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Big West’s new dilemma: Invest in hoops or be left in the dust

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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San Diego State plays in a frequently jam-packed 12,000-seat arena, pays its head coach more than $800,000 per year and is shooting for its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance this March.

UC Riverside plays in an antiquated high school-sized gym, spends about $350,000 a year on salaries for its entire coaching staff and has compiled a winning record only once since joining the Division I ranks in 2001.

Surely Highlanders coach Jim Wooldridge cannot be pleased with Monday's announcement that San Diego State will be competing in the same league as his team beginning in 2013, right? Well, actually, he's "ecstatic" about it.

Wooldridge knows his program isn't in San Diego State's class today, but it's his hope that the addition of the Aztecs and to a lesser extent Hawaii will force Big West schools to make a greater financial commitment to basketball in hopes of one day being competitive. For some schools, that will mean less guarantee games and larger recruiting budgets. For other schools, it will be paying assistant coaches more competitive salaries and upgrading their aging facilities.

In the case of UC Riverside, it likely means all of the above.

"Obviously San Diego State is a monster of a program, but they bring such credibility to our league and such national exposure," Wooldridge said. "What it's going to do is it's going to give everybody a decision to make. You're going to see the following, the facilities, the recruiting, the budget, you're going to see it all change. Every program, every school is going to have to make a decision, do you want to compete or not? The bar has been raised to a very high level now."

If the risk of San Diego State stashing its men's basketball program in the Big West has been discussed frequently the past few days, the gamble the Big West is taking has gone more under the radar. The gap between the Aztecs and their future league foes in men's basketball seems more like a chasm if you consider that the Big West has ranked 18th, 19th and 25th in conference RPI the past three years and last won an NCAA tournament game in 2005.

It's possible the Big West follows the template Wooldridge has laid out, rises to San Diego State's level and becomes a multi-bid league the way the West Coast Conference has since Gonzaga emerged as a national power a decade ago. It's also possible that the Big West's cash-strapped public schools can't invest in basketball the way the private schools in the WCC have and San Diego State dominates the league and claims its lone NCAA tournament bid for the foreseeable future.

Big West favorites Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara challenged San Diego State in narrow losses earlier this season, but the Aztecs have won 15 of 16 games against Big West teams the past seven years.

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"I'm not sure if schools in our league are going to be able to match San Diego State financially," said Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, Mark Few's predecessor at Gonzaga. "One thing about the West Coast Conference is there are a lot of private schools who can do what they need to do. San Diego State having BCS money is going to be tough to compete with financially. I would say their facilities will come in as the best in the league. It's going to be a tough team for us all to compete with."

Wooldridge understands Monson's concerns, yet he feels the longterm benefits for the Big West are worth any initial losses to San Diego State.

The UC Riverside coach expects ESPN and local TV stations to show more interest in airing Big West games with San Diego State and Hawaii in the fold. He also anticipates increased donations from boosters who see an opportunity to make an impact.

The most glaring need for the Highlanders is a new arena to replace the 3,168-seat gym they currently share with the school's recreation department. Wooldridge said school administrators are "having heavy discussions about it" and he has "complete confidence" it will get built, especially since need for it has only increased as a result of the impending addition of San Diego State.

"(San Diego State) gives us a bench mark to hit," Wooldridge said. "They're obviously going to be the cream of the crop in our league, but I'm in favor of having something to shoot for. I think it will spur people to be motivated to do things that will make us a better Division I program."

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