This weekend served as another reminder for BYU, and really other WCC fans. This league makes it very difficult to assemble big time NCAA postseason metrics.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are both in the middle of excellent seasons, but neither found themselves ranked in the top 16 during the early seeding announcements. And BYU’s NCAA chances are almost certainly shot unless they win the WCC Tournament, even though they’re likely to win around 23 games in the regular season. Come late February, they’ve found themselves in familiar territory as of late. Either squarely on the NCAA bubble, or sliding off deep into NIT territory.
A major reason? The schedule. BYU, along with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, has a hard time getting quality opponents, especially quality opponents from the six power conferences, to play them, especially at home. And the WCC league schedule features required games against small schools with small basketball budgets, small enrollments, and RPI rankings that will drag down any profile. Teams like Portland (RPI: 252), or Santa Clara (RPI: 269). or Pepperdine (RPI: 331). Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s can augment their non-conference schedule with prestigious tournaments, but BYU’s Sunday play prohibition limits where they could be invited, making scheduling even harder.
If you’re a Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s, you need to win virtually all of those games and put up a gaudy win-loss record. If you’re BYU, a good program that’s clearly a step behind the other two, a bad loss or two is likely, and can be catastrophic for their computer profile. Gonzaga’s Mark Few understands this. The margin of error for any of these programs is small, and for BYU, due to factors outside of their control, it’s nearly microscopic.
BYU’s decision to leave the Mountain West Conference has been vindicated, as it’s been a financial and structural success for the athletic department, even if the football program hasn’t achieved the heights it enjoyed in the late 2000s. But for other sports, it’s increasingly clear that BYU, along with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, has a problem. BYU has over 30,000 students enrolled, dwarfing most of the rest of the WCC. Their athletic budget surpasses everybody, as does their ambition. Outside of their status as a religiously-affiliated private school (and let’s not pretend that means the same thing at BYU as it does at, say, Santa Clara), BYU doesn’t have much in common with the other institutions.
Of course, it’s not like there’s a better fit for BYU right now, or the other two high-achieving WCC programs. There aren’t many other leagues in the West.
So that’s why it’s time to show some uncommon leadership. It’s time to do something bold.
It’s time to start a new conference for non-football sports
Let me explain the proposed membership here, and then we can get into all those pesky logistical questions. I propose the best three athletic programs in the WCC should join up with the bulk of the MWC programs and the elite of the WAC, to create something like this:
New Mexico State
San Diego State
You could then add the remaining WCC teams to the remaining MWC squads, supplementing from the WAC, to create something like:
San Jose State
This creates an RPI improvement in almost every major sport, but especially in men’s basketball
Based on RPI calculations through February 11th of this season, the RPI difference is massive. The average RPI of our proposed new conference (let’s call it the Western Athletic League, or WAL, while we brainstorm something better), is 98.5, buoyed by seven teams in the top 75. For the WCC? It’s 174.9, a massive difference. Only two squads in the WAL currently have RPIs below 200 (Colorado State at 209 and Air Force at 234), while four in the WCC have metrics that low, including Pepperdine, one of the worst teams in the country at 331.
But hey, that’s just a snapshot of a fraction of one season. Surely the WAL wouldn’t have a team like Nevada (current RPI: 15) every season, right? But a measure of the last three seasons still shows a significant gap. The WAL’s average RPI over the last three seasons (through the 2015-2016 campaign) is 101.36. For the WCC? 164.86. That’s easily a big enough gap in conference schedule strength to bump up seed lines or get more teams into the NCAA Tournament.
But improvements aren’t just in men’s basketball. The WAL’s average RPI for women’s basketball this season is 147.66 (thanks to strong metrics from Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, Wyoming and New Mexico, helping offset a down year for BYU). For the WCC? It’s 173.3.
Even in baseball, one of the WCC’s stronger sports, the WAL would have an advantage. Three WAL programs (Boise State, Wyoming and Colorado State) do not have baseball teams, but last year’s average RPI would have been 123.8, superior to the WCC’s, 140. An odd number of teams wouldn’t be too big of a logistical hurdle in baseball either, as one team could simply schedule an out of conference series while everybody else did a conference one over a weekend. The remaining WCC programs, or Big West schools, would make reasonable scheduling partners.
