With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our first update is from the West Coast Conference and comes courtesy of Will Green, an editor and writer with The Slipper Still Fits.
Readers’ Take One
- Brigham Young University Joins The Conference: When this story was first reported back in September, it was largely forgotten. BYU’s move was a football one with basketball repercussions, not the other way around. If anyone was talking about the Cougars, the dialogue was centered around how much money it would receive from it slew of nationally televised football contests this coming fall, and how many years the vaunted program would remain as an independent before choosing to join another league, securing even more lucrative contracts. The move, however, might make a greater impact on the collegiate basketball landscape than the football one, competitively speaking. For one thing, resident king Gonzaga’s streak of conference championships – which is older than most of your children – or at least its general reputation as the WCC’s top dog, is seriously endangered. With Jimmer Fredette seizing all available national attention like a Venus flytrap, lost on many fans last year was the fact BYU was not merely a fortuitous program enjoying an unusually good year. The Cougars have been a top 40 RPI team since 2006, with a pair of top 20 finishes. That’s not a second Gonzaga — that’s better than Gonzaga. They also bring by far the largest student body and largest fan base that the league has ever seen. Indeed, the league can leverage BYU’s prominence to grow its influence and scope (more on that later). Despite being a “football move,” BYU’s departure from the Mountain West Conference is not, as so many of the recent realignment moves have been, a casualty of circumstance. The aforementioned “repercussions” became a mutually beneficial improvement for both the Cougars and the league. Credit alert diplomacy and geographical convenience to why commissioner Jamie Zaninovichwas able to lure a team into his league that’s also, statistically speaking, better than any team in his current league.
- The League Gets A New TV contract: Over the course of the 2000s, the WCC did a remarkable thing: It became the most widely televised college basketball league of all the leagues in the West, while being only the fourth highest-rated league by RPI of the six in the region. Resident behemoth Pac-12 trusted its games to the insipid hands of Fox Sports’ cluster of regional networks. The Mountain West conference was largely marooned out on “The Mtn,” a network that truncated both its name and its audience by being available in a far more limited number of homes than the heavy-hitting Pac-12. The Western Athletic Conference enjoyed the occasional ESPNU game. The WCC, on the other hand, had its most intriguing matchups beamed into peoples’ living rooms in prime time on Thursday and Saturday nights (and for a time, on Big Monday) via ESPN or ESPN2. Both sides had such a good time putting the whole mess together that when their previous contract expired on June 1, it took exactly one week to renegotiate an eight-year extension. The new deal increases the amount of ESPN games featuring WCC teams by an average of at least five per year, possibly much more, and is spread across Thursday, Saturday and select Monday nights. While some critics contend the new ESPN contract isn’t much of an improvement over the previous one, their voices were provoked loudest during the rather dwarfing aftershock of the Pac-12’s mammoth deal with the same network. While this upcoming season could mark the first time in a long while that the WCC won’t be the most-watched west coast league, the league strengthened its relationship with ESPN and is poised to showcase what should be its most successful year ever in front of its widest audience to date. In an era of scrambling realignment and a fragile economic landscape, this is a still a huge win.
- The University of San Diego Suffers A Bribery Scandal: In April, this story looked crippling. San Diego had just finished one of the worst seasons by any WCC team ever when news broke that Toreros’ all-time leading scorer and current Memphis Grizzlies protégé, Brandon Johnson, was allegedly used to solicit current USD player Ken Rancifer on behalf of a delinquent named Steven Goria and several others to fix a game against the University of Portland on February 24. Also revealed was the news that Johnson himself had allegedly fixed a game during his senior season one year earlier. The good news for USD is that the story is quickly losing momentum, due in large part to the recent news that the 2011 team has largely been cleared of wrongdoing (Rancifer turned down the bribe from those attempting to fix the game) Repercussions from the 2010 game will ensue once the FBI is done investigating the entire case, and could involve recruiting sanctions or a postseason ban. Frankly, the Toreros are so deep in the throes of rebuilding that they might not enjoy any such postseason for the NCAA to ban in the first place. All told, this could have been much, much worse for USD. The true damage of the scandal is neither physical nor fiscal, but is still potentially very heavy. While it’s growing steadily, the WCC is not yet a national brand and one dominant negative story can define the WCC and USD for a large group of fans who aren’t very familiar with a non-power six league that’s on TV after they go bed. Show-stealing years from perennial contenders like Gonzaga and BYU, as well as postseason disruptiveness by the likes of St. Mary’s and Santa Clara, would be a good first step toward taking casual fans’ focus off of the scandal. Of course, if USD itself can somehow bounce back from a 6-24 record and win a few games they’re not supposed to, they just might turn themselves into national feel-good story.
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