The current construction of Mountain West basketball will cease to exist with the conclusion of the conference tournament in two weeks, as the nine-team league braces for the addition of San Jose State and Utah State.
The jump to 11 (Hawaii is a football-only member, leaving the odd number) has led to scheduling issues that could be smoothed over with the inclusion of one more program. And with the MW currently ranked No. 1 in conference RPI, there would be no time like the present to find that one additional school that doesn’t play football and bring them into the fold.
If it were up to you, who would you like to see brought into the mix?
Keeping in mind this is entirely hypothetical, here are my top choices:
Gonzaga (currently in the West Coast Conference)
The Mountain West is ranked No. 1 as a conference, so why not shoot for the team that may soon be ranked No. 1 in the nation? Gonzaga doesn’t play football, so that wouldn’t be an issue. The Bulldogs would also help the Mountain West put an imprint in the Pacific Northwest as well as Seattle’s large market. It would also give Boise State a regional rival. Gonzaga has won the West Coast regular-season title in all but one season since 2000-01 and has captured 10 of the past 14 tournament titles (it was runner-up the other four times). The team needs better competition, as is clear from speculation that even a No. 1 national ranking might not assure the Zags of a top seed in the NCAA tournament (their strength of schedule ranks 68th, leaving them No. 9 in RPI). A league with the likes of San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV could provide that competition on an annual basis, while helping solidify the MW’s stature at a top-flight basketball league and exponentially increase its presence in the national media. It seems like a win-win for all involved.
Wichita State (currently in the Missouri Valley)
With nine NCAA Tournament berths to its credit – including three trips to the Elite Eight – as well as NBA standouts Xavier McDaniel and Antoine Carr amongst its alumni, the Shocker would bring some historical weight to a league currently short on deep basketball roots. The Shockers are also pretty good in the now, ranked No. 39 in RPI and having played in the NCAA Tournament last year and capturing NIT title the year before that. They draw well, averaging 10,312 fans per home game this year in an arena that has a capacity of 10,512. Wichita State wouldn’t, however, open a large market like Gonzaga. Wichita is a mid-90s media market – nearly identical to Colorado Springs – and the potential of penetration statewide is limited given the presence of Kansas and Kansas State. Still, from a basketball perspective, this would improve the Mountain West. It would also represent at least a slight step up for the Shockers from the Missouri Valley, and its close proximity to the Front Range wouldn’t greatly impact the miles it currently travels as part of a league with schools from Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.
BYU (currently independent in everything but football; West Coast Conference in other sports)
The Cougars are exploring life as the Mormon answer to Catholic mainstay Notre Dame in football, trying to utilize the religious tie-ins that provide a national fan base to go at it as an independent. The school’s other athletic programs are part of the West Coast Conference. The Mountain West would be the better destination. In the Cougars last season in the MW two years ago they ranked second in road attendance at 10,542. They were charter members of the league, have fan bases in each city and geographically couldn’t be a better fit. The addition of Utah State would even provide an in-state rival to replace Utah (now a Pac-12 member). Having BYU back in the fold could also leave the door open for an eventual return for the football team if the independent route doesn’t work as planned. This is a known commodity and would help the Mountain West further dominate the Rocky Mountain region in terms of fan support.
Denver (currently in the Western Athletic Conference, slated to move to the Summit League in 2013)
Joe Scott has built the Pioneers into a legitimate team (currently ranked 75th in RPI) and their addition would provide even more of a footprint in the large Denver media market in addition to keeping travel costs down for Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico and Wyoming. However, it’s tough to imagine the private school with a basketball team that plays second fiddle to it’s powerful hockey program being in serious consideration. For local fans it would sure be nice.
Santa Clara (currently in the West Coast Conference)
The addition of San Jose has already set up the MW to be introduced in a new market, this would double the presence in the heavily populated area near San Francisco. This would also give some academic punch to a league that isn’t exactly known for excellence in that area. It’s tough to imagine the Mountain West providing enough competition or revenue opportunities for Santa Clara in sports like soccer and volleyball.