Obviously, we're all focused more on the NCAA Tournament than conference realignment right now, but it doesn't mean the Mountain West Conference shouldn't continue looking for ways to improve itself. Though the league was among the strongest in the country this year, it regularly saw little respect from national outlets, and many East Coast publications barely acknowledged its existence. Still, despite all that, the MWC received five bids to this year's tournament, with New Mexico grabbing an impressive three-seed.
While the book hasn't been completely written on the Mountain West this season -- we still have to see how the tournament plays out -- it can't hurt to look at what could've been better. Most notably, which team out there is ripe for the picking, and would be an instant jolt for the MWC? Of course, we're talking about Gonzaga.
As of next year, the MWC will have 11 basketball members (Hawaii is football-only), creating an uneven scheduling situation despite an even stronger league (Utah State's addition, in particular, is a huge boost in most years). Ideally, that 12th member would be BYU, but as has been rehashed many times, that ship's likely sailed.
More football schools (New Mexico State, Idaho) provide little in terms of TV markets, national cachet or basketball success. Gonzaga, however, provides it all. And they're anxious to leave the West Coast Conference they've called home since 1979. Back when the Catholic 7/New Big East first defected, it was reported that the Zags were actively seeking membership in such a league with some national brand recognition (and increased competition). Even with a no. 1 seed, the Bulldogs are still catching flack for their WCC schedule, and rightfully so. The only tournament-caliber team they face in conference play is St. Mary's, and beyond that, they're a big fish in a small pond. So why not fix that by joining the MWC? A look at the mutual benefits:
Conference RPI Comparisons
Over the past seven years, here are the conference RPI breakdowns of the MWC versus the WCC:
2012-13: MWC (1), WCC (10)
2011-12: MWC (5), WCC (11)
2010-11: MWC (3), WCC (12)
2009-10: MWC (7), WCC (14)
2008-09: MWC (9), WCC (15)
2007-08: MWC (10), WCC (13)
2006-07: MWC (8), WCC (13)
What you see above are two leagues improving their stature, but while the MWC has seen a meteoric rise to the top of college basketball, the WCC has spent much of the past seven years middling around in the 10-15 spots, mostly on the back of Gonzaga's performance. If Gonzaga had been in the MWC these past seven years, here's what the RPI comparisons would've looked like instead:
2012-13: MWC (1), WCC (19)
2011-12: MWC (3), WCC (15)
2010-11: MWC (3), WCC (15)
2009-10: MWC (5), WCC (17)
2008-09: MWC (7), WCC (20)
2007-08: MWC (9), WCC (15)
2006-07: MWC (8), WCC (17)
On top of the obvious strength they provide on the court, Gonzaga is a sizable force for the Mountain West's bank account as well. Spokane, Wash. is the 73rd-ranked DMA, but to count just that city would be short-sighted. With Washington and Washington State struggling, you can almost scoop up the majority of the state -- most notably the Seattle-Tacoma, ranked 12th in the country. Gonzaga partners with Nike, with merchandise appearing all across the country, and their value as one of the nation's most consistent programs seemingly continues to grow each year (15 seasons and counting since that first trip to the Elite Eight in 1999).
While I know it's not a topic of discussion for the MWC powers-that-be right now, perhaps this really should be. The Zags are a valuable commodity in college basketball -- and it's likely to only grow from here. Why not buy now, and reap the rewards later as the country's best basketball conference each and every season?