It's unusual to write a conference realignment story involving BYU that has nothing to do with the Big 12 or the Pac-12, but we're already in that weird part of the offseason. A few days ago, a reporter for AZ Central asked St Mary's head coach Randy Bennett about a possible addition to the WCC in the near future, the Grand Canyon University Antelopes. Here's what Bennett had to say:
"They'd be a good fit for our league and a good media market for our league to be in, so I think it's only a matter of time...They need to fight through these years and then when they are eligible for the postseason as far as NIT and NCAA, then I think it's going to happen."
I mean sure, GCU is a Christian private school in the west, and they have a newer arena, and they're located in this huge metro area with a recognizable coach, I mean, I can sort of see wher--
No. Let's stop right there. This is a terrible idea, and especially terrible for BYU. Here's why.
Grand Canyon University is not good at Division 1 Men's Basketball
To be fair, this is to be expected, since GCU only recently transitioned to D1. The Antelopes finished 271 in KenPom's rating last season, with a 17-15 record helped out by two wins over non D1 squads. (GCU was 241 the year before that.) That 271 ranking was worse than any WCC squad except Loyola Marymount, and the 241 in 2013-2014 would have easily been the worst team in the WCC. The RPI was even more brutal, with a 279 rating this season, worse than even LMU.
On one hand, you want to take those numbers with a grain of salt. GCU's computer profile is weighed down heavily by their membership in the WAC, the worst non-HBCU dominated conference in college basketball. GCU has also only played two seasons of D1 basketball, so the fact that they aren't especially good isn't a shock. Few schools have been able to quickly make the transition from D1 newbie into productive college basketball program though.
Of the schools that have joined D1 over the last 25 years or so, only Belmont, Oakland (Michigan) and Albany have grown into consistently pretty good teams, and all of them have benefited from being a big fish in a small conference pond. That chart is full of a lot more programs with .500 all time records, few NCAA bids and low computer numbers.
Even if you give GCU a few more seasons to transition and beat up on WAC teams, the jump from UVU and Chicago State to Gonzaga, St. Mary's and BYU is enormous--and even with the benefits of geography, it's really hard to imagine the program shifting into a top four or five WCC squad in the next decade. Teams simply don't grow that quickly. Maybe GCU could be a WCC contender after that, but do you really feel comfortable making that bet?
GCU doesn't offer anything that BYU needs
Built-in conference games against a likely sub 200 RPI opponent hurt BYU even more than most of their conference peers, since they want to make the NCAA tournament every season and is already consistently on the bubble. Two games--or even one--against GCU chips away at an already slim margin of error for BYU in league play, or requires them to play even harder teams out of conference to make up for it.
And what does BYU get out of it? College basketball isn't the same as football, and going after a school in the name of a "market" makes little sense, especially if that market is Phoenix. Outside of cities in Utah and perhaps Las Vegas, there may not be a city anywhere in the country where BYU already has more penetration than in Phoenix, a metro that boasts a ton of BYU graduates and even more Mormons. BYU does not lack of exposure in that region, and if they wanted to give their Arizona alumni a local game, why not just schedule Arizona State, NAU, or play a neutral site game there every once in a while?
Adding GCU isn't going to substantially change anyone's financial package (there's no huge TV deal at stake), and since everybody in the WCC is a private school, trolling for more out of state applicants in the name of grabbing out of state tuition dollars isn't a motivation either. What's the advantage? Another small arena that BYU fans can take over on away trips? Meh.
Adding GCU puts the WCC in an uncomfortable spot, schedule wise
The WCC currently has 10 teams. That makes thing like setting up a conference tournament, or round robin scheduling, really easy. Having an 11 team conference suddenly makes all of things complicated. Do you just leave the 11th team out of the tournament? Do you change the number of conference games per season? Do you have unbalanced schedules? Or do you expand to 12 teams?
If the WCC wishes to maintain their current model of western private colleges, there aren't a ton of other attractive options. The league could grab Seattle, but Gonzaga would object, and they have a lot of the same on the court concerns as GCU. They could try Denver, who would add travel costs but give BYU another game outside of the Pacific Time Zone, and be a better competitive fit with the middle tier of the league. After that....there's just not much on the table, unless the WCC was willing to try and grab a public school, or head into Texas.
There's no reason for any of this, since none of these teams would likely be even top half squads for several years. Why change everything, increase travel, dilute competition and more, over bottom feeders?
And oh yeah, there's an elephant in the room.
GCU's current for-profit status makes it a pariah within some NCAA circles
Right now, Grand Canyon is the only for-profit institution in D1. This has made a lot of people unhappy. The Pac-12 formally complained about it, and among many circles, they remain perhaps the most controversial team in all of D1. The NCAA said they can't vote, and the Pac-12 said they won't schedule them. There's good reason for that, given the extreme shadiness of the for-profit university industry in the US. Even though GCU isn't Concordia or DeVry (they have a real campus and everything), this is still a institution with a graduation rate below 32%, and one that's going to attract a lot of bad press.
Plus, even if you're okay with for-profit universities, it's much harder to square high-level athletics under the current amateur hour with a for-profit school. GCU athletes are engaging in risky activity, without pay, to raise the brand of a corporate entity and ultimately give more profits to investors. We know that college athletics is sketchy, but that's even MORE sketchy. From the SOE article:
Every team that made the NCAA tournament last season earned $1.6 million for their conference. That number will surely be higher in 2018, and if Grand Canyon makes it -- and Mueller is unable to get the school back to its non-profit roots by then -- that's money that will just go straight to stockholders.
GCU is currently looking at going back to being a non-profit, and may very well be able to do so in a few years before the WCC could hypothetically come calling, but then they would be removing themselves from their major funding source. If, say, a new regulatory environment makes online education less profitable (a major cornerstone to GCU), then the program could be crushed. Why expose yourself to all of that risk?
This is all a long way from potentially happening, but if it is talked about among WCC administrators, BYU should strongly advocate for it not to happen. If it does, then it's a big reason for them to find a way into another, bigger conference, and fast.