The West Coast Conference Conundrum
“You can pay for school but you can’t buy class.” —Jay-Z
Now that the conference season is upon us, the Great Zag Discussion has naturally shifted to the present and future of the West Coast Conference. I would like to carry on that discussion here by first posing a series of related questions:
- On February 16, 2002, Pepperdine visited The Kennel with a chance to both sweep the season series with the Zags and take a two-game lead for the regular season conference title. Gonzaga won that game, in the end going away, and power in the WCC stayed fully in Spokane as Pepperdine’s program fell off the map. Another consistently good team would obviously be great for the conference and to that end, has the level of competition in the West Coast Conference improved since that game?
- Brigham Young is set to join the WCC next season. Conventional wisdom says that BYU will challenge Gonzaga at the top, and maybe be able to do so more consistently than any other program in the WCC. Conventional wisdom also seems to assume that another team at the top of the conference can only be a good thing for those other programs. (That is, another consistently good program is another good target towards which the other programs can aim.) Does BYU’s presence mean an improvement in the conference overall?
- I think we all assume that a competitive WCC is good for Gonzaga. Is it?
First, the issue of the overall improvement of basketball in the WCC. Better competition in the conference is a nice idea, if only because we would then no longer have to hear people write Gonzaga off for its “weak conference.” And for most Gonzaga fans, the weak conference argument is a real killer. They seem to connect the perceived legitimacy of Gonzaga to that of the WCC, leaving them with an inferiority complex unsuitable for a program that cemented itself as legitimate long ago. (For my money, the WCC’s years of refusal to stage a fair conference tournament and the recent decision to sell Gonzaga’s pretty amazing TV deal with Fox Sports off to ESPN were/are far more harmful to GU than any collection of conference bottom feeders ever could be.) They end up jumping on the bandwagon of any team that looks ready to challenge Gonzaga at the top, figuring that new challengers mean more competition for Gonzaga, thus more legitimacy. History has shown, though, that power (relative to Gonzaga, that is) in the WCC is unsustainable. The Pepperdine program of the early 2000s is a shell of its former self (don’t forget that it was Pepperdine who gave the WCC its first multi-bid year in the Tournament, and even knocked off Indiana in 2000), and Bill Grier’s San Diego went from Tourney Cinderella in 2008 to sub-300 RPI today. There’s nothing to suggest anything different will become of either Portland or Saint Mary’s, other than wishful thinking and anti-cynicism. Forget history, though, because even statistics suggest that the WCC has not only not improved over the last decade, but has actually gotten worse. Since 2002-2003, Ken Pomeroy’s formula has rated the WCC, on average, the 12th toughest conference (out of 33) in the country. This means the conference is at the top of the middle third of all conferences, which is not bad. Breaking those eight years (not including this season, in which the WCC is currently rated 11th) in half, though, tells a different story. From 2002-2003 to 2005-2006, Pomeroy gave the conference end-of-season ratings of 11th, 12th, 10th, and 12th, respectively (average: 11.25). Compare that to the four seasons from 2006-2007 to 2009-2010, in which the ratings were 14th, 13th, 13th, and 14th (average: 13.5). In the first four seasons, a total of two WCC teams finished with sub-200 RPI (and two more finished with RPI of 197 and 198). Since then? Fourteen. Even with a few years of multiple Tournament bids thrown into that last half of years, it’s hard to argue in the face of statistics that, top-to-bottom, the WCC isn’t getting worse, let alone progressing.
Into all this steps BYU. For Gonzaga fans used to futilely defending the West Coast Conference, BYU is a godsend. Not only does BYU’s national name add instant credibility, but its history seems to indicate it will be the consistently strong challenger Gonzaga has been missing. Even if Portland and Saint Mary’s fall off (as I suspect they each will), there’s a better than good chance that BYU will be able compete every year. Gone goes the revolving door of power. But there are two rubs here. First, if improving the WCC overall is the goal, I’m not sure having BYU around guarantees it. Gonzaga has been the undisputed king (sometimes overwhelmingly so) of the conference for years, and as I argue above, this has done nothing to improve the level of play in the WCC from top to bottom. If one consistent power couldn’t do it, then why are we to assume that two could? Second is the issue of BYU’s long term intentions. Even with a huge basketball arena, football is the school’s unquestionable cash cow. The Cougars are about to move on as a football independent basically only because they could not quickly enough get into a conference with an automatic birth in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), and the hunch has to be that they won’t stay there for long. College football is just too lucrative and BCS money (upwards of a million dollars per school in a BCS conference per season) too enticing for them to stay independent forever. If a BCS conference came up with an offer to join, BYU would be insane to turn it down, and if and when that offer comes, the school would be compelled to move its other sports as well, including basketball. (Think the Big 12, for example, isn’t a better place to play basketball than the WCC?) Where would that leave the WCC? Right back to where it started, most likely: an average overall conference dominated by one team but otherwise filled with bottom feeders and sometime contenders. Yet another example of the unsustainability of non-Gonzaga power in the West Coast Conference.
So how does Gonzaga fit into all of this? At least by the numbers, the WCC has not improved in the last decade, but does that even matter? There’s a general belief that Gonzaga would be better prepared for the NCAA Tournament if the competition in the WCC was stronger. The argument is that no matter how tough their non-conference schedule is, the Zags get made fat and lazy by their conference schedule and arrive in the Tournament ill prepared to knock off, say, Syracuse. Seems valid enough, but I wonder just how much better the conference would have to get in order for it to actually make a difference. We can all agree that playing in the ACC is good Tourney preparation for Duke, but can we say the same of, say, the Mountain West Conference for BYU? Ken Pomeroy has the MWC rated seventh toughest in the country (it’s usually rated anywhere from seventh to ninth), and with the conference’s makeup, it’s probably the highest the WCC can reasonably aspire. Most people argue that BYU will indeed be instant competition for Gonzaga at the top of the WCC, but since 2003, the Cougars have won one Tournament game, a double-overtime win over Florida last season. During that same stretch, the entire conference has won ten Tournament games total, and no Mountain West team made a Sweet Sixteen (the starting line for a deep Tournament run). The WCC, on the other hand, had two teams make Sweet Sixteens: Saint Mary’s once and Gonzaga twice. So I ask again, are the Zags better off in an improved WCC? Would they be ready to beat Syracuse in the Tournament if they played Wyoming twice in a season instead of Pepperdine? Who knows, but I don’t care to find out. Wyoming on its down years is much better than Pepperdine on its down years, and on its up years is good enough to beat Gonzaga. Do we want that? I know don’t. It’s great to competitively want the Zags to take on all comers and leave them in their dust, but as a fan, I just want my team to win. And as a Zag fan, I just want the team to win the WCC and make the Tournament every year. It doesn’t matter against whom they play. No, from where I sit, an improved WCC will just mean more teams who can beat the Zags during the conference season and in the conference tournament, keeping them out of the NCAA Tournament all together. That would be some real crappy irony.