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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga coach Mark Few weighs in on new-look West Coast Conference

Gonzaga’s Mark Few recently spoke to the media on many topics, including the West Coast Conference adding WSU and Oregon State as affiliate members.  (By Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Change seems to be the only constant in college athletics these days and it’s not just limited to landscape-altering moves made by football-powered power conferences.

The West Coast Conference took significant steps by adding Washington State and Oregon State as affiliate members for the next two years and the Western Athletic Conference’s Grand Canyon and Seattle as full members beginning in the 2025-26 season.

The moves provide the WCC with stability as well as strength in numbers in case Gonzaga were to leave for another conference down the road. The Zags have had multiple conversations with the Big 12, but talks have cooled off with the conference expanding to 16 with four former Pac-12 schools on board for the upcoming season.

The WCC’s changing roster obviously impacts Gonzaga, particularly in terms of scheduling.

Eleven WCC teams will each play 18 conference games this season compared to 16 in recent seasons. Gonzaga will face San Diego (in Spokane) and Pacific (in Stockton, California) once and the other eight teams home and away. It’s unclear how many conference games will be on the schedule in 2025-26 when the WCC could have as many as 13 teams for one season.

“It’s certainly changed our nonleague,” Zags coach Mark Few said at a recent media availability. “We have a lot less nonleague games, which are very important to us. Now we’re going to play 18 league games, so that’s impacted our nonleague scheduling to a certain extent.

“It certainly throws some Northwest teams in, so our travel won’t be quite as bad.”

The 16-game conference slate was implemented following the 2018 season in hopes of elevating the WCC’s chances of earning multiple NCAA Tournament bids. For the top teams, playing 16 conference games erased a couple of games against foes with low NET rankings and opened up a pair of nonconference opportunities.

Gonzaga, which has dominated the WCC for decades, has leaned on challenging nonconference schedules to strengthen its tournament credentials and potentially land a favorable seed.

That remains the case with Gonzaga scheduled to face Kentucky in Seattle, UConn at Madison Square Garden, UCLA at the new Intuit Dome in Los Angeles, San Diego State at SDSU’s Viejas Arena and participate in a Battle 4 Atlantis field that includes probable preseason top-20 teams Arizona and Indiana as well as Providence, No. 25 in CBS Sports’ Top 25 and 1.

WSU is coming off a 25-10 season and its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008. The Cougars finished No. 44 in the NET rankings, so they would have been a Quad 1 contest in Pullman and a Quad 2 matchup in Spokane had GU and WSU tangled twice last season.

Coach Kyle Smith left for Stanford after guiding the Cougars to five consecutive seasons with at least a .500 record. Numerous players transferred to other programs and Isaac Jones and Jaylen Wells are in the NBA draft. New coach David Riley has brought in nine new players, including four of his former players at Eastern Washington, and has two holdovers from last year’s team.

Gonzaga and WSU haven’t met since the Zags’ 69-60 victory in December 2015 in Pullman. The Zags have won five in a row and seven of the past eight. The Cougars hold a 98-52 advantage in the series.

Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) puts up a shot over Washington State’s Junior Longrus (15) during the Zags’ 69-60 win at Beasley Coliseum on Dec. 2, 2015, the last time the two schools squared off.  (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) puts up a shot over Washington State’s Junior Longrus (15) during the Zags’ 69-60 win at Beasley Coliseum on Dec. 2, 2015, the last time the two schools squared off. (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Oregon State made an impressive run to the 2021 Elite Eight but is just 27-68 over the past three seasons. The Beavers finished No. 165 in the NET last season, last among Pac-12 schools.

Grand Canyon is an emerging power in the West with three NCAA Tournament appearances in four years under coach Bryce Drew, who has led the Lopes to records of 17-7, 23-8, 24-12 and 30-5.

GCU beat Saint Mary’s at the Arena in the first round before falling in a close contest to Alabama last March. The Lopes finished 50th in the NET, which would qualify as a Quad 1 road game and a Quad 2 home contest.

Seattle has posted three consecutive 20-win seasons and a 36-20 WAC mark in coach Chris Victor’s three years. The Redhawks were No. 119 in the NET, second in the WAC behind Grand Canyon. Seattle is 3-4 against the Lopes in the past three seasons.

The bottom five in the WCC standings last season had NET rankings between 199 and 359, meaning Gonzaga’s road wins over Loyola Marymount (199) and Pepperdine (226) counted as Quad 3 and the rest were Quad 4.

Few’s mind was focused on a busy summer ahead with Team USA when asked about Grand Canyon and Seattle.

“I haven’t really even thought that much about it, to be honest,” he said earlier this week. “I’m just dealing with this year. I’ve got USA Basketball and I’ve got this (GU) team this year and I’ll cross that bridge when I need to.”

Few was more expansive on a podcast hosted by former Zags great Dan Dickau in early June. Few agreed with Boise State coach and former GU assistant Leon Rice’s contention that Gonzaga, Grand Canyon and San Diego State have the three best home-court environments in the West.

Grand Canyon “has the same mindset that we have at Gonzaga,” Few said. “You go to a Grand Canyon game and it’s a big-time deal. They want to get bigger and they are growth oriented. I think that’s a positive, and who knows what will happen with the Pac-12 schools all disassembled and all that? It’s a crapshoot to predict what will happen.”

Few also lauded WCC Commissioner Stu Jackson’s leadership in his 15 months on the job “during a really turbulent time.

“It’s a weird landscape right now,” Few said. “Stu is doing a great job as commissioner.”