One of the most debated topics at this week's Mountain West basketball media day was whether the conference should move from an 18-game league schedule to a 20-game schedule.
MW commissioner Craig Thompson said there was growing momentum for a 20-game conference schedule within the league, with the two chief challengers being San Diego State and UNLV.
Count Nevada head coach Steve Alford, who spent six seasons in the MW at New Mexico, against a move to a 20-game schedule. At least right now.
"I’m not sure yet how I’m voting," Alford said. "If you told me right now, I’m against it. But there may be something that tells me later down the road that the data comes back that going to 20 would benefit our league, and I’d have no problem changing my vote. But if I had to vote right now it would be, ‘No.’”
With less than a month to go before the start of the regular season, two Mountain West teams have yet to finalize their non-conference schedules. Three teams didn't have full non-league slates in September, which is unprecedented for the league. Part of that is a result of the MW Tournament being moved up a week this year because of a major expo in Las Vegas during the week the tournament is typically played. But it's also a result of Power 5 teams being less willing to schedule MW teams in home-and-home scenarios, instead opting for neutral-site contests.
Alford said his main concern with a change in the MW scheduling formula hinges on the impact it would have on the conference getting NCAA Tournament at-large bids. The MW has seen its number of at-large teams plummet since the conference sent a record five schools to the Big Dance in 2013.
"All of the things that are happening in the Power 5, and I’ve been in the Power 5, those teams are just trying to squeeze, so it’s all Power 5 at-larges," Alford said. "We have an understanding of that. What’s going to help our league overall to have a chance to have multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament? Can our league get at-large bids, and to do that what’s best? I’m not sure yet. I haven’t looked at all of the data on that. But I do know some of our schools have a hard time scheduling because not a lot of people want to go to certain places."
Thompson said a move from 18 to 20 conference games wouldn't necessarily increase the MW's odds of getting more NCAA Tournament at-large bids. It would, however, create a true round-robin conference season with every team playing a home-and-home series. The 18-game schedule makes for an unbalanced schedule. For example, Nevada plays Utah State and Fresno State only once this season.
College teams are allowed 30 games per season, with an exemption for another game if they play in a multiple-game neutral-site tournament. That means up to 13 non-conference games if a team plays in one of those tournaments. Hitting that mark while getting a healthy number of homes games has been a challenge for some MW teams. The conference will begin a Mountain West-Atlantic 10 Challenge Series starting next season, which will guarantee teams one non-conference game.
One of the cons of moving to a 20-game schedule is shrinking the number of potential quality wins that a team can pick up out of conference. A mid-major team's at-large résumé is usually built in the non-conference season, which is one of the reasons the West Coast Conference, at the behest of Gonzaga, shrunk its conference schedule from 18 games to 16 games. Since SDSU and UNLV have the ability to schedule stronger non-conference foes, they are both in favor of holding the line at 18 MW games. Other teams, like Boise State, want to move to 20.
The Pac-12 will start playing a 20-game conference schedule in 2020-21, which could further shrink the ability to MW teams to schedule Power 5 games in the non-conference. Alford is open to a 20-game MW schedule, but if it happens, he wants it to be two years down the road.
“I hope it’s not immediate" Alford said. "I do hope it’s not just a knee jerk because the, ‘Oh, Pac-12 did it, so now we need to do it.' We have to look at all of this top to bottom. I just hope it’s a year out, it’s not next season. One, it would affect the scheduling we’ve already created. It would have an impact on that and we don’t want that. I’ll always be in favor of what helps our league. First, what helps Nevada. Then, two, what helps our league."