Coaches created the Mountain West basketball crisis. Only coaches can end the MW's depressing tumble.
Lack of intelligent recruiting doomed the MW to the NCAA's lower caste. Aggressive, wise recruiting can lift the MW from the basement of college basketball.
The players are out there. Coaches with basketball intelligence and imagination can find hidden stars.
Five years ago, Thomas Walkup was a lightly recruited high school player with a bum knee. In March, Walkup introduced himself to America with a horrific haircut and dazzlingly complete game. He came tantalizingly close to leading Stephen F. Austin to victory over Notre Dame and a trip to the Sweet 16. It required bumbling referees to halt Walkup's and the Lumberjacks' inspired march.
A few Walkups can rescue the MW.
As late as three years ago, the MW was flirting with elite status, landing five teams in the 2013 tournament. The MW sent only one team to the 2016 tournament, and that was because the door to March Madness had to be opened for Fresno State, the MW tourney champ.
The committee ignored San Diego State, the MW's regular-season champ. It was the first time since 2001 that only one MW team made the cut.
Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich was baffled when he saw SDSU had been left out.
"That was disappointing," he said. "That was a snub for our league."
The Aztecs earned the snub. St. Bonaventure, Monmouth and Saint Mary's all were more worthy for a chance to dance. The committee didn't fail the Aztecs; they failed themselves. The best team in the MW found ways to lose this season on its home court to Grand Canyon and in a baseball stadium to crosstown rival San Diego.
Yes, the Aztecs dominated the MW, rolling to an 18-3 record against a collection of mediocre-or-less opponents. The Aztecs struggled to a 7-6 record against everyone else. One of SDSU's wins came over Biola. I was not previously aware of the existence of a university, or anything else, known as Biola.
Justice is elusive in life, and even more elusive in sport. Syracuse, my alma mater, slithered into the tournament, creating an uproar. The Orange have been recently convicted of cheating. The Orange finished 9-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Orange lost five of their final six games.
Syracuse, a No. 10 seed, trampled critics and moralizers on its way to the Final Four. The Dirty Orange have conquered four (allegedly) clean opponents in this 2016 tournament. Let's put those wins in perspective: MW teams have five tournament wins in the past four seasons.
Did the Orange deserve a tournament berth?
Three weeks ago, I said no.
Then the Orange started stomping away, making the question irrelevant.
MW teams can learn from the example of the Dirty Orange. Winning erases questions.
For years, I've listened to MW supporters complain about high seeds in the tournament. The best way to earn low seeds is to win. From 2008 to 2014, MW teams lost 13 games in the NCAA Tournament to teams with higher seeds. The MW is 20-44 all-time in the tournament, including a pitiful 6-15 record since 2011. Losing creates questions.
It's not all gloom. Coach Steve Fisher has created a steady, sometimes mighty program at San Diego State, and he's chasing 6-foot-10 DeAndre Ayton and 7-foot Brandon McCoy, two of the top 10 players in the high school class of 2017. McCoy plays at San Diego's Catholic Cathedral High, only a few miles from the SDSU campus.
Charles O'Bannon Jr., one of the nation's top small forwards, plays at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas. He's considering an offer to help revive UNLV's defeated and depleted Rebels. Change is only a few months away in college basketball.
San Diego State reigned as the MW's best team this season. This status earned the Aztecs a berth to the National Invitation Tournament, which was last important in the Eisenhower administration. It was a humiliating blow to the MW. It also should serve as a siren call to wake up and go to work.
Coaches who would not or could not intelligently recruit are guilty of creating the perception, which doubles as the truth, that the MW isn't powerful.
Griping about the NCAA Selection Committee won't change the future.