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Michael: MW basketball missed the boat on Wichita State

The American Athletic Conference recently announced the addition of Wichita State (formerly Missouri Valley Conference), meaning the Mountain West has once again missed an opportunity to improve its product on the basketball court.

Under head coach Greg Marshall, the Shockers have become one of the truly elite basketball programs in the country and have been mainstays of NCAA Tournament over the last decade.

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Despite facing significant scheduling difficulties and battling the perception of being a “mid-major,” Wichita State has now advanced to a minimum of the second round of the NCAA Tournament in six consecutive seasons. Three Sweet-16 appearances and eight-straight 25-plus victory seasons to boot, the Shockers would have been an excellent addition for a conference that desperately needs to improve its perception.

For years, the Mountain West was considered one of the tougher mid-major hoops conferences in division-one basketball, if not the toughest. Unfortunately, the conference is far from what it used to be.

Due largely to weak scheduling, the Mountain West has now sent just one team to the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons, conference tournament winners Fresno State (2016) and Nevada (2017), who receives an automatic bid to the big dance.

Once proud schools like the University of New Mexico and UNLV used to be viewed as two of the toughest hoops programs in the west. Recently though, they have made national headlines for being in disarray.

Four UNM players have already announced that they will transfer from the program this offseason, subsequently leading to the dismissal of head coach Craig Neal.

Now the school is reportedly struggling to find somebody to take over the program, with multiple candidates opting to stick with their current gigs. Five years ago, this is a position that would have been one of the most attractive coaching positions in college basketball.

Even the mightiest of programs like San Diego State have fallen. Under head coach Steve Fisher, the Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament for six consecutive years from 2009-2014. During that stretch, the Aztecs posted two 30-plus win seasons (2010-11 and 2013-14) and reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament twice in 2013 and 2015.

The Aztecs have now failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons, and the future of the program is unclear. According to Monday’s report by Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union Tribune, Fisher informed his players, staff and university that he is retiring on Monday.

Although SDSU is in a more stable position than UNM, with assistant coach Brian Dutcher groomed to take over the program, losing one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball will certainly have an effect on the program.

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Adding Wichita State would not have made up for the demise of these formerly great Mountain West programs, but it definitely would have helped.

The final KenPom rankings featured just one Mountain West team in the top 75, Nevada (No. 54). SDSU finished the season at No. 78 and Colorado State was the next highest ranked at 86th. Adding a program like the Shockers instantly would have improved the competition within the conference and would have been the first step to helping revive a conference that is seemingly getting weaker by the year.

After missing out on Wichita State, the Mountain West would be wise to look for other expansion candidates, but conference commissioner Craig Thompson has made it clear that the league is content with its current members.

Time will tell how WSU will fair in the AAC, but I would not bet against Marshall or the Shockers. One thing thing is for sure, there will be plenty of Mountain West hoops fans thinking “what if” over the next couple years.

Collegian sports reporter Justin Michael can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or Twitter @JustinTMichael.

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