Following New Mexico’s win over Bradley this weekend, the final iteration of the Missouri Valley-Mountain West challenge came to a fitting end: stalemate.
After two incarnations of the challenge, it’s finally over. The idea was for both the MW and the Missouri Valley conferences to use the challenge to get a quality non-conference game to help impress the selection committee come March. Some years, it delivered. Other times, the travel requirements were were gargantuan with very few tangible benefits.
There are rumors abound that the Mountain West will begin a new challenge, with similar goals in mind with the Atlantic 10 come the 2020-21 season. The challenge is going to mean even uglier travel for teams to get one quality non-conference opponent, having to go all the way to the East Coast. The potential matchup does include some quality programs like VCU, Dayton, Davidson, and Rhode Island, but it also highlights a broader issue across the Mountain West: the difficulty of scheduling.
The Mountain West has really struggled building strong out of conferences schedules annually because of a variety of factors ranging from travel and budgeting, being a mid-major, and the conference as a whole needing to improve. For the MW, it’s pretty simple: if they don’t schedule tougher, they will continue to be a one or two bid league every March.
Historically, without a strong schedule, the conference isn’t getting multiple bids. Last year, San Diego State stole the automatic berth, as did Wyoming in 2014-15. Commissioner Craig Thompson has already said he wants to see a tougher schedule as a conference imperative, and he did his part in trying unsuccessfully to woo national power Gonzaga into the fold last summer.
Many insiders in the Mountain West talk about travel and elevation being two huge reasons that there is such a home court advantage across the conference as a general rule. Conference foes have the benefit of doing this on a yearly basis, so it isn’t entirely unfamiliar to them. Most teams don’t want to come out to play in Laramie, Logan, or Boise for a one-off based on that combination of factors. Secondly, having a large enough budget to travel or pay for solid games is a major hindrance in the MW. Even the schools with the biggest budgets in the MW only have a budget between $4 million to $6 million each season. There isn’t a necessity for teams to go on the road for two straight months like in the SWAC, but taking more road games would be an interesting way to raise profile and East Coast exposure.
Herein lies the problem with that: teams don’t necessarily want to schedule mid-majors. They don’t want to because they want to take a breather before their conference schedule is overwhelming and it’s a lose-lose for Power 5 schools. Also, they don’t want to travel, because they’re a Power 5 school. If they play a mid-major and win, they were supposed to. If they play a mid-major and lose, odds are it’s a “bad” loss, especially at home. The new ranking system, NET, is supposed to iron out some of these scheduling balances, but it’s already facing criticism. The only way that MW teams get these chances are in non-exempt events like the Wooden Classic or the Maui Invitational.
Scheduling home-and-home trips is a good way to boost profile, unless you’re Nevada that is. All quips aside, the that mid-major conferences have with home-and-home series is twofold; there’s typically a buyout clause and richer athletic departments, i.e. Power 5 schools, can opt out if they feel they game would harm their team, by being too easy or too challenging. The other downside is you might catch the Power 5 team in the middle of a rebuild, like San Diego State did last year when California came to Viejas Arena as part of a home-and-home while en route to an 8-24 rebuilding season.
At the end of the day, there is optimism that the improvement and development can come from within the conference. Watching Nevada take over traditional conference flag-bearers has been a great thing for the conference, because it is forcing San Diego State and New Mexico to work even harder and get even better.