Joe Santoro: Time for Mountain West to Zag? | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Time for Mountain West to Zag?

Joe Santoro

Mountain West men's basketball could look different by this time next year. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported this week the conference has been in expansion talks with Gonzaga. The report also mentioned BYU might also be interested in coming back to the Mountain West (for basketball only) if Gonzaga was added. Gonzaga and BYU would make Mountain West basketball meaningful on a national stage once again. Imagine a Lawlor Events Center home conference schedule each year that included BYU, Gonzaga, UNLV, Fresno State, San Diego State, New Mexico, Utah State, Colorado State and Boise State. The Wolf Pack would sell enough tickets to afford to put on a new uniform at halftime of every game.

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Gonzaga, it seems, has grown tired of the West Coast Conference. WCC basketball has only three competitive teams each year (Gonzaga, Saint Mary's, BYU). The conference is made up of a bunch of private schools with tiny fan bases than can't even fill up tiny gyms. The WCC average attendance is 3,568, thanks mainly to BYU's average of 14,231. Seven of the teams average less than 2,200 at home. The Zags, which win the league most every year, have a RPI right now of 31 despite a record (27-4) that's better than the Wolf Pack's (26-5). The Pack RPI right now is 14. Yes, the Mountain West is a better basketball conference than the WCC.

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The presence of Gonzaga and BYU would make winning the Mountain West more difficult for the Wolf Pack. But it would also mean the Wolf Pack wouldn't have to win the conference every year just to get to the NCAA tournament. The addition of Gonzaga and BYU would almost certainly mean the Mountain West would get two and maybe even three or four teams to the NCAA tournament most every year. Mountain West basketball has suffered greatly since BYU, Utah and TCU all left by the end of the 2011-12 season. UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State have also declined since then, leaving the Mountain West as an afterthought in the minds of the NCAA selection committee.

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The Mountain West will never get a national presence in college basketball if it continues to send just one team to the NCAA tournament every year. It's all well and good for Nevada to be that one team. But it doesn't do the conference any financial good. The Mountain West has already made a deal with Boise State football, giving the Broncos more TV revenue than the other teams in the conference. It's likely Gonzaga (and also BYU) would also want financial incentives along those lines from the Mountain West for basketball. The two schools (Gonzaga, BYU) would at least demand a better financial situation than they have now in the WCC, which shares its NCAA tournament money evenly among all schools.

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Just the thought of Eric Musselman going up against Gonzaga coach Mark Few twice every year is exciting. The Big East became the most interesting conference in the 1980s because it offered an amazing coaching matchup almost every game with the likes of John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, P.J. Carlesimo, Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino. Musselman vs. Few would become a national story. It's exactly what the Mountain West needs to get some respect nationally.

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The Wolf Pack showed once again on Wednesday night how it responds to challenges and motivation. The Wolf Pack was seeking revenge at UNLV (the Rebels won in Reno earlier this month) and went out and simply buried the Rebels, 101-75. The game was over with about five minutes to go in the first half. The difference between UNLV's 86-78 win in Reno on Feb. 6 and the Pack's win in Las Vegas on Wednesday? Caleb Martin didn't play for the Pack on Feb. 6. UNLV's Jovan Mooring had 31 points in that same game, hitting ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. Well, Martin had 19 points and eight rebounds on Wednesday and drained five 3-pointers. Mooring was 2-of-16 for five points.

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The Wolf Pack has now won its last five games at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, beating the Rebels by 36 and 26 points in two regular season games and beating Colorado State, Fresno State and Utah State by an average of 11 points in three Mountain West tournament games last year. The Pack's last loss in Las Vegas was March 1, 2016 to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament semifinals. (The Wolf Pack's overall record since that loss to San Diego State two years ago is, by the way, 59-13). Beating the Rebels in Las Vegas is becoming quite routine for the Pack. Since the start of the 2013-14 season the Wolf Pack is 4-2 against the Rebels at Thomas & Mack (4-1 in the regular season). It might be time to call it the Thomas & Pack Center.

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The Wolf Pack's improvement on offense this year has been, well, nothing short of remarkable. Don't forget this is a team that lost three (Marcus Marshall, Cam Oliver, D.J. Fenner) of its top four scorers from last year's team. Marshall, Oliver and Fenner combined for 49.4 points a game last year. Last year's team averaged an impressive 79.8 points a game, shot .448 from the floor, .382 on 3-pointers and .705 on free throws and also set the school record for 3-pointers made (320). This year the Pack is averaging 83.8 points a game, is shooting .471 from the floor, .403 on threes and .749 on free throws. That 3-pointer school record is also in jeopardy (the Pack already has 303).