Would three bids make the WCC a college basketball power conference?

  • Analytics specialist at ESPN
  • Graduate of BYU

Is the West Coast Conference a power conference in basketball? The question might sound absurd, but this season, top three teams Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s — all of which you can expect to see in the NCAA tournament — stack up favorably with the top three in the power conferences.

The traditional basketball “major” conferences of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have at least three teams with at least a 10% chance to reach the Sweet 16, according to BPI. The only other conference that can make the same claim is the one that Gonzaga has dominated for the better part of two decades. In fact, BPI projects the WCC to get more teams, on average, to the Sweet 16 than the Pac-12 or SEC.

When BYU joined the WCC in 2011, it was coming off a season in which it reached the Sweet 16, peaked at No. 3 in the AP Poll and had the AP Player of the Year in Jimmer Fredette. Gonzaga must have been eager to welcome a program with recent success because the Bulldogs had been alone by winning 10 of the past 13 WCC tournaments, had made 10 straight NCAA tournaments and had won at least of share of 11 straight regular-season conference titles.

The WCC was supposed to have a “Big Three” of BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s over the past decade. Instead it was Gonzaga head and shoulders above everyone else, getting No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament and even one Final Four appearance.

The conference accomplishments of Saint Mary’s in this span are a regular-season and conference-tournament championship in 2012, a shared regular-season title in 2016 and a tournament championship in 2019. BYU, on the other hand, has been a perennial No. 3 seed in the WCC tournament, only twice getting the No. 2 seed.

The lack of competition over the past decade led Gonzaga to mull a move to the Mountain West two years ago. The WCC made some concessions by shortening the conference schedule from a true round-robin of 18 games to 16 games in which the top teams would play the weakest teams only once per season. This allowed the likes of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU to have a better in-conference SOS, but also replace those two abandoned conference games with stronger nonconference opponents.

Each of these teams has taken advantage of this season’s new setup, posting strong nonconference résumés. BYU and Saint Mary’s have harder nonconference strengths of schedule this season than both had on average from 2011-2018. Gonzaga’s drop-off in nonconference SOS has more to do with down seasons from North Carolina, Texas A&M and Washington than Gonzaga’s eagerness to play quality teams.

In conference play, things have been less one-sided. Gonzaga lost by 13 last weekend to BYU, its first conference loss since January 2018. Saint Mary’s and BYU split two games, one going to overtime and the other won on a 3-pointer by BYU’s TJ Haws with 10 seconds remaining. Should Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga this Saturday, the top three will have split all its games against each other.

Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Gonzaga has already won the WCC’s regular-season title and is the favorite to win the conference tournament per BPI. Yet don’t expect it to be the only team from the WCC to make noise next month.

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