UNLV and San Diego State had enough support in prior years to turn back any push to go to 20 Mountain West men’s basketball games, but that no longer seems to be the case.
Conference leadership has reached out to coaches to see if the league could go from 18 to 20 conference games as soon as next season or at least by 2021-22.
UNLV and San Diego State oppose a full conference schedule because they want the flexibility to increase their chances to make the NCAA Tournament by playing quality out-of-league opponents. Each team now plays eight conference schools home and away, with single games against two others. The Rebels this season don’t play at Air Force and won’t host Wyoming.
Conference athletic directors and presidents will meet in December to discuss the issue further. UNLV AD Desiree Reed-Francois said “18 games maximizes a basketball program’s scheduling freedom, and until we study it further, it likely best positions the highest number of Mountain West conference teams in the postseason.”
Reed-Francois said all teams “need that freedom to choose. … We recognize that it’s harder to schedule games for some of our colleagues than it is perhaps at UNLV, but I also know our conference prides itself on being innovative.”
One way the conference could be innovative, Reed-Francois said, would be to maintain an 18-game schedule but allow members to play each other two additional times in games that don’t count in the league standings.
UNLV this season will play its top nonconference games against Kansas State and Southern Methodist at the Thomas & Mack Center, against Brigham Young in Salt Lake City and at California, UCLA and Cincinnati.
Should the Mountain West go to 20 league games, UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said it won’t change his approach to scheduling.
“I think the more experience that you have and the better team you think you have, you probably want to challenge that team more and create more of those (high-end) opportunities,” Otzelberger said. “I think overall we’re going to try to continue to raise the bar in who we play in our nonconference slate.”
A major construction convention in March prompted the Mountain West to move its conference tournament at the Thomas & Mack to a week earlier than usual, which meant some league games will be played in early December, often a prime time for schools to try to land attractive nonconference opponents.
Fresno State and Utah State are each still seeking an opponent to fill out their schedules.
“I think we’re getting squeezed out,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “The Power Fives are increasing their league games, and you get less and less opportunities. Those teams are able to snatch up a lot of the guarantee opportunities, so the price of those is going up, too. It’s all connected.”
Mountain West officials are using the scheduling difficulties imposed by those December games as an opportunity to lobby coaches and athletic directors to move to 20 games. In a recent meeting with ADs, those from UNLV and San Diego State were the only ones to object. Others were for expansion or on the fence.
Those arguing for 20 games say too many Mountain West teams are forced to play away or neutral-site games to land attractive games, depriving their fans of watching those schools in person. That often means a home slate filled with nonconference teams with low to middling RPIs.
Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said those opponents should be replaced by conference teams, which also would benefit fans because of their familiarity with those programs.
“There are more reasons in my humble opinion,” Thompson said, “to go to 20 games than not.”