PROVO — The West Coast Conference struck back this week with a scheduling enhancement. Will it be enough to keep Gonzaga from shopping itself around to other leagues like the Mountain West?
“I think this is an olive branch, so to speak,” said former BYU and Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland, who has turned into a popular basketball broadcast analyst.
“It’s a first step, declaring the WCC wants Gonzaga to stay. Nobody wants them to go away. They are a big part of this league and have defined the WCC, and this is a significant step forward by the league’s presidents to show that desire.”
Gonzaga has been barking for a couple of years that more is needed from the WCC. In particular, the Zags want the bottom tier of the league to get tougher, make changes and not be such a drain on the league’s strength-of-schedule matrix.
Coincidentally, reports say the MWC could present a proposed expansion plan after the NCAA Final Four. That plan would include a vote for a formal invitation to Gonzaga to join the MWC as a basketball member. Gonzaga does not field a football program.
A WCC plan announced this week, a year in the making, would reduce the number of conference games from 18 to 16. This would free up scheduling so WCC schools could play tougher teams or sign up more winnable games to increase league value in NCAA Tournament metrics.
It would also exempt the top two teams from playing in the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas until the semifinals — saving some wear and tear on the league’s best teams.
All of this should project as beneficial to Gonzaga. In fact, it is custom-made for the Zags, a big carrot for them to stay.
It may work.
“I hope Gonzaga stays,” said Cleveland. “It would be a blow to that league.”
This past year, WCC athletic directors and basketball coaches hammered out this plan with research that included meeting with ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. They tried to find a way to best “maximize opportunities” and get the most NCAA Tournament teams with the best possible seeds.
Thus, the enhanced schedule.
Gonzaga did pretty well this past month with its NCAA seeding. As a national power, it usually gains treatment as a Power 5 program in the selection committee boardroom. The No. 4-seeded Zags beat No. 13 seed UNC Greensboro and No. 5-seeded Ohio State before losing in the Sweet Sixteen to Florida State after star forward Killian Tillie missed the game with a hip injury.
The WCC needs Gonzaga. And Gonzaga stands to lose approximately $1.7 million paid over the next six years for NCAA Tournament units earned through the 2018 season if it leaves. Gonzaga earned almost all those credits, and they would not go to the MWC with it, just as Wichita State abandoned its paydays when the Shockers left the Missouri Valley Conference for the American Athletic Conference.
The MWC offers bigger venues in New Mexico, San Diego State, Wyoming, UNLV, Fresno State, Boise State, Nevada and Utah State. The enthusiasm of MWC basketball crowds is legendary and historic.
But would Gonzaga really gain that much in the MWC in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding? Maybe a hair or two from what was a two-bid league in 2018 with San Diego State and Nevada making the Big Dance.
More than ever, the NCAA Tournament is being geared for Power 5 entrants. A big leap for Gonzaga would be to find a basketball-only spot in a Power 5 conference. That would be worth busting relationships; a jump from the WCC to MWC may not.
The WCC has been a great launching pad for Gonzaga over the decades. It has dominated that league. It can recruit to Spokane, and top-tier talent does not seem deterred from going there, regardless of how few people they play in front of at places likes Loyola Marymount.
Exposure cannot be a major factor for Gonzaga because the Zags are already a popular team for league TV partner ESPN. Virtually all Gonzaga games were televised on one of ESPN’s stations or KHQ/Root this past season.
The Mountain West schools are making about $1.1 million from their deals with ESPN, CBS and AT&T Sports Net and have used streaming platforms like Facebook Live.
If the MWC got Gonzaga, it might be able to negotiate a bigger payout and throw more money at the Zags like it did Boise State in football. Well, maybe.
Voters on national polls haven’t ignored the WCC, as both Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s were ranked most of the 2018 season.
People keep asking what a Gonzaga move to the MWC would mean for BYU, and some media in MWC territory argue the league should use such a move to force BYU’s hand to follow and bring its football team with it from independence.
I don’t think BYU is in the mood to be strong-armed by the Mountain West.
I have fond memories of covering football and basketball in the old Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West. The venues were fun and travel was easy (except for the CSU-Wyoming swing in winter). The crowds were great, university officials and sports information directors were the best, and I did love the openness and accessibility of the conference office, including Commissioner Craig Thompson.
In many ways, reporters are treated better in the MWC than my experience in the Pac-10, now Pac-12, and that went beyond media room food.
Does Gonzaga really have that much to gain by jumping from the WCC to the MWC? Would it gain tons more exposure and money? The competition and crowd support is arguably better, but is NCAA selection committee talking points P5-esque? No.
Finally, has Mark Few ever been to Laramie in January?
I think the WCC scheduling enhancement has merit. It makes Gonzaga officials think a little harder about an ostensibly big leap that may actually be a little skip and a hop.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated who Gonzaga played in this year's NCAA Tournament.