LAS VEGAS – Nine years ago this summer, when BYU announced its decision to join the West Coast Conference, the prevailing logic was the Cougars and Gonzaga would battle annually for basketball supremacy.
At the time, the two premier programs were regular participants in the NCAA tournament, each having made a combined 15 appearances in the field during that decade. The ensuing 2010-11 season only heightened the expectations, with Jimmer Fredette leading BYU over Gonzaga in second round of the NCAA tournament in Denver.
Only one team has kept up its end of the unspoken deal. The other has fallen woefully short.
Ranked No. 1 in the nation for multiple times during the course of this season, Gonzaga will make its 21st consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, the fourth longest streak in college basketball. Even Saint Mary’s, which upset the Bulldogs to win the WCC championship, is going to the NCAA tournament in what was considered to be a rebuilding year after losing several seniors off of last season’s team.
BYU, conversely, won’t make the tournament for the fourth consecutive season. For what would be the first time in Dave Rose’s 14 years as the coach, the Cougars may not even get a bid to the NIT.
Making matters worse, the program’s overall trajectory is falling. BYU’s stay in this year’s WCC tournament lasted only one game, culminating in arguably the most embarrassing performance in the Rose era as the BYU Cougars basketball coach.
San Diego crushed BYU in the West Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals, at one point leading by a whopping 44 points. Afterward, with some justification even if the timing was bad, Rose was reduced to complaining that the tournament format did not allow his team adequate time for shooting on the court at the Orleans Arena.
Truth is, there is no circumstance in which BYU should fail to compete with San Diego on a neutral court. It does not matter that, as a lower seed, San Diego had the benefit of playing two games in the tournament for going against BYU.
As a member of the Mountain West Conference, BYU made eight appearances in the NCAA tournament. The success continued in three of the first four seasons in the WCC.
The current four-year dry spell has many BYU fans clamoring for significant changes, including and up to overhauling the coaching staff. But the real issue is lack of talent on the roster as opposed to the coaching.
In the hallway of the Orleans Arena after Gonzaga crushed Pepperdine in the WCC semifinals, Bulldogs coach Mark Few took great pride in talking about his team reaching the 30-win plateau the last three consecutive seasons. Asked to expound on the reasons for the success, he immediately pointed to his roster.
“Great players, man,” Few said. “It’s always about the players. You’re not going to win if you don’t have really, really good players. We have great players. You’re not going to win at this high level and continue if you don’t have great players who have a great attitude, who want to play together, who enjoy playing together and play the right way and want to win first.
“Myself and Gonzaga have just been so blessed to have that kind of guy and those kind of guys during this whole run.”
BYU can point to several reasons for the lack of talent over the last four years. They include losing multiple players before their eligibility expired and incoming players falling far short of overhyped expectations.
Without the ability to successfully recruit the top high school talent, BYU has to rely on internal development to compete for NCAA tournament berths. During Rose’s best seasons, role players have flourished in more prominent roles as they matured in the system.
Despite the Cougars’ shortcomings in recent seasons, Few still considers BYU a national brand. He appreciates the administration’s commitment to basketball, something he can’t say about all the WCC programs.
“BYU has been a great program for us to compete against,” he said. “They bring out the best in us time and time again when we play them.”