Posted by Eric Angevine
I can see how this happened. Bailouts are au courant these days. Nobody wants to see cherished institutions fold, or good people losing jobs. It's a tumultuous time. Nonetheless, I admit to a little confusion in the case of the WAC. As our colleague Jerry Palm informed us recently, the Western Athletic Conference has been the beneficiary of a sort of NCAA restraining order that promises the league an NCAA tourney auto-bid as long as it can maintain seven hoops-playing members. This, for a league that essentially killed itself 15 years ago (I'll explain. Hold tight).
First, consider: are we doing the WAC any favors by keeping it on life support at this point? Looking at kenpom.com's Conference Ratings, the WAC is now the 14th most powerful league in the country , well behind likely one-bid conferences like the Missouri Valley, CAA, and Horizon League. Once Hawaii's hoops program joins the Big West, that conference -- currently ranked 15th -- will probably leapfrog the WAC as well. The schools that will join the WAC in order to give it the bare minimum of membership under the new rule aren't going to inspire fireworks displays, either. Here's the breakdown:
Texas State Bobcats: Looking back over 18 years in the Southland conference, one can see that the Bobcats had just one 20-win season. They won the league's auto-bid in 1997 with a 16-12 overall record and fell to Clem Haskins' Minnesota Golden Gophers as a 16-seed. In 1994, head coach Jim Woolridge managed a 25-win campaign that earned him the honor of a 15-seed, and an 18-point drubbing by John Calipari's UMass squad.
Texas San-Antonio Roadrunners: UTSA has had more recent success in the Southland, going 19-13 and garnering a 16-seed in 2004, only to score 45 points in a first-round pounding administered by Mike Montgomery's Stanford Cardinal. In 1999, Jim Calhoun and UConn did the honors. Way back in 1988 (hello, parachute pants!) the Roadrunners threw a scare into Lou Henson and the Illini, losing 81-72 in the first round.
Denver Pioneers: Denver has won Ice Hockey's Frozen Four multiple times, but has never been to the NCAA tournament in basketball. Even so, DU is the most promising addition to the new WAC. Under Joe Scott, who propelled Air Force into the Big Dance in 2004, the Pioneers are 5-0 in the typically competitive Sun Belt, having taken down a talented Western Kentucky team and Isaiah Thomas' FIU Golden Panthers along the way. If Scott can hold serve and win the school's first NCAA bid, he'll enter his new conference on a roll.
Now, I already feel bad about writing this. I don't want to disparage any of these basketball warriors from any of these fine institutes of higher learning. They're putting forth the effort day in and day out, and for their sake, I hope this is a good move. In terms of garnering multiple bids or higher seeds in the postseason, however, these moves are lateral at best right now. The last time the WAC got four bids to the dance, they went to UNLV, TCU, New Mexico and Rick Majerus' amazing Utah team that made the final game. Since those schools broke away, Nevada has garnered most of the league's noteworthy achievements, and they're headed to the MWC as well. Of the schools that are staying (for now) Stew Morrill's (above) Utah State program and New Mexico State are the cream of the crop, with both earning 12-seeds last season. Want to bet they're eager to fly the coop as well? The NCAA legislation to save the league's auto-bid may have been aimed at keeping at least those two competitive programs in the fold.
In football terms, where the real money lies, this is a huge step backward; adding two FCS programs and a non-football member is mere survival. The league's footprint shifts slightly eastward, and travel to Hawaii is eliminated, which will ease some financial strain, so that's a positive. Nonetheless, the WAC started to die the day the league expanded to 16 teams in 1996. That supersize move provided much of the impetus for the stronger schools to break off and form the MWC, starting the slow, painful dissolution of the WAC that is still being fought to this very day.
Ironic, isn't it? The WAC is being victimized by the very expansion gluttony it helped put in motion nearly 15 years ago.