Has The WCC Stacked The Deck In Gonzaga’s Favor?
Gonzaga leveraged the West Coast Conference to offer greater assurance of its dominance and NCAA Tournament auto-bid.
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It’s now difficult for Gonzaga not to make the NCAA Tournament thanks to a new WCC deal. In a one-bid conference is it fair to other WCC teams?
Coach Mark Few has molded Gonzaga into a national powerhouse and the most consistent NCAA Tourney participant over the last 20 years. They haven’t just gotten their tickets stamped, though. They’ve also made deep runs, including runner-up status in the 2017 NCAA Final Four. They are worthy.
With that said, many in the NCAA basketball community recently witnessed the Zags flirting with joining the Mountain West Conference. Thanks to Commissioner Craig Thompson’s unbelievable openness, we were all kept aware of talks through the entire process- all the way to their dead end.
In the end, Gonzaga leveraged the threat of exiting an underwhelming West Coast Conference to make their lopsided arrangement with the conference even more lopsided, receiving insurance that Gonzaga will be a probable victor in the WCC Championship.
How so? The WCC announced on March 26 changes to its revenue distribution process, tournament format, and regular-season scheduling plans, to satisfy the specific requests (or demands) that Gonzaga had made over the past several years.
More specifically, the top two seeds in the basketball tournaments will get double-byes into the semifinal round, thusly exempting them from the possibility of an upset.
Gonzaga was also guaranteed $1 million per year in NCAA Tournament “back shares” it earned in past years. Basically, Gonzaga decided they don’t really want to share the wealth with the rest of the WCC, because aside from infrequent appearances by St. Mary’s and BYU no other teams enter the Tourney.
In summary, Gonzaga gets substantial “back pay,” of $1M for each year in the Tourney. Gonzaga is virtually upset-proof in the WCC Tourney with that double-bye. Plus, Gonzaga is subject to two fewer conference games per year, reducing the strength of season impact from low-ranking conference competition.
The only opponents who could possibly challenge Gonzaga are the St. Mary’s Gaels and BYU Cougars. The Gaels were unable to secure a second WCC bid in the 2018 Tourney despite a 28-win season. That said a lot about the strength of the WCC conference. The Cougars have not been invited to the Tourney since 2015.
Gonzaga is a top-10 college basketball brand. But really, have they risen to such dominance because playing in the West Coast Conference has granted them an unfair advantage? Has their all-but-guaranteed annual spot into the NCAA Tournament given them a disproportionate recruiting edge?
The answer is “probably.”
While some other dominant teams play in mid-major conferences, the West Coast Conference is ranked #13- arguably a low-mid-major.
It’s also possible that Gonzaga got cold feet with the Mountain West because the competition is tougher. Teams in the Mountain West can beat the Zags. Teams like San Diego State, Nevada, and New Mexico could challenge them regularly.
While the Mountain West would see the addition of Gonzaga as a means to becoming a 3-4 bid conference, not to mention a challenger to the American Athletic Conference as a Power 6 entrant, it’s possible that Gonzaga understands their 99% probability of making the Tourney could go down to a mere 92%.
A strong case exists that if Gonzaga wanted to take its program to the next level, joining the Mountain West is the wise move. But, will Gonzaga walk away from golden handcuffs in the West Coast Conference to evolve? Or is the near guaranty too enticing?
Whatever the case: Gonzaga has engineered a well-paved path- nay an escalator- to the Tournament. They capitalized big time on the fear of loss from the West Coast Conference, and their conference mates seem to be “OK” with the new arrangement.
The West Coast Conference is more afraid of losing Gonzaga, than optimistic about what it would gain if their juggernaut left. Would an exodus open opportunities for St. Mary’s and BYU to appear more frequently in the Tournament? Could it enable programs like Pepperdine, USF, and Pacific to finally make a Tourney appearance?
For the Mountain West, Gonzaga would strengthen things. The Zags wouldn’t have to worry about being the sole conference invitee, which could take any pressure off. Furthermore, playing regularly against better conference competition in better venues would make regular season play more exciting.
Watching the Zags play Pepperdine is probably boring (apologies to ‘Willie the Wave’). In fact, outside of St. Mary’s and BYU, any outcome is nearly 100% predictable. It’s probable that Zags fans tune in at the pre and post seasons. In the Mountain West, however, fans often watch every game, because no win is a lay-up. The rivalries are real, and the product is a better brand of conference basketball.
Coach Mark Few would face off against worthy in-conference coaches like Brian Dutcher, Eric Musselman, and Leon Rice. He would strategize more in conference, opposed to letting the bench run many conference games.
Mark Few has the option of sailing through his career with hall-of-fame results from the West Coast Conference. Still, there must be something inside of him yearning to take his team to a new level, and that could mean playing actual competition all season long. What is more tantalizing to fans than experiencing the suspense and joy of the Zags emerging as #1 after dominating the regular season against strong opponents?
For now, the West Coast Conference has gone to extremes to keep Gonzaga, and in doing so they have further shifted the odds in Gonzaga’s favor, even though the move was not at all necessary. It’s reminiscent of Alex Rodriguez resorting to taking anabolic supplements. If you’re already the best, why tilt the odds?
One thing is virtually certain: you will continue to see Gonzaga as a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, and because of it they will continue to draw from the best talent available.
As for the rest of the West Coast Conference members, they may have to settle for “basking in the glow” of Gonzaga’s perpetual success.