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Commentary: MW makes right move going back to 18 conference game schedule

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After a 20 conference game schedule last year, the Mountain West Conference is going back to the pre-pandemic normal 18 game schedule for 2021-2022. 

NCAA Basketball: Mountain West Conference Tournament- San Diego St vs Utah St Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Mountain West Conference released its 2021-2022 conference schedule for men’s basketball this month. The 18-game conference schedule will begin on Dec. 28 and be played out over the next 10 weeks, leading up to the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

What was most noticeable about the conference schedule was the number of games, 18. Last year, due to the pandemic, the Mountain West Conference played a 20-game conference schedule, with two-game series so each team could play one another.

At the time, the conference said that this was a one-year model due to the circumstances and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. And they have followed through with that by returning to an 18-game schedule this season, which is the perfect amount of games for the conference.

There has been a recent trend in college basketball where many conferences are moving to a 20-game conference schedule. For the bigger conferences, like the ACC and Big 10 Conference, there is a financial element to this for adding more conference games as part of their TV deals with the networks.

But smaller conferences like the Big Sky and MAAC have also made the change to play 20 conference games, and it is a move that the Mountain West has considered in the past.

Commissioner Craig Thompson has said in the past that the move to 20 conference games was a possibility. He said that some teams have had issues scheduling home non-conference games, like Wyoming and San Jose State. There would be instances where Mountain West teams are up-bidding against each other for the same home non-conference game.

For those teams, going to 20 conference games would be a great move. That would be more conference games to sell to the television networks, which could be more money, and that is two fewer non-conference spots they have to fill.

But other teams have voiced their displeasure against the move, like San Diego State and UNLV. Those are two higher-profile teams, with history and in bigger markets, that could attract high-profile non-conference games. Even other teams like New Mexico or Nevada could pick up some nice games too, but that is about it.

The other teams in the conference might often struggle to get meaningful home non-conference games. We know San Jose State is not the biggest name in college basketball, but they cannot schedule entirely home buy-games and it is hard to get quality non-conference opponents to go to San Jose, Laramie, Fresno, and other places, especially if it doesn’t boost the visiting team’s NCAA Tournament chances.

Because that’s every team’s goal, including several in the Mountain West Conference, to boost their resume any way they can to get into the NCAA Tournament. And that’s why the 20 conference game schedule would be bad for the Mountain West.

Look at it like this; San Diego State has a solid shot every year to make the NCAA Tournament, whether they win the conference tournament or get an at-large spot. And because they are such a quality opponent, they can get quality non-conference games like Arizona, UCLA, St. Mary’s, BYU, etc.

But if the Mountain West went to 20 conference games, it is likely one, or two of those quality non-conference games would get axed. Every NCAA caliber team, whether a potential one-seed or team on the bubble, will have a couple of “buy games,” and every team needs to have them. And with more and more conferences going to 20 conference games, they are cutting non-conference games too.

If more and more smaller or mid-major conferences start going to 20 conference game schedules, then it will give bigger conferences more justification to move to 20 conference game schedules as well. And we could lose marquee non-conference games or home and home matchups with the amount of those games on the schedule being reduced.

It is beyond frustrating to see a Big 10 team play a bunch of cupcakes in the non-conference and go 10-0, and then go 8-12 in conference play, and because the Big 10 is “the best conference in America,” those eight Big 10 wins are “good enough” to put an 18-12 Big 10 team in the tournament, as an at-large. Never in a million years would an 18-12 Mountain West team get an at-large bid.

The opportunities for a Mountain West team to get a home and home with a power conference team also diminishes if everyone goes to 20 conference games. And it will allow the bigger conferences to get richer and more power, which will get them more (mediocre) teams into the tournament.

It is great to see the Mountain West going back to 18 conference games. I would hope that it’s a sign to other conferences that they should stick with the same amount too. But it would be hard for conferences to revert back once they made the move, especially with the potential TV money steak, which is why it was great to see the Mountain West commit to 18 games this season.

The Mountain West just signed a new television deal with FOX and CBS that is paying their members more money than the previous deal with ESPN and CBS. Television partners could play a role in conferences’ decisions to move to 20 games, to have more content to show on their networks and platforms.

And recent realignment news could also factor into how many conference games are played in the coming years, depending on how many teams leave or are added to the Mountain West. If the Mountain West can get better from a basketball perspective, and stay at 18 conference games, then it could help the overall quality of the conference.