Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO — By the time the West Coast Conference extended an invitation to BYU to join the league in multiple sports, including men's basketball, the league had done extensive homework.
So, now that the Cougars' inaugural year of competition has drawn to a close, WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said it all went according to plan.
"The first year's been fantastic. There have been no surprises," Zaninovich said. "BYU is what we thought they would be. They are great partners for our other schools. They've been great competitors across the board, and I think they've found great competitors across the board. That's what we anticipated. It's all been very positive."
Generating significant attention has been the large crowds of Cougar fans flocking to WCC venues to watch basketball games. In many cases, those games felt a little like a BYU home game.
But Zaninovich said that was expected, and it only serves as a motivator to the rest of the league's teams.
"They appreciate the challenge to counter the sizable crowd when BYU comes to town. I don't think there's any specific animosity or frustration about that. Again, that's not a surprise. Everybody understood that was one benefit of BYU — they have a great fan base."
Zaninovich added that WCC teams have faced a similar challenge for years with Gonzaga, whose fans are known for traveling en masse to road games.
"You have to realize that it's no different than what Gonzaga's been for years and years and years," he said. "When Gonzaga comes to town, it has a huge outpouring of support in all of our markets. It's a similar phenomenon. It's not new."
The WCC sent three teams to the NCAA tournament in men's basketball — Saint Mary's, Gonzaga and BYU.
"Three of our nine schools got into the tournament," Zaninovich said. "You don't see that high of a percentage in any other league. That's a testament to the fact that we have three true at-large programs. Certainly, a lot of positive momentum for men's basketball.
"We're already looking forward to next year. From my vantage point, I think we have a chance to do as well, if not better, considering we have the number of players returning across the board."
Another positive, according to Zaninovich, is the improvement of the league's other programs, including San Francisco, Loyola Marymount and San Diego.
"That's something that's been building for a couple of years. Before I came to the West Coast Conference four years ago, I was an observer having been in the region for a long time. Over the last five or six years, the caliber of player we're recruiting and getting have really taken a jump," he said.
"Before, you saw a big gap between the top and bottom of the league. I don't think you're seeing that anymore. There's a lot of talent throughout the league. And that's encouraging."
The WCC's annual basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas last March was a huge success, Zaninovich said.
"We continue to get positive feedback about our conference championship. The BYU-Gonzaga game was a great environment in the semifinals. Then two nights later, we had a championship final between Saint Mary's and Gonzaga that goes to overtime. It's a packed building. I got more comments on that game than probably any other in the years we've had the tournament at the Orleans Arena," he said.
"You're very fortunate if you're in a conference that can host a neutral-site event, have a great atmosphere, and do well enough financially to keep it at a neutral site. I think that's what we've done. The challenge is improving on the previous year's experience."
But the league may have outgrown the Orleans. The league is under contract to hold the tournament there for one more season.
What about the future of the WCC tournament at the Orleans, which seats 9,500? Zaninovich said the league is going through a process right now of exploring options for 2014 and beyond.
"We've looked at every market in the West, we've looked at other facilities in Las Vegas," Zaninovich. "We hope to have a decision this summer on that. Philosophically, we'd rather be a little too small than too big. There is a little bit of a financial tradeoff there.
"But at the end of the day, what we hope to deliver is a packed building, a true postseason atmosphere for the fans and, more importantly, the student-athletes. That will be our guiding principle in terms of what we do."
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