CBS Sports college basketball insiders Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander spent a month surveying 100-plus Division I men’s basketball coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled across the sport’s landscape: some of the biggest names in college basketball, but also small-school assistants in low-major leagues. Coaches agreed to share unfiltered opinions in exchange for anonymity. We asked them 10 questions, and will post the results over a three-week span.
We began this year’s Candid Coaches series on Monday with a look at.
Now we turn our attention to the opposite coast.
Gonzaga, the king of the WCC for nearly 25 years now, has semi-privately flirted with the Big 12, Mountain West and Big East in recent years. It has also long been seen by some in college sports as a logical/geographical add-on (even without football) to the Pac-12 … but that was before the Pac-12 crumbled.
There is no evolutionary story in college athletics quite like Gonzaga. It is a one of one. From mid-major outpost to national power. As football-dominated realignment continues to obliterate the geography of college sports, where does a school like GU fit? Does it fit anywhere, other than the conference where it’s grown into a basketball behemoth?
So, we asked …
Which league is best for Gonzaga: WCC, Big 12, Big East or a combo of Pac-12/Mountain West schools?
|Wait and align with Pac-12 and/or Mountain West||18%|
Quotes that stood out
Stay in WCC
• “Outside of revenue, I would say they would be STUPID for leaving the conference they are in.”
• “They are a high-major team in a mid-major league. They are set up to win 25-30 games every year and they do not have football. Moving to a conference where they will face equal/greater talent every night AND travel cross-country … that just doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, they could make some more money in a better conference, but they run the risk of becoming just ‘one of the guys’ instead of THE guy. Why risk it?”
• “WCC is the best league for them. They’ve put themselves in a position, and they’ve earned it, because of how good they are and have been. There’s a lot of concessions made for them as well. And money is a factor, but when you move to one of those other leagues, there’s going to be no concessions. You’ve played for a national championship, you’ve had No. 1 seeds. Look at the (WCC) conference tournament schedule. I’ve seen nothing like it. To be that good and have those advantages, it’s going to be hard to replicate that kind of success somewhere else.”
• “They know what they’re dealing with and they know what they have to do every year to get their schedule accordingly to be a 1- or 2-seed. I think there’s more risk, tougher league, different travel. I’ve dealt with a conference change and you’ve got a lot to get used to. The new gyms, the talent, recruiting, the referees. If it ain’t broke, I don’t think you need to fix it.”
• “Gonzaga is getting everything they need and want while in the WCC. They are consistently a top-10 or top-five team. They are beating blue blood programs head-to-head in recruiting and on the court. They have the ability to maneuver their preseason schedule how they want and they are extremely attractive for other highly ranked programs around the country to schedule with. The WCC is vastly improved, which is allowing for Gonzaga to be battle-tested enough throughout their conference season while still being able to win the league most years. They have been to multiple national championship games and Final Fours coming out of the WCC, not to mention their run of Sweet 16s. So the argument that they cannot advance in the NCAA Tournament coming out of the WCC has zero factual backing. In fact, you could make a great argument for the exact opposite. Gonzaga is clearly the best program in the West over UCLA, Arizona and others without being a part of a Power Five conference. Their uniqueness becomes an advantage in recruiting, in my opinion.”
• “I think if you ask three separate parties, you’d get three separate answers. If you ask the coaches in the WCC, I’d imagine they would like to see Gonzaga elsewhere. If you ask the Gonzaga staff/administration, I’d imagine they are happy with the WCC and the model they have been doing for over 20 years. If you ask the college basketball fan, I’d imagine they’d love to see Gonzaga in a power conference. If I were coaching at Gonzaga, I’d want to stay right in the WCC.”
Align with Pac-12/MW combo
• “Gonzaga should take advantage of the instability out West. Use your leverage to find a more suitable fit, conference-wise, and position yourself to be the top dog of whatever that league looks like.”
• “Gonzaga in the Mountain West would create very high-level, exciting regional games for college basketball. Gonzaga vs. San Diego State, vs. New Mexico, Boise, UNLV, etc. would be higher-profile matchups than what they currently have other than Saint Mary’s.”
• “I know things aren’t looking great for the Pac-12 overall right now, but it still would be a major step up from WCC if they can keep some of the remaining teams and then potentially add some up-and-comers that geographically fit.”
Move to Big East
• “I think they fit the mold of a Big East team. Basketball-centric for sure. Travel would be tough, though.”
• “Schools are similar to them academically and basketball-wise. Not football schools. Perfect fit.”
Aim for Big 12
• “It’s time for them to step into a power-conference. And that’s coming from a little bit of when I was in the Pac-12 at that time, they had some games when they were challenging themselves, but there wasn’t enough in that conference. They should be at a place where they are challenging themselves in league play. It’s time to go to one of the bigger-boy conferences.”
