For most of the past two years, conference realignment has been about two things: football and football money. But as we’ve seen in this year’s major Big East, Atlantic–10, and Colonial shuffles, the trickle-down effects of football-oriented realignment have begun to directly affect the positioning of basketball-dominant schools.
The loudest kvetching of the spring centered on Butler’s move to the Atlantic–10, where some believed the Bulldogs would need to change to compete. As we’ve detailed before, that seems unlikely. Butler is good enough to play in the Atlantic–10 already. The Bulldogs will be fine.
But what about Utah State? Arguably the most underrated mid-major program west of the Mississippi, Stew Morrill’s Aggies have toiled in relative obscurity for much of the past decade, routinely fielding top teams (beloved by efficiency geeks everywhere) that have just as routinely been held back by affiliation with the WAC. Utah State has never been able to convince top programs to come to Logan for true road games, so it has often ended its seasons with lots of wins and little respect from the NCAA tournament selection committee.
That’s about to change. In 2013, Utah State will move to the Mountain West, which has for the past two seasons been the best conference on the West Coast, Pac-(10)12 included. Morrill spoke with Salt Lake Tribune writer Tony Jones about next year’s move, and the benefits are obvious: Utah State gets to play UNLV and New Mexico every season, not to mention fellow realigners Nevada and an emerging program in Colorado State, which just hired an experienced head coach in Larry Eustachy.
UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood is thrilled with the addition, and understandably so:
“Having Utah State in the conference greatly lessons the blow of losing San Diego State,” UNLV Athletics Director Jim Livengood said. “I believe that they can come in and compete right away with anyone. The staff is great, and anyone who has played against Stew Morrill knows that it won’t be an easy time of it. Utah State is going to help the Mountain West and the Mountain West is going to help Utah State. This is the perfect marriage.”
But as Jones writes, there are also potential drawbacks. Utah State won’t have to worry about scheduling anymore, because it will always have the likes of Mountain West play to fall back on, and high-major teams should be more willing to schedule the Aggies with the essential guarantee that Utah State’s (read: the WAC’s) RPI effects won’t come back to bite them. But Utah State also won’t be a big fish in a very small pond. To compete with the likes of New Mexico and especially UNLV -- where Dave Rice is recruiting top–25 players like the good old days -- Morrill will have to change his longtime routine, perhaps significantly.
If Morrill can do that, the Aggies should be able to hang tough in the Mountain West. If he can’t -- if Utah State essentially remains the same program, dropped into a much tougher league -- it’s possible the Aggies could lose much of their frequent NCAA tournament luster. Rather than mid-major darlings of the West, Utah State could be just another Mountain West team. Ho hum.
In many ways, Utah State might be the best distillation of conference realignment’s double-edged sword. Bigger conference, tougher opponents, more tournament bids, better seeding, more money? Great! Fewer trips to the NCAA tournament? Entirely possible.
Forget Butler. Over the next five years, the real costs and benefits of conference realignment will play out in Logan, Utah, where an excellent but underrated program is set to step into the big leagues. Where Morrill and Co. go from here remains to be seen, but the effects of that evolution -- or lack thereof -- will be fascinating to observe.