West Coast Conference Path a Minefield

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.

18 thoughts on “West Coast Conference Path a Minefield”

  1. Most WCC schools are trying to play at a high level at cost-containment budget levels. DU would be a mid-pack team there right now in men’s hoops, DU would also be very competitive in that league with most of the other sports that would play there – soccer, volleyball, swimming, golf, tennis, etc. While DU is certainly a cultural fit with those mid-sized privates, I often wonder how many more DU fans would come out to see Loyola-Marymount, USD, Santa Clara, Portland, Pepperdine, etc. BYU and Gonzaga would certainly draw here, but the others?

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  2. Some thought:
    1. So the Zags want in to the Mountain West. Since they don’t have football, not sure the interest is mutual
    2. Don’t forget St. Mary’s from the WCC. They have made the hoops NCAA’s quite often recently.
    3. Mid range WCC schools have appeal and history. USF won 2 National Championships. William “Bird” Averitt led the nation in scoring. Loyola set the college basketball world on fire when Paul Westhead ran the show. He had 2 all-Americans, the late Hank Gaithers and Bo Kimble. Made the final four and averaged 109 points per game.
    4. Ex Laker Kurt Rambis played his college ball at Santa Clara.
    5. All WCC teams have played in the NCAA’s, and most if not all have won at least 1 game in the tourney.
    6. Road trips and conference tournaments- DU kids and alums will come out for these. LA, Vegas, SF or San Diego, we are there. Lots of alums in those areas.
    7. One of the top DU athletic supporters of all times currently attends Loyola-Marymount. He guarantees to bring at least1,000 of his closest fiends to DU games, both home and away.

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  3. I agree with Dunker on this one. I would also add that this could potentially link us outside of just sports and extend to academic collaboration and partnerships off the playing fields. We would also be competing against schools that had the same advantages and disadvantages that DU faces in fielding competitive teams. The more you look at it – an ideal fit both athletically, culturally, academically, and even, geographically.

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  4. Dunker, excellent points.

    I saw Loyola Marymount play UNLV in the Thomas & Mack Center in vVgas during those heydays. More than 200 points scored combined. What a show.

    More DU students can identify with California schools than N.D., S.D., NE, etc.

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  5. What about the baseball issue?

    For years, one of the major stumbling blocks posited regarding the potential of DU ever joining the WCC was the fact that our friends in the Ritchie Center didn’t sponsor a baseball team; and, given all of the attendant issues surrounding funding such a resource intensive, non-revenue generating sport, weren’t terribly interested in getting back into the ball-and-stick business…

    Would the WCC overlook that in favor of adding a school with a potentially up-and-coming hoops program, “institutional compatibility”, and an athletic department that otherwise dovetails nicely with the conference? Or, would it prefer to pluck Seattle University and/or GCU, simply because both schools already have baseball teams?

    I suppose much depends on how the dominoes ultimately fall during the next round of conference realignment…but, if baseball is REALLY an issue for the WCC, I’m not sure I’d hold my breath for an invite any time soon. with COA on the immediate horizon (not to mention other fiscal stressors), I simply can’t imagine DU’s Board of Trustees being all that willing to start pouring money down the baseball rabbit hole….

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    1. Baseball could be a problem. Actually, facilities may not be…DU is working with Denver South High School on some partnerships and South have a ball field across I-25. It would probably need to be upgraded. Scholarships, CoA and travel costs would be an issue that would pose potential issues. Or, WCC could take DU without BB.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Or, WCC could take DU without BB.”

        It could. But would it?

        I honestly don’t know. Some of the schools in the WCC are swimming in long-standing baseball tradition. And in California, the conference’s geographic and membership stronghold, college baseball is a HUGE deal. Hell, Kris Bryant – pretty much the second best baseball player in the world under the age of 25 – went to The University of San Diego and still gets standing ovations when he plays at Petco Park. For the visiting team.

        (For those that don’t know, Bryce Harper is the best baseball player in the world under 25…but school wasn’t his “thing”, so he got his GED and marked time in junior college until he was draft-eligible…)

        Anyway.

        If the Big 12 expands to….wait for it…..12 SCHOOLS, it’s almost a done-deal that such an expansion will include BYU. You know it. I know it. And the WCC knows it. As such, the WCC HAS to have a plan in place for that eventuality and I can’t imagine that a non-revenue generating sport like baseball is an over-riding concern there.

