Gonzaga and BYU played Tuesday night in Las Vegas in the championship game of the West Coast Conference men's basketball tournament. The Zags won 74-54 before 8,030 at the Orleans Arena.
It might have been the final WCC game for one and possibly both teams.
It's been over a week since Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson confirmed to the Union-Tribune that he's been in expansion discussions with Gonzaga and other schools, and increasingly it appears this is more than just idle talk.
"We're trying to do what's best for our program," Gonzaga coach Mark Few told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after securing a spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament. "We've been a good soldier that has generated a huge (monetary) number – what we've done with our facilities, with our program, with our travel, every phase. We want everyone (in the WCC) to take that step and move forward. It's complicated.
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"In the end, we'll analyze everything and do what we feel is best for the program."
Thompson, meanwhile, prepares to hole up at a board room in New York for the next five days with the NCAA Tournament selection committee, evaluating wins and losses, determining who's in and who's out. Also on the 10-person committee: Tom Holmoe, BYU athletic director.
Figure they might be chatting during breaks.
Here's a look at the most pressing questions surrounding the ever-shifting sands of conference realignment and how it might impact Gonzaga, BYU, the WCC and the Mountain West.
– Why did Thompson leak this?
The short answer is, he didn't.
The Union-Tribune learned last week from multiple sources outside the Mountain West that it had been speaking with Gonzaga for some time, and only then contacted Thompson. That left him with three choices: No comment, deny it or admit it.
Say what you want about Thompson, but he is generally a straight shooter. He confirmed Gonzaga is one of six schools he has talked with since August while not identifying the others. He also denied having "formal conversations" with BYU about rejoining the Mountain West.
"I'm aware of the talk," Holmoe told BYU Sports Nation. "If you've listened to me over the years, I'm not going to put my stuff out on the table about where we are. It's just best to keep things internal, and I'm surprised that Craig Thompson didn't keep his stuff internal."
There are advantages, though.
It forces the West Coast Conference to address the prospect of losing Gonzaga, which can then take that offer into Mountain West negotiations. It also sucks BYU into the realignment vortex and forces it to address the prospect of life in the WCC without the Zags as well as the real elephant in the locker room: its viability as a football independent.
All that accelerates the process, which is in the Mountain West's favor. No point dragging this out with a new television contract on the horizon.
– Who are the other five schools?
He's not saying, but we can speculate.
UTEP, New Mexico State, Rice and Grand Canyon are obvious candidates. The first three have flailing football programs looking for a change of scenery. Grand Canyon in Phoenix doesn't have football and is seeking a different home than the geographically-challenged Western Athletic Conference.
But do any of them bring enough to the table? The sentiment among most Mountain West folks is they don't, and several sources said they think only two schools do: Gonzaga and BYU.
– What about Saint Mary's?
The Gaels are regulars in the NCAA Tournament, but – rightly or wrongly – they are viewed as more of a coach with a pipeline to Australia's youth national team than a sustainable program. Randy Bennett will leave one day for a bigger job, perhaps this spring. And what then? Saint Mary's has a 40-year-old, 3,500-seat gym, a modest athletic budget and commands little media attention in the Bay Area.
– How far along are discussions?
Further than you think.
Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth keeps saying he is always surveying the college sports landscape and this is just part of that, nothing more. And Thompson characterized the talks as "exploratory."
That might be a matter of semantics. One source said they are so far along that Mountain West presidents hoped to vote on Gonzaga's inclusion as early as this week when they meet at the conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas. It has since been pushed back until early April, after the Final Four.
That's getting precariously close to being too late for next season, with soccer teams and other fall sports playing their first games in August. Wichita State announced it was leaving the Missouri Valley on April 7 last year and played in the American Athletic Conference this season. Anything later might push Gonzaga's entrance to 2019-20.
– Why does Gonzaga want to move?
"I want people to remember," Roth said last week, "we've had a lot of success being members of the West Coast Conference."
And they have, reaching the NCAA Tournament 20 straight years, including a pair of Elite Eights and a Final Four.
But the landscape, to use his word, has changed significantly in recent years. The power conferences are all moving toward 20-game conference schedules, which leaves teams with nine or 10 nonconference dates. Subtract a holiday tournament and home "buy" games against lesser teams, and you're left with one or two dates – which the big boys increasingly are not playing against quality mid-major opponents, especially not on the road.
The old mid-major formula of loading up with power conference opponents in November and December is becoming harder and harder to execute, and then the weak teams in your league drag down your computer metrics in January and February.
The result in March: Fewer NCAA at-large berths for mid-majors, and worse seeds for the ones are lucky enough to get in.
Or look at Saint Mary's. The Gaels are 28-5 and ranked No. 20, and their NCAA Tournament resume is so unimpressive coming from the WCC that some bracketologists are speculating they won't get in.
