Think back to 2011 for a moment, because those were the glory days.
The BYU Cougars with their Jimmermania were the talk of college basketball. A high-speed, high-scoring attack featuring long-range bombs from the National Player of the Year, Jimmer Fredette, pushed the Cougars to a 32-5 record and a year-long stay in the Top 25 that topped out at No. 3 in the nation.
After four straight NCAA Tournaments, and four straight early exits, this was finally the year. Given a 3 seed, the Cougars were finally a legitimate title contender and primed for a deep run into March. It was their final season in the Mountain West before joining the West Coast Conference, and in the Round of 32, they knocked off Gonzaga, longtime king of the WCC, which many saw as a sign of things to come.
BYU, coming off its best season in recent memory — if not of all time — was entering the WCC and ready to run the league over.
As we know, the Cougars didn’t run the league over. They didn’t even manage to form a triumvirate with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, both of which have won regular season and tournament titles since BYU’s arrival. Instead, the Cougars have formed part of a WCC big three.
Since joining for the 2011-12 season the Cougars have posted an 80-37 record against conference foes and have failed to win either a regular season or tournament title, but they’ve made three NCAA Tournaments. Saint Mary’s has also made three NCAA Tournaments, has gone 91-26, and picked up one regular season and one tournament title, both in 2012. Gonzaga has led the way with 108 conference wins, five regular season titles, five tournament titles and six NCAA Tournament appearances.
BYU has been, without a doubt, the third-best team since joining the WCC, even occasionally jumping Saint Mary’s into second. But with the Zags and Gaels surging ahead and BYU treading water, the Cougars are closer to the WCC pack than they are to the pace. It’s worth asking if there is such a thing as a WCC big three anymore.
Looking at the league’s preseason coaches poll, third-place BYU’s 62 points rank much closer to fourth place San Francisco’s 59 than second-place Gonzaga’s 73. And it’s not just this year. Since joining the league, BYU has lost to teams outside of that supposed “big three” 16 times. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have a combined 12 such losses in that span.
In addition to getting swept by Saint Mary’s and splitting their season series with Gonzaga, last year the Cougars lost to Santa Clara, San Diego, and Pepperdine. Those teams finished fifth, seventh, and eighth, respectively, in the WCC.
BYU’s brand is still strong enough that this middling performance isn’t hampering the WCC’s top teams nationally. A win in Provo for Saint Mary’s or Gonzaga, in the eyes of the national pundits and selection committee members, is still something. But the Cougars’ descent also helps the league’s lower-level teams. Pepperdine has built a rivalry with BYU that nobody saw coming; the Waves have gone 5-7 vs. BYU since the Cougars joined the WCC. And teams above Pepperdine, like Santa Clara and San Francisco, can say they’re competing with BYU for third place. That’s quite a sales pitch. I mean, when you’re a mid-major league and 33,360 student-strong BYU is your third-place team, you must not be doing too bad.
All things considered, this slow stumble since the 2011 Sweet Sixteen hasn’t really hurt much except the Mountain West Conference, which BYU left, and the Cougars themselves.