SALT LAKE CITY — It’s the kind of story people love during NCAA Tournament time. A private, religiously affiliated school from a smaller conference has a fine year, climbing to No. 1 in the country. When Selection Sunday arrives, it earns a top seed in its region.
All is lined up for a possible Final Four trip, maybe even a championship.
Not many foresaw when BYU joined the West Coast Conference that Gonzaga would be looking for its second Final Four appearance in three years. That was supposed to be BYU’s destiny, thanks to its financial resources, big-time facilities and global recruiting reach. BYU was the biggest and wealthiest school in its new conference. Postseason play was a given.
So what happened? Was it the honor code? Mission interruptions? Players transferring out? Academic constraints? Recruiting?
Pick your problem.
The Cougars have settled in as the second- or third-best team in the WCC. The league landed two teams in the NCAA bracket this year, but would have had just one if Saint Mary’s hadn’t upset the Zags in the conference tournament. Regardless, BYU is out of the Big Dance for the fourth consecutive season and Gonzaga is in the West Regional this week in Salt Lake. The second-tier NIT wasn’t interested in the Cougars, either, prompting the school to issue a thanks-but-no-thanks to the CBI and CIT tournaments. Weber State and Utah did the same.
No sense shopping the bargain basement, even if, like BYU, you’re in a four-year NCAA Tournament drought.
The Cougars need a shot of Zag swag.
BYU has made more NCAA Tournament appearances without reaching the Final Four (29) than any team in the country. It’s not like athletic director Tom Holmoe and coach Dave Rose are unaware. Both have seen the Cougars succeed at a high level, namely their Sweet 16 appearance in 2011. But the legendary “BYU bounce” has gone out of bounds. Watching Gonzaga’s enormous success has to be disheartening for a Cougar program that expected to battle for championships when it joined the WCC.
In 2017, when Gonzaga reached the Final Four, coach Mark Few was asked in a postgame press conference about “getting the monkey off (his) back.” The always-testy Few fired back, “First of all, I don’t know that I have a monkey on my back. I don’t, certainly, wake up with one, or walk around with one. So I don’t think these guys (players) think I have one. I don’t think my wife thinks I have one, or anybody in my family, close friends. Fishing buddies never talk about it. So those are the only people that really matter to me.
“It’s not about me and my monkeys and my dogs and my cats. It’s about them.”
Whatever the animal, the Cougars have things weighing them down. They have owned or tied for second place in the WCC three times — including this year — and finished third five times. That's not nearly as successful as it should be. Meanwhile, Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 for five weeks this year, three of them at the end of the regular season.
Recruiting is surely part of BYU’s issue, though there have been good years too. According to 24/7’s recruiting metrics, since 2011 — entering BYU’s first year in the WCC — Gonzaga has had better recruiting classes in six of seven seasons. In 2012, neither school was listed among the top 100.
The same source says the Zags have had stronger recruiting seasons than BYU in each of the last four years.
Equally disconcerting for the Cougars, though, is that for 2019, Gonzaga ranks No. 5 nationally in recruiting signees and commits, while BYU is rated No. 99. That’s a far drop from 2013, when BYU got commitments from Eric Mika and Nick Emery, pushing the Cougars to No. 21. But Mika later left for the pros and Emery was hit with NCAA sanctions before returning.
That leaves BYU watching from afar as its WCC neighbor continues evolving into a championship contender.
That’s not a monkey, it’s a mountain.