Mountain West Conference faces challenge of changes

Every dribble drive and long-distance jumper by Brigham Young senior Jimmer Fredette is an ESPN highlight waiting to happen. San Diego State’s front line, anchored by sophomore star Kawhi Leonard, is a dominant force.

Lon Kruger continues to coach UNLV to 20-plus wins and NCAA Tournament berths, and Steve Alford appears to be building a powerful program in New Mexico. There’s no question the Mountain West Conference has reached its peak in basketball popularity and respect. It is the nation’s fourth-ranked league, according to the Rating Percentage Index, behind the Big East, Big Ten and Big 12.

But realignment is about to change the face of the Mountain West, and not necessarily for the best.

"Can we stay status quo, can we move forward or do we move backwards? Only time will tell, but there’s definitely some challenges ahead for us," Alford said.

Fredette’s final appearance in the MWC tournament might be the league’s last big show for quite a while.

Nine teams are coming together today through Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center — the Madison Square Garden of the Mountain West — and two of them will then split for different leagues as schools chase football-driven dollars.

Brigham Young is going independent in football and joining the West Coast Conference in basketball. Utah is merging to form the new Pac-12. After next season, Texas Christian bolts for the Big East.

What will those three be leaving behind?

"We’ll have a league that we believe will be very formidable," Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. "Vegas is going to be in it, New Mexico is going to be in it, we’re going to be in it, and they’re adding other teams. I think we’ll continue to have a really good league. How good remains to be seen."

TCU is irrelevant in basketball. But BYU and Utah will leave gaping holes that MWC commissioner Craig Thompson has only partially patched by adding Boise State next season and Fresno State and UNR in 2012.

The Rebels have developed intense rivalries with the Cougars and Utes during the conference’s 12-year history.

"We lose two quality programs, and we’re adding others. It’s hard to measure how it’s going to change it," Kruger said. "We’ll miss those two programs, but this will be a great league. It will definitely stay strong.

"I think without question this is the best the league has ever been. But the league will keep adjusting and the realignment will go on for years, I’m sure, and the league will be strong in the end."

Realignment rumors persist about the Big 12, which could still splinter because of Texas’ top-dog status. Maybe the MWC could pick up the pieces. If not, schools such as Houston, Memphis or Utah State could be available. But those moves are dictated by football, not basketball.

UNLV senior guard Tre’Von Willis, who transferred from Memphis after his freshman year, never shows any love for Fredette. But Willis said he and most players hate to see BYU leave the league.

"I like playing BYU. I like going to Provo — not the city — but their crowd is always hyped and into the game," he said. "I just love playing in environments like that, and plus it’s a rivalry."

A transfer from UCLA, Rebels junior Chace Stanback said he thinks the talent level in the Mountain West might be better than the Pac-10.

"I still think this will be an elite league because of all the talent. I don’t feel like it will fall off at all," Stanback said. "It’s unfortunate that they’re leaving, but it’s not just BYU or Utah. It’s also New Mexico and San Diego State."

The MWC is not only headed for realignment; it’s also due for rebuilding. If the Aztecs’ Leonard opts for the NBA, nine of the top 10 players on the all-conference teams will be gone next season. Stanback, a third-team selection, and Lobos junior forward Drew Gordon, a second-team pick, figure to be the top returnees.

The MWC received four NCAA bids last season. This season, with BYU and San Diego State in the top 10, only three teams, including UNLV, are considered locks to get invites.

"We’re ahead of the ACC, we’re ahead of the SEC. There’s an awful lot of work that’s gone into getting our league to where it is, and now with all of the changes, I think that’s going to be the challenge," Alford said.

"Next year, we’re really in a year of transition, and it’s going to be interesting."

Alford, Fisher and Kruger are former Big Ten coaches, and their leadership might remain the Mountain West’s best hope that it does not slip from the spotlight and become a midmajor afterthought.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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