It almost feels like a generation ago when talking about the golden-era of Mountain West Conference basketball. In actuality, it’s been about a decade, but oh my how the mighty have fallen. Once a stalwart in the “mid-major” universe of college basketball, the MWC has been banished to a place of virtual irrelevance in the sport and hasn’t had strong, league-wide strength and parity since the names Xavier Thames and Cameron Bairstow were spoken. If that feels like a while ago, it’s because it was. In terms of the NCAA Tournament, the MWC was almost always a shoe-in for 2 to 3 bids per year with a 4th or 5th always on the bubble. Nowadays, if the conference has two bubble teams it’s looked at as a positive year. Basketball in the Mountain West continues to go in a downward spiral this season, despite the fact the conference contains the nation’s only unbeaten team in San Diego State. In an effort for a more successful campaign next year, here are three ways to help save the conference’s standing in the college basketball world.
1. Add Some Meat or Cut the Fat
This a Mountain West website, but with all due respect there are some teams not pulling their weight in any fashion. Most conferences have some usual bottom feeder teams, but having a usual 300-RPI team like San Jose state year in and year out is hurting. The Spartans nearly beat the Aztecs earlier this season, but overall they have been one of the worst D-1 basketball teams in the country since joining the conference. I’m not sure if the Mountain West regrets them joining, but they don’t provide much on the football field either. Wyoming has had good teams in the past, but they are also becoming a perennial bottom-third team in the country and their location can be a headache for the conference during basketball season. I have personal faith that Air Force will turn it around sooner rather than later, and New Mexico and UNLV seem to be regaining their old forms, especially on the recruiting end. Colorado State is stuck in the league average purgatory, and if the old guard of hoops (SDSU, UNLV, UNM) return to old form they might find themselves more towards the bottom in the coming years. Boise State plays tough and Fresno State and coach Justin Hutson will be better in a couple of years. The conference really needs to send a thank you note to both Nevada and San Diego State for carrying this conference the past few years.
If addition seems more likely than subtraction, getting a New Mexico State could possibly help. The relationship with BYU seems to be severed, although the conference was better with them in all sports. The Gonzaga rumors in recent times were exciting but that’s not a move to be expected, despite what it may do to bolster the overall status of the conference. Regardless, the conference might want to keep an open mind to adding a team or two, even if it was on a basketball-only basis.
2. Stop Hitting the Reset Button
Unlike pro sports, “tanking” in collegiate sports provides little to no benefit. When the conference was at it’s best, there was a vast majority of long-tenured coaches and older players in every program. Nowadays, the conference is seeing more of a revolving door of coaches, which then leads to players transferring and giving programs seasons that are essentially lost from the get-go. Of course, coaches do like to get their own guys in the program when they take over, but there’s no secret that in college basketball that the teams with the most experience win out, especially in a conference that isn’t littered with four-star and five-star recruits. UNLV most notably has fell victim to this, and that’s a program that actually recruits pretty well even in off years. When you think of Steve Alford, Eric Musselman, Steve Fisher, and Stu Morrill you think of consistency and an intent to win. These are coaches that spent years at their respective schools and when players committed, they had no question as to who would be shaking their hand on Senior Night. Yes, the Mountain West can still be a stepping-stone conference for coaches, but before coaches move on they can still establish a virtually unshakeable culture. What Brian Dutcher is doing at SDSU is a prime example of that, and what Musselman left at Nevada is more proof. It’s no secret as to why those teams have been the most consistent and successful in recent years.
3. Own the Transfer Portal
Age often times wins out in college hoops, so attracting transfers to MWC programs can be a recipe for success in a conference that doesn’t attract 5-star recruits. Look at SDSU this year for example. They have a terrific team this year, and they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing without their transfer players. Three of their starting five players did not originally start at SDSU, but those three are upperclassmen who have completely taken over for the Aztecs this year. SDSU is the gold standard of basketball programs in this conference, and whether or not people want to hear that, their success over the past decade has really centered around excellent transfers. It ‘s not rocket science, but it’s also not easy to get top-tier transfers every year. With that being said, transfers can often times keep teams competitive in “down” years, which in turn helps a team recruit high school players by being able to sell them on a competitive roster right away. New Mexico has scored some solid transfers this year, and despite some off-the-court issues, they have had a pretty decent season and look to be competitive next year as well. If other programs follow suit, the conference as a whole might see more widespread parity and strength, which is desperately needed.