When conference realignment happens, basketball is always collateral damage. When BYU accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 earlier this month, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and the entirety of the WCC took a huge hit.
The move started the clock on when the Cougars will exit the WCC, which housed their sports other than football since 2011, and now the three-headed monster than has helped elevate the league to one of the premier mid-major conferences in the country only has two more seasons before the terrifying trio returns to a dynamic duo.
How BYU Joining the Big 12 Hurts Gonzaga
Gonzaga has elevated itself into one of the most recognizable and powerful forces in men’s college basketball, thanks to 20-plus years of hard work and dedication from head coach Mark Few, his staff, and many cycles of players who incrementally improved the program’s standing in the sport. The Bulldogs have played in every NCAA Tournament since 1999, dominated the WCC for the last two decades, and been a mainstay in the top 25 for years.
But only recently has Gonzaga really taken that next step into becoming a national contender. The program is still without that elusive first national championship, but it’s accomplished everything else as a tiny, private school in the relative middle of nowhere with no prior prestige or foundation set to reach the level it has. Looking at Few’s tenure in Spokane, this is difference in output from the 1999-00 season through the 2010-22 campaign (before BYU joined the WCC) and from 2011-12 to the present (with BYU in the league):
Gonzaga 1999-00 through 2010-11 (12 seasons)
Overall record: 316-83 (.792)
30+ win seasons: 0
Top-4 NCAA Tournament seeds: 4 (2004, 2005, 2006, 2009)
Sweet 16s: 4 (2000, 2001, 2006, 2009)
Elite Eights: 0
Final Fours: 0
National Championship Games: 0
4-star commits (according to 247sports): 11 – Josh Heytvelt (2004), David Pendergarft (2004), Jeremy Pargo (2005), Theo Davis (2006), Matt Bouldin (2006), Austin Daye (2007), Steven Gray (2007), Grant Gibbs (2008), Mangisto Arop (2009), Sam Dower (2009), Gary Bell (2011)
5-star commits (according to 247sports): 0
Gonzaga 2011-12 through 2020-21 (10 Seasons – No NCAA Tournament in 2020)
Overall record: 314-42 (.882)
30+ win seasons: 7
Top-4 NCAA Tournament seeds: 6 (2013, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021)
Sweet 16s: 6 (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021)
Elite Eights: 4 (2015, 2017, 2019, 2021)
Final Fours: 2 (2017, 2021)
National Championship Games: 2 (2017, 2021)
4-star commits (according to 247sports): 14 – Josh Perkins (2014), Zach Collins (2016), Zach Norvell Jr. (2016), Corey Kispert (2017), Filip Petrusev (2018), Oumar Ballo (2019), Drew Timme (2019), Anton Watson (2019), Pavel Zakharov (2019), Julian Strawther (2020), Dominick Harris (2020), Ben Gregg (2020), Nolan Hickman (2021), Kaden Perry (2021)
5-star commits (according to 247sports): 3 – Jalen Suggs (2020), Chet Holmgren (2021), Hunter Sallis (2021)
When comparing how Gonzaga did in the 2000s compared to the 2010s, it’s obvious that the program has improved massively. It was doing very well in Few’s first 10 years, but these last 10 have catapulted the Zags into another stratosphere.
Why has this happened? Like I mentioned earlier, Few’s fantastic coaching ability is a huge part of it – really, he’s the impetus for it all. But it would be impossible to leave BYU’s impact on the WCC out of the discussion.
In 2016, Few went public with his requests for the rest of the WCC to get its act together after his Zags were the only recipient of an NCAA Tournament bid from the league after winning the conference tournament over St. Mary’s, whose bubble was popped on Selection Sunday.
“Our league needs to really step back and take notice,” Few told the Spokesman-Review. “It’s time for some of these other institutions to start picking it up. They’re really dragging the top three down.”
The top three he’s referring to includes BYU, and the Cougars had added a totally different dynamic to the WCC by 2016. A league that was once a two-team league between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s had solidified a third power that could compete with the dominant forces. Though the Cougars have not yet won a share of a WCC title, they have reached multiple WCC Tournament championship games, finished in the top three of the league several times, and have become a similar force as St. Mary’s in the conference.
BYU has played the foil role to Gonzaga for good portions of its time in the WCC, challenging and occasionally besting the Zags on the court, offering a second legitimate competitor for the Bulldogs to consider in their league.
There is no way the improvement in recruiting at Gonzaga can’t be somewhat contributed to the addition of two marquee conference games every season. The Zags are known for scheduling tough in the non-conference, and that lures talent to Spokane, but the sale must be easier when Few can also tell them that they’ll play in nationally-relevant contests in-conference against not only St. Mary’s but BYU – a school big enough to now merit an invitation from the Big 12 – as well.
In 1999-00, the WCC finished No. 16 out of 32 conferences in RPI. Most of the next 10 years were spent with the league finishing in the spots just outside of the top 10. From 2011-12 to now, the WCC has finished outside of the top 10 only twice (2015-16 and 2017-18). Clearly, BYU has elevated the league’s level, and there’s no way that hasn’t been hugely helpful to Gonzaga.
So, What Does It Mean?
It doesn’t mean Gonzaga’s program will tank and you’ve heard the end of the Few and the Zags. Gonzaga was doing very well before BYU joined the WCC, and it’ll almost definitely continue to do well after the Cougars leave. The foundation set in Spokane was created by Few and those around him – BYU cannot claim credit for that.
And Gonzaga has capitalized wonderfully on playing in a tougher, more elevated conference. It’s possible that even when BYU leaves and the league presumably dips back down to its previous levels, Gonzaga will have cemented itself at the top of the conversation nationally enough that it can still bring in five-star recruits while playing in a league that will often only have one bid to the Big Dance.
But what’s the easier sales pitch: come play for a national championship while in a top-10 league nationally, or come play for a national championship while in a league struggling to get two teams into the tournament regularly? Remember, Few isn’t competing against middling power-five programs for players like Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren like he is for some four-star and three-star players. If you want Suggs and Holmgren, you have to convince them that you’re a better spot for them than Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, and North Carolina.
BYU leaves the WCC after the 2022-23 season, so Gonzaga still has two seasons of competing against the Cougars to look forward to. The potential impact of BYU exiting the conference won’t be felt for another few years, and I would be very surprised if Gonzaga ever dipped belong the status of a perennial tournament team and common Sweet 16 participant while Few is in charge regardless of other factors. But will the Zags be able to bring in three five-star recruits in two years and convince enough talent to come through their doors to win at least 31 games for five-straight years without a program like BYU helping improve the conference? That’s the big question.