This was not a banner year for WCC basketball. After several seasons in a row where the league expected to be at least a multi-bid conference, down seasons and bad luck from Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and BYU made the league unquestionably a one bid league. Gonzaga won the conference tournament and was given an 11 seed, and Saint Mary's and BYU shuffled off to the NIT.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few had some pretty harsh words for the rest of the league after Selection Sunday. Via the Spokesman-Review:
"Our league needs to really step back and take notice," he said. "It's time for some of these other institutions to start picking it up. They're really dragging the top three down."
In case there was any doubt, or concern that maybe he was taken out of context, Few reiterated these concerns to Jim Rome yesterday.
"For instance BYU and St. Mary's are really, really, really good teams and look, the rest of our league wasn't very good, but those two teams were really, really good, and they were punished, numbers wise, by our league, but also perception-wise by the bracketologists from December on, saying, well they're probably only going to get one bid out of that league. Well, I disagree. I've played them their both really, really good.
And you know what? He's right. Saint Mary's made a deep NIT run, BYU is in the Final Four in the NIT currently and Gonzaga is making an NCAA run. However, the rest of the WCC stinks, and that hurts the big three.
The fact that the WCC is a pretty top-heavy league right now isn't rocket science. A team not named Gonzaga, Saint Mary's or BYU hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2007-2008 season, when San Diego won the conference tournament and grabbed an NCAA bid (Gonzaga and Saint Mary's still finished the regular season first and second that year). The Zags have had a stranglehold on the conference for the last two decades, and the Gaels have been right up there as well.
After the "Big Three" in the conference, only one WCC squad finished in the Top 150 in the RPI, one of the major metrics the NCAA Selection Committee uses for picking the NCAA Tournament field (Pepperdine was 129). Six WCC programs finished with RPIs below 200, which would constitute a very poor score. Other metrics aren't really keen on the conference either. Five WCC programs finished with KenPom ratings below 200, and a sixth, USF, just missed the cutoff at 194.
This isn't really a historical aberration either. The other teams in the WCC have not produced consistently decent, let alone good, basketball teams for a while. Loyola Marymount finished with a 225 KenPom rating this season, and has finished with a KenPom rating above 150 just twice since 2006. Portland has done it five times since 2006. USF has done it four times since 2006. The other seven teams alternate between average, and pretty bad.
That's a big problem come Selection Sunday, since it puts the onus on BYU (or the other programs ) to schedule multiple big names to compensate for the lack of profile improving opportunities. Gonzaga, whose years and years of regular season and NCAA success have allowed them to build a massive brand, is able to do this on some level, but it isn't reasonable to expect BYU or Saint Mary's to schedule at the same scale. Neither team can attract decent squads to play them at home, and even getting decent teams requires expensive guarantees. All three, but especially Saint Mary's and BYU, need to hope that their postseason tournament or rare non-conference showcase games work out. The margin of error is small.
Next season, BYU is expected to play Illinois at the United Center in Chicago. They'll probably play a tournament away from campus, like they have the past few seasons, and they'll play a few in-state games (UVU, Weber State, Utah State). There's probably room for one or two "name" opponents, like Colorado this past season, but not many.
Plus, the poor RPI conference situation means that any loss outside of the Big Three will have an even worse impact on one's computer profile. When you are forced to play multiple road games against sub-200 level competition, chances are, eventually you'll lose one, and that becomes a millstone around your profile's neck.
The good news is, multiple WCC programs are making coaching changes. Former NBA star (and Arizona and Memphis assistant) Damon Stoudamire is headed to Pacific. Experienced, bigger names like Steve Lavin and Herb Sendek could find their way into the conference. There's some reason to be hopeful about the trajectory of multiple struggling programs.
But the biggest question might be, how much better can the rest of the WCC actually get? Few didn't say other "teams" were dragging the WCC down, but "institutions".
More than almost any other conference, the WCC has a huge institutional gap between member institutions. BYU is more than double the size of most of the other conference schools. BYU, Gonzaga (and to some extent, Saint Mary's) are able to provide significantly better facilities, better support staffs, and recruit a significantly higher caliber of player than the rest of the conference. The other seven schools are mostly academically selective, with small enrollments, modest financial commitments, and little in the way of recent basketball history. Not many of the programs become consistently successful, even with an experienced coach.
I'm not sure what the solution is. Moving the Big Three to a different conference and letting the WCC replace them with more similar institutions would make athletic success, but it isn't really practical. Saint Mary's could certainly do a better job scheduling, and with their most talented teams in history coming down the pipe soon, BYU should do everything they can as well (this makes the multi-game series with UVU more indefensible, in my eyes). But there are practical and geographic limits to that.
If all three teams want to make the NCAA, and earn seeds that set them up for postseason success, the rest of the league is going to need to improve their computer profile, through RPI-gaming, or good ol' fashioned improvement. And then, of course, the other three teams need to actually *win* those games.
I don't know how much more improvement is feasible. I doubt the WCC ever becomes even an occasional four-bid league. But it can probably do much better than it has in recent memory. And it'll need to, for the Big Three to have the best shot at a deep March run.