Here, BYU. We'd like you to come play with us.
BYU's loss to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament wraps up the 2011-12 basketball season, the inaugural voyage for the Cougars in the West Coast Conference. Looking back on this first year in the WCC, it went just about as well as you could hope for. Here's my take on Year 1 in the WCC and everything it entailed.
Gauging fan expectations is always hard to do, but the editors here at VTF noticed pre-season that many BYU fans expected to roll into the WCC and compete directly, head-to-head with Gonzaga for the WCC title. And ironically, the same strength in the league that kept BYU from doing that almost made it so BYU could do that -- Loyola Marymount and San Francisco, to be specific.
Although the WCC's top three were the teams predicted preseason by coaches and media alike, LMU and USF rose up and challenged that power structure. LMU won road games both at BYU and Saint Mary's, while San Francisco was able to beat Gonzaga at home (and put a scare into BYU and Saint Mary's both). The Cougars were able to finish in third place by just one game over Loyola Marymount, thanks in large part to LMU letting a game against San Diego slip away in the season's final week.
So how does it all add up? I'd say BYU did just as well as should have been expected within the conference. Saint Mary's had youngsters like Stephen Holt and Jorden Page rise up and help the Gaels dominate the conference for the most part. The Cougars beat Gonzaga at home. And despite huge struggles from BYU's young backcourt, a 12-4 conference record was enough for said third-place finish.
A quarterfinal win in the conference tournament against San Diego also gave BYU its 25th win, marking six-straight seasons of 25+ wins. It all adds up to a successful, but not dominant, year in the West Coast Conference.
I won't begin to argue that the West Coast Conference is on equal footing with the Mountain West. It isn't. (Although a side note: An abysmal road team in Colorado State received the MWC's fourth bid to this year's NCAA tournament, and I wont shy away from going on record to say BYU's 2010-11 season finally helped the MWC push its profile to that level.)
Despite the disparity, I can also say that maybe it wasn't quite as bad as we expected. Loyola Marymount got national run as a possible "bid thief," someone nobody in the WCC tournament would want to play, and a team that could garner the WCC a fourth bid itself if it won the auto-bid -- and if it made it to the NCAA tournament, a team that could spring a first-round upset. And while San Francisco stumbled off the blocks, a strong finish had the Dons being spoken about respecfully. (Two of its three best players are graduating, however.)
Overall, the WCC profile isn't too bad. Although BYU's non-conference schedule looked better due to late-season surges from Oregon and Nevada, it was still pretty weak overall, especially with the Cougars failing their biggest OOC tests. Yet BYU still received an at-large bid over other bubble teams like Washington and Drexel. LMU's surprise and the strength of Saint Mary's and Gonzaga likely played at least some part of that. Gonzaga is a rock, Saint Mary's looks here to stay (at least if Randy Bennett is around), and LMU is on the rise.
In fact, LMU is the only WCC team still playing, having advanced to the quarterfinals of the CIT with an overtime win over short-handed Weber State. The only big senior loss the Lions will have is Drew Viney, but Anthony Ireland looks great, and Jarred DuBois and C.J. Blackwell have a lot of promise. And all of them are still playing, racking up game experience for next season. (The Lions' quarterfinal game of the CIT is at Utah State.)
So while I can't say the WCC is equal to the MWC, the difference isn't all that huge, and that gap could be getting smaller if LMU and USF can keep the ball rolling. There are worst places to be in the West than the WCC.
A lot of fans loved the sameness of the Las Vegas location, but with the home-court-advantage element being removed from years past. The location in Vegas seems to work, although it will be interesting to see where the tournament ends up beyond 2013 if Jamie Zaninovich's inquiries of other venues advances beyond the exploratory stage.
As for the tournament itself, I had mixed feelings. Because of the double- and triple-bye system to account for a nine-team conference and to reward higher seeds, it was nice to be spared the tedium of seeing the conference's best wipe the floor with the cellar dwellers in the opening round. But at the same time, it felt weird for the tournament to have been going on for two days before BYU got into action. It would have been three days if BYU was a top-two seed. For the top seeds, it made it feel like less of a premier event to me.
However, the tournament being on BYUtv and various ESPN channels instead of being on a combination of The Mtn/NBC Sports/CBS Sports was an improvement -- accessibility-wise and quality-wise. Which takes me to ...
The ease of access to any game this season was rather remarkable. Some of this may re-hash things that were said following the football season, but it was a definite part of the Year 1 WCC experience.
Availability to any and almost all games this season made it so I felt comfortable cancelling all but local channels on my cable. Online, I still watched every BYU game from that point forward, and every game in the WCC Tournament as well -- all legally and without visiting one of the blessed off-shore streaming sites, either.
I hinted at quality -- I found myself much preferring BYUtv's broadcast over anything experienced in the MWC, especially after Steve Cleveland joined as color commentator. I would take Dave McCann and Steve Cleveland over any combination of announcers on channels in the MWC deal (except for James Bates). The games had a very slight BYU lean as you might expect, but it was very controlled and less than you can find at most schools around the country. Fans throughout the conference seemed to have nothing but good to say about games they watched on BYUtv.
The ESPN games were enjoyable, too. I watched many WCC games last season with Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham, and felt Farnham was much preferrable to Dave Lappas or Joe-bleeping-Cravens (bless his heart). Farnham is a rising star in the world of color commentary -- so I hope he sticks around the WCC for a few more years.