        That said, let’s be honest here – regardless of sports sponsored, the easiest add for the WCC would absolutely be Seattle University. And, to be frank, it doesn’t take a huge leap to conclude that that’s exactly what SU has been positioning itself for since its return to Division I AAA athletics in 2009-10.

        But, as you alluded to in the original post, SU’s hoops team has kinda treaded water since the move, flirting with .500 records and farting around in CBI-land. They haven’t made a definitive move to improve their fortunes and aren’t looking like they will do so in the near future. But they ARE on the west coast and have access to a media market of around 4.8 million people – and are a natural rival for Gonzaga.

        DU, on the other hand, has just made a bold move to improve its hoops program and it looks like Peg and company are serious about it. But, who knows if that will ultimately translate to butts-in-the-seats and winning records? Also, if we’re being honest, DU continues to struggle to make inroads into the Denver media market; which, by way of comparison with Seattle/Tacoma’s 4.8 million, is just shy of 3.9 million.

        Ultimately, I continue to believe that DU’s best chance for WCC membership occurs only if both BYU and Gonzaga leave the conference to explore greener pastures. The WCC has proven to be obstinate when it comes to considering expansion beyond 10 teams and, given the other factors in play here, I simply can’t see that a 9 team conference (one with Gonzaga, but sans BYU…) would add DU over SU.

        (Of course, in the event BYU leaves, the ‘Zags may stomp their feet and demand a better basketball team than SU brings to the table, in which case, all bets are off….)

        Anyway. Interesting times ahead, to be sure….

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  6. Let’s let DU baseball remain as a memory of the joys of players past.. It’s too costly and really, if the WCC wants us, BaseB should not be an issue. West coast teams play 70-80 games and a Rocky Mountain team would play maybe 50 games. Most teams play 30-40 games that are non-league. The remaining WCC teams will have zero problem filling a schedule. Whether they have a 8-9 team league in a sport that loses money makes no difference. Many major athletic schools north of the Mason-Dixon line don’t field a baseball team.

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    1. “Many major athletic schools north of the Mason-Dixon Line don’t field a baseball team.”

      But many do….

      However, your point is well taken. I can’t imagine that the lack of a baseball team would be an overarching concern to the WCC – particularly if BYU and/or Gonzaga leave. Plus, from DU’s perspective, it would be throwing money down a bottomless hole without a reasonable hope of ever fielding a consistently competitive team.

      Moving on….

      If I were advising the WCC, one thing I’d suggest they consider adding to the calculus, here: With the popularity of lacrosse literally EXPLODING on the west coast, it may be wise to consider partnering with a school that has basically single-handely forced the lacrosse world to look west…

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  7. Lacrosse makes perfect sense for WCC schools. It fits the affluent demographic of full-pay, male students they need to keep attracting to pay for the diversity they all crave, but all of them lack the endowment to fund fully. Plus, the west coast is becoming a huge lax talent base. Seven of DU’s lax freshmen (half the class) were from California this year. As the closest D-I school to that talent base, DU reaps the full benefit.

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  8. Ring of Fire:

    The big reason Seattle isn’t in the WCC already is that Gonzaga does not want additional league competition in the Washington state market. Even though Gonzaga is in Spokane (the other side of the state), it has become the premier hoops program in the state and adding Seattle would, in Gonzaga’s view, be detrimental to the Zags’ plans to dominate the state.

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    1. You mean, that plus the WCC’s insistence on staying with 10 teams. 😉

      Regardless – very interesting. Particularly when you consider that Spokane and Seattle may as well be in completely different states. Save for using the same state postal abbreviation for their addresses, they have absolutely nothing in common.

      Though I have no direct knowledge of fan attitudes in Washington, I also find it a little surprising that all that much hand-wringing goes on in Seattle regarding a Spokane-based Jesuit university’s hoops team. Though, to be fair, I’m relatively certain a sizeable percentage of Gonzaga grads find their way to Seattle after graduation and probably do no small amount to influence rooting interests and attitudes.

