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August 31, 2011

BYU hopes to make big impact in WCC

If he had any doubts about where basketball stood when administrators were making big decisions about college sports, all BYU coach Dave Rose needed to do was talk to some coaching buddies to realize the higher-ups don't ask basketball coaches for advice.

"I had a lot of discussion with basketball coaches last year, coaches from the Big 12 and Pac-12. We realize that we don't determine conference alignment," Rose says. "You're talking about presidents, ADs and football teams who really determine conference alignment."

While that is true, finding a home for other sports -- most notably, men's basketball -- was critical in BYU's move to football independence. Along with securing a television partner in ESPN and airing other sports programming on the school-owned BYUtv, West Coast Conference membership was critical in BYU leaving the Mountain West to become a football independent.

"It was important that we found a good basketball home," BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe says. "We just didn't think we'd be able to do that without having football partners.

"If you can be good in football and basketball -- I wouldn't say you don't have to worry about the other sports -- but it takes care of a lot of the pressures."

BYU had hoped to move into the WAC as a non-football member, similar to Notre Dame's arrangement with the Big East, but that idea ended when WAC members Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada decided to join the Mountain West.

With ESPN helping to arrange football games for an independent BYU program, the WCC became a viable option for the other sports.

"When we couldn't finalize that contract because of the teams leaving, we thought we couldn't do it," Holmoe says. "We thought we'd be stuck."

By most metrics, BYU is moving into an inferior basketball conference. Since 2000, BYU has been an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament seven times. The entire West Coast Conference has produced the same amount of at-large bids over the same span. Only in recent seasons has Saint Mary's emerged as a consistent foil to Gonzaga's WCC dominance.

In conference RPI, the Mountain West has finished ahead of the WCC in each of the past four seasons and in nine of the 11 seasons of the MWC's existence.

The question is whether BYU loses some prestige by joining the WCC or if BYU's recent track record -- six 20-win seasons and five NCAA tournament appearances in six seasons under Rose -- further lifts the stature of the league.

"My concern is winning games," Rose says. "How that plays out with RPI numbers after a season in the league, there's been a lot of discussion about that, so we'll see. My biggest worry isn't that, it's trying to win games."

new neighbors
At least as far as BYU's conference opponents are concerned, the Cougars are downsizing. BYU dwarfs its new West Coast Conference opponents in enrollment and arena capacity - and in at-large NCAA bids.
Average enrollment21,18832,9557,091
Average arena capacity12,47122,7004,527
NCAA at-large bids since 20001777
NOTE: * 2010-11 alignment, not including BYU.
The task will be difficult. BYU is entering its new conference without national player of the year Jimmer Fredette and second-leading scorer Jackson Emery. The reinstatement of forward Brandon Davies, who was suspended for the final eight games last season after a violation of BYU's honor code, should help.

The Cougars return just one senior, but they have three players who started at least 20 games last season.

"I'd really like to make this transition with a more experienced team, but I have a lot of confidence in this group," Rose says.

Although the road trips will be different, Holmoe insists travel will be easier than in the Mountain West. BYU becomes the only WCC located in a state that doesn't border the Pacific Ocean, but road trips should more direct, considering every WCC team except Gonzaga is in or near Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Portland.

BYU also dwarfs the rest of the league in enrollment and with its arena. BYU's Marriott Center (capacity 22,700) is nearly four times as large as the next biggest arena in the league, Gonzaga's McCarthy Athletic Center (capacity 6,000). The same is true of enrollment. No other WCC school tops 9,000 students; BYU has 32,955.

Numbers aside, Holmoe says the cultures are a good fit. Like the rest of the WCC's programs, BYU is a private, faith-based school. Playing against teams that call basketball their No. 1 sport also will be a plus in the new league.

"Even when I was in the Pac-10 [as coach at California], they'd take football more seriously than the other sports even though their other sports are very, very good," Holmoe said. "In the West Coast Conference, they take their sports seriously, but they take basketball very seriously. Basketball is No. 1 [for this league]. For us, we get the best of both worlds."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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