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A Gonzaga Gamble?

Would Gonzaga have won it all by now if they played in a more competitive athletic conference than the West Coast? It’s an interesting question that college basketball fans, like me, have debated, ad nauseam.

Make no mistake, Gonzaga University is basketball, period. If it weren’t for the men’s basketball program there, virtually no one, outside the city of Spokane, would have heard of the small Jesuit Catholic University. Head coach, Mark Few, has led the GU Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament every year since 1999 and won either the regular season championship and/or the conference tournament in each of those years. Amazing.

But let’s be real about a few things. First, the West Coast Conference, aside from Gonzaga, is not exactly a basketball juggernaut. St. Mary’s has had a very good program for several years; the Gaels will almost certainly make the tournament again this year. BYU has had flashes of brilliance over the years and hardcore college basketball fans will remember Loyola Marymount’s run to the Elite Eight in 1990, right on the heels of the death of forward Hank Gathers after collapsing in the WCC tournament that year. There are probably other teams in tougher conferences, since 1999, that would have performed just as well in the NCAAs, but a WCC tournament championship guarantees a tournament berth and that’s been Gonzaga’s ace in the hole… Besides being a really good basketball program.

The other elephant in the room has nothing to with basketball. It’s football. The most logical conferences for the Zags to land in would be the Pac-12 or the Mountain West. Both, but especially the Pac-12, would up the competition ante for GU. But the Pac-12 and Mountain West are both football-intensive conferences and, as we saw with the breakup of the original Big East, the pigskin rules all when it comes to revenue sports.

And, unlike the eastern United States, that’s pretty much all she wrote for truly competitive conferences. The Big West is, arguably, no upgrade at all. Neither is the Big Sky or the WAC. All of the really great western basketball programs, like Arizona, Oregon, and Stanford, live in the Pac-12.

The other argument, that is completely valid, is that Gonzaga is able to live large in the WCC. Even though the Zags would surely get better in the Pac-12 and, possibly, increase their recruiting chances, there is a very real chance that the program could be swallowed up, at least in the short run. As it is, Gonzaga has shown consistent progress in the NCAAs each year (this year will probably be the exception). The tournament has become, for all intents and purposes, an extension of their regular season, as they are virtually a lock to go every year. So how much would the heightened competition really help?

Though it is very early, Wichita State has shown that jumping to a more competitive and prominent conference is not all it’s cracked up to be. Travel instantly became more expanded for the Shockers once moving out of the Missouri Valley. They have also hit some rough patches of play throughout the season, which may or may not be conference related. If you listen to the pundits, Wichita State has been perpetually screwed each year for NCAA Tournament seeding. As I write this, we are three weeks from Selection Sunday and Wichita is ranked 19 and in a rock fight with Cincinnati, who is ranked fifth. The terrible 10 seed Wichita got last year, despite owning The Valley, could look like a gift.

The selfish basketball fan, like me, would love to see regular-season tilts between Gonzaga and powerhouses like Arizona or Oregon. But it’s also good to sleep in your own bed and Gonzaga has certainly made up a comfortable one in the WCC.

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