Steve Fisher seemed as if he would be on the San Diego State bench forever, but he’s already more than a year into retirement.
Larry Eustachy is just one year removed from being named the Mountain West’s top coach, but he resigned in February after an investigation at Colorado State into allegations of abuse toward the team and staff.
They are the two most prime examples of change that Mountain West men’s basketball has gone through in recent years.
Eight of the conference’s 11 coaches will be in their third season or less next fall, including three taking over for the first time. A ninth coach, UNR’s Eric Musselman, will be entering only his fourth season.
That leaves Boise State’s Leon Rice (entering ninth season) and Air Force’s Dave Pilipovich (seventh) as the league’s standard bearers.
“I’m getting old,” Pilipovich said jokingly.
Pilipovich, who was in Las Vegas for the annual Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser, is bullish on the Mountain West’s future, saying last season was an indication of what’s to come. After back-to-back one-bid seasons for the NCAA Tournament, the conference sent UNR and San Diego State to the 68-team field.
“I think the league’s getting better, I really do,” Pilipovich said. “I think this year you’ll have three or four possibly in contention to move on in postseason play. I think the transfer rule has helped the league because now that teams have gotten older, they don’t have to rebuild. They reload. Nevada is the team we’re all chasing right now.”
UNR has the look of a national championship contender next season, especially if Jordan Caroline and twins Caleb and Cody Martin return after testing the NBA waters. The Wolf Pack advanced to the Sweet 16 in March, losing by a point to Loyola-Chicago.
That success helped the Wolf Pack secure McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown on May 11, but it also put the spotlight on the conference in general.
“You’re talking to recruits, even for us, they know what Nevada did,” Pilipovich said.
UNR bucked the conventional wisdom that says traditional powers UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico need to lead the conference. But it’s not like those programs have gone away. The Aztecs won the conference tournament, New Mexico played in the title game, and UNLV went from 11 victories a year ago to 20 last season.
The key for the Mountain West is to keep sending multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, which used to be the norm. Pilipovich said he saw enough evidence even before last season of that beginning to happen.
“I saw what the coaches were doing, how they were building and the players that were coming into the league,” he said. “I think it’s going to be harder scheduling, though. We’ve got to get ourselves in some nonexempt events early, get the exposure to gain the high RPI early and then take care of business in the Mountain West conference.”
The Mountain West had hoped to add Gonzaga as its 12th team next season, but the Bulldogs decided to remain in the West Coast Conference after it offered concessions.
It was a blow to the Mountain West, but Pilipovich isn’t convinced it’s a permanent one, saying he believes the issue “is probably going to be revisited in a year or two.”