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Scheduling has become major problem in Mountain West

Former Lobo Troy Simons is defended by Arizona’s Rawle Alkins in their December 2017 game in the Pit. Based on recent trends, getting top teams like the Wildcats back in the Pit seems unlikely. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

When the UNM Lobos released its 2019-20 men’s hoops schedule on Sept. 5, fans who had been growing antsy that it wasn’t done months prior let out a collective yawn when the home slate lacked a big name opponent coming to town.

If you were one of those fans, the rest of the Mountain West Conference has some news for you.

The Lobos were actually ahead of the curve in finalizing their schedule compared to league peers and are hardly alone in their inability to land a big name opponent. In fact, college basketball, at least outside the elite programs, is facing a bit of a crisis with how nonconference scheduling seems to be an increasingly impossible task logistically, financially and competitively for those outside the Power 5 (or 6 for basketball) conferences.

“This is the worst we’ve ever seen it in terms of getting nonconference games,” said MWC Senior Associate Commissioner Dan Butterly.

At Tuesday’s annual preseason league media summit, coaches and league administrators commiserated about the offseason’s struggles to simply fill out their schedules. In fact, as of Tuesday, there were still two teams still looking for games for the season that starts in two weeks.

“We’re still trying to find a game,” said Fresno State coach Justin Hutson, whose team currently has 28 of the allowed 31 games.”You know anybody?”

The problem is multi-faceted, and is likely leading the league down the path of implementing a 20-game conference schedule (it is currently 18 games) as early as next season.

Big programs no longer have incentive to play MWC teams, especially in a MWC gym, since their computer rankings are usually high enough just being playing their league schedule. And MWC programs can’t afford — financially or competitively — to just load up on low level teams and expect a chance at getting invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Which is why the 20-game schedule seems to be on its way.

“Yeah. 100 percent, I do,” said Boise State coach Leon Rice when asked if he thinks a 20-game schedule will be approved in the next year or two.

But it’s not unanimous.

San Diego State and UNLV, both in cities power-programs want to visit for recruiting purposes in nonconference play, are opposed and think there are better ways to help the league return to getting multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s tough to schedule. I know that,” said SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher. “(But) we have to find a way to schedule outside of conference to put that preseason resume where it needs to be.”

But other coaches say there simply aren’t any choices left.

“I think we’re getting squeezed out,” Rice said. “The Power 5s are increasing their (league) games and there’s less and less opportunities.”

The Pac-12 is moving to a 20-game league schedule next year, leaving 24 fewer available nonconference games out west. And as power conference schools stay at home more in the nonconference, the demand for low-level opponents to fill a home schedule is increasing.

“We have two institutions vying to get the University of Denver for $100,000,” MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said before repeating with emphasis. “For the University of Denver.”

According to contracts reviewed by the Journal, UNM’s “buy” budget is pretty much eaten up by three December games against opponents fans aren’t that thrilled about: Montana on Dec. 1 ($85,000), Houston Baptist on Dec. 22 ($90,000) and UC-Davis on Dec. 29 ($90,000).

A 20 game schedule also allows for balance, which some coaches want.

The 11-team, 18-game format means MWC teams play eight opposing teams twice in conference play — at home and away — and play one team only on the road and one team only at home each season.

For the Lobos, they benefit by avoiding this season a road trip to Logan, Utah, home of the preseason favorite Utah State Aggies.

Last season, meanwhile, the Nevada Wolf Pack shared the league title with the Aggies, each finishing with 15 league wins. But Nevada’s two “missed” games were against San Jose State and Wyoming, the two last place teams, which could have meant the difference between a shared and outright league title.

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