Big East vs. Pac-12: the battle for the Gonzaga Bulldogs rages on

Conference realignment remains a constant discussion among fans, media members, coaches, student-athletes, boosters, athletic directors, and dang near everyone else as the summer months without any college sports roll on.

Most of the talk is centered around college football, specifically the Big Ten’s acquisition of USC and UCLA and the seemingly inevitable pair of superconferences being formed between the Big Ten and the SEC.

However, the loss of UCLA and USC opens the door for potential expansion by the Pac-12, and the two LA schools joining a conference of schools primarily located in the Midwest makes geographical hurdles look far less intimidating – both factors that could impact the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Dana O’Neil and Brian Hamilton of The Athletic sat down and answered mailbag questions in a recent post (subscription required and recommended) where they discussed the Gonzaga to the Big East rumors, as well as what the Pac-12 might do in response to losing USC and UCLA and how the Zags could be involved there.

The full scope of the conversation is available in the article above, but a few tidbits, starting with the Big East:

  • The belief is that Gonzaga is going to be picky and not in a big rush to make a decision here, which makes sense. While some keyboard warriors on Twitter think the WCC is the worst thing to happen to Gonzaga, it’s quite clear it hasn’t deterred them in a significant way. Would playing better teams in January and February be good for the team? Sure, but multiple No. 1 overall seeds, high level recruits year in and year out, two appearances in the national championship in the past five years, and seven straight sweet 16 appearances don’t point to a team that needs to change things up all that much.
  • The Big East has a TV deal with Fox that runs out in 24-25, and that is a big factor for the conference and Gonzaga. Fox just spent a whole bunch of money on college football, and may not have the budget (or desire) to fork over a bunch of cash to keep a relationship with the Big East – even though the partnership has been worthwhile for both parties. Could adding a program like Gonzaga, not only a high level basketball team but a program located on the west coast, be enough to entice Fox to keep the Big East media deal going?
  • There’s also a belief that the Big East may instead do what they did with UConn: attempt to convince schools with good basketball and not-so-good football programs to come to the Big East and house their football team elsewhere. Syracuse, Boston College, and Pitt were all mentioned – but to me adding Gonzaga makes far more sense. They are a better basketball school, and don’t have the added headache of trying to find a football team to drop on someone else’s lap.
  • Of course, Gonzaga probably isn’t taking the rest of their programs to the Big East, so they have a hurdle to clear as well – and a pretty big one. I don’t believe the WCC is going to willingly hold on to the rest of Gonzaga’s teams while they gallivant to the Big East with the basketball programs, so there will need to be some kind of agreement there.
  • Finally, the pair discuss whether the Big East would need to add a west coast school alongside Gonzaga for travel purposes. While the writers don’t name any schools, Saint Mary’s seems like the most obvious candidate. They already have a rivalry with the Zags, they are a consistently excellent basketball program, and they don’t have football. San Francisco and Santa Clara make some sense as well, but both are not as enticing as the Gaels. The Big East could try to pull a Mountain West program – like San Diego St or UNLV – but the football issue would still remain.

Now, onto the Pac-12:

  • The Pac-12 may attempt to soldier on with the ten schools they have currently, but that leaves them extremely vulnerable to poachers. Sure Oregon and Washington haven’t been coveted by the Big Ten or the SEC yet, but it seems like only a matter of time unless the Pac can find a very lucrative media deal.
  • The best way to do that is to add more markets to the conference, and while Spokane isn’t a particularly big one they do boost the basketball talent level in the conference – significantly.
  • The Pac-12 has staunchly stood by there rules regarding large academic institutions – and football programs – which would obviously need to be changed if they were to take Gonzaga.
  • Adding Gonzaga and San Diego State to replace USC and UCLA isn’t exactly a fair trade, but getting into the San Diego market after losing LA seems like a smart move, and they are competitive in both football and basketball. Gonzaga obviously adds tremendous hoops pedigree and makes sense geographically, but the institution and lack of football would make them an oddball.
  • Plus, as hard as this may seem to believe, the Zags don’t really need the Pac-12. At least, not this version of the Pac-12. As Dana puts in the article:

“If you’re Mark Few, why do you want to go up against your geographic rivals for recruits and so forth in conference? There’s nothing to gain by it. Few schedules whom he wants, when he wants, and steals Oregon and Washington’s lunch money in the process.”

Dana O’Neil

So which is it?

I don’t see the Zags jumping into the Pac-12 right away, even if they are offered, unless they know the Big East isn’t going to work out. The Pac-12, even this current iteration, is an improvement over the WCC and would help Gonzaga earn more money, get more visibility on TV, and should prepare them better than the WCC does during conference play. But, it’s not nearly as good as the Big East opportunity would be, and the Pac-12 adding Gonzaga and someone like San Diego State probably isn’t enough to keep Oregon and Washington from eventually jumping ship – which would weaken the competition.

I think the Zags will stand pat and wait for the official invitation to the Big East, which I expect to happen. I won’t offer a timeline, and I don’t have any insider information here, but I do think this is the route Gonzaga will eventually go because it makes too much sense for the best basketball program in the country – which doesn’t have football – to join the conference with many of the other best basketball programs in the country who also don’t have football. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but ultimately it’s what makes this a natural pairing – once the other details are ironed out.

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