Editor's note: This is the seventh story in an occasional series examining the BYU football program's move to independence and jump to the West Coast Conference in most other sports.
PROVO — BYU basketball coach Dave Rose had a pretty good thing going in the Mountain West Conference.
Not only did the Cougars capture four championships in the last five years, they established intriguing rivalries with MWC opponents like San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV.
But those days are over.
BYU is jumping to the West Coast Conference in 2011-12. Instead of competing in famed venues like The Pit in Albuquerque, the Cougars will play in much smaller facilities called "pavilions" and "fieldhouses." The University of San Diego's home is the Jenny Craig Pavilion, which is nicknamed "Slim Gym." BYU will face somewhat unfamiliar opponents and will have to establish new rivalries.
But Rose has embraced this new era for the program.
"I'm excited for a new challenge," he said. "What impresses me about the WCC is their commitment to men's basketball. It's a men's basketball league. The incentives they have to increase the level of their basketball, I was extremely impressed. I really enjoyed competing in the Mountain West Conference, and we'll miss those competitive games. Hopefully, we'll be able to schedule those teams in the future."
BYU essentially ushered in its new affiliation with the WCC in March, when, ironically, the Cougars faced WCC foe Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament.
BYU defeated Gonzaga, 89-67, to advance to the Sweet 16. That matchup was a sneak peak of coming attractions, as there are certain to be more battles between the Cougars and Bulldogs on the horizon.
"It's a preview of what's to come in the following years," said Cougar forward Noah Hartsock prior to that game. "It's going to be exciting when we get to join the conference and play all the teams in the West Coast Conference."
Certainly, the Bulldogs will not forget that game when the two teams meet this upcoming season.
Meanwhile, during this offseason, Rose and his staff are spending time getting to know the teams in WCC.
"We look forward to the challenge," Rose said. "We won't know really for a year or so how it affects our program. But I do know that it will be a real challenge trying to continue to win games and compete at the highest level."
"Basketball is all they talk about in the WCC. I love that," said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. "Those people are passionate about getting better. I think it's going to happen."
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said the addition of BYU "changes our league dramatically. It adds another top-25 school to it, gives us another school much like ourselves with a national profile. I think it probably across the country enlightens some people to the level of play that's in our league. I think people will probably look at it as a three-bid potential league year-in-and-year-out."
"This really repositions us in the national landscape. Our goal, our vision, is to be right behind the BCS in men's basketball and, frankly, all of our other sports as well," said WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich. "Certainly, adding a national brand like BYU and creating what will be a remarkable rivalry with Gonzaga and Saint Mary's and some of our other programs that are building right now, will add great value-wise, exposure-wise and multiple-bid-wise and otherwise. We couldn't be more pleased. To add a program that's led by someone with the character of Dave Rose is pretty important to us. All I know about Dave Rose is that he's a man of impeccable integrity and character. That's what we feel the people in our league are about."
It doesn't hurt that in February, the NCAA announced that Zaninovich has been appointed to the Division I Men's Basketball Committee, beginning this year.
Gonzaga is not the only WCC team to flex its muscles in the NCAA Tournament. Saint Mary's reached the Sweet 16 in 2010 while San Diego upset Connecticut in 2008 in the first round.
Perhaps the biggest change for BYU, though, could be in its nonconference opponents.
"We're trying to get as competitive of a nonconference schedule as we can, which we're in a much better position to do that with our alignment with ESPN. And then you've got to win games on the road, and at home, win the conference championship and then try to get to the NCAA Tournament. We're excited about the new locations."
The WCC's television contract with ESPN has opened doors for impressive nonconference games for Gonzaga and other WCC members. Last season, for example, the Bulldogs played Kansas State, Notre Dame, Xavier, Oklahoma State and Xavier.
Meanwhile, thanks to help from ESPN, Portland hosted powerhouse Kentucky at the Rose Garden last season.
"That would be nice if someday we could get Kentucky to visit us," Rose said.
Holmoe said the plan is to strengthen BYU's nonconference schedule as it joins the WCC.
"Our model will be to play a very, very challenging nonconference basketball schedule. We want that. I don't think you could say we have a real challenging nonconference schedule," he said. "That's what we're looking to do. If you look around the country, most basketball teams don't have a killer nonconference schedule. But we'll try to compete. A lot of teams don't want to come to BYU or Utah State. Why in the world would you play Utah State in Logan if you're a top-25 basketball team? What do you have to gain? The question is, what do you have to gain to play at BYU? Well, TV is one, and we have a high enough RPI that it's going to help. Hopefully we'll carry on the tradition of being a strong team. Gonzaga gets good teams to play them."
