BYU Men’s Basketball: Stymied In The West Coast Conference?
The former basketball powerhouse left the Mountain West in 2011 and has since been on a gradual downward trajectory.
The Cougars have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2015. It is improbable they will return anytime soon.
Provo, UT- Time and again it has been said: “the enemy of ‘great’ is ‘good enough.'” Not often said: “how something is sought after shall determine success or failure.”
The Cougars men’s basketball program has not sustained a high level of play for years, and is now in a state of only moderate quality, also referred to as “mediocrity.” Sure, BYU had 13 consecutive 20-win seasons in basketball, but given their current competition, this is increasingly underwhelming. Can twenty wins still be the benchmark for success in an era when teams play up to 35 games per season?
On that, the Cougars did not manage to win 20 games last season.
BYU exited the Mountain West Conference during 2011 around the same time the University of Utah and Texas Christian University both departed to enter into Power 5 conferences. Utah went with the PAC-12, and TCU entered the BIG 12.
BYU went on a quest to become the “Notre Dame of the West.” That path involved going independent in football, and joining the West Coast Conference for basketball and most other sports.
Athletic Director Tom Holmoe’s long play was to enter into a Power-5 conference, but glaringly this has not manifested. In recent years talented coaches Bronco Mendenhall and Dave Rose are gone, replaced by head coaches Kalani Sitake and Mark Pope.
The result? BYU has referred to their activity as “up-and-down.” Most everybody else recognizes a downslide from prominence.
From 2001 to 2011, the Cougars made eight NCAA Tournament appearances. During 2011, BYU even reached the Sweet 16 due in no small part to superstar Jimmer Fredette’s breakout play.
From 2012 on, the Cougars have made just three NCAA Tournament appearances (2012, 2014 and 2015) not reaching the round of 32 in any of them.
They then down-slid further, into the NIT during 2016, 2017 and 2018.
In 2019 the Cougars did not even secure a place in the NIT.
Why is this the case?
The major inflection point is undoubtedly BYU’s move away from the Mountain West Conference in 2011, toward football independence and to the West Coast Conference for men’s basketball and many other sports.
It isn’t a decision to exit the Mountain West that led to the status quo per se, but rather the university’s decision to make a big leap toward an outcome that was clearly not calculated well enough for success.
The move to independence and the WCC changed the landscape for the Cougars indelibly across all sports. BYU, in addition to being the only non-West Coast university in the WCC, initially outclassed many of the other programs in most ways.
The notable exception was Gonzaga, who is now a NCAA basketball institution and currently ranked as the top team in basketball. Another partial-exception might be St. Mary’s.
Gonzaga has won the WCC auto-bid 15 times over the last 20 years, and since BYU’s entry to the conference in 2011 the only team that has rarely defeated Gonzaga for that bid has been the St. Mary’s Gaels.
Making matters even worse for BYU: during 2019, Gonzaga entered talks with the Mountain West. This was on the heels of several competitive matches against Mountain West teams including the Aztecs, Broncos and Aggies.
The Mountain West offered a more exciting brand of college basketball in bigger venues, and the promise of a multi-bid conference.
At the same time, change threatened Gonzaga’s near-automatic Tourney entry.
Gonzaga turned the Mountain West opportunity into a giant lever, forcing the WCC into giving them more money, fewer conference games- and an extraordinary “double-bye” in conference championship play. The double-bye made it even easier for already dominant Gonzaga to clinch the auto-bid while further insulating themselves against a possible upset.
The deal is somewhat understandable given that during 2018 St. Mary’s 28-5 record that was not good enough to secure the team a NCAA Tournament at-large berth. Seen as a snub by some, the Gaels’ strength of conference was indeed weak, due considerably to soft WCC conference competition.
Another wake-up call for Gonzaga: losing to St. Mary’s in the 2019 WCC Championship.
Any way you slice it: none of this fares well for Brigham Young University. The Cougars find themselves disadvantaged by the WCC to win an auto-bid, and also disadvantaged by the high difficulty in earning an at-large Tournament invite as a WCC member.
It also does not help that the WCC is a small ball conference. The Marriott Center, where BYU calls home, seats 19,000. The next largest WCC venue: Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, aka the “Kennel,” seating 6,000. St. Mary’s McKeon Pavilion seats 3,500.
Legendary Mountain West rivalries like San Diego State and Boise State are no more. Those rivalries have dried up. Yes, the teams played each other just recently, but there has been a long thaw following BYU’s shut out by the Mountain West members due to their abrupt and notably uncouth exodus.
Among former competition, BYU is no longer plays dominantly at the Mountain West conference level. The Cougars lost to San Diego State and Boise State earlier this year. They did win against a talented Utah State team, but the Aggies aren’t living up to their billing.
BYU must now cede to Gonzaga to some extent, and it has to be perennially frustrating. Because of it, BYU may not qualify for an auto-bid or an at-large berth the NCAA Tourney without an astounding breakout performance.
Can BYU overcome today’s obstacles and return to athletic excellence in such an environment?
Athletic Director Tom Holmoe says “We control our own future. I’m convinced we have a fantastic future ahead of us.”
Others might hesitate to agree under the current circumstances.
The Cougars, who have 27 men’s basketball conference titles, have yet to win one championship after nearly nine years in the West Coast Conference.
Insanity is often casually defined as “doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.” Perhaps BYU ought to rethink whether the WCC is its ideal venue if returning to the NCAA Tournament in pursuit of greatness is in line with the university’s legacy and future goals.