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The Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge: More Harm Than Help

The Mountain West has struggled to make noise in non-conference play in recent years. The MWC/MVC Challenge shoulders a great deal of the blame.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC/Big Ten and Big 12/SEC Challenge schedules were unveiled this week via CBS Sports. As you could imagine, both Challenges are full of intriguing and important games, including national runner-up North Carolina taking on Indiana, Duke hosting Michigan State and a rematch of last season's overtime thriller between blue bloods Kentucky and Kansas.

As conference commissioners should, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC leaders waited until late May to ensure that the best possible matchups would be featured this upcoming season.

The Mountain West and Missouri Valley? They announced their Challenge schedule in December.

That was over five months ago - nearly 12 months prior to the event.

It is difficult to gauge the power of teams 12 months in advance to a Challenge event. Last December, Boise State, San Diego State and UNLV were in the strongest position for NCAA bids. Boise State completed a thrilling victory over a nationally ranked Oregon team, UNLV posted victories over Indiana and Oregon, and San Diego State still appeared to be poised for a MW title run despite a slow start.

Fast forward 150 days, and the landscape of the Mountain West has completely shifted. San Diego State remains at the top, but Nevada has become a trendy pick with the additions of a plethora of talented transfers and returning D.J. Fenner and Marqueze Coleman. Boise State, however, appears to be in rebuilding mode after losing four senior guards and James Webb III to the NBA Draft. UNLV has suffered the most since December, shuffling through Dave Rice, interim head coach Todd Simon, a drama-filled stint with ex-Little Rock coach Chris Beard and have now settled on former New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies. The Rebs have also lost talent on the floor, with Ben Carter's transfer to Michigan State, Stephen Zimmerman and Patrick McCaw's decisions to stay in the draft and the graduation of Ike Nwamu and Jerome Seagears.

"What is this s---? Why don't we just go rock-paper-scissors and figure it out?"  -CSU head coach Larry Eustachy on lopsided MVC/MWC Challenge schedule

Last season, UNLV headlined the Challenge with a primetime matchup against Wichita State. This season, the Rebs appear closer to the valley than the top of the mountain.

This proves exactly what is wrong with the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge.

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The Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge was created back in 2008 to improve the national awareness of two rising mid-major conferences. The ultimate plan for Doug Elgin (Missouri Valley commissioner) and Craig Thompson (Mountain West commissioner) was to develop a competitive inter-conference battle that could potentially grab attention from the lesser games of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, which has been enjoying success since 1999.

Due to the extremely early release of the MWC/MVC Challenge schedule, it creates an uneven schedule. The biggest problem with schedule imbalance? It hurts the stronger teams.

Loyola Illinois, which last participated in the NCAA Tournament during the Reagan administration, will play host to Mountain West heavyweight San Diego State this season. I have a difficult time believing Craig Thompson's words that "previous year's achievements, records and RPI rankings" dictates the MVC/MWC schedules. If this were true, San Diego State would not even be in discussion of playing Loyola Illinois, a team that finished 180th in KenPom and will lose three of its top four players to graduation this spring. Assuming that San Diego State does live up to its presumably high preseason expectations, an upset loss in Chicago to the Ramblers could derail NCAA hopes in a similar fashion as it did in 2015.

Sadly enough, I wouldn't be shocked if a similar occurrence happened to another Mountain West competitor this upcoming season.

The largest – and most detrimental – part of the Mountain West’s inclusion in the MWC/MVC Challenge is the ripple effect of the RPI. RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is widely known as the main ranking system when determining NCAA Tournament teams. The RPI consists of 25% of the team’s winning percentage, 50% of the opponents’ winning percentage and 25% of the opponents’ opponents winning percentage. What this means, is that there is a very strong weight on who you play, not necessarily how well you play. Only 25% of an RPI can be affected by whether a given team wins or loses; the remaining 75% is what is the most important. In the end, teams who consistently win against weaker teams won’t see a rise in the RPI rankings, instead a significant fall in the rankings is far more likely. Teams can slide in the rankings with a win and improve with a loss - it's simply a matter of the strength of the opponent.

December's Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge schedule is listed below, including last season’s RPI rankings. Last season's MW champion Fresno State, as well as 2016 frontrunners Nevada and San Diego State are scheduled to play teams with an average 2015 RPI of 290.

Mountain West team ('15 RPI) Missouri Valley team ('15 RPI) Anticipated MW RPI effect
San Diego State (41) Loyola Chicago (239) Significantly weaken
Nevada (118) Bradley (306) Significantly weaken
Boise State (101) Evansville (93) Minimal effect
UNLV (147) Southern Illinois (138) Minimal effect
Fresno State (66) Drake (325) Significantly weaken
Utah State (153) Indiana State (171) Minimal effect
Wyoming (187) Northern Iowa (70) Strengthen
Air Force (226) Missouri State (235) Minimal effect
Colorado State (181) Wichita State (47) Significantly strengthen
New Mexico (141) Illinois State (114) Minimal effect
Average RPI: 136.1 Average RPI: 173.8

Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy has not been bashful when sharing his thoughts on the questionable Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge schedule. Last November, Eustachy spoke with Rocky Mountain Collegian to explain his take on the flaws of the Challenge.

"I think we actually put our names up there and our commissioner just threw a dart and he happened to hit Northern Iowa, that’s who we’re going to play. So now, supposedly, we’re supposed to have someone come to our place, and I’m sure it will be Wichita State," he said.

The Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge also states that matches can not be repeated the following season. This isn't the case for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, as they made an intelligent decision by bringing back a Kansas-Kentucky rematch this January. In the case where two teams dominate their respective conferences for a number of consecutive seasons (see San Diego State and Wichita State), returning these matchups in the following seasons would only make sense.

It is possible that the unjustifiably early release of this season's MWC/MVC Challenge schedule was due to the rejuvenation of the Challenge. The 2015 Challenge schedule was unveiled in early April, and the 2012 and 2011 slates were announced in late April and late January of their respective calendar years. The release date of the Challenges are crucial, because - as displayed by UNLV and Boise State this past season - a lot can change over the course of a few months.

Sure, the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge occupies only one of 12 or 13 non-conference games per season, but its intention is to increase the RPI and relevancy of both conferences.

Thus far, it has only done the opposite.