If you are a UNLV basketball supporter, you want San Diego State to have a good team when the season starts early next month. Same with New Mexico. Crazy talk, right?
For the Mountain West to thrive as a league, which it has failed at miserably the past two seasons, the Big 3 — UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State — must be on the national radar. They need to threaten to win 25 games, play in front of sellout crowds and crack the national Top 25. They need to be relevant, and not just in the Rocky Mountains.
As strange as it sounds, only those teams matter.
The league’s Big 3 can’t be UNR, Air Force and San Jose State because those teams lack national recognition. They don’t have players in the NBA or a history of winning. They aren’t an attractive draw for the NCAA Tournament.
The Mountain West went from sending multiple teams each March to the tournament to being a single-bid league the past two seasons. In 2016, it was Fresno State. Last season, it was UNR.
The league went from being discussed nationally — when CBS would nationally broadcast the UNLV-San Diego State tilt on a Saturday afternoon — to an afterthought. When UNLV wins just 11 games, New Mexico continues its downward spiral and perennial Mountain West power San Diego State finishes at 9-9 in the league, you have problems.
If a 15-seed in the NCAA Tournament pulls off a first-game upset, it’s a great story. When that school wins two days later to reach the Sweet 16, it’s bad business. Fans want to watch Duke and North Carolina battle in marquee games; not some directional school you are unfamiliar with.
Same is true in the Mountain West. The top four finishers last season were UNR, Colorado State, Boise State and Fresno State. Aside from Boise State, which has name recognition from its football team’s New Year’s Day wins, that’s a tough group of schools to promote.
It all comes down to exposure, which is something all mid-major schools, even in this day and age of social media, struggle with. When games aren’t regularly shown on ESPN’s family of networks, it’s tough to get eyeballs on your product. And when games get on ESPN, or even lesser-watched AT&T SportsNet, they begin after 9 p.m. in most of the country.
It all boils down to scheduling in the preseason. UNLV will face Arizona and Illinois this season and previously was aggressive in taking on a who’s who of opponents in nonleague games. San Diego State has dates against notables Arizona State, Cal and Gonzaga, and others such as Wyoming are stepping up to take on Oregon State and South Carolina.
But Mountain West teams need to do more than challenge high-caliber schools. They have to win.
When most don’t have a top-100 win on their resume, it brings down the others. It’s difficult to win on the road in the league, meaning the top programs will have some ugly defeats — it happens every year. And when you fall at Air Force, whose best nonleague win last year was against Stetson, that’s a tough black-eye to hide from the tournament selection committee.
Much will have to go in favor of conference schools to be a multibid league.
Reigning champ UNR is projected to defend its title in a preseason media poll. But because Reno’s two notable nonleague games are Texas Tech and TCU, it will have to again win the Mountain West Tournament to be picked for the NCAAs. If it gets upset in the league event, say by a Fresno State, it would be Fresno advancing.
San Diego State, picked in the preseason to finish second, would need to overachieve for at-large NCAA consideration. UNLV was pegged to finish sixth in the preseason poll, which is probably too low because the Rebels reloaded their roster and have some above-average pieces in the post. New Mexico, which is unquestionably bad, was selected ninth.
We used to publish a weekly story about where the Rebels were ranked nationally or how many votes they received in the polls. The nights against San Diego State and New Mexico typically brought sellouts to the Thomas & Mack Center.
Here’s hoping those days can return. The Mountain West could sure use the exposure.