• “Tough one, but I will go with Big 12. Gonzaga is an elite basketball program and the Big 12 is the best basketball conference, so they would probably be the best match.”
• “I think it’s the best basketball league right now, depth-wise, and I always felt like the Pac-12 fit until UCLA and USC left. I think there are too many unknowns there, and by default, you go to the next one over. The Big 12 is so deep and competitive. [The WCC] is working in certain areas … but I think it’s like dominating the JVs and you always want to play on the varsity.”
Our polling on this question began in late July — just as Colorado announced it was leaving the Pac-12. Soon thereafter came the downfall of that league. So, this question (and our UConn one, to an extent) had a different backdrop to it than most surveys we’ve done over the past 11 years. Normally, circumstances surrounding a question we’re asking don’t drastically change as we are collecting our answers.
This one did, though. Responses to this Q spanned over a four-week window that included one of the most significant upheavals in college athletics history.
That said, the answers are all still informative — because as I made my calls and texts on this, I was sure to ask the coaches what they thought would be the best position for Gonzaga moving forward, regardless of the noise of this news cycle. From that perspective, you’re still getting an honest appraisal via some of the most informed minds in the sport.
As simple as it would have been to have an either/or choice for the Zags, that’s not been the reality for this program in the past five years. In 2018, the Mountain West pushed for Gonzaga to join its ranks, only for Gonzaga to stick with the WCC because it didn’t feel as though the slight uptick in MW competition (and the likely downgrade in annual money) would be worth it.
Then came some dialogue with the Big East. But that ultimately fizzled due to the geography. As multiple people have told me over the months/years: If not for where it’s located, Gonzaga would have been in the Big East when the conference reformed in 2013. In every other way, the school fits that league’s ideologies.
In the past year-plus, the Big 12 became a factor thanks to new commissioner Brett Yormark, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF in 2022, then got the Four Corners schools (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah) in the past month.. The Big 12 bolstered its roster with
When we began polling on this question, the Big 12 didn’t have any of those Pac-12 programs. Now it’s seemingly full at 16.
By the time we wrapped, the Pac-12 was on life support. But that didn’t stop a number of coaches from saying that Gonzaga has a great window to upgrade its basketball situation with the remnants of that league, if it should survive. The hitch here, of course, is the wait-and-see on what happens with Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State.
For the short-term, Gonzaga staying in the WCC is a win. The coaches making the case for GU to stay in the WCC made convincing points. Is there any chance Gonzaga really drifts out of the top 5/10/20 of the polls so long as Mark Few is there? Hard to see that happening. Few will turn 61 in December, and I can’t see him retiring in the next 3-4 years. The WCC won’t hold Gonzaga back in the near future.
But for the long-term, I think Few is still dedicated to making sure Gonzaga is in the best position possible, and to him that probably means a pivot out of the WCC. BYU leaving is a sizable blow. The WCC sits at nine teams, in search of more to come on board.
I don’t think a move to the Big East is going to happen. The map is too much to overcome for non-revenue sports. Never say never, but sources in both leagues have told me over the past 16 months that those talks have been dormant. With the Big 12, I’m thinking that window is just barely cracked now. That league is poised to continue being a juggernaut in basketball, so much so that it won’t need another major player; the impetus to add Gonzaga could dissipate. They’d add value in hoops, but it doesn’t sound like the presidents are excited by a non-football entity.
Gonzaga’s best move could well be to wait out whatever comes about with the Pac-4 and weigh that against what does or does not happen with the Mountain West. If the MW takes on two of the Pac-4, all the better. Gonzaga is the best program of any between those leagues. Is it a major upgrade? No. Would it be better than the WCC? Almost certainly. If the Pac-4 can salvage itself and grow into a 10-team football league that goes to 11 with Gonzaga, then I think there’s a lot to consider there as well.
The money situation is critical, though. Because of how its WCC contract is set up with NCAA Tournament units overwhelmingly going directly to schools that make deep March Madness runs, Gonzaga is making millions and millions more than any other WCC member. That puts them at a unique advantage, and it’s why half the coaches we polled said that the school shouldn’t leave the conference. Gonzaga’s problem — to the extent it has one — is exposure and every-week relevance from Christmas through the end of February. At some point, don’t you want more league games against schools that have budgets and talent closer to yours?
What Few has built is outrageous, and it should eventually send him to the Hall of Fame. But when he leaves, what becomes of Gonzaga? That decision needs to be made with school leadership before he puts down the whistle. The next year or so behind the scenes sure feels like a huge one.
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