SAN DIEGO — Gonzaga and BYU played Tuesday night in Las Vegas in the championship game of the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament. The Zags won 74-54 before 8,030 fans at the Orleans Arena.
It might have been the final WCC game for one and possibly both teams.
It’s been more than a week since Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson confirmed he’s been in expansion discussions with Gonzaga and other schools, and increasingly it appears this is more than just idle talk.
“In the end, we’ll analyze everything and do what we feel is best for the program,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after securing a spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament.
Thompson, meanwhile, will be holed up at a board room in New York for the next few days with the NCAA Tournament selection committee, evaluating wins and losses, determining who’s in and who’s out. Also on the 10-person committee: Tom Holmoe, BYU athletic director.
Figure they might be chatting during breaks?
Here’s a look at the most pressing questions surrounding the possible move.
How far along are discussions?
Further than you think.
Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth keeps saying he is always surveying the college sports landscape and this is just part of that, nothing more. Thompson characterized the talks as “exploratory.”
That might be a matter of semantics. One source said they are so far along that Mountain West presidents hoped to vote on Gonzaga’s inclusion as early as this week. It has since been pushed back until early April, after the Final Four.
That’s getting precariously close to being too late for next season, with soccer teams and other fall sports playing their first games in August. Wichita State announced it was leaving the Missouri Valley on April 7 last year and played in the American Athletic Conference this season. Anything later might push Gonzaga’s entrance to 2019-20.
Why does Gonzaga want to move?
“I want people to remember,” Roth said last week, “we’ve had a lot of success being members of the West Coast Conference.”
And they have, reaching the NCAA Tournament 20 straight years, including a pair of Elite Eights and a Final Four.
But the landscape, to use his word, has changed significantly in recent years. The power conferences are all moving toward 20-game conference schedules, which leaves teams with nine or 10 non-conference dates. Subtract a holiday tournament and home “buy” games against lesser teams, and you’re left with one or two dates — which the big boys increasingly are not playing against quality mid-major opponents, especially not on the road.
The old mid-major formula of loading up with power conference opponents in November and December is becoming harder and harder to execute, and then the weak teams in your league drag down your computer metrics in January and February.
The result in March: Fewer NCAA at-large berths for mid-majors, and worse seeds for the ones lucky enough to get in.
Take Saint Mary’s, for example. The Gaels are 28-5 and ranked No. 20, and their NCAA Tournament resume is so unimpressive coming from the WCC that some bracketologists are speculating they won’t get in.
The solution is to create mid-major “power” conferences like the Big East and AAC. A few years ago, Few quietly proposed a national conference of mid-majors, with six schools on each coast. That hasn’t materialized. The next best option is forming one in the Mountain West with established programs such as San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico.
Will the WCC try to keep the Zags?
Yes, to a point.
There are rumors that the WCC has proposed allowing Gonzaga to keep a larger chunk of the NCAA Tournament payouts it generates for the league, but in the end that may merely amount to more leverage for the Zags’ negotiations with the Mountain West than a reason to stay.
For one, every extra dollar conference members give Gonzaga is one less they can spend upgrading their woebegone basketball programs, which is why the Zags want to leave in the first place. And money isn’t Gonzaga’s problem; higher-quality competition from schools with big arenas and deep basketball resources is. The Mountain West can offer that; the WCC can’t.
And think about this: If you’re one of the the bottom seven schools in the WCC, you lose the cash cow of Gonzaga, yes, but you also greatly enhance your chances of reaching the Big Dance.
Over the past decade, just three WCC teams (Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Diego in 2008) have won the conference tournament. In the Big West, eight of the nine current members have.
Are Gonzaga and BYU a package deal?
The Mountain West is exclusively talking with Gonzaga and trying to finalize that deal. Only then might it approach BYU, or vice versa.
It’s a smart strategy. By landing Gonzaga, the Mountain West instantly paints BYU into a corner with a football program deflating as an independent and a basketball program languishing in a one-bid league where the next biggest venue would seat 13,000 less than the Marriott Center.
If Gonzaga is willing to come without BYU, as appears to be the case, it gives the Mountain West the upper hand in any negotiations with Provo: Come on our terms, or good luck in the WCC.
What concessions would the Mountain West make?
Roth continually reminds everyone that Gonzaga is one of the nation’s premier basketball programs and reached the NCAA championship game last year. Whatever the WCC offers likely will be his starting point.
But the Mountain West has its own leverage because, really, where else are the Zags going to go? The Big East’s travel logistics are prohibitive, and the Pac-12 isn’t taking them without football. So what’s left? The Big West? The Big Sky? The WAC?
The Mountain West is reluctant to carve out special TV or revenue-sharing deals after it did that to keep Boise State from joining the Big East in football in 2012. That merely created resentment among the rest of the conference membership, and it’s unlikely the league will go down that road again.
The key number figures to be what percentage of the TV contract Gonzaga would get without football, which drives an estimated 75 percent of its value. Will the Zags be content with 25 percent of a regular share — about $300,000 per year — or will they demand more?
What happens to the WCC if Gonzaga and BYU leave?
The two most logical replacements are Seattle University and Grand Canyon, for different reasons.
Seattle is a Jesuit school that has been trying for years to gain entrance to the WCC and would allow the conference to maintain a presence in the state of Washington.
Grand Canyon is a Christian university with nearly 20,000 students on campus and another 50,000-plus online — far larger than the small, Catholic schools that populate the WCC — that wants out of the WAC. It might be willing to pay for the privilege, which would help offset the loss of NCAA Tournament revenue from Gonzaga’s departure.