While there is general agreement that the West Coast Conference is the best long-term fit for DU, the conference is currently facing its own issues.
The conference is a basketball-focused conference with three tiers – Gonzaga is in the first tier and their fans are frustrated with the WCC low low-level competition in the bottom tier, poor fan support and want to leave the conference if they can find a suitable conference fit. The Mountain West is their preferred option.
St. Mary’s and BYU fall into the second tier. They both have a relatively strong RPI and have occasionally had the best of Gonzaga. Then, there is Tier 3 – “all the rest” – include Loyola-Marymount, Pepperdine, Pacific, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Clara.
Fan blogs like WCCBoards, driven by Gonzaga fans, believe this last group is not putting forth the effort to compete at a high level, play in unsuitable venues (i.e. “high school gyms”), and are not committed to the long term – especially in basketball. They would like to leave the conference but their options are limited. As we have discussed in the past, there is a good possibility that BYU may go to the Big 12 soon with a potential expansion. BYU and/or Gonzaga leaving would erode the conference’s overall basketball reputation and RPI.
WCC fans are clamoring for an entrant with a suitable basketball program to compete come tournament time. Their general view is that there are three possible options for the league. Grand Canyon from the WAC has the best RPI (88) but doesn’t really fit given its size and academic reputation.
Seattle, also from the crumbling WAC, is seen as another possible replacement. However, they have a bad RPI (285). On the positive side, Seattle has a lot of things going for it – it’s a Jesuit university, another school in Gonzaga and Portland’s region, and an official entry into the large market of Seattle.
Then there is Denver with a middling RPI (194) and an extremely competitive athletic department. DU also has facilities that would place them at the top of the WCC. Even casual WCC bloggers seem to prefer Denver with the size of the market and the overall quality and overall success of the athletic department.
Timing is the main issue here. If the WAC collapses first, that would force the WCC’s hand to make a decision on Seattle and/or Grand Canyon – advantage Seattle. If BYU bolts to the Big 12 first, the WCC could either do nothing or open up the competition from the other schools to fill the slot – which would likely present the best opportunity for Denver. In the unlikely event Gonzaga left the conference for a bigger conference the same could apply as well.
This also explains the current push to upgrade Denver’s basketball program (and RPI) to make the Pioneers more attractive to the WCC or possible other suitors. If a suitable conference needs to fill a departing member’s slot, the advantage will fall to the candidate institution with the best basketball program available. The WCC does not want to add any more Tier 3 programs – it has seen the institutional benefits of having competitive basketball programs.
DU sent a big message to the college basketball world earlier this year with the release of a winning basketball coach in Joe Scott and the hiring of Rodney Billups and veteran assistant coach Ricardo Patton. Denver is serious about making noise in March. It should be heard on the west coast.