In 2008, Jamie Zaninovich became the commissioner of the West Coast Conference. At the time it would have been just as easy, and only slightly less accurate, to call Zaninovich the boss of "whatever league Gonzaga plays in."
By 2008, the Zags had won 11 of the past 14 regular-season conference titles. They didn't lose once between 2001 and 2008 -- and wouldn't lose again until 2012. Under Dan Monson and then (largely) Mark Few, Gonzaga leveraged its Cinderella NCAA tournament status into year-over-year dominance. Name recognition followed. And annually, Gonzaga's conference slate was an all-risk, no-reward proposition for the Zags -- three months of obligatory bad-loss dodging to get through between the nonconference and March.
Zaninovich's tenure began to change this dynamic. In 2012, after a decade of whiffing at air while Gonzaga pushed its forehead away with one hand -- think of the Three Stooges moves you used to pull on your little brother -- Saint Mary's finally unseated the Zags in both the regular season and conference tournament. It was the right time for a shakeup: In the summer of 2011, amid a coast-to-coast realignment panic, BYU moved its basketball program from the Mountain West to the WCC -- the league's first membership change since 1979. Zaninovich cannily stepped into the realignment void just long enough to pluck a quality basketball program with a massive following out of the confusion.
Shortly thereafter, Pacific joined the league. Last season, San Francisco had its best season in decades. In March, when Zaninovich announced his move to the Pac-12, the WCC looked as well-rounded as it had in decades. When Gonzaga and BYU were its only two tournament teams, there was no celebrating a two-bid season. Suddenly, the WCC expects more.
What we saw last season: Can 29 wins possibly be a down season? Gonzaga fans might say yes. The Zags' yearly play -- which rose to its highest level ever in a No. 1-seeded 2012-13 campaign -- has been so good, and so consistent, that when Gonzaga failed to win a notable nonconference game and wound up as a No. 8 seed in March's bracket, it really did feel like a down season.
The same might be said of BYU. The Cougars entered the season with Tyler Haws highly touted, along with a strong returner in Kyle Collinsworth and an experienced point guard in Matt Carlino. Haws was a potential All-America candidate. BYU looked like a lock to get back to the dance. And the Cougars did, eventually, but only barely -- and their trip came just days after Collinsworth tore his ACL in the WCC tournament. It was a successful season, in one simple way. It was also kind of a bummer.
San Francisco, on the other hand, will probably just feel good: With a lineup comprising mostly sophomores and juniors, the Dons had their most successful season to date under coach Rex Walters. Saint Mary's failed to generate much in the way of tournament bubble interest, but it was solid enough in its own right. Given the recruiting fiasco Randy Bennett's program had to pay penance for all season (notably on the recruiting trail), things probably could have been worse.
What we expect next season: And yet, for all of the strides this league has taken toward greater competitive equity -- toward, in franker terms, a league that can finally stand up to big bad Gonzaga -- Zaninovich's first year out of the conference leadership is shaping up to be a classic Bulldogs march.
Haws is back at BYU, and he could put up some monster numbers. Mostly, that's because he's an awesome scorer with glorious midrange touch. But he may just have to: Sophomore Eric Mika left for his LDS mission. Collinsworth will be coming back from that ACL tear. And Matt Carlino used the graduate exception to transfer to Marquette and play right away. BYU has players, sure, but enough to contend? To get back to the tournament?
Portland has a chance to improve; it showed in a milestone upset of the Zags in January. Saint Mary's looks likely to rebuild. But San Francisco is in the emergent class, with a bunch of returning players and one key guy (Cole Dickerson) gone, with a pair of juniors (Avry Holmes and Mark Tollefsen) who should be among the best in the country.
And still not one of the above looks ready to take on the Zags. Gonzaga will have both Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell in the backcourt once more. It will have Kyle Dranginis on the wing. It will have Przemek Karnowski -- who morphed into a beast throughout his sophomore season -- shaping up as one of the nation's best big men at center. And it will have Kentucky transfer and former five-star recruit Kyle Wiltjer -- who played 11 minutes per game for the Wildcats' 39-2 2012 national title team -- stepping in as a perfect outside-in forward. Oh, and the No. 10 point guard (Josh Perkins) and a 6-foot-10 Lithuanian forward Domantas Sabonis. At age 17, Sabonis played 10 minutes per game for Unicaja Malaga in the Spanish ACB, the second-best pro hoops league in the world. He didn't receive compensation, so he's eligible to play right away. Recruiting Nation calls him the equivalent of a top-50 domestic recruit.
Guys, Gonzaga is going to be good.
Another year of surprise-surprise from the Zags doesn't negate the impressive long-term improvement (and expansion) throughout the WCC. The league is better now than when Zaninovich arrived. It will keep getting better, too. Folks will catch up, or at least close in.
But as 2014-15 looks likely to demonstrate, there is a lot of catching up to do. Gonzaga had a decade's head start. Even now, the Bulldogs are still setting the pace.