BYU's 2011-12 basketball schedule is expected to be released later this summer.
"We're kind of in an interesting situation right now. It's always been hard to schedule here, especially the level of schedule that we want to play," Rose said. "With the move to the WCC, we haven't seen any real difference yet. It's seems to be a challenge. Hopefully this spring we'll get some movement and be able to finish up our schedule. But in the next year or two we will be able to kind of use our league to help us schedule preseason games that will be real exciting for the fans. Right now we're in the process of completing that schedule, with the majority of it done but still quite a few games to fill."
Other basketball issues affecting the WCC and BYU:
One major difference is that the conference tournament, held at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, will no longer be played on Sundays, a move to accommodate BYU, which does not compete on that day for religious reasons.
The 2012 WCC Tournament tips off on Feb. 29.
"We like having a day off (on Sunday)," Zaninovich said.
The Orleans Arena, a neutral facility, holds 7,471 seats for basketball. The WCC Tournament, officially known as the Zappos.com WCC Basketball Championships, has set tournament records for revenue, total attendance and single-game attendance since moving to the Orleans Arena. A contract is in place to keep the WCC Tournament at Orleans Arena through 2012.
Limited seating at The Orleans has sparked questions about moving the tournament to a bigger venue to accommodate fans from BYU as well as Gonzaga, which has strong support from traveling fans.
But Holmoe isn't concerned about that for now.
"My thing on that is, fill it up. It would be great," he said. "I was there this year. The competition was great. If we're good enough to get into the finals against Gonzaga if that happens to be what it is, let's see. I want to see it full. I want to see it busting at the seams. If that's the case, then we might have to move. That would be a great problem to have."
For BYU, it eliminates the problem of potentially facing UNLV on its homecourt, as was the case in the MWC.
The 2012 WCC Tournament will open Feb. 29, with play-in games between the No. 8- and No. 9-seeded teams. The top two teams in the tournament will enjoy double byes and one-round advances give to the No. 3 and No. 4 teams. In other words the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds automatically play in the semifinals.
The ESPN factor
On June 8, the WCC and ESPN announced an eight-year contract extension that was described as the "best deal signed by any non-BCS league" by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News.
The contract will give the WCC at least 48 men's basketball appearances on the ESPN family of networks — 10 more than the conference has averaged the previous three years.
How many of BYU's conference games will be on the Worldwide Leader?
"It depends. No contracted amount on how many BYU can be in," Holmoe said. "The contract between ESPN and the WCC is not finalized. There will be a definite number of games that they'll do. It depends on how good we are."
Zaninovich points out that ESPN helped facilitate the Kentucky-Portland game and a Loyola Marymount-Florida State contest this past season.
"It's much more of an art than a science," he said. "ESPN has such a portfolio of games and TV windows that they want to fill with their partners. We don't just talk about nonconference games, we talk about nonconference games with ESPN as part of that. I know Tom and Dave Rose have been back to Bristol, Conn., (ESPN headquarters) to understand about how that works. That will help them from a scheduling perspective."
Certainly, BYU's success in recent seasons, particularly this past year with consensus national player of the year Jimmer Fredette, enhanced the Cougars' worth, as well as the WCC's.
"The WCC is a premier conference, recently made even better by the addition of Brigham Young University," said Burke Magnus, ESPN senior vice president in charge of college sports programming. "This agreement allows us to showcase more WCC content than ever before to fans through all our networks and platforms, and via any available technology or device."
Scheduling and travel
The WCC basketball schedule is expected to be released sometime this summer. Conference play will begin Dec. 29 to accommodate nine teams playing each other twice. It is expected that the nine WCC teams will play a double-round-robin format with 16 games during the regular season.
It is also expected that the WCC will continue its Thursday-Saturday format for most games, though each team is expected to play on a Monday night contest as well.
The WCC used to have travel partners for basketball, but that dissolved with the ESPN contract.
"We're very mindful of number of flights a team has. Those are certainly considerations," he said. "The travel partner model is designed mostly as a logistical tool to limit the number of times you're traveling to different regions. There are other ways to control that besides the travel partner model. The schedules will look a little different. Our coaches realize that."