DENVER — Think Air Force would see an attendance boost if the Gonzaga Bulldogs — the NCAA men's basketball runner-up and No. 7-ranked team in the country — were scheduled to visit Clune Arena on Saturday?
“I think it would be a packed house, a great crowd,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said Thursday. “You’re talking about a national brand, a national name. They’d come in on their private jet with their private chef and we’d have a ballgame I think people would want to come see.”
That makes two of us, Coach P.
Now the 11-team Mountain West should make it the 12 of us.
The league is in “exploratory” talks with Gonzaga (along with several other undisclosed programs) to expand by adding the basketball powerhouse from Spokane, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Gonzaga could be wearing a Mountain West patch as soon as next season, a source said.
Hey, it’s fun to dream. Now the MWC needs to pull out all the stops, pilfer Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference and make this dream a reality.
Why? In this case, 2+2=8. Gonzaga’s national profile would elevate the Mountain West at the same time the Mountain West would elevate the quality of in-conference competition for the Zags. How this move would positively impact the Mountain West goes far beyond ticket offices in Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Laramie. For a league that teeters on the edge of the Haves and Have Nots, adding a national brand like Gonzaga could be about survival. At the rate we’re going, the shifting plates of college athletics — Wichita State to the American, Butler and Creighton to the Big East, just to name a few Haves on the move — threaten to leave the Mountain West in the dust.
If Nevada wins the league tournament next week, the Mountain West is looking at a third straight season in which it sends only one team to the big-bucks NCAA Tournament. The 2012-13 season, when the MWC hit the scheduling jackpot to rank No. 1 in conference RPI and delivered five teams to the Big Dance, is sliding further and further into the rear-view mirror. Going back 18 years, Gonzaga shows 29 NCAA Tournament wins. The Mountain West as a whole shows 20. In the past three years alone, the NCAA Tournament win count is 10 (Zags) to one (MWC). Gonzaga's recruiting suggests it's still rising.
If you’re the Mountain West it’s a no-brainer. You cop some Zags gear and introduce your new BFF. But how do you sweeten the pot for Gonzaga, which has a comfy spot alongside similar-sized universities in the WCC? One, ensure Gonzaga won’t lose its sweet status with ESPN by moving to the Mountain West. Something along the lines of Boise State football’s special TV package would work — and the Mountain West’s current TV deal expires in 2020, so now is as good a time as any. Two, the conference tournament should move out of the Thomas & Mack Center — UNLV’s homecourt — and into another venue in Las Vegas. Why not the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where the Pac-12 hosts its basketball shindig, or the Mandalay Bay Events Center?
(Or an entirely selfish suggestion on my part: rotate between Las Vegas and here at Pepsi Center, which hosted the Mountain West tourney in 2006. Perhaps it's worth noting Denver had the third-best attendance among first-weekend sites for the NCAA Tournament in 2016? No? Don't want to leave Vegas? Oh, well. Worth a try.)
As a Gonzaga alum, I can say this is the most serious conversation that’s been had about a move out of the WCC. The WCC fits Gonzaga. But there comes a point when you’ve shared 29 NCAA Tournament revenue units — and there are still volleyball lines on Pepperdine’s basketball court — that it’s time to explore what else is out there. At least one MWC coach sees a possible fit.
“I think the one league that stands out as a strong basketball league is the Big East — the Villanovas, the Creightons, the Georgetowns. They get Madison Square Garden when they want it, and the Big Ten has to work around them," Pilipovich said. "Now obviously we're not Gonzaga. We don't have their budget. But I know our conference is working hard to make this the best basketball league it can be. If it gives exposure to our league that would entice some young men to come into our league to play, it makes the league better. I think it would make the league better. I think it would make us a great league."
Agreed. One big, happy family, just the 12 of us.