COUGAR TRACKS

BYU Basketball Set To Tip-Off Final West Coast Conference Season

Dec 29, 2022, 1:02 AM | Updated: 2:54 am
BYU Basketball, Mark Pope, WCC...
BYU basketball head coach Mark Pope leads the Cougars into their final season of WCC play. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

PROVO, Utah – BYU basketball tips off its 12th and final West Coast Conference schedule. To summarize BYU’s time in the WCC, unusual might be a way to classify it.

When the Cougars entered the league in 2011, they were fresh off the mania caused by star guard Jimmer Fredette. BYU knocked off Gonzaga to advance to their first Sweet 16 in 30 years.

On the surface, it looked like a new world order would take place in the WCC with BYU’s arrival.

That hasn’t been the case—anything of the sort.

BYU basketball in the WCC

Gonzaga kicked their program into overdrive. They went from lovable Cinderella into a National Championship contender every year. Saint Mary’s has remained solid, with Randy Bennett as the steady force in Moraga.

So BYU enters its final WCC season before going off to the Big 12 Conference next season, still looking for its first WCC title. However, with Gonzaga still loaded with the best roster in the league and Saint Mary’s featuring a veteran team, it might be unrealistic to expect this year will be the breakthrough for BYU.

“I don’t know,” said BYU coach Mark Pope when asked if his 10-5 squad can contend for the WCC title. “The reason I don’t know is because I think we’re getting better. Were we good enough two weeks ago? No. Can we be good enough in March? Maybe. That’s the challenge.”

From the beginning, the WCC has always been an odd fit for BYU. A school with an enrollment of nearly 35,000 students, an arena that seats 18,000 fans, in a conference that embodies the “mid-major” label.

The only similarity between BYU and its WCC colleagues is that they are all faith-based institutions. That might be one of the few reasons why this unusual arrangement turned out to be an OK setup for BYU.

Improvement

But to the WCC’s credit, the product on the floor has improved a lot since BYU arrived in 2011.

“It’s been unbelievable for us to be in this league. It’s made us better,” said Pope. “So you know, it’s a special basketball that’s going to keep getting better and better.”

After the Power Six conferences, the WCC consistently knocks on the door as one of the best non-power leagues.

Before BYU arrived, the WCC never had a KenPom conference rating finish lower than 11th. Seven of the first 11 years with BYU has given the WCC a 10th-place finish or better in KenPom’s ratings. The past four years have each included top-nine finishes, with 2023 on pace for another top-nine finish.

What happens to the WCC after BYU leaves?

The future of the WCC is up in the air after BYU departs. Do they expand? Will Gonzaga be invited to the Big 12, Pac 12, or Big East? Whatever happens, these dozen years have been an interesting chapter in WCC and BYU basketball history.

“The league has been awesome. We have great leadership in this league,” said Pope. “Our Commissioner (Gloria Nevarez) … she’s fantastic. She’s done such an unbelievable job. We have great coaches in this league, great ADs in this league; it’s a terrific league. It’s a basketball league. I don’t know many leagues in the country that are basketball-first leagues, but this is a basketball-first league. It’s a great league. And it’s going to continue to be a great league.”

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch and his BYU basketball coverage on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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BYU Basketball Set To Tip-Off Final West Coast Conference Season