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Should BYU Basketball Continue to Play Gonzaga After Joining the Big 12?

BYU is set to leave the WCC for the Big 12 following next season. Would it be beneficial to continue to play Gonzaga on the hardwood?

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Brigham Young Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

When BYU entered the West Coast Conference ahead of the 2011-2012 season, most assumed their biggest roadblock would be the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Now having finished their 11th and second-to-last season in the WCC, that rings more true than ever before. Gonzaga went from perennial tournament team to perennial national title contender during BYU’s time in the conference. All while BYU has struggled to keep up, making the tournament just four times in those 11 seasons (assuming they do not hear their name called this Sunday), without ever winning a WCC title of any kind.

Gonzaga is not only the gold standard of basketball in the WCC, having won the conference regular season title every single season since 2012 and the conference tournament all but two years since BYU joined, but the gold standard of basketball west of the Rocky Mountains and one of the premier programs in the entire country.

BYU is headed to the Big 12 Conference for the 2023-2024 basketball season and will face stiff competition there, with programs like defending national champion Baylor, perennial contender Kansas and a total of six Big 12 teams assumed to be in the tournament this year.

Big 12 teams played 13 non-conference games this season. BYU will need to build up their non-conference slate just as they have been doing in the WCC. This begs the question- should BYU and Gonzaga continue to play each other as non-conference rivals in the future? Mark Few thought so when asked about it in January, but we look at the pros and cons of scheduling the Zags.

Let’s go over some pros and cons.

Pros

BYU is set to rack up the frequent flyer miles when they enter the Big 12, as their closest conference opponent is Texas Tech, 871 miles away from Provo. UCF will also join the conference, meaning BYU will also have to travel over 2,300 miles from Provo to Orlando each and every year for a conference matchup with the Knights. It would be financially beneficial if they scheduled their non-conference games close to home, to save on travel. Spokane is just over 750 miles away, still a lengthy jaunt but it will be shorter than any trip in the Big 12.

Plus, putting Gonzaga on your resume, who is always assumed to be a top 10 squad, can only help your NCAA Tournament resume. They are almost always guaranteed to be a “Quad 1” opponent, something the tournament committee values. Why not have a built-in Quad 1 matchup with a program you are already familiar with, on this side of the Rockies?

The committee uses the “NET” ranking tool as a part of their selection process. The NET ranking strongly considers the strength of your opponent and the location of the contest, even if you lose.

A great rivalry has emerged over the last decade involving these two teams. Since BYU joined the conference, nobody has beaten the Zags in Spokane more than the Cougars. Who could forget BYU torpedoing the Bulldogs’ hopes for a perfect 30-0 regular season back in 2016-2017? The Cougars beat undefeated, No. 1 Gonzaga on their home floor 79-71 in one of the most shocking losses in Gonzaga’s storied history. There is no shortage of bad blood between the fanbases either.

On the Gonzaga side, there are few better options to schedule somewhat close to Spokane that could give their resume a boost like BYU. By then, BYU will be a Power 5 school- another feather in the cap of Mark Few’s squad.

From the national perspective, this would be an easy choice for an early-season, late-night feature on ESPN. Perhaps, if the schools are hesitant to travel to each other’s hostile gyms, a neutral location can be found, such as Las Vegas.

Cons

BYU’s conference schedule will be tough enough as it is. Baylor, Kansas, and Texas Tech have all spent time in the AP Top 10 this season. All three also have runs to the Final Four in the last five seasons. KenPom ranks the Big 12 as the best basketball conference in the country. Scheduling Gonzaga ahead of perhaps the toughest conference schedule in the nation might be biting off more than they can chew. Mark Pope might not want to run his team ragged in a tough non-conference slate before their most daunting conference slate in school history.

Even though BYU has had more success in Spokane against Gonzaga than anyone else in the last decade, that doesn’t mean the overall numbers are pretty. Facing Gonzaga, especially in the last five years, means almost a guaranteed loss aside from a special night or two. Overall, BYU is 7-22 against Gonzaga and 6-22 since joining the conference. The Cougars are 1-11 against the Zags since that historic night in Spokane in 2017. It might be better for BYU to schedule a lighter non-conference slate to build confidence and avoid major pitfalls ahead of a loaded Big 12 schedule.

In Gonzaga’s perspective, this is a risky game. BYU has shown they are not afraid of the big, bad Bulldogs. The Cougars are capable of throwing water on Gonzaga’s parade early in the year.

Verdict

The good outweighs the bad when it comes to having Gonzaga as a non-conference foe. The committee has shown they will reward teams for scheduling tough, even if they lose those games. Taking a big swing in scheduling seems to be rewarded in basketball more so than college football. If BYU has aspirations of consistently making the NCAA Tournament and competing for Big 12 championships, they will need to test themselves against the best. Quite simply- if they can beat Gonzaga, they should be able to keep up with Baylor or Kansas. It’s a good measuring stick.

It is mutually beneficial for BYU and Gonzaga to continue to play each other when BYU leaves for the Big 12.