Behind enemy lines: How BYU elevated the West Coast Conference. And how it will be missed
The Cougars’ presence certainly motivated the league’s top two programs, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Next year the Cougars will be competing in the Big 12
When BYU joined the West Coast Conference in 2011-12, the league’s programs welcomed the Cougars, who were coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, but they were wary, too.
How would a school with a much larger student body (30,000-plus) and the 19,000-seat Marriott Center, affect the league? Would BYU dominate?
“Their effect on the league has been huge. It’s one of the greatest things we’ve done as a league, adding them, in the 30-plus years I’ve been in it.” — Mark Few on the WCC adding BYU to the league
Twelve years later, we have some answers.
BYU never won a basketball regular-season championship. Entering this week, the Cougars have never won a tournament title, either, as they prepare to join the Big 12 next season.
But BYU’s presence certainly impacted, and motivated, the league’s top two programs, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.
“Coach Mark Few has said that’s the case when asked about the GU-BYU rivalry. BYU’s time in the WCC has essentially coincided with the best stretch in GU program history,” said Jim Meehan of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “The Zags earned their first AP No. 1 ranking and No. 1 seed in March Madness in 2013, which was BYU’s second year in the WCC. The Zags reached the NCAA title game in 2017 and 2021. They’re the only program in the country to play in the last seven Sweet 16s. The last decade has been the most impressive of Gonzaga’s 20-plus years on the national stage.”
The Voice of Saint Mary’s basketball, Alex Jensen, told “BYU Sports Nation” recently that the Cougars helped make the Gaels’ program better.
“Both teams have kind of helped take each other to the next level. … BYU has helped elevate the Gaels’ program. These two teams have been fighting for the same spot for (12 seasons),” he said. “You throw in the moments like the (Matthew Dellavadova’s game-winner in Provo in 2013), it has really burned hot with moments like that and some of the vitriol that’s gone back and forth between both fan bases and both teams. … I’m really going to miss BYU in the league. I think everybody is. I think everybody knew that this was coming at some point.”
The departure of BYU — with its history and tradition — will certainly leave a void in the WCC.
“The Cougars added another marquee program to the WCC beyond Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. They’re a nationally relevant program and brought additional attention in terms of media and TV coverage,” Meehan said. “BYU adds two — and sometimes three with the WCC Tournament — high-level games on Gonzaga’s schedule that often are Quad 1 contests. Other than Saint Mary’s, there haven’t been many Quad 1 opportunities on GU’s conference schedule. BYU elevated the competition level in the conference and its home-court atmosphere is one of the best in the nation.”
What Meehan will remember most about BYU’s time in the WCC?
“For me, it’s been the intensity of the game environments with 19,000 at the Marriott Center and 6,000 at the Kennel,” he said. “Every year in Provo I take videos of BYU’s student section after it fills up and basically the entire pre-game buildup to the opening tip. The crowds in Provo and Spokane are always into the game and the result typically is hard-fought, physical contests.”
And, of course, BYU’s shocking three consecutive victories at the Kennel against nationally ranked Gonzaga stands out to him.
Few also appreciates BYU and what it has brought to the league.
“I’m happy for them. They found a great landing spot. That’s a great step for them for all their programs. But it’s been great. Their effect on the league has been huge. It’s one of the greatest things we’ve done as a league, adding them, in the 30-plus years I’ve been in it,” he said. “They’ve been a great partner. 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.
“To experience it, it is as big-time as anybody’s,” Few continued. “It’s been a healthy rivalry with some phenomenal games with different characters involved over the years and highly competitive. I’m sure we’ll continue to play in some fashion or form moving forward.”
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett also respects BYU’s program and is grateful the Cougars have been part of the WCC the past 12 years.
“They’ve provided a lot. They gave us another program that has a lot of street cred in college basketball. People have known that program for decades, back when (Danny) Ainge played,” he said. “They’ve always been good and they’ve always drawn well. They gave us a program that gives us national recognition.
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No. 5 BYU (17-14)
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“That’s a religion, BYU. The whole religion follows that school. Everybody knows them. And they’re good. And it’s a great atmosphere to play at. In recruiting, we’ll sell that (and Gonzaga’s environment). Those are two of the best in the country as far as atmospheres.”
Bennett said he’ll miss BYU providing a team that is a candidate for the NCAA Tournament, with this season being the one exception.
“It also gave us a team that can knock on the door every year to get into the NCAA Tournament. So we’ll miss them. Our league will be fine. We had three teams in last year and we could have had four with Santa Clara,” he said. “BYU could have been in last year, too. Our league is moving in the right direction still.
“But to be honest, I wish they weren’t leaving 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. It helps us do what we’re trying to do — get into the NCAA Tournament.”