BYU continues to spend the final days before a Wednesday deadline trying to figure out whether it wants to take the bold step and become a football independent in 2011 or, perhaps, put the decision off until the 2012 season.
There has been immense speculation as conferences throughout the West are moving pieces around like pawns, possibly for the 2011 or 2012 seasons.
Although it is clear that none of the previous major expansion moves -- Nebraska to the Big Ten; Colorado and Utah to the Pac-10; Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State to the Mountain West Conference -- was made with basketball as a priority, the possible BYU move has been carefully discussed with all sports in mind.
There was really nothing to debate for Nebraska because moving to the Big Ten in basketball is a home run, too. The Big Ten remains one of the top five conferences in hoops and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. (You can argue the order of the top five with the Big East, ACC, Big 12 and SEC East, yes, just those six teams and not the SEC West.) Colorado and Utah had no choice but to upgrade to the Pac-10, right now in the 6-spot, in basketball.
But if BYU decides to take its football program on an independent route and conduct a scheduling arrangement (at least in football) with the Western Athletic Conference, the rest of its sports, notably men's and women's basketball, have to find a suitable home that would guarantee high-profile games.
BYU already plays Utah State every season, giving the Cougars a game against a recent perennial NCAA tournament bid contender (four bids in the past six seasons, including two at-large nods). New Mexico State has had its tourney runs and did make it last season, but the Aggies are hardly a regular threat to make the Big Dance. Louisiana Tech, Idaho, San Jose State and Hawaii won't move the RPI meter much for the Cougars. BYU has had a strong tradition of scheduling Hawaii anyway, so playing the Warriors is likely to continue in some form.
Had the initial deal with the WAC not blown up, BYU would have had games against Nevada. There was also a chance that with BYU in it, the league could have lured former members UNLV and San Diego State back because it would have appeared to be a stronger conference. At least one source with direct knowledge of the situation said there was never any contact with the WAC and any Conference USA member, including Houston, SMU and UTEP. The Miners might have made sense, but that would have been something to look at after BYU already joined the league.
The WAC would have made a run at Gonzaga to go with BYU, but persuading the Bulldogs administration to leave the West Coast Conference and its church-based institutions would have been a reach.
But in this fluid situation, BYU and Gonzaga could be paired if the Cougars decide to go independent and place their programs in the WCC. WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich has made his overtures to the Cougars quite public. The WCC at one point made a run at UC Santa Barbara and Pacific, but the league didn't want to go with a state school and decided against expanding to include the Big West's lone private school. Overtures to Seattle were snuffed out as well, leaving the tight-knit league at eight.
Adding BYU to a roster of schools with Gonzaga and Saint Mary's would be a major coup for the WCC. The league would get a program that has been to 25 NCAA tournaments and has been a regular contender for the MWC title. BYU's recruiting footprint and its fan base stretch well into the same areas of the WCC (Washington, Oregon and California). The Cougars have the best arena and the most seats at 22,000-plus within the Marriott Center. BYU fans might not get as excited for the bottom of the league when San Diego, Santa Clara, Pepperdine and San Francisco come to Provo. But there is a chance that upstarts like Loyola Marymount and recent postseason team Portland can create a buzz. Saint Mary's, a perennial NCAA tournament bid contender coming off a Sweet 16 run, would help tremendously with this potential move.
A WCC with Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary's would deliver three possible top-30-to-40 programs every year on the national stage. That would dwarf the WAC, which can't add anyone of serious stature for all sports (UT-San Antonio or Texas State won't move the hoop meter much) and would bank on Utah State being its bid contender.
The revamped MWC would be for the 2011 season if Fresno State and Nevada can't get out from the WAC a year early. It would include UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado State, TCU, Air Force and new member Boise State. San Diego State has found its stride under Steve Fisher and should be an NCAA tourney bid contender on a regular basis. UNLV has been the same under Lon Kruger, and New Mexico clearly is moving toward a similar stride under Steve Alford. Fresno State, Boise State and even a declining Nevada (missed NCAAs three-straight years after four consecutive appearances) may make the WCC-MWC comparison a push.
The WCC has an ESPN television contract, while the MWC has its existing contract with Comcast/CBS College Sports/The Mtn.
If the MWC loses BYU and falls out of the state of Utah (can't see it adding Utah State to essentially replace BYU and Utah), it would create a hole in the conference. The Salt Lake City television market would be gone. The addition of Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State is within the MWC footprint and wouldn't disrupt the travel aspect too much.
BYU can easily get to all the WCC outposts without a problem because they're all accessible to major airports, save Spokane (which still has a direct flight to Salt Lake City).
If the Cougars are so bold as to leave the MWC, the WCC would make more sense and would be even more palatable. BYU can flourish in basketball against at least two top-30-to-40 programs and still maintain a highly competitive program with access to the NCAA tournament. The WCC would upgrade to 16 conference games (from 14) and would move its conference tournament from a Sunday-Monday format. (BYU won't play on Sundays.) Adding a 10th member to get to 18 league games could occur, but it's not a necessity, at least in the near future with so few private-school choices.
All of this could be moot if BYU stays pat on Wednesday. But if the Cougars move the landscape in the West, it will look considerably different for years.