BYU basketball: Will Cougs, Zags still play after BYU’s move to Big 12?

LAS VEGAS — The BYU basketball program is about to embark on its West Coast Conference farewell tour.

For the Cougars, this marks their final season as members of the WCC before joining the Big 12 next season.

“They’ve always been good and they’ve always drawn well. They gave us a program that gives us national recognition.” — Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett

At WCC media day Thursday at Orleans Arena, the league’s coaches and players reacted to BYU’s impending departure.

Certainly, the Cougars will be missed for a variety of reasons.

While BYU has yet to win a WCC championship in its 11 seasons in the league, the Cougars have been highly competitive and have developed heated rivalries with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.

Gonzaga star forward Drew Timme wants to see the series with BYU continue into the future.

“I think it’s a special rivalry. And one that should continue even after they leave the conference,” he said. “I think it’s something that we should do home-and-homes forever. … I feel like it’s developed into such a great rivalry.”

Zags coach Mark Few appreciates BYU and what it has brought to the league.

“I’m happy for them. They found a great landing spot. That’s a great step for them for all their programs. But it’s been great. Their effect on the league has been huge. It’s one of the greatest things we’ve done as a league, adding them in the 30-plus years I’ve been in it,” he said. “They’ve been a great partner. They’re a national program and they act like a national program. Their game-day is as good as anybody’s — and we’ve been everywhere.

“To experience it, it is as big-time as anybody’s. It’s been a healthy rivalry with some phenomenal games with different characters involved over the years and highly competitive. I’m sure we’ll continue to play in some fashion or form moving forward.”

While the WCC gave the Cougars a home for almost all of their sports when the football program went independent in 2011, BYU helped elevate the WCC’s national profile, too.

“They’ve provided a lot. They gave us another program that has a lot of street cred in college basketball. People have known that program for decades, back when (Danny) Ainge played,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “They’ve always been good and they’ve always drawn well. They gave us a program that gave us national recognition.

“That’s a religion, BYU. The whole religion follows that school. Everybody knows them. And they’re good. And it’s a great atmosphere to play at. In recruiting, we’ll sell that (and Gonzaga’s environment). Those are two of the best in the country as far as atmospheres.

“It also gave us a team that can knock on the door every year to get into the NCAA Tournament. So we’ll miss them. Our league will be fine. We had three teams last year and we could have had four with Santa Clara,” Bennett added. “BYU could have been in last year, too. Our league is still moving in the right direction.

“But to be honest, I wish they weren’t leaving because of the rivalry they provide, the excitement in our league they provide. They’re easy not to like, so that makes it fun. … It gives you a Quad 1 game every year. It helps us do what we’re trying to do — get into the NCAA Tournament.”

San Francisco guard Khalil Shabazz has had success against BYU and he has enjoyed the matchups.

“I love playing against BYU. It’s a love-hate relationship. The fans are hecklers or whatever. Just going into that environment is always fun. It’s an NBA arena and an NBA environment so it’s always fun playing there,” he said. “With them leaving, they did what they got to do. They felt like it was a decision they needed to make. I’m not upset; I’m not happy about it.”

“I think it’s going to be kind of sad to see them go. It’s a game that you have to really lock in for. It’s really fun to play there,” said Saint Mary’s guard Logan Johnson. “It’s probably one of my favorite places to play in the WCC. When they sell out that place, and it gets jumping in there, it’s an atmosphere that you don’t get everywhere in the WCC. Seeing them go is going to be sad but it’s also a great opportunity for them and they’re at school.”

Saint Mary’s forward Kyle Bowen described the Marriott Center this way:

“Up in Utah, it’s the crucible up there. There’s not a lot of air. It’s a lot of screaming fans. We’re definitely going to miss those games. Hopefully, we’ll have a great year to finish off the rivalry and then we’ll wish them the best for whatever’s next.”

BYU coach Mark Pope, who was an assistant coach for the Cougars’ first season in the WCC in 2012, is grateful for the league providing a home for the program.

“It’s been super important. It’s a great league. It’s been a great league. Outside the Power Five, it’s one of the top two leagues in the country. That’s not an easy place to occupy. A lot of that is due to the success of the Zags and Saint Mary’s and us,” he said. “And the rest of the teams in the league are really fun.

“It’s been a terrific league and it’s getting better every year. … The league is growing. It’s been led from the top but the bottom is pushing the envelope right now. It’s been an incredible home. We’ve been really, really blessed to be in the WCC for the last decade, give or take a year or two. We couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity we’ve had to be here.”

And, yes, Pope wants to keep playing Gonzaga.

“Anytime you get a chance to play Gonzaga, it’s awesome. On a personal level, coach Few has been so generous and gracious to me as a coach trying to figure out this profession,” he said. “We love that game and we’d love to have that game continue and find space for it in the future – 100%.” I’m not sure the Zags have a tough time getting games on the schedule.”

Pope wants to continue playing the Gaels in the future, too.

“I love coach Bennett. He’s been so great and he’s also been super generous to me,” he said. “Our series with Saint Mary’s has been really special, too. It’s been knock-out, drag-out fights every time. It’s two unbelievable programs.”

For now, the Cougars get one more crack at Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga as conference rivals in what will be BYU’s WCC farewell tour.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett watches from the sideline during the game against Gonzaga in Moraga, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. Said Bennett of BYU: “They gave us another program that has a lot of street cred in college basketball.”

Jeff Chi, Associated Press

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