Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson has essentially admitted that the league is looking to expand. He told The San Diego Union Tribune that six school president or athletic directors have been contacted for a potential round of Mountain West expansion.
Interestingly, the only name that we know from that list is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs do not have football, but do have one of the nation’s best basketball programs.
Gonzaga competes in the WCC, which it has dominated for the better part of two decades. It is also the main breadwinner, since only three programs—the Zags, BYU, and St. Mary’s—really contend for the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis.
The only team outside of those three schools to make the NCAA Tournament out of the WCC this decade is the 2013 Pacific Tigers. That team lost to Miami in the first round.
So there are definitely some legs to the Gonzaga-to-the-Mountain West story. The same Union Tribune report says that BYU could be interested in following Gonzaga to the MWC for basketball. The Cougars are reportedly not one of the schools contacted.
That leaves five other spots, meaning the Mountain West is definitely doing some due diligence with potential members. I assume most would be for football as well as basketball, though it could depend on how big the hoops program is, as Gonzaga’s candidacy as a Mountain West expansion possibility shows.
Here are seven schools that could be targeted in Mountain West expansion:
Pros: Gonzaga men’s basketball might be the best single program in any sport that is available for another league to poach at this point. The Bulldogs just made a run to the national championship game, and would help elevate a fun basketball league that has slipped as of late. Gonzaga would also give the MWC a presence in Washington. So far, this is the only school we know is definitely being considered for Mountain West expansion.
Cons: The MWC has some affiliate members, but not in men’s basketball. That presents some issues with contract details, since the Bulldogs wouldn’t take a football cut. Boise State has a unique arrangement on the football side, so it doesn’t seem crazy to think that the MWC could work something out for the Zags though.
Pros: Thanks in part to its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder Day Saints, BYU has a huge built-in fan base. It’s a strong brand with some national appeal, and a pretty consistent basketball program.
Cons: BYU is a former member of the MWC, and it could be awkward to bring them back in the fold, especially if football isn’t included. If the Cougars make a move on the gridiron, it is probably for a bigger league, so the Mountain West would probably have to swallow its pride a bit here.
North Texas Mean Green:
Pros: North Texas has developed into one of the better programs in Conference USA under Seth Littrell. UNT, which is located in Denton, would get the conference back into the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, after losing TCU to the Big 12.
Cons: North Texas isn’t as big a brand as some of the other schools here. The Mean Green would also be leaving the Sun Belt, which features a number of natural rivals and other Texas schools.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors:
Pros: Hawaii already plays Mountain West football. This would help bring some more consistency to the conference. The Rainbow Warriors have also improved a decent amount in men’s basketball specifically, making a run to the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 in 2016.
Cons: There is a reason Hawaii isn’t already a full-fledged member. Travel to and from the islands is really tough to schedule around, and monetarily difficult for the program. There are already serious questions about the long-term viability of the football program. Adding in trips for all sports to head as far as Wyoming or Colorado is probably not feasible.
Pros: The Roadrunners have gotten a lot done in a short amount of time, launching a football program in 2011. UTSA made its first bowl in 2016, and has started recruiting well under Frank Wilson, so there may be some sustainability there. The school is also in a pretty solid market in San Antonio, which like UNT, would open Texas back up for the MWC.
Cons: At least in football, which drives the bus when you don’t have a hoops program like Gonzaga, UTSA is still very new, and isn’t quite a Gonzaga or BYU in terms of national appeal. Like UNT, is also might not be as snug a fit as Conference USA for UTSA, even with the bigger profile.
Grand Canyon Antelopes:
Pros: GCU has emerged out of nowhere with a very strong mid-major men’s basketball program. Former NBA player Dan Majerle won 27 games at GCU in 2015-2016, and is one win away from a third-straight 20-win season. The school is also in Phoenix, a huge media market in a state without a MWC team.
Cons: The major knock against Grand Canyon is its for-profit status, which is a huge hangup for other schools. That could be the case with potential MWC conference-mates. It is also unclear if the MWC wants to add non-Gonzaga-level basketball only schools, though there is always potential for GCU to launch a football program.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers:
Pros: The Hilltoppers are quietly one of the best two-sport mid-majors out there. The football program is among the most exciting in the Group of Five, and the men’s basketball program has reached the NCAA Tournament 23 times, most recently in 2012 and 2013.
Cons: It isn’t as dramatic as Hawaii, but distance is the major issue here. WKU would be a on an island in the Mountain West as currently constitute, with the nearest member school—Colorado State—nearly 1,200 miles away.
North Dakota State Bison:
Pros: NDSU is something of a brand, thanks to its utter domination of FCS football. If the Bison want to take the leap to FBS, the MWC is the logical conference affiliation.
Cons: There’s no guarantee that the Bison would thrive in FBS football. In terms of other nearby programs, while Boise State has thrived, Wyoming is very much an up-and-down program, and Idaho is set to drop down a level.
As of now, it’s hard to know exactly where the Thompson could look in this potential round of Mountain West expansion. Depending on whether the aim is to add football, bolster basketball, or a combination of both, these schools could all bring something to the table.