October 14 — The days of squaring Gonzaga and BYU at least twice a year in two of the best local court environments in college basketball are coming to an end.
But both programs expect the rivalry to continue, even after the Cougars leave the West Coast Conference after this season for the Big 12. This would align with both programs’ philosophies for scheduling non-conference marquee encounters.
BYU’s impact on the WCC, its impending departure and what’s next for the WCC were frequent topics of discussion at the Conference Basketball Media Day recently at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
“My first thoughts are happy for them, they’ve found a great place to land,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Vu. “Their impact on the league has been tremendous. It’s one of the greatest things we’ve done as a league in the 30+ years I’ve been in. It’s a national program and they act like a national programme. Their game day is as good as anyone, and we were all over the place.
“It’s been a healthy rivalry with some awesome games and different characters involved over the years, and highly competitive. I’m sure we’ll continue to play in some way or manner going forward.”
The addition of the Cougars in 2011-12 certainly boosted the WCC summit. They have yet to win a regular season or conference title, but have scored five singles or combined as a runner-up and reached four NCAA Championships and four NIT Championships in 11 years.
Since BYU’s arrival, the WCC has received multiple bids for the NCAA tournament eight times – the 2020 tournament has been canceled due to the pandemic – and last year sent three teams to March Madness for a second time.
Cougars have had a profound influence in many WCC sports. They captured the national championships in the men’s (2019) and women’s cross-country (2020-21) championships and reached the women’s volleyball final four times, including a setback in the title match in 2014.
“They gave us another program that has a lot of credibility in college basketball,” said St Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, who touched on the possibility of future matches with University of British Columbia coach Mark Pope. “People have known this show for decades, when Danny Aing was playing.
“I hope they don’t leave just because of the competition that they give, the excitement of the league that they give. It’s easy not to like them, and that makes it fun. They give you a quad 1 game every year, maybe a quad 2 so it helps us do what we’re trying to do which is get into a championship NCAA”.
Fifth place in BYU last season was its lowest since joining the WCC. Cougars and San Francisco both placed third in the pre-season coaches poll, behind Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.
The Cougars knocked out Gonzaga in six regular season games, including a 2017 win at McCarthy Sports Center at Senior Knight to end Zaggs’ show in an undefeated regular season. Gonzaga has held a 22-6 series – 6-0 in the WCC Championship – over the past 11 seasons.
“Anytime you have a chance to play Gonzaga, it’s great,” Bob said. “On a personal level, the coach has been a little gracious and generous to me as a coach trying to figure out this career. Yes, we love this game and we love this match going. I’m not sure Zag has a hard time getting the games right now.”
Bob cautions that BYU is still formulating a scheduling strategy when it becomes a member of the Big 12.
“Our schedule is going to be a little different, since we’ve done sort of studies around the conference,” Bob said. “This Big 12, it’s like a different beast. It’s terrifying. There was one week in the last year, you have to make sure this is true, as the only non-Quartet 1 game in the entire league was going to West Virginia at home, (Mountaineers coach) Bob Huggins, a Hall of Famer.
“This deal is crazy. We’re rethinking our schedule…trying to find a way that makes sense for us.”
Meanwhile, the WCC will have nine teams next year, making scheduling more complicated compared to ten members. Commissioner Gloria Nevarez said the conference will continue to monitor the reorganization of the conference, but it is guaranteed at nine.
“I think we should add another team, not just to add one, but to add another good, good team if we can find a team that fits the bill,” Bennett said.