Look past Gonzaga’s historic level of dominance, and it’s been a banner year for the West Coast Conference as a whole. And although the Bulldogs obscures the quality elsewhere in the league, that’s by design.
Last spring the WCC announced a handful of changes to things like scheduling requirements and the conference tournament format with one goal in mind: a better basketball product. The wide ranging changes were referred to as the Basketball Enhancement Plan and, after nearly one full season, the name is fitting.
“You can see our league is so much stronger this year, top to bottom,” WCC Commissioner Gloria Nevarez said. “Even for teams that have stubbed their toes, their net rankings haven’t dropped to the point where they’re preventing Gonzaga, deep into conference play, from obtaining the No. 1 NET ranking. And that’s the goal of a healthy conference.”
That quote illustrates the conundrum facing the WCC. It’s a league capable of producing the best team in the country, yet also knows it can get in Gonzaga’s way.
Many of the changes were seen by the public as a way to appease Gonzaga. The Zags had just been the focus of a very public courtship attempt by the Mountain West Conference when the Basketball Enhancement Plan was announced. Things like reducing the number of league games from 18 to 16 and giving the top two seeds a bye into the conference tournament semis, were obvious bones thrown to the Bulldogs.
But others, like the requirement that all teams participate in an in-season multi-team event and limit games against non-D1 opposition to just one per year, were aimed at the rest of the teams in the league.
“It’s not even mandatory this year but all of our schools met the standard and you can see it made a difference,” Nevarez said.
Against a non-conference slate that was more restrictive than ever before, the league as a whole performed better than in any season in the past. The WCC as a whole posted a 100-49 record in non-conference play — the most wins in the league’s history. Granted, shrinking the conference slate by two games allowed for more opportunities to win games out of conference play, but still: that’s a better win percentage than the Pac-12 can claim.
Speaking of power conferences, the WCC is going against the trend of expanding its conference schedule. Meanwhile, the biggest leagues are pushing for 20-game conference schedules, which reduces the number of opportunities for mid-majors to play giant killer before March.
“Scheduling is so difficult,” Nevarez said. “Our teams have to work harder to get those quadrant one games either away or in the neutral.”
Nevarez’s point is plain to see by looking at the schedule of every team in the league outside of Gonzaga, BYU and maybe Saint Mary’s. And it’s also why casual basketball fans, especially fans of high-major programs, dismiss teams from leagues like the West Coast Conference. Plus, while the league would someday like to impress casual basketball fans, they’re not the first group of people who are meant to notice what’s happening on the West Coast.
Sure, there weren’t many chances for WCC teams to take shots at ranked opponents this season. There weren’t many opportunities for WCC teams to play power conference opponents, aside from Pac-12 schools, either. But that hasn’t stopped teams from setting up quality series with quality programs.
Saint Mary’s had a home-and-home with New Mexico State, for example. Does that move the needle for a casual fan? Probably not. But they’re not the people who matter right now. WCC teams have found a way to schedule in a way that impresses the NCAA Selection Committee. It’s why Saint Mary’s and San Francisco have been floating around on the bubble all season long.
“Some of those teams in the middle that aren’t brand name, power five, but they’re pretty legit, top-of-their-league type teams,” Nevarez said. “These are the ones that the committee will recognize as really informed scheduling, as opposed to just grabbing some Division IIs and grabbing some quick wins. Our teams really put pen to paper and figured out what of teams they needed to play and how strong they were based on the type of teams that they would have this year.”
Changing the approach to scheduling is important, but it won’t do anything to bolster the league if the teams can’t win those games. To do that, the rest of the conference needs quality coaching and good talent. Broadly speaking, the league already has the coaching in place. Getting the talent is the next issue and the ten member institutions have invested a lot of money in things that will lure talented recruits.
“There are $343 million in capital projects either started, greenlit or approved within the league in the last year alone — most of which went towards basketball-related facilities,” Nevarez said. “There’s not a campus that hasn’t committed in some way to a facility improvement.”
Santa Clara, in a very weird flex sort of move, took out a full page ad in Spokane’s daily newspaper, The Spokesman Review, bragging about the upgrades underway on its campus.
So, this season saw the teams in the league lay a foundation for the future. But, what about right now? What sort of impact have the league’s changes made in year one?
Obviously a winning record against the Pac-12 is a fun, regional bragging right, and 100 non-conference wins is a nice round number the league can point to. Gonzaga is No. 1 in the country, but that’s happened before and has a lot more to do with Mark Few’s program than anything happening around the league.
One year isn’t enough time to make a fair assessment of the changes. And judging based upon NCAA Tournament success alone isn’t fair. But this is college basketball and that is the reality. Right now, Gonzaga’s going dancing as always, but that might be it. For a league with aspirations as high as the WCC’s, being a one-bid league — even if that team happens to be the nation’s No. 1 team — is a letdown.
“Annually, three teams in the tournament would be a minimum goal,” Nevarez said. “I would like to see us at four or five, which is a stretch goal for any conference of ten. But I don’t think that’s a far stretch for a league like ours that is committed to basketball the way we are.”
Given the WCC’s track record, three teams in the tournament should be easily attainable. Gonzaga, every year, is obvious. BYU has the facilities, budget and commitment to athletics necessary to go dancing on an annual basis. Saint Mary’s, too. It hasn’t worked out this season, but the foundation is in place for mid-major fans to see a three-bid WCC in the seasons ahead.