December 12, 2011
Last season, San Diego State's men's basketball program reached heights it could have only dreamt of when Steve Fisher took over in 1999.
He went from giving away tickets on campus to anyone who would take them to now having one of the most solid, respected programs on the West Coast.
Now, a year removed from a 34-win season and the school's first ever Sweet Sixteen berth, the program is taking a major risk. Last week, the Big East announced that San Diego State — along with Boise State, Houston, SMU and Central Florida — would join the league as a football-only member. The move gives SDSU an annual bump in TV revenue from just under $2 million annually to as much as $10 million.
To follow that up, the Big West announced officially on Monday that all of the Aztecs' other sports programs will join their league beginning in the 2013-14 season, including the department's jewel — Fisher's men's basketball program.
SDSU was one of the Mountain West's original members, but in the school's quest for more money — hard to blame them there, given the MWC's weak TV deal and lack of annual guaranteed BCS revenue — the basketball program is being put in a tough spot.
Even if the Aztecs had not blitzed through the Mountain West tournament last March in Las Vegas and earned the league's automatic NCAA tournament bid, they were as good as in.
But now, the pressure amplifies as they move from a league that got seven at-large NCAA tourney bids in the last three years combined to one that is accustomed to not getting any.
Last week, Mark Zeigler wrote a fantastic analysis piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune documenting how the Aztecs can maintain their current national cache in moving from a league that is currently ranked No. 4 in conference RPI to one that is No. 24.
The pros for SDSU moving to the Big West in hoops are certainly there.
For one, getting away from the Mountain West's TV deal allows them more access to playing on the ESPN family of networks, which is brutally important in this day and age, especially when it comes to recruiting. Also, from Day One, they'll have the best facility, best home court advantage and likely the most talent on the floor of anyone in the league. SDSU will truly be the biggest fish in a smaller pond.
But every key to success in the Big West will tie back to non-conference scheduling, plain and simple.
Come January, the Aztecs will need to enter league play with a lofty enough RPI that they can absorb the blow that will come from playing a soft Big West schedule.
Despite BYU's defection from the Mountain West, the league has maintained strong RPI rankings across the board due to more aggressive scheduling in recent years before conference play. Currently, UNLV is its highest at No. 23, while five of the league's eight current members — including SDSU at No. 53 — are in the Top 100.
On the other side, the Big West has only one member in the Top 100 (Long Beach State at No. 36), while four of the nine members are at 269 or lower (Cal State Northridge at No. 269, UC-Riverside at No. 289, UC-Irvine at No. 291, UC-Davis at No. 342).
Long Beach and coach Dan Monson got to No. 36 by adopting the 'play anyone, anytime, anywhere' mentality that helped Gonzaga — his one-time program — rise from an annual Cinderella story to a legitimate national power. Sure, the 49ers are only 4-5 at this point, but so far, they've played at Pitt, at Louisville, at Kansas and at North Carolina. After they play at Xavier on Dec. 22, they'll have played five of their first 11 games against teams currently ranked in the Top 15 nationally. It's a vicious grind, but it must be done.
Long Beach upset Pitt, but then lost close games to the other three. The games bumped up their RPI and got them as battle-tested as humanly possible for Big West play, but by racking up so many losses early, did they eliminate their slim margin for error in the hopes of a potential at-large bid down the road if they can't win the Big West tourney?
That's the game San Diego State now must play.
By no means does San Diego State back down in its non-conference scheduling. So far, during a 9-2 start, they played at Baylor, and have played three games against Pac-12 foes. Getting fair deals against top programs from around the country isn't easy for the Aztecs, but the fact that the Big East is going to help them out with a handful of guaranteed non-conference basketball games against its members each year is a major plus in the deal. On Monday, a future home-and-home series with UConn was agreed upon, with details still yet to be hammered out.
San Diego State elevated its status last season, has won at least 20 games and reached either the NIT or NCAA tournament in six straight seasons, with that streak likely to reach seven this year. The talent level is strong and recruiting has been kind to Fisher & Co. in recent years within the high school ranks and with Division-I transfers.
The last Big West member to transcend conference in the way that SDSU hopes to was UNLV back in the late 1980s and early 90s. So it has been done before, but doing so again will be much tougher now than it was 20 years ago for several reasons.
Given the situation as a whole, don't expect the Aztecs' program to fade away into irrelevancy. But if it hopes to continue to grow from where it is right now, this is a bold, bold risk, as the climb will now be significantly steeper.
Follow Ryan Greene on Twitter: @ryanmgreene