The solution is to create mid-major "power" conferences like the Big East and AAC, offering more qualifying in-house games. A few years ago, Few quietly proposed a national conference of mid-majors, with six schools on each coast. That hasn't materialized. The next best option is forming one in the Mountain West with established programs like SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico.
– Will the WCC try to keep the Zags?
Yes, to a point.
There are rumors that the WCC has proposed allowing Gonzaga to keep a larger chunk of the NCAA Tournament payouts it generates for the league, but in the end that may merely amount to more leverage for the Zags' negotiations with the Mountain West than a reason to stay.
For one, every extra dollar conference members give Gonzaga is one less they can spend upgrading their woebegone basketball programs, which is why the Zags want to leave in the first place. And money isn't Gonzaga's problem; higher-quality competition from schools with big arenas and deep basketball resources is. The Mountain West can offer that; the WCC can't.
And think about if you're the bottom seven schools in the WCC: You lose the cash cow of Gonzaga, yes, but you also greatly enhance your chances of reaching the Big Dance.
Over the past decade, only three WCC teams (Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and USD in 2008) have won the conference tournament. In the Big West, eight of the nine current members have.
Are Gonzaga and BYU a package deal?
The Mountain West is exclusively talking with Gonzaga and trying to finalize that deal. Only then might it approach BYU, or vice versa.
It's a smart strategy. By landing Gonzaga, the Mountain West instantly paints BYU into a corner with a football program deflating as an independent and a basketball program languishing in a one-bid league where the next biggest venue would seat 13,000 less than the Marriott Center.
If Gonzaga is willing to come without BYU, as appears to be the case, it gives the Mountain West the upper hand in any negotiations with Provo: Come on our terms, or good luck in the WCC.
– What concessions would the Mountain West make?
This is where it gets interesting.
Roth continually reminds everyone that Gonzaga is one of the nation's premier basketball programs and reached the NCAA championship game last year. Whatever the WCC offers likely will be his starting point.
But the Mountain West has its own leverage because, really, where else are the Zags going to go? The Big East's travel logistics are prohibitive, and the Pac-12 isn't taking them without football. So what's left? The Big West? The Big Sky? The WAC?
The Mountain West also is reluctant to carve out special TV or revenue-sharing deals after it did that to keep Boise State from joining the Big East in football in 2012. That merely created resentment among the rest of the conference membership, and it's unlikely they'll go down that road again.
The key number figures to be what percentage of the TV contract Gonzaga would get without football, which drives an estimated 75 percent of its value. Will the Zags be content with 25 percent of a regular share – about $300,000 per year – or will they demand more?
– Would the Mountain West take BYU without football?
The university presidents will make the final decision, and presidents can be a fickle group. But if you don't need BYU's basketball team to land Gonzaga, well, why wouldn't you tell BYU it's all or nothing?
In a perfect world, BYU doesn't want to return to the Mountain West. It left in 2011 to go independent in football (while parking its other sports in the WCC) in hopes of becoming another Notre Dame or, by showing its national appeal, being invited to a Power 5 football conference.
What's happened? That invitation hasn't come, and its football team got progressively worse. The Cougars haven't finished a season ranked in the Top 25 in seven seasons as an independent (they were No. 12 in 2009), and their 4-9 record last year was their worst in 47 seasons.
TV may be the ultimate arbiter. The Mountain West's TV contract expires after 2019-20, as does BYU's deal with ESPN as a football independent. What happens if ESPN politely suggests that, ahem, the Cougs are better off in a conference?
– What happens to the WCC if Gonzaga and BYU leave?
The two most logical replacements are Seattle University and Grand Canyon, for different reasons.
Seattle is a Jesuit school that has been trying for years to gain entrance to the WCC and would allow it to maintain a presence in the state of Washington.
Grand Canyon is a Christian university with nearly 20,000 students on campus and another 50,000-plus online – far larger than the small, Catholic schools that populate the WCC – that wants out of the WAC. It might be willing to pay for the privilege, which would help offset the loss of NCAA Tournament revenue from Gonzaga's departure.
– What happens to the Mountain West if Gonzaga and BYU both come?
Gonzaga would make an even 12 basketball and 12 football (with Hawaii) schools. BYU would make an awkward 13, especially when it comes to conference football schedules.
After BYU, Utah and TCU left, the Mountain West added San Jose State and Utah State in 2013 to get to 12 football teams – the NCAA minimum to hold a conference championship game. San Jose State is in a bigger market but has worse teams. Utah State has had more football and basketball success but is located in a town of under 50,000 in a remote mountain valley.
So would the Mountain West stick with 13? Or does a different sort of discussions ensue?