WCC changes basketball schedules, conference tournament in bid to boost NCAA profile and keep Gonzaga. Will it work?

Dropping two games from conference schedule, making it easier for top seeds in tournament will boost NCAA Tournament chances, league believes

Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. (23) works against Florida State guard Braian Angola during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament regional semifinal Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)

Provo • The West Coast Conference ramped up its efforts to hang on to basketball kingpin Gonzaga on Monday, dropping two games from its men’s basketball schedule and changing the format of its men’s and women’s conference basketball tournaments to make them easier for its highest-seeded teams.

The changes, which the WCC said it has been discussing since June of 2017 as part of its “Men’s Basketball Enhancement Plan,” are an acknowledgement of the disparity between the league’s top and bottom teams. But they can also be interpreted as a signal that the league is making changes to appease Gonzaga, its main source of revenue.

They were approved by the WCC Presidents’ Council during a regularly-scheduled March teleconference and come nearly a month after the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Gonzaga was pondering a move to the Mountain West Conference.

Beginning next season, men’s teams will play 16 WCC games instead of 18, as it began doing when Pacific was added to the league in 2013-14. Each team will play seven other WCC teams twice, but will miss one conference opponent at home and one conference foe on the road. It is assumed that the league’s three most-dominant programs — GU, Saint Mary’s and BYU — will still get home-and-home games with each other but exactly how the rotation of the other opponents will work was not announced.

Also, starting with the 2019-20 season, WCC men’s basketball programs will be required to compete in at least one multi-team event (MTE) each season, play more home games than away games and play no more than two non-Division I opponents per season. And the conference must approve all “guarantee games” in which WCC teams are paid to play at an opponent’s venue without a return game.

The moves are designed to boost the RPIs of every school in the conference. Playing fewer league games will allow teams such as Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU to play two more higher-rated opponents in their non-conference schedule.

“As the landscape changes and access to the NCAA Tournament becomes more challenging, we felt it was appropriate to make adjustments in the way we schedule both during conference play and in the non-conference portion of the season,” BYU coach Dave Rose said in the league news release. Rose is the chair of the WCC head coaches group.

“Although it is unique for us to be playing fewer conference games while other conferences are adding games to their schedules, the disparity in RPI from the top of our league to the bottom is larger than any other conference’s. We believe this approach will allow all 10 of our teams to schedule based on the current state of their program, and all 10 of us can go win more games — which will help everyone.”

In the new tournament format, the bottom four teams (7-10) will play in the opening round. Two of those teams will advance to play Nos. 5 and 6 in the second round. Second-round winners will play the third and fourth-seeded teams. The top two teams won’t play until the semifinals.

Theoretically, the changes will cut down on upsets in the conference tournament. Many believe that if No. 2 seed Saint Mary’s had not lost to No. 3 seed BYU in the semifinals, it would have made the NCAA Tournament.

“We are confident that these innovative adjustments will enhance access to the NCAA Tournament for the best programs of our marquee sport,” said University of San Francisco President Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, Chair of the WCC Presidents’ Council.

Last summer, ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi met with the WCC’s head coaches and athletic directors and gave them advice on how to best work within the current RPI system to maximize opportunities to get more NCAA bids and better seeding.

Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth told CBS Sports last week that his school would be making a decision “in the next couple of weeks” about changing conferences if it were a “perfect world.”

Roth also told CBS Sports that rumors of a BYU-Gonzaga “package deal” to the Mountain West were not true.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe “and I had a lot of discussions, but not one time did our discussions end with Gonzaga and BYU,” Roth said. “There has never been a discussion between the Mountain West and somebody else joining us. I know there have been some rumors out there. That’s not fair to [BYU].”