Hello, Gonzaga fans!
I had suggested Gonzaga join the Mountain West Conference back in November. The MWC has only 11 members in basketball because Hawaii only plays football in the conference. Having 12 teams in the conference (or an even number of teams) allows every member to play at once so you don't have to make a schedule where someone is "off" every weekend. In addition to the obvious upgrade to men's basketball, Gonzaga would expand the MWC geographical footprint to the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest.
This year clearly has shown Gonzaga has outgrown the West Coast Conference (WCC) in men's basketball. This is the sixth consecutive year the Bulldogs have won the WCC Tournament and in that span they have won the WCC regular season title outright five of the six seasons and shared with St. Mary's the other season. The only other teams since Mark Few took over at Gonzaga in 2000 that have won the WCC Tournament are St. Mary's (2) and San Diego (2, and they aren't even relevant in men's basketball anymore). The only other teams in the conference that have made the tournament this decade are St. Mary's and BYU.
The Slipper Still Fits writer manager Peter Woodburn discussed the weakness of the WCC this season. According to WarrenNolan.com, the MWC ranked 9th this year in conference RPI (76 - 51) vs. 13th for the WCC (62 - 53). Those totals include Gonzaga's 10-3 non conference record, take that away and the rest of the WCC is .500 out of conference. Four of the teams rank below 250 in the RPI. This will likely affect Gonzaga this year. Even though they are ranked #6 in both the AP and USA Today polls, they are only 25th in the RPI and currently a #5 seed in my last Schmolik 64 update this morning (Friday).
While the Mountain West Conference is stronger than the WCC, it has clearly seen better days. The last two years it has been a one bid conference. If Nevada wins the MWC Tournament it will likely be a one bid conference as well, it will get two bids if Nevada loses. But back in 2013, five Mountain West teams made the NCAA's and four made it in 2012. In 2014, San Diego State made the Sweet 16. They need Gonzaga as much as Gonzaga needs the Mountain West. The hope is Gonzaga will rejuvenate programs like San Diego State, New Mexico, and UNLV back to contending for NCAA berths and the MWC to regularly having multiple NCAA bids each year and the Mountain West challenging the Pathetic 12 for the best men's basketball conference out west.
Of course this would add a lot of travel for Gonzaga. I think the best way to minimize travel (at least for men's basketball) would be to institute a travel partners system. Assuming Gonzaga is added for a 12 team conference the travel pairs would be
Gonzaga and Boise State
Utah State and Wyoming
Colorado State and Air Force
Nevada and UNLV
San Jose State and Fresno State
San Diego State and New Mexico
Boise is over 400 miles away from Spokane but really there is no other closer option for a travel partner/geographical rival in the conference. If you have an 18 game schedule, you would play all but four teams (two pairs) twice. If Gonzaga joins for 2019, Colorado State-Air Force is an obvious pair to only play once. You don't want to play San Jose State twice but you do want to play Fresno State twice and you'd still like to visit California. I might prefer not to play Utah State/Wyoming twice instead, it would ease in the Mountain-Pacific travel if that pairing only goes once.
The next question in the MWC expansion plans is assuming they add Gonzaga is what about BYU? It is possible that the MWC's move to add Gonzaga might also have an ulterior motive? Sure, adding Gonzaga strengthens men's basketball in the Mountain West. They might have seen the addition of Wichita State to the American Athletic Conference. Wichita State has benefited from the move as they are playing better competition and should receive their highest NCAA Tournament seed since their undefeated regular season in 2014. But take away Gonzaga from the WCC and it is so weak BYU might want to come back to the MWC with Gonzaga.
Then if BYU wants to come back. then the Mountain West could say you can come back but only if you bring football too. Certainly bringing BYU football back to the MWC is a bonus to having Gonzaga basketball (and BYU basketball is also a decent program as well). If BYU wants to stay independent in football and the MWC won't let them back in, BYU is stuck in the WCC with St. Mary's and the rest of the conference without Gonzaga. If they stay independent but the WCC does let BYU come back in all other sports but football, then the MWC has 13 in all sports but football. I thought expansion was mainly to get to an even number. Maybe there's a 14th out there. But if you're expanding to BYU without football, then you need a non football member. Maybe St. Mary's comes for the ride. If so, the WCC ought to just fold.
Now if BYU comes back all in including football, you'd have 13 in all sports including football. This is of no concern to Gonzaga but the MWC football schools would have two unequal divisions. They could just get rid of divisions but they might want a 14th member just to keep it even anyway. The obvious 14th member would be defending WAC champion New Mexico State who is desperate for a conference after essentially getting kicked out of the Sun Belt Conference. They did make a bowl game last year for the first time in 57 years last year! I don't know how New Mexico would feel about their in state rivals in the conference with them though. If they were added, New Mexico and New Mexico State, BYU and Utah State, and Wyoming and San Diego State (by default) would be travel partners (or maybe Gonzaga-San Diego State and Boise State-Wyoming?). Another possibility would be to bring in Hawaii as an all sports member but that would add a lot to Hawaii's (and every other MWC school's, including Gonzaga's) travel budget). Then again, think about trips to Hawaii!