Overall, it's hard to knock the television experience of being in the WCC. Availability is much greater, and while my thoughts on quality might be debatable, it's at the very least no worse than what was experienced in the MWC. TV easily falls on the "positive" side of my WCC ledger.
Many of you would probably go bananas if I didn't spend some time talking about the officiating in the West Coast Conference. So I will, but don't be disappointed if it's not the scorched-earth diatribe you are wanting.
I won't go to the lengths of Len Elmore and put on a Ref Apologist hat. There were times that it got downright terrible. Watching Gonzaga play at Portland, I saw on three consecutive possessions Gonzaga inbounded the ball on its own baseline, and the Portland player defending the inbounder jumped well over the baseline *multiple* times on *all three* possessions. Portland received zero warnings and/or technical fouls for this. (It was egregious, too. The Portland defender was stepping a good foot over the end line.)
We all saw what took place when Saint Mary's came to Provo. The refs seemed overwhelmed and unprepared for the big stage (and big arena), It was maddening enough that Dave Rose picked up just his second technical foul in 239 games as BYU head coach.
By letter-of-the-law interpretations of the rules, the whistle could be blown on every single possession, and probably multiple times each possession. But referees usually don't call every violation because not all violations are equal and it dirties the game up to unwatchable levels .... all of which is what happened when BYU was in Portland and shot FIFTY THREE free throws. It was a game in which 52 fouls were whistled, an impressive rate of one foul every 45 seconds. (For explanation of "time and place" foul calling, if you will, I went on further in my recap of that game.)
To that extent, it felt like the officials that are a part of the regular WCC rotation weren't quite up to snuff. However, an overriding trend in college basketball that has nearly overtaken the sport was an influence this season nationwide, so not all should be blamed on "WCC officiating." Remember the outrage over the offensive foul called on Brandon Davies in Moraga as BYU was making its comeback against Saint Mary's? That was definitely not a problem contained in the WCC. The charge semi-circle that sits in the paint near the basket seems to have made refs stop trying to officiate proper defensive position on plays near the hoop. If a defender falls down after contact and his feet are outside the semicircle, refs are whistling an offensive foul almost every time, regardless of what actually took place. This is a nationwide problem, one I even saw occur plenty of times in this year's MWC tournament.
So have no fear, Cougar fans. The block/charge/flop problem is happening everywhere. But proper game control and big-stage management is still an issue that hopefully improves by next season.
OCCUPYING ROAD ARENAS
The in-conference destinations in the WCC were leaps and bounds better than MWC destinations. This helped more people get on the road and support the Cougars. What also helped was each city's proximity to a Mormon population, if you will. Trading Laramie and Fort Collins for LA- and Bay-Area schools not only meant better scenery, but a larger Mormon population. This was due to not only a larger overall population, but Laramie and Fort Collins are close to being able to be classified as anti-Mormon cities. If any LDS people lived there, they probably never left their houses. (Okay, that's a bit extreme, but the sentiment is there.)
BYU's fan support was enough to drive a Salt-Lake-City Ute going to school in Portland to write about it in Portland's school paper. He called out Portland students and the community for letting so many BYU fans snatch up tickets that it sounded like a BYU home game. (He also seemed peeved about the meet-and-greet BYU had after with the fans, but hey, BYU asked for and was granted permission).
Even though I was personally not able to get on the road with the team, it was an enjoyable part of the season. Hearing our own Presten Norton start up the B-Y-U chant with a minute left at Santa Clara, followed by the scant amount of SCU students attempt to rebut it with a feeble S-C-U chant, was fantastic.
BYU fans will continue to buy up tickets (even with prices raised to nearly double the regular price of non-BYU games), pack opposing arenas, and give their money to each school around the conference -- or, it will tick off students and fans of those schools enough that they'll buy up the tickets, increasing fan fervor and support of each school around the league (Gonzaga excepting -- fans/students were just fine in Spokane before this year). Either way, the WCC is better for it. So good job, Cougar fans.
While there were some attempts to denigrate Brandon Davies -- shameful chants that painted an Honor-Code violator into a rapist -- for the most part, it seemed interactions with opposing fans were positive. Some Gonzaga students even started a campaign before BYU came to Spokane to "Take the Hate out of Hoops," a pre-emptive effort to avoid ugly chants and bigoted sneers toward Mormons. Overall, I hope this sort of sentiment prevails both around the conference and in Provo for years to come.
BYU fans like to point the finger at opposing schools for it being all their problem, but BYU does have a way of getting under the skin of other schools and fans. It's some combination of our religion, our exuberance and national base, and the success of our teams -- and to some extent, our eagerness to blame failure on other schools cheating or on bad refs. Hopefully there are segments of each fan base around the WCC and in our own, like the Take the Hate out of Hoops group, that will keep BYU's new relationship with the conference a positive one. Hopefully BYU students and fans take it upon themselves, both at home and on the road, to represent the university well.
Overall, I would paint BYU's first-year WCC experience as a positive one. Ref tendencies can be improved. Fans can be more respectful. But those things weren't too terrible, and the other factors I outlined above made for a positive year. Maybe it's the newness of the honeymoon, but I much enjoyed year one in the West Coast Conference.