This levels the playing field for smaller schools
Look, Santa Clara isn’t making the NCAA Tournament any time soon unless it gets lucky and wins the WCC Tournament. Same for USF, or Portland, or most of the bottom half of the WCC. The financial and infrastructure gap between them and the top half of the league is too vast for them to credibly hope to finish in the top two. The same is true for a program like San Jose State.
By carving the top off the conference, the “new” WCC would still be a credible low-major basketball league, but not one so daunting that every team in the league couldn’t aspire to compete for titles in a good season.
And it gives everybody else a much larger postseason margin of error
Unless you’re Gonzaga, if you play against bad teams, eventually, you’re going to lose to some bad teams. BYU gets tripped by by the bottom half of the WCC every year. Duke has losses to Boston College and St.John’s. UNC lost to Wofford. St.Mary’s lost to Washington State. That’s just how the sport works.
If your baseline RPI in conference play is a good three dozen spots higher, that gives your program increased flexibility in out of conference scheduling (you can afford to schedule that SWAC team to save some money, for example), and gives you breathing room to drop another league game or two, since you’ll have plenty more opportunities to pick up decent wins and rehabilitate your profile.
Seems like a win for everybody, no? But I understand there are some significant challenges and logistical issues here. Let’s unpack them.
There’s a problem with the schools you picked! The league configuration should be [insert opinion here]
Hey, maybe you’re right. If you want to argue passionately for say, Utah State or Fresno State over Wyoming or Air Force, go right ahead. I picked teams based on RPIs across multiple sports and a desire for a slightly more geographically compact WCC, but if anybody wants to swap a team, I won’t argue with you.
The one wild card here is Grand Canyon, whose enrollment, budget and momentum in basketball outstrips some other mentioned schools. I left them out because their current status as a for-profit school (although they are in the process of switching to a non-profit) makes them a pariah in some university administrative circles. I left them out to try and make an already controversial proposal slightly more palatable. But would Grand Canyon make this hypothetical league better at many sports? Yeah, probably.
But what about football?!?
This is where the need for transformational leadership comes in.
There’s no law that states that football conferences must keep their same membership across all sports. The Mountain West is not the Big Ten, with academic prestige associated with membership that’s continued for a hundred years. Many of these schools have athletic associations simply because they’ve been smashed together after different eras of mid-major western realignment. Not playing in baseball does not jeopardize academic research or sacred university bonds.
It’s also not like the current MWC basketball or baseball products are exceptionally valuable television products whose memberships could not be altered, lest it bring about financial ruin.
We should also be realistic here. Craig Thompson and MWC leadership would certainly be upset about this, but schools don’t work for him. They’re bound to pursue the best interests of their institution. Keeping every school together for the sake of MWC football creates an inferior all-sports product...it’s not like the MWC TV deal is so lucrative that it gives each school enough money to invest in winning programs in all sports. Heck, their next TV deal might not even be a TV deal. Giving schools the flexibility to pursue other relationships for other sports frees up more financially constrained schools to find an easier path to the NCAAs (and the university exposure that it brings), and to pick their spots in other sports. The schools with more money can pursue a tougher league.
Would this be easy? No. But it would be worth it
Pursuing this would require many MWC administrators to commit to working with BYU again, something they may not be excited to do after hurt feelings over BYU’s departure from the league. It would require the bulk of league membership to act together to push for maintaining the MWC football league, while essentially dissolving it for many other sports. It would require risk-taking in accounting, as schools would need to bank on NCAA Tournament shares making up for potentially increased travel costs, or changes in TV deals. It would require doing something very different.
But here’s the truth. There’s about a dozen-ish non-power athletic programs in the entire West that care about playing basketball (and other sports) at a high D1 level. But right now, they’re spread across multiple conferences, diluting financial and competitive opportunities for all of them.
Football prevents the creation of an all-sports league. But to pursue competitive opportunities at the highest level, especially as we approach an era where even modest television contracts for non-power conferences could be at risk, leaders, even at BYU, should strongly consider consolidation.
A WAL would create the answer to the American Athletic Conference for the West, a perennially multi-bid men’s basketball league, and improved depth for women’s basketball and baseball. It could creative more compelling TV inventory for potential partners. And it’d make better postseason access for nearly everybody.
The status quo isn’t good for BYU. It isn’t good for most of the schools mentioned. It’s time to be bold, and look for a new solution.