WAC hoops must get stronger
By Ferd Lewis
Here's a New Year's resolution for the Western Athletic Conference this basketball season:
Get more than one team in the NCAA men's tournament.
The nine-member WAC has received just one NCAA Tournament berth each of the last two years and the prospects of ending its longest skid since the NCAA expanded to 48 team in the 1980s aren't looking all that promising as the conference campaign opens tomorrow.
That's disappointing because big things were expected in the WAC this season, where 13 of last season's top 15 scorers return. Six teams, including Hawai'i, welcomed back at least four starters. Rarely has the WAC returned so much depth and talent.
Yet here comes the 2010 portion of the schedule and there are few significant non-conference victories. The WAC is 0-7 against Bowl Championship Series conference members of any ilk and a combined 16-28 against what normally would be considered geographic "peer" mid-majors: the Mountain West, Big West and West Coast Conference.
As a result, the WAC's overall standing in the College Basketball News' version of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), similar to what the NCAA uses, is just 14th. Only one WAC team, No. 74 Nevada, is in the top 75.
As bad as things have been for WAC football — and you need only look at the bowl season where Idaho is the only one of three teams from the conference to win so far — basketball could be worse.
As disturbing as that is for fans of WAC schools, it is even more painful for those charged with balancing the checkbooks. NCAA Tournament payouts, which currently account for nearly $3 million annually, are the second largest source of shared WAC income after BCS football money.
Each NCAA appearance and subsequent win earns the conference a unit (current worth: $206,000) which is paid out over a revolving six-year cycle. A decade ago the WAC was riding high with 32 units. Now it is down to 14.
That's moolah that isn't going to the WAC but is flowing to rival conferences. Longer term, performance also helps set the price for what ESPN pays for TV rights and sets perceptions in recruiting.
Basketball has historically been a strong anchor sport for the WAC. Sadly, unless things improve, it might become one that drags the conference down.