SALT LAKE CITY — If BYU’s recently completed basketball season confirmed one thing, it’s that the program is mired in mediocrity.
It’s a strange turn of events that has been years in the making, but not as strange as this: Don’t you get the feeling that the Cougars are content with the status quo?
This seems like a good time to raise the issue because the Cougars are at another crossroads. It has been reported that Gonzaga is considering a move from the West Coast Conference to the Mountain West Conference, and that the Bulldogs want BYU to move with them. The Cougars have indicated no interest. That’s a colossal and obvious mistake, but there it is: BYU coach Dave Rose says the team will be “fine” even if Gonzaga leaves.
BYU is not “fine” now, nor does the future look “fine” unless changes are made.
Even if Gonzaga remains, the WCC is already a weak league with small schools and small gyms and no prospect of better days. The WCC is dragging down the BYU program (not to mention Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s). The Cougars just finished Year 7 in the league and nothing much has changed. Since leaving the MWC for the WCC, the Cougars have slipped to a level rarely seen at BYU.
How bad is it? The Cougars were reportedly a late addition to the NIT — a sixth seed in an eight-team region. They were, in other words, one of the last picked for a tournament that is no more than a consolation prize for schools that didn’t qualify for the 68-team NCAA Tournament. The Cougars did nothing to show they deserved better. They checked out of the NIT after one game, just as they did last season.
Ignore BYU’s annual 20-win seasons. As noted here previously, it’s an outdated benchmark in the era of 35-game seasons and it’s especially meaningless when you consider the weak schedule BYU plays.
The Cougars ranked 75th in the College Basketball Power Index — just behind South Dakota and Northern Kentucky — and their schedule ranked 103rd. This marks the third time in three years they had to settle for an NIT berth and the fourth time in six years — the worst stretch at BYU since the late '90s (and you’d have to go back to the early '70s to find another like it).
The Cougars have made the NCAA’s field of 64 teams once in the last six years. They have never won the WCC championship, finishing third five times and second twice.
And yet they have every advantage over the rest of the WCC. It’s not even close.
BYU’s Marriott Center has a seating capacity of 19,000, and fills them night after night. The rest of the league: Gonzaga 6,000, Loyola Marymount 4,150, Pepperdine 3,100, Portland 4,850, Saint Mary’s 3,500, San Diego 5,100, San Francisco 5,300, Santa Clara 4,700, Pacific 6,150. Well, they’re small, but at least they’re old and outdated and fairly empty on game night.
BYU has an endowment of about $1.5 billion. The rest of the WCC: Gonzaga $181 million, Santa Clara $840 million, San Francisco $342 million, Loyola Marymount $450 million, Saint Mary’s $165M, Pacific $373M, Pepperdine $860M, Portland $140M, San Diego $450M.
With its ties to the LDS Church, BYU has an international reach that no other school in the league (if not the country) can match.
Even the school's enrollment — which is not necessarily a predictor of basketball success — demonstrates what an outlier BYU is in the WCC — 34,000 students compared to 3,000 to 10,000 at the other schools.
In total, the Cougars have tremendous resources — money, size and reach — that should enable them to own this league.
No matter what BYU does, it can’t fix the WCC; the rest of the league’s teams are never going to be good enough across the board to raise the strength of schedule for teams such as BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, the last of which underscored the point by failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament after being nationally ranked all season and winning 29 of 34 games.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few addressed this problem two years ago after his team was given a mere 11th seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
“Our league needs to really step back and take notice,” he said. “It’s time for some of these other institutions to start picking it up. They’re really dragging the top three down.”
Now Gonzaga might be headed to the Mountain West Conference — the league BYU (mistakenly) left seven years ago. Gonzaga’s departure would deprive the already-weak WCC of its best team and further weaken the league.
But when BYU coach Dave Rose was asked if BYU could survive in the WCC without Gonzaga, he said, “Oh, yeah, absolutely. BYU has got a great tradition, a strong tradition. What we bring to the fan base and Cougar Nation is pretty unique. We'll survive. We'll be fine. We'll have to make adjustments, but we'll be fine."
The WCC is a dead end. The Mountain West is no powerhouse conference, but it’s an improvement (in the BPI rankings, the MWC placed eight teams in the top 151, compared to four for the WCC). Also, Boise State, New Mexico, San Diego State, Wyoming, Utah State, Air Force and Colorado State provide more natural rivalries than Santa Clara, Pacific, Pepperdine, etc., and they certainly offer bigger and better arenas and attendance.
The bottom line is that the Cougars need to pack up and leave the WCC.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed inaccurate information regarding seating capacities for West Coast Conference basketball arenas: Loyola Marymount seats 4,150, not 9,300; Pepperdine 3,100, not 7,417; Portland 4,850; not 4,100; Saint Maryâs 3,500, not 4,100; San Diego 5,100, not 8,300; San Francisco 5,300, not 10,000; Santa Clara 4,700, not 9,000; Pacific 6,150, not 6,300.