For the sake of its basketball program, BYU needs to follow the leader and leave behind the second-rate West Coast Conference.
Based on several reports, West Coast Conference power Gonzaga has expressed a strong desire join the more-respected Mountain West Conference, possibly in time for next season. Without the dominant program that will play in its 20th consecutive NCAA tournament this week, the WCC would take a huge credibility hit and devolve into barely above the Big Sky.
“It’s real,” said BYU coach Dave Rose, addressing the possibility of Gonzaga’s departure earlier this week.
Two years ago, Gonzaga coach Mark Few called out much of the WCC for having programs that perennially have been awful. Since then, a few programs have hired name coaches but nothing else has changed.
This season, only one WCC team made the NCAA tournament. Saint Mary’s, which BYU beat in the conference tournament semifinals last week, has been ranked throughout the season but failed to get an at-large bid after again playing a weak non-conference schedule.
For the third consecutive season, BYU also missed out on the NCAA tournament. The Cougars are again regulated to the NIT, marking the longest NCAA dry spell in Rose’s 13 seasons as head coach.
Without the ability to play Gonzaga twice in the regular season and possibly once in the conference tournament, BYU would have no chance at an at-large NCAA bid if they were to remain in the WCC. In Rose’s career, the program has never won a conference tournament to earn accompanying automatic NCAA bid.
Speaking reporters this week, Rose noted BYU is “a national brand and it has real power to it.”
“We’ll survive,” he said. “We’ll be fine. We’ll have to make adjustments, but we’ll be fine.”
BYU’s best adjustment is to tag-team with Gonzaga and join the MWC, where it resided for 12 years beginning when the league began play in 1999. The numbers prove BYU basketball has been much better in the MWC than in the WCC.
In seven WCC seasons, BYU has three NCAA tournament appearances. In Rose’s first season in the MWC, with the program coming off a nine-win season, BYU played in the NIT and then was in the NCAA tournament in for five consecutive seasons before the football team went independent and most sports were shuffled off to the WCC.
“The MWC doesn’t solve all your problems,” Rose said. “They would have been a one-bid league this year if they didn’t have an upset in the tournament. It’s not going to solve everything.”
The MWC may want BYU under certain conditions.
Mark Zeigler, the San Diego Union Tribune reporter who broke the initial story two weeks ago, thinks BYU would have to agree to have all sports – not only basketball – return to the MWC. With Gonzaga, which doesn’t play football, the conference would have 12 teams, the same number it has for football (Hawaii is in the MWC for football only).
Zeigler, in an interview with 97.5-FM and 1280-AM The Zone, doesn’t get the sense the MWC would take back BYU on special terms. He also believes Gonzaga would still come without the Cougars joining.
“Let’s be honest, when they parted ways in 2011 it wasn’t necessarily an amicable divorce,” Zeigler said. There was some bad blood there. There was some resentment. There were people in the Mountain West upset, that they felt like BYU was abandoning them.”
At this point, it appears BYU is content to remain an independent in football, preferring to play several Power 5 programs each season while having most of its home games broadcast on the ESPN networks. Financially, for the overall health of the entire athletic department, BYU likely would be better off to remain an independent in football.
But the football program also is in need of major repair, coming off its worst season in 50 years. As it is, schedule often includes several MWC opponents most seasons.
Without much hope of joining a Power 5 conference any time soon, BYU would be wise to seriously investigate going back to the MWC.