougars in 2011-12 certainly strengthened the top of the WCC. They have yet to win a regular-season or conference title, but they’ve recorded five solo or shared second-place finishes and reached four NCAA and four NIT tournaments in 11 years.

Since BYU’s arrival, the WCC has had multiple NCAA Tournament bids eight times – the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the pandemic – and last year sent three teams to March Madness for the second time.

The Cougars have had a profound impact in numerous WCC sports. They claimed national championships in men’s (2019) and women’s cross country (2020-21) and women’s volleyball has reached the Final Four twice, including a title-game setback in 2014.

“They gave us another program that has a lot of street cred in college basketball,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, who has broached the possibility of future games with BYU coach Mark Pope. “People have known that program for decades, back when Danny Ainge played.

“I wish they weren’t leaving just because of the rivalry they provide, the excitement in our league they provide. They’re easy not to like, so that makes it fun. It gives you a Quad 1 game every year, maybe a Quad 2, so it helps us do what we’re trying to do and that’s get into the NCAA Tournament.”

BYU’s fifth-place finish last season was its lowest since joining the WCC. The Cougars and San Francisco shared third in the coaches’ preseason poll, behind Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.

The Cougars have knocked off Gonzaga in six regular-season games, including a 2017 victory at the McCarthey Athletic Center on Senior Night to end the Zags’ bid at an undefeated regular season. Gonzaga holds a 22-6 series edge – 6-0 at the WCC Tournament – over the past 11 seasons.

“Anytime you have a chance to play Gonzaga, it’s awesome,” Pope said. “On a personal level, coach Few has been so generous and gracious to me as a coach trying to figure out this profession. Yeah, we love that game and love to have that game continue. I’m not sure the Zags are having a tough time getting games right now.”

Pope cautioned that BYU is still formulating a scheduling strategy when it becomes a Big 12 member.

“Our scheduling is going to be a little different, as we’ve kind of done studies on the conference,” Pope said. “This Big 12, it’s like a different beast. It is terrifying. There was one week last year, you have to make sure this is correct, where the only non-Quad 1 game in the entire league was going to West Virginia at home, (Mountaineers coach) Bob Huggins, a Hall of Famer.

“This deal is crazy. We’re rethinking our schedule … trying to figure out a way that makes sense for us.”

Meanwhile, the WCC figures to have nine teams next year, making scheduling more cumbersome compared to 10 members. Commissioner Gloria Nevarez has said the conference will continue to monitor conference realignment but is content currently at nine.

“I think we should add another team,” Bennett said, “not just to add a team, but add another good, quality team if we can find one that fits the bill.”