DENVER — It’s Friday night inside Club Lexus, the luxury corporate headquarters-turned-media lounge at Ball Arena, and the stewards are talking. There’s Brett Yormark, seven months after leading the Big 12, standing beside a table and armed with a wallet. At the table sits Stu Jackson, the newly appointed big boss of the West Coast Conference. What they say is unclear. Maybe jokes about their teams competing at this NCAA tournament site. Maybe something about Jackson just starting his job.
These are the simplest explanations. But now is not the time for simple explanations. Gonzaga, possibly up for grabs in the next realignment iteration, plays here. Both commissioners concerned in one place. Put on the foil hat. There are no coincidences, male. The truth is out there if you just know where to look.
What if the story noted that there were three Big 12 teams in the building that night: two officially and another on the way?
“Our conference is considered the best in the country,” TCU coach Jamie Dixon said the next afternoon, noting that no one will call him on such matters, which we’ll believe when we see the phone records. “Certainly they would add something in that regard.”
There’s probably no doubt about it, considering Gonzaga has lost 23 games so far in the past seven years combined. It’s more interesting to wonder what the Zags would get themselves into. It’s more interesting to wonder how they would handle the culture shock of changing conferences and how they would survive and progress in the Big 12, if they didn’t either. The imagination is unleashed.
The Big 12 continue to explore “all possibilities” to add new members
Fortunately, two teams from the Big 12 are there to ask questions about it.
“It’s a hell of a basketball team and organization,” says Baylor forward Caleb Lohner, who spent his previous two seasons at BYU so can connect those dots as well as anyone. “From my experience with them, I don’t see why they couldn’t be (successful). They’ve shown that year after year, especially with their non-conference schedules and the way they’ve been able to run the playoffs. The WCC is a good basketball league, but when you play Gonzaga, it was a whole different level.
A word about Gonzaga: He’s good at basketball against anybody. The Bulldogs have the most NCAA men’s tournament wins (18) since 2017. They have won seven of 11 games against Big 12 teams in all competitions since 2017-18. The body of work suggests that a move to any power league doesn’t walk on thin branches spanning a deep pit.
Not to mention, Gonzaga is already acting as a men’s basketball powerhouse. There’s not much upgrading of resources or facilities to do. It brought in $11.9 million in spending on men’s hoops in 2021-22, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Baylor spent $13.3 million and TCU spent $12.6 million, according to the teams occupying the Ball Arena locker room this weekend. “I don’t think you have to go dollar for dollar,” Gonzaga athletic director Chris Standiford said just before returning to the team hotel on Saturday. “There’s an old real estate analogy that even Coach (Mark) Few once told me: We don’t need to have the nicest house on the block. But you have to live in the neighborhood to be able to compete. It’s the mindset, to make sure there’s no gap that you can’t overcome.
Acting like a power league program is different from being a power league program, however. This Big 12 life is not easy.
Either way, no one in the Baylor and TCU locker room expects Gonzaga’s talent level to drop. They anticipate talent will have to adapt to some things Gonzaga teams haven’t faced before, every night, for two or three months straight. “The physicality, the pace, the level of talent – everything you can expect as a player, you’re going to see in the Big 12,” said TCU forward JaKobe Coles. Likewise, the Zags were No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency Saturday morning, according to KenPom.com, but no one is talking about offense when they talk about Big 12 requirements. And Gonzaga’s adjusted defensive efficiency (99.5) would rank last. among Big 12 teams in 2022-23.
“You can’t be in our conference and be good without playing defense,” TCU guard Mike Miles Jr. said.
Baylor guard Adam Flagler, who has battled with Gonzaga several times, notes the flip side: Maybe those Big 12 defenses help the Zags in the end. “It will only make them better,” says Flagler. “Them being so elite offensively, you’re up against the best of the best defensively. You can’t go up, but at that point.
John Jakus is Baylor’s Associate Head Coach. He also spent three seasons as Gonzaga’s operations manager. When he stands outside the Bears locker room on Saturday and ponders this hypothetical realignment earthquake, he identifies four markers that suggest Gonzaga can do it, without falling short of where Gonzaga should be.
The Zags, for example, are the city’s professional team. (“Support is actually a lot more important than people realize,” says Jakus.) Two, Mark Few, is the iconic constant. (“If they want to do it, they’ll have to do it while he’s here.”) Third, Gonzaga is getting players, signing eight four- and five-star rookies in the past four cycles. (“If you can recruit, you can run in any league.”) And, finally, he asks: If USC and UCLA are Big Ten teams, why can’t the Zags steal? in Texas for games on the road?
Having been on both sides of that fence, Jakus is optimistic. Optimistic. And also realistic enough to admit that Gonzaga won’t know what the Big 12 is demanding until he tries to meet those demands in real time. “My freshman year at Baylor, I was woken up,” Jakus says. “It’s not, can you beat somebody once? Can you go to Kansas, lose, turn around on Monday and play a top-10 game at home? There’s this emotional basketball outfit -ball on you that you don’t get if you play there once If they go play Kansas on Saturday and go back to Spokane and Texas come to Spokane on Monday – all those little things with 18-22 year olds behind the scenes that people don’t see, they can make you lose a game. Emotion can make you lose a game.
“Can these staff get away with it? Of course they can. They are as good as anyone in the country who deals with 18 to 22 year olds. But you still take care of it. To do that for games from 18 to 20? Maybe their record won’t be as good in the Big 12. It’s not going to be bad, I can tell you that. But you can’t measure the emotional wear and tear of a Big 12 season until you’ve been through it.
This is mostly where everyone hangs out, as they sort through the hypothetical. Gonzaga won’t be bad. But Gonzaga — or perhaps more specifically the people who support Gonzaga — have to get used to not being the best every season. Life without hegemony.
“They’ll be able to come in and have an impact for sure,” Coles says, “but I don’t think they’ll ever dominate as much as they did in the West Coast Conference.”
Directors considering Gonzaga’s options understand this. They realize that if the school takes action, some brilliance could shake the win-loss record.
Fans might wince at the prospect, but the trade-off in this scenario is long-term stability and essentially ensures that Gonzaga players can perform on the biggest stage for months at a time, and not just because Few and its staff can schedule aggressively before Christmas. “We’ve been able to survive and thrive in the environment where we’ve been, how we’ve made it,” Standiford says. “But we can’t be naive about everything that’s changing around us, and (we have to) be ready to (discern) that way forward.”
As Gonzaga’s sporting director is quick to note, there is no change for the sake of change. There must be a purpose behind everything the school decides to do.
If the choice is life in the Big 12, the goal is clear: learn to live in men’s college basketball the hard way.
“We love Gonzaga,” Flagler says. “Unless we’re on the pitch with them.”
(Photo by Julian Strawther: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)