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Monday, August 15, 2011
Amid shifting, West hoops marches on

By Andy Katz

The Pac-12 shouldn't define basketball in the West.

Sure, it helps if UCLA is UCLA, Arizona is Arizona and Washington continues to be a consistent presence in the NCAA tournament.

But in case you didn't notice, a pair of Mountain West Conference teams (BYU and San Diego State) finally broke through last season with trips to the Sweet 16. If it slipped under the radar, two of the players (Jimmer Fredette and Kawhi Leonard) from those teams were lottery picks in the latest NBA draft.

Mark Few and his Zags have long been a winning staple in the Pacific Northwest.

And let's not forget that Gonzaga and Saint Mary's have been to the Sweet 16 in recent years and that UC Santa Barbara has arguably one of the top 25 players in the country in wing Orlando Johnson. Check out the USA's World University Games roster to see Johnson's name.

"We're rock-solid with what we're doing," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of basketball on the Left Coast. "Washington is a national player; Arizona is up again; UCLA is coming back. The WCC is getting a lot better, and it should be one of the best we've ever had now with BYU in there. Some of the teams that have been mediocre at times in our league are going to have 20-plus wins this season. To say that the West is down just because of the Pac-12 -- that's a shallow way of looking at it."

Amen, says Utah State coach Stew Morrill.

"It's always better than people think out West," he said. "It's better than the East wants to give us credit for. I think the nature of this stuff is that everything is judged by the BCS leagues. There are a lot of us that are still making noise. We were pretty special last year, finished with a high RPI, but got a 12-seed and played Kansas State in the first round.

"I think so much of the rest of the country goes to bed before we play, or they don't care. That's fine. If you do your homework, you'll see that there is good basketball out West."

Might that even include the Big West Conference for the first time in 20 years?

"I think if we and Santa Barbara have a good nonconference [performance], there's a chance we could be at-large candidates," said Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, whose 49ers scheduled road games at Pitt, San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina and open the Diamond Head Classic in late December against A-10 favorite Xavier.

"We're scheduling well enough, and if we win a couple of them like Gonzaga has, then we might," Monson said of an at-large possibility. "We've got a lot of seniors on this team. Casper Ware is one of them, and I should have pushed him to try out for the World University Games team like Orlando Johnson did."

I think so much of the rest of the country goes to bed before we play, or they don't care. That's fine. If you do your homework, you'll see that there is good basketball out West.

-- Utah State coach Stew Morrill

Long Beach State reached the NIT last season after losing to UCSB in the Big West final for the NCAA tournament berth, and the two teams will be in contention for the bid again in 2012. Granted, no one is mistaking the current Big West for what it was in the late '80s and early '90s with UNLV, New Mexico State, LBSU and Santa Barbara rocking late-night on ESPN and putting multiple teams in the NCAA tournament. But the league is climbing back from obscurity.

So with the Pac-12 currently digging itself out of a down cycle, the reality is that hoops in the West is doing just fine, thanks.

And that's even before Gonzaga and BYU begin what is sure to be a classic rivalry in the WCC beginning this season.

Look, no one is debating that the Pac-10's abysmal nonconference record against fellow high-majors the past two years hurt the image of West Coast basketball. But even the Pac-10 managed to fare well in the NCAA tournament. After a one-year hiatus, UCLA won a tourney game against Tom Izzo's Spartans last season. Washington won a game as well and was in a position to shock North Carolina in Charlotte but didn't execute late. As for Arizona, the Wildcats routed Duke en route to the Elite Eight and came within one possession of going to the Final Four.

There are only five other leagues in the West: the Mountain West, West Coast, WAC, Big Sky and Big West. The latter three are essentially one-bid leagues now, putting even more pressure on the MWC and WCC to earn multiple bids for the past few years. Two seasons ago, the MWC had four NCAA tournament bids: BYU, UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State. The WCC added two: Gonzaga and SMC.

BYU's move to the WCC will only make it more competitive. As for the Mountain West, it lost a traditional winner in Utah to the Pac-12, but Fresno State and Nevada have had their share of success historically, and Boise State always seems like it could break through. All three are in communities and at schools that are passionate about winning and supporting the programs as much as possible.

"There were lulls with the Pac-10, but look at what the MWC has been doing, and of course that's why the West Coast is on the rise," said Boise State coach Leon Rice, a former Gonzaga assistant. "Gonzaga has been terrific, and now adding BYU will make the WCC even more outstanding."

Brokckeith Pane
USU has dominated the WAC lately, and that's not likely to change with the league taking a few hits.

One thing that can't be denied, though, is that the Western Athletic Conference has taken a major hit. No one will dispute that. Utah State and New Mexico State will have to carry the WAC unless the additions of Denver and Seattle prove to be genius down the line. Losing the potential of Boise (gone to the MWC) and Hawaii (headed to the Big West in 2012) as well as the history of Nevada and Fresno State (both headed to the MWC in 2012) takes this league down considerably. But if one or two teams can dominate as Utah State has done recently, it won't matter as much as long as that team wins the conference tournament to get a bid.

The Mountain West may dip next season with Fredette and BYU gone from the league. SDSU has some nice new additions but lost a ton of players. UNLV had a coaching change from Lon Kruger to Dave Rice, but there is still enough left to challenge New Mexico, which should be picked to win the league.

The Lobos welcome the return of UCLA transfer Drew Gordon up front, one of the better-kept secrets from last season's freshman class in Kendall Williams, newly eligible Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker, a stud international player in Australian guard Hugh Greenwood and more-than-serviceable rotation players in big man A.J. Hardeman and wings Tony Snell and Phillip McDonald. Back surgery for big man Alex Kirk hurts this team in the near future but won't decimate it by any means.

"The Mountain West is changing, and we'll see how it all shakes out," UNM coach Steve Alford said. "But in the meantime, there are really good teams out West. We've got a chance -- if we're healthy -- to be pretty good."

Cal, Arizona, Washington, UCLA and Oregon should be on your NCAA tournament radar out of the Pac-12. New Mexico, UNLV and possibly SDSU in the MWC. Gonzaga, BYU and possibly Saint Mary's out of the WCC. Long Beach State and UCSB out of the Big West. And then the winners out of the WAC and Big Sky.

Argue all you want about East Coast-West Coast, but just look around -- the West is hardly shrinking in its importance or impact on the game.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for