Verbatim: West Coast Conference Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich
Our next Verbatim is with West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who also is in his second year of a five-year stint on the NCAA tournament selection committee. Zaninovich took over as the leader of the WCC in March 2008, and has successfully guided the league through the conference realignment era. BYU just finished its second season in the league and The University of the Pacific will join the league this summer as its 10th member (and will be Saint Mary’s travel partner in the new basketball setup).
Zaninovich met with a group of reporters before the WCC final on Monday, and then with SI.com after the group session. The questions below are those asked by SI.com during both of those sessions.
SI.com: What does it mean to the West Coast Conference to have the No. 1 team in the nation?
JZ: Well, first of all, it’s a reflection and testament to Gonzaga, Mark and Mike Roth, their athletic director. I mean, it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment. Doesn’t happen very often for a conference like ours, so obviously it’s great for Gonzaga and a reflection of their good work. It’s certainly good for the West Coast Conference, but I also think it’s good for college basketball.
The history of the non-”power six” conference No. 1 teams is pretty sparse, so to prove that that can happen in the West Coast Conference or any other league that doesn’t have this brand perception as a “power six” is a good thing. It probably started with the VCU and the Butler stuff and, I was saying to these guys earlier, the world’s a little flatter, I think, than it’s been before, even with regard to other sports than college basketball. So I think it’s a good thing for everybody, but undeniably it’s a good thing for us also.
SI.com: What does the [forthcoming] FOX TV contract with the new Big East mean for the future of non-football athletic conferences?
JZ: I hope that it affirms the relevance of college basketball. Most of what’s happened the last two or three years has been so football-driven. It’s nice to see another TV partner — since ESPN certainly has invested heavily in college basketball for a long time — to see another TV partner affirm that, a college basketball platform. I think it’s undeniably good. The breakaway [from the Big East] has been talked about for a long time and sort of it is what it is, but to see someone take a step that is sort of college basketball-driven is a bit refreshing for a lot of us.
SI.com: Do you think that will lead to more or less stabilization in terms of conference realignment?
JZ: It’s impossible to predict. I would have said 12 months ago that long-term TV contracts would inflict stabilization for awhile, but that’s proven not to be the case, so maybe I’m the wrong guy to ask.
SI.com: I wrote a piece yesterday in the aftermath of Middle Tennessee State and Stony Brook losing in their conference tournaments asking why small conferences would not structure the events in a certain way to protect or eliminate the tournament and just give the [bid] to their best team. You guys are changing your format next year from one that does protect the top seeds to one that does not. Why are you doing that?
JZ: We thought it was time, I think. We were going into a contract extension, this event on a neutral site. To support that, we really wanted to find that sweet spot between protecting the competitive equity principles that you’re talking about with providing the best experience for our fans. And I think we thought with the growth of Saint Mary’s, the addition of BYU and the bottom half of our conference growing, we could support a more quote-unquote normal tournament. And it was interesting, when we talked to the coaches they were much more focused on neutral site than format. That the neutral site is the absolute, so we took that to heart in the discussion. But I think it’s just the time had come, that we had grown as a conference to the point we could support that now.
(Note: Zaninovich later revealed that next year’s tournament format will be for the men’s 7-10 and 8-9 games to be played on Wednesday, then the four quarterfinals will be on Friday, the semifinals will be on Saturday, and the final will be on Monday.)
SI.com: Is that the difference here, the West Coast Conference thinks it can regularly be a 2- or 3-bid conference? What happened two years in a row now to Middle Tennessee State — and I’m not going to tell you what you guys are going to do this week with them — but they dominated their league and they lost one game on a neutral site in Hot Springs, Ark. That seems grossly unfair.
JZ: That will obviously be considered. I have only been on the [selection] committee one year, but if you look at some instances in the past, there’s at least a couple situations we had last year where an analog to that was at least not discounted. Again, we were talking about this earlier. I have never heard the words ‘Conference RPI’ or conference barely mentioned in the room, and if you’ve been through the mock, it’s really true. So it’s who you play, where you play ‘em and who you beat, you know, the old adage, so Middle Tennessee is going to have a great resume, but it’s going to depend on a lot of things that haven’t even happened yet, too, between now and the time we actually set the field.
SI.com: Having gone through it once last year, is there one or two things that we would be surprised to know about what happens in the room? Something you didn’t know about that you were surprised about the first time through?
JZ: I just think the depth of analysis. You probably don’t get it in the mock in that short a period of time, but we’ll discuss three schools for two hours and then not feel like we quite have it right or have enough, and we’ll take a break or call it a night and come back and put them up for another two hours. Just the depth of analysis … and it needs to be. They’re important decisions. Lots of people’s careers [are impacted by the decisions], we recognize that. All that is definitely [understood]. I just think the depth of analysis has a lot to do with the committee chair, too. Jeff [Hathaway] was great. Mike [Bobinski] is really good, too. He’s going to be great. I think that’s the one thing that surprised me. Beyond that, there weren’t very many surprises. It’s just long.
SI.com: Do you or other committee members read mock projections, analysis, other stuff heading into this?
JZ: I don’t read mock projections as much as analysis to stay current. I’ll read bubble watches and stuff just to make sure I’m current. I can’t watch every game. I have seven conferences, I’m in a certain region, but I’ll read bubble watches just to stay current. It helps you synthesize information. You have this much [holds hands wide]. That’s why the team sheets — again, those who have been in the mock, you know what they look like — that’s why the team sheets are such a good tool. They help you take it from here [holds hands wide] to here [holds hands narrower] so you don’t sort of get a paralysis by overanalysis type of thing.
SI.com: Do you pull video on teams if you feel like you haven’t seen them enough?
JZ: [They have four Slingboxes in the office,] so in the beginning I’ll set them up by conferences I’m monitoring, then as we get later and I start tracking different teams I want to make sure I see, especially ones that aren’t on TV as much, like a Belmont or Middle Tennessee, whose profiles are trending. We gotta make sure we capture whatever they’re on too, so I can go back and watch them. But others use Synergy Sports Tech, I know Peter Roby uses that a lot, that’s all on-demand stuff, so that’s great.
SI.com: When I did the mock committee, I was mock Dan Beebe, so I had the commissioner’s perspective. That year was crazy because there were like six Big 12 teams at the cutline, so every conversation I wasn’t involved in. Do you feel it’s a good spot to have a conference commissioner on the committee? Does it get you out of too many conversations because you have to leave every time one of your teams is discussed?
JZ: It’s a good thing if you do [have to leave a lot], obviously. I’m not sure I’d take the leap as to whether it’s good or not to have conference folks on the committee because I do think the conference perspective mixed with the AD perspective is a good one. That’s why I have different regions and different divisions represented because you want breath of perspective. I think it’s manageable. Now we haven’t had a commissioner in the room from a conference like a Pac-12 or something that might have that many schools on the bubble, so I haven’t seen it myself.