Neither Fresno State nor Nevada has been a recent regular in the NCAA tournament, but the WAC couldn't afford to flounder with six members in 2011-12. The perception of being a league with one fewer member than a fledgling, non-automatic-qualifying conference like the Great West would have been damaging.
Utah State and New Mexico State, the two steadiest programs in the WAC lately and both participants in last season's NCAA tournament, couldn't afford to be left twisting in a six-team league. It would have meant finding four more games next season at a time when scheduling is as hard as it's ever been for NCAA-bound programs outside the power six conferences.
The WAC is expected to move on expansion sooner than later, even with the decision by Mountain West-bound Fresno State and Nevada to stay put for another season in exchange for a lesser exit fee.
For the WAC to make a significant step, the league must convince Montana to join for 2012-13. The WAC can land Denver and/or Seattle and has Texas-San Antonio and Texas State lined up and ready to accept a bid.
The latter two aren't going to move the meter for men's basketball. Denver has shown signs of progress under coach Joe Scott and is in a position to contend in the Sun Belt this season. If Denver was able to snag an NCAA bid, the timing could work out well for the school and the WAC, since the Denver market yearns for a college basketball winner to call its own. And in Seattle, without the NBA in town, maybe coach Cameron Dollar and the Redhawks can create a niche fan base as an alternative to Washington.
But Montana offers the most traditional college basketball program that the WAC could land out West. The pickings are slim, and the WAC won't go after a Big West school, although WAC member Hawaii could still flirt with football independence and send the rest of its sports to the Big West. So if there is another school out there that makes sense for all sports, it is Montana.
The Grizzlies first have to make a decision about moving up from the FCS to the FBS after many a successful run at the lower level of football. But the Grizz are an attraction in the state, and they have a loyal following and a history in hoops with well-regarded coaches (Jud Heathcote, Mike Montgomery, Stew Morrill, Larry Krystkowiak and now Wayne Tinkle, who led Montana to the NCAAs last March).
The Grizzlies are an annual Big Sky contender, fit in the WAC's geographic footprint and would give someone (Idaho? Utah State?) a natural rival. Montana could still play rival Montana State twice in a home-and-home, just like New Mexico and New Mexico State do even though they're in separate leagues.
Look, the WAC is in a dire situation regardless of the choices. But landing the Grizzlies would make the best of a poor situation. Adding a combination of Montana, Denver and the two Texas schools to get to an even 10 members for 2012-13 would allow the basketball league to hold water for now.
Utah State and New Mexico State -- and for that matter Hawaii, if Gib Arnold can turn the Warriors around -- desperately need programs in the league that add some value. Montana would. Denver could. Seattle is still a reach, but not out of the question because of its potential under Dollar.
If Montana chooses to stay put, the likelihood is that all four of the other candidates will join the WAC for eight members in football, 10 in men's basketball. The two Texas schools would create a bridge between members New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech. If Montana decides to join, then Seattle is likely out.