The college basketball world is nearly impossible to predict. Take Gonzaga as the perfect example. Plenty of NCAA Tournament teams have played the role of Cinderella and ended up nothing more than a flash in the pan for years to come. Back in 1999, there wasn’t a soul who could have anticipated how the Gonzaga Bulldogs would change the face of college basketball, and what it means for a small school to partake with the big boys.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs today are a much different team than the one of 20 years ago, with many different expectations. Now, the general rule of thumb for the program is at minimum a NCAA Tournament appearance, and at maximum, a run much deeper than the first weekend.
That is what makes these Mountain West Conference expansion rumors so important. The Gonzaga Bulldogs have had a good thing running—but they need to make the jump if they wish to be a fixture in the NCAA Tournament in the future. The West Coast Conference has been an great diving platform for the growth of the program, but it has become an anchor as of late, and the Zags can’t wait around to see what will happen.
That was completely evident by this year, where the Zags, despite being a top 10 team by all the advanced metrics, weren’t even considered for a three seed due to a lackluster RPI—brought in part by a lackluster WCC. The NCAA Tournament is designed to reward the higher seeds, and for anyone that says “seeding doesn’t matter” or “it is just a number,” I’m sorry, but historically, you are incorrect.
No. 1 seeds have made up Final Four participants 40.38 percent of the time. No. 2 seeds 21.15 percent, No. 3 seeds 10.9 percent, No. 4 seeds 8.97 percent...are you getting the picture now? Or do I need to continue the visible pattern? Of the 33 national champions since the tournament expanded in 1985, 20 have been a No. 1 seed. Only five have been a No. 2 seed, and just four have been a No. 3 seed. Contrary to how the lazy argument goes, seeding matters a whole lot.
There are people who have thrown out the talks of a “lateral move,” which is also a false claim. The MWC is a RPI jump over the WCC, no matter what. Here are the RPIs for each conference below, and remember to make note, the WCC’s is slightly inflated due to Gonzaga being in there.
WCC vs. MWC RPI
|Gonzaga (24)||Nevada (19)||Gonzaga (8)||Nevada (29)||Saint Mary's (40)||San Diego State (42)||Gonzaga (8)||San Diego State (27)||Gonzaga (22)||New Mexico (15)|
|Saint Mary's (42)||Boise State (49)||Saint Mary's (17)||Colorado State (65)||Gonzaga (46)||Fresno State (69)||BYU (38)||Colorado State (28)||BYU (32)||San Diego State (17)|
|BYU (69)||San Diego State (63)||BYU (66)||Boise State (74)||BYU (76)||Boise State (101)||Saint Mary's (69)||Boise State (44)||Saint Mary's (60)||Boise State (81)|
|San Francisco (141)||Wyoming (97)||San Francisco (94)||Fresno State (76)||Pepperdine (130)||Nevada (117)||Pepperdine (134)||Wyoming (73)||San Francisco (72)||UNLV (104)|
|San Diego (144)||Fresno State (103)||Santa Clara (126)||New Mexico (86)||LMU (223)||UNLV (141)||Portland (141)||UNLV (104)||Pacific (128)||Fresno State (115)|
|Pacific (186)||New Mexico (118)||LMU (149)||San Diego State (99)||San Francisco (229)||New Mexico (145)||San Diego (155)||Utah State (143)||San Diego (154)||Utah State (118)|
|LMU (255)||UNLV (127)||San Diego (202)||Wyoming (151)||Portland (246)||Utah State (151)||San Francisco (183)||New Mexico (172)||Pepperdine (158)||Wyoming (134)|
|Santa Clara (265)||Utah State (152)||Pacific (222)||Utah State (179)||Santa Clara (252)||Colorado State (182)||Santa Clara (202)||Fresno State (186)||Portland (173)||Nevada (138)|
|Portland (283)||Colorado State (232)||Portland (235)||San Jose State (190)||Pacific (268)||Wyoming (184)||Pacific (238)||Air Force (241)||LMU (176)||Colorado State (180)|
|Pepperdine (315)||Air Force (254)||Pepperdine (244)||UNLV (238)||San Diego (302)||Air Force (226)||LMU (262)||Nevada (305)||Santa Clara (209)||Air Force (249)|
|San Jose State (309)||Air Force (249)||San Jose State (300)||San Jose State (336)||San Jose State (276)|
It is true, the jump isn’t very much. But you have to wonder what the added opportunity of playing Nevada might have done to Gonzaga’s seeding chances. A couple of wins there could have been the difference between a four and a three seed.
Part of the reason this is extra important is the changing landscape of the conferences. At the rate it is going, the rich keep getting richer. As the major conferences continue to expand their conference slate, it cannibalizes the non-conference slate for teams like Gonzaga. For reference, the Big Ten and ACC now play 20 conference games each. College basketball teams are allowed to play a max of 29, or 27 and one non-conference tournament.
Sure, Gonzaga has a home-and-home coming up with North Carolina, but as this year demonstrated, if the Zags want to get one of the elite seeds in the NCAA Tournament, they need a better resume. One game against North Carolina is not going cut it.
And, let’s keep our own short history in mind here. Remember the 2015-16 season? The Zags owned a non-conference win over Connecticut and that was the resume. There was zero room for error in that season, especially in conference play. The Zags had to win out in the conference tournament to guarantee their place in the NCAA Tournament—it was arguably that close to ending the March Madness streak.
Since 2002, the WCC has averaged roughly a No. 12 ranking out of conferences according to Ken Pomeroy. The Mountain West Conference has averaged a No. 8 ranking. Across the board, this is an improvement, no ifs ands or buts about it.
Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth isn’t an idiot either. As CBS Sports noted, Roth said he has been talking with other conferences:
Roth said the Mountain West isn’t the only conference he has spoken to in the last year. While he wouldn’t identify the other conferences, it’s logical to assume the AAC and Big East might be in that group.
The issue with both of those conferences comes down to travel. Roth alluded to it in an earlier conversation with Jim Meehan of the Spokesman Review.
“That was a tough decision for them to bring in Creighton, although it was a great fit,” Roth said. “They struggled with how far away Omaha is. That’s a hurdle they may never be able to overcome.”
And ever since the Catholic 7 left the Big East to become the new Big East, it has been a premier fantasy destination for everyone, myself included. But geography is a real thing, and until Elon Musk builds his hyperloop stretching across the globe, planes can only go so far, so fast.
So to a certain extent, that means we are left with three options: 1) Stand pat in the WCC and keep trying to make the best of it; 2) Wait and hope that someone bigger, such as the Big East comes calling; or 3) Take the opportunity that stands in front of us (theoretically) at the moment.
None of it is an easy decision. In the end, the pros of joining up into the MWC for the basketball program outweigh the cons. Gonzaga gets the resume boost it desires, and sets the program up for more sustainable success going forward.