      Regardless, I get it. The Zags want the whole non-U Washington/WSU pie to themselves. And, through superior play, they’ve put themselves in a position to get it. What’s more, should BYU bolt, the’ve potentially built up enough clout within the WCC to effectively drive the bus when it comes to adding schools. Should BYU skip town, I guess we’ll see how much clout Gonzaga really has…

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  9. Excellent points Ring. The Mountain West is so football driven, they might opt for a misplaced NMSU. UW IS STILL THE POWER BROKER IN WASHINGTON. Gonzaga is a national power and has clout. Seattle won’t diminish that. Denver offers more TV but greater travel. (I wonder if Zag games are on Seattle TV already) We have little control of the outcome.

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  10. I doubt that DU moving to the WCC would help make DU basketball a major revenue sport. I think if, DU wants a nice BB program and to play similar size private schools the WCC makes sense, but if we want to become a strong mid major BB program, the Mountain West Conference makes much more sense and would be less expensive. The hard part is to get the MWC to admit a non-fb member, but currently they only have 11 bb members for Hawaii only has fb in the MWC.

    Here is why I think the MWC would make more sense for DU long term.
    Larger home crowds for MWC games
    DU has more geographic and traditional rival in the MWC (CSU, Air Force and Wyoming)
    More fan interest in brand name programs like UNLV, Boise State and San Diego State
    More alums of MWC living in Denver
    Lower travel costs and probably wouldn’t need to add baseball

    Can recruit a higher level of athlete than in the WCC – MOSTLY 3 stars vs 2 stars
    The MWC is usually a top 10 BB RPI league with more NCAA tournament money than WCC
    We would receive more money from NCAA basketball conference shares for usually more MWC teams make it to the NCAA bb tournament

    Again, the question that needs to be asked is, “What does DU really do with its basketball program.” If becoming a big time player like in hockey and lacrosse do what it takes to get into the MWC. Having a nice long term conference home with similar schools join the WCC. I do not think either alternative is right or wrong, but I think we are kidding ourselves if we think DU will become the next Gonzaga if it joins the WCC.

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    1. All fair points…

      However, a couple of things I’d consider adding to the analysis:

      1) A major consideration for DU is conference STABILITY. Over the last handful of years, DU has been in three different conferences: Sun Belt, WAC, and now, the Summit. This is not only confusing for fans, but it makes developing meaningful rivalries impossible.

      Since DU doesn’t sponsor football, the Pioneers need to be in a conference where they will be (at least somewhat…) insulated from the seemingly constant shifts in alignment that are driven by football brokering its power all over the place. The MWC, as a ‘mid-major’ conference, does not provide such stability. Hell, it just came out that CSU is probing the Big 12 for membership – if that happens, would Wyoming follow its natural rival? If so, what happens to the MWC? If DU were a non-football member of the MWC, what would be left for the Pioneers and would they have any say in it? I could go on, but you get my point, I’m sure…

      2) There is something to be said about the notion of “institutional compatibility”. As a college, being in an athletic conference isn’t only about geographics and playing “better” competition. In no small way, it’s also about associating yourself with other colleges and universities that are “like you”…that have similar challenges and opportunities in their athletic departments…that fight the same battles with their Boards of Trustees…that recruit similar players…that have similar academic standards and requirements for their athletes. For DU, this means academically-respected small-to-medium sized private schools that don’t sponsor football; but DO have a serious institutional commitment to athletics. Unfortunately, there just aren’t that many other schools like that in the west.

      Sure, the MWC is geographically convenient, but in the end, it’s a bunch of public universities of somewhat dubious academic reputation (Air Force being the obvious exception) that play football. Yes, it may put a few more butts in the seats at hoops games, but DU doesn’t “fit” there any more than it fits into the Big 12.

      In the end, I do agree that DU needs to make a decision about what it wants the hoops team to ultimately be…and I also agree that we’re dreaming if we thing that joining the WCC would all of the sudden make the Pioneers the next Gonzaga. However, I also strongly believe that, regardless of geographic convenience, associate membership in a football-driven conference full of public universities that has little chance of emerging from the next round of conference realignment intact does not represent the best way forward for DU athletics.

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  11. The Mountain West would be fantastic – if they would take a non-football school. I think there are some other schools that may fit their profile better but this would be a huge for DU. Everyone loves regional rivalries.

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