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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Gonzaga: The Mid-Major Duke?

This should piss off fans of teams in mid-major college basketball conferences.

The West Coast conference has signed a new agreement with ESPN for various sports coverage through 2011. For the most part, it seems to make sense - 10 games on ESPNU per year between all sports, for example.

But then there's the seven intra-conference college basketball games, each year, split between ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC, plus the semifinals and finals of the WCC tournament. That doesn't make so much sense.

It should be obvious this is entirely because of the success of Gonzaga. Exactly two WCC games on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC this season covered the Zags - one of them being the other conference semifinal - out of 11 all-WCC. But what, exactly, is the rest of the WCC doing to deserve such national attention?

I've seen people look at the WCC's conference RPI and declare them to be in the top tier of mid-major conferences. This year the WCC is the 14th-highest rated conference in all the land in a down year for the Zags, according to Factor out Gonzaga, and they fall to 17th - behind the MAC, Patriot League, and Big West.

Last year, the only non-Big Six conferences the WCC didn't beat were the MVC, MWC, WAC, CAA, and A-10. But factor out Gonzaga in a year they were RPI #10, and the WCC falls six spots - below the C-USA, MAAC, Horizon, MAC, Big Sky, and Sun Belt. It's evident that the WCC without Gonzaga is near the top of the second tier, and in fact, in 2005 the WCC was behind only the Big Six, the MVC, and the pre-Big-East-robbery C-USA - after factoring out another banner year for the Zags.

But seven WCC intra-conference games? Including spots on ABC, which barely shows any college basketball? Sure, most if not all of them will involve the Zags, but can we control the salivation just a little? Is there any other way for a mid-level mid-major team to get on ABC? Do teams like Duke get this many games against weak opposition in front of such a large national audience?

Without Gonzaga, the MVC, MWC, WAC, CAA, A-10, Horizon, and MAC all have beaten the WCC both this year and last year. With or without the Zags, the MVC has consistently beaten the WCC every year since 2004, and both this year and last year has beaten at least one Big Six conference in the Conference RPI.

But the conference that gives the high majors fits every year signed an extension with ESPN in October for "an expanded number of national appearances" - 28 in all, but 10 of those are on ESPNU, you know, the network no one gets? Only 8 appearances on ESPN(2) are guaranteed each year, and exactly 5 intraconference games this year, all on ESPN2. (According to one report, every game regular ESPN is showing this year involving two mid-major teams involves Memphis or the Zags.) The MVC continues to have the semifinals of its conference tournament on local/regional television - the SEC is the only Big Six conference without a national audience for its semifinals, unless you count the Pac-10's national agreement with FSN. Even the MWC and (in a holdover from its major days) C-USA have their semifinals on CSTV. The Horizon League has theirs on ESPNU, as does the frickin' OVC. And need I remind you of the WCC getting their semifinals on ESPN2?

Since that "beneficial" agreement, the Valley has seen Southern Illinois become the #6 team in the RPI. Since 1999, the last year for which has information, the highest the Zags have been able to muster is a #9. In fact, the last time a team outside the Big Six or C-USA was in the RPI Top 6 was #3 St. Joe's in 2004, also the only time it's happened since '99... perhaps because they nearly went undefeated that year. Oh, and even C-USA has only done it three times since 1999. Oops.

I don't seem to be alone... A search on Google for "the missouri valley is a (major OR high-major) conference" returns 1.1 million hits. By contrast, "gonzaga is a (major OR high-major) team" gets only 631,000 hits. In other Google news, "gonzaga sucks" gets 77,800 hits, comparable to 59,600 for "gonzaga is overrated". They have a long way to go to catch the 1.06 million for "duke sucks" or the 511,000 for "duke is overrated". As for the Valley, "the "missouri valley" sucks" gets 18,900 hits, to 23,300 for "the "missouri valley" is overrated" - both of which outpace Gonzaga if you take the quotes around "missouri valley" out, though. Hmm...