The Honeymoon is Over for BYU Fans and the WCC
Saint Mary’s outplayed, out-hustled, and most importantly, out-shot BYU en route to a decisive victory over a vitriolic home crowd in Provo on Saturday. More significantly, the game marked an important milestone for the Cougars in their new league – the honeymoon is officially over.
The evening with began with what many BYU students are claiming was a crude gesture made in their direction by a Saint Mary’s player during team warmups.
It ended with referees blowing a whistle with four seconds left, then seemingly thinking better of it to let the game expire as a hail of crumpled paper and other debris rained down from the stands.
In between was an ugly, bitter brawl that accounted for four technical fouls – three on BYU. Both head coaches were whistled for technicals, which marked Dave Rose’s second ‘T’ in seven years at the helm.
Refs called 48 fouls and probably could have called a dozen more. In a reflection of what was happening on court, the passionate crowd became disgruntled, then angry, then downright hostile. That’s something that doesn’t happen often. In fact, throughout the years only Utah and New Mexico seem to bring out the worst in the throngs that pack into the Marriott Center.
Toward the end of the game, chants of “Worst refs ever” began in the student section and quickly filled the spacious arena. Local sportswriters remarked the WCC officials seemed ill prepared to ref a game of such magnitude. Even college sports stats legend Ken Pomeroy, a Utah resident, said the game could have been handled better.
After the game, BYU fans filled social media with complaints directed at the officials and at the conference itself. Many called for BYU to look for another new home, and a few particularly shortsighted or forgetful fans even petitioned for the Cougars to rejoin the MWC.
It’s a far change from just seven months ago.
Last July, West Coast Conference commissioner Jaime Zaninovich hailed the addition of BYU as part of “a new dawn” for the conference. The symbolism was apt. Bolstered by BYU’s membership, the WCC had just landed the most extensive ESPN basketball deal ever signed by a non-BCS league.
BYU fans were quick to praise the new league, in no small part because of Zaninovich’s 11th hour moves that saved BYU’s plans for football independence after Craig Thompson and the MWC torpedoed the WAC.
Cougar Nation reveled in the idea of playing a conference basketball tournament on a neutral court, and BYUtv even televised some of the WCC’s 2011 games in the same town where Jimmer Fredette scored a school-record 52 points down the street in the MWC tournament.
Listening to WCC and BYU officials, it seemed the nine private, faith-based schools seemed destined to rise to glory and become one of the premier basketball leagues in the country, singing praises all along the way.
The feelings of good will stretched into the fall, even after BYU cross country snapped Portland’s 32-year run and captured its first WCC championship.
Then came basketball season — the conference’s main event — and those ‘Kumbaya’ feelings have quickly evaporated under the intense flame of competition.
BYU, restocked with six freshmen in their regular rotation and with only two seniors on roster, was picked to finish third in the conference. Yet after a historic, magical run led by Jimmer Fredette, BYU fans were hoping for more. And, while most won’t admit it, many BYU fans regarded the WCC a little lightly. For most, the league consisted of Gonzaga and a bunch of other, barely-known squads and BYU would quickly impose their will in their new confines.
Saturday night wasn’t just a BYU loss to Saint Mary’s. It was also a harsh reality-check for many BYU fans. The Cougars will have to earn everything they get in the WCC the hard way. Saint Mary’s is a top 20 team this year and Gonzaga is not far off. While BYU will easily overwhelm the bottom-tier of the league, the competition in “Pool A” as Pomeroy calls it is just as fierce as it was in the MWC where UNLV, New Mexico, BYU and sometimes San Diego State waged war annually.
Yet aside from copious amounts of humble pie BYU fans were forced to ingest, some good came out of Saturday evening’s game. BYU now has what it needed in its new league – a rival.
Welcome to the WCC.