Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Mountain West will survive BYU's departure

UPDATE: Great timing, Rob...

Expansionacolypse may have ended last summer (we hope), but that doesn't mean that teams have finished shifting their allegiances.

The latest rumor is the addition of Utah State to the Mountain West Conference to offset the departure of BYU (WCC in hoops, independent in football), Utah (Pac-10), and TCU (Big East).

Even with the addition of Boise State, its obvious that the conference has suffered a pretty significant blow in regards to the product that they can put on the football field. But this isn't a college football blog, and the new league looks better and better as a basketball league.

Let's assume that Utah State joins the MWC in 2012-2013, the same year that Fresno State and Nevada come aboard. (Hawaii joins that same year, but only in football. Their basketball program is headed to the Big West.) Take a peak at what that league would look like:

  • UNLV
  • New Mexico
  • San Diego State
  • Colorado State
  • Wyoming
  • Air Force
  • Nevada
  • Utah State
  • Fresno State
  • Boise State
That's pretty daunting.

UNLV and New Mexico have always had pretty good basketball programs, and while both are a bit down this season, that is less the norm than it is a fluke. The Runnin' Rebels have been in the NCAA Tournament three of the past four seasons, including a Sweet 16 run in 2007 and a trip to the second round a year later. New Mexico made the second round last year and three straight NIT's before that.

Steve Fisher has finally built the San Diego State into a power. It took a while, but has his team sitting at 20-0 and in the top five. He's built up a following in Southern California and should be able to feast and the talent in that region that UCLA and USC pass on.

Utah State has inarguably been one of the best programs in the country the past decade. Stew Morrill is simply a winner. He's made the tournament seven of the past 11 seasons, including at-large bids in 2006 and 2010.

Trent Johnson and Mark Fox built Nevada into a power, making four consecutive NCAA Tournament between 2004-2007 and sending players like Ramon Sessions, Kirk Snyder, and Nick Fazekas to the league. The school also was ranked in the top 25 in football when they knocked off Boise State last year. I don't think the MWC is complaining about adding them.

The top five teams in that league have all proven themselves capable of putting a top 25 team on the floor.

The rest of the league isn't quite as daunting. Colorado State is dangerous this season, but it remains to be seen if Tim Miles can build on that success with Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin graduating. Fresno State was a power in the early 2000's under Jerry Tarkanian and Air Force made two tournaments in the middle of the last decade. Wyoming would be the bottom of the barrel in the new MWC.

Perhaps the most promising program is Boise State. They made the tournament in 2008, just hired Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice, and currently sits at 5-2 and in second place in the WAC. There is plenty of reason for optimism for the Broncos.

If Utah State does make the jump -- which is quite definitely still an if, but an if that appears fairly likely to happen -- it will probably mean that an 11th basketball school (a 12th football school, giving the league a conference title game) is to be added. The teams that have been mentioned -- San Jose State, Idaho, New Mexico State, and UTEP.

UTEP is probably the ideal choice. They recently hired Tim Floyd and have always had a relatively strong hoops program. Any of the other three programs would dilute the bottom of the league.

But regardless of who the 11th team is, the fact is that Mountain West looks like they will be as strong as they have been in basketball despite BYU's departure.

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