HOUSTON – The Butler did it again.
This time, maybe it didn’t sting Lobo fans quite as much.
On the biggest stage of his basketball life, San Diego State guard Lamont Butler got the ball with his team trailing by one.
By the time the buzzer sounded 7.5 seconds later, his jumper was dropping through the net, sending tens of thousands inside NRG Stadium into a frenzy on Saturday and carrying his Aztecs to Monday’s national championship game. And in doing so, sprinkling just a little bit more respect on the Mountain West Conference name that two weekends ago brought with it plenty of doubt.
Butler’s Feb. 25 buzzer beater in the Pit, delivering a 73-71 win for the Aztecs over New Mexico, came with him getting the ball at one end of Bob King Court with just 6 seconds remaining.
While Saturday’s win does in fact mean a little more money for the UNM Lobos and every Mountain West member (more on that later), maybe the bigger impact for the Mountain West is that the heat the 24-year-old league has been taking for years of Big Dance failures may finally be cooling off. After all, the league’s NCAA Tournament losing streak had grown to 11 before SDSU beat Charleston in the Round of 64.
“They needed it badly, absolutely,” Pat Forde, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, said of the Aztecs’ postseason success this year.
“This was vital for their credibility. I mean, you watch the games week in, week out and they’re good games. They’re competitive games. But then it’s got to translate to March because that’s when everybody pays attention, and it hadn’t.”
Added Jeff Goodman, basketball analyst for Stadium, the conference was “desperately” in need of what the Aztecs have delivered in this postseason.
“They needed it. I mean, anytime you can get to the Final Four from what’s perceived to be a mid-major-plus conference right now, it’s huge,” Goodman said.
SDSU coach Brian Dutcher said it should never have taken his team’s run this year to give more respect to the league he’s coached in since it was born. That Saturday’s win came over a Conference USA team in Florida Atlantic only added to his point.
“I think there’s more parity than there’s ever been,” Dutcher said. “So hopefully on Selection Sundays they don’t ignore mid-major conferences with really good teams; they don’t keep throwing in losing-record teams from Power Five conferences.”
UNM coach Richard Pitino said in his two years in the league, which he likens to a “West Coast version of the Big East, but with football,” his respect for its strength has only grown after having previously spending his coaching career in the Midwest and on the East coast.
“I don’t think anyone quite understands what level of a league we really are,” Pitino said. “If you look at the last two years, to have four teams in the NCAA Tournament, one team in the NIT (each season), that means you have you’re getting almost half your league in the postseason. …
“What we need to work on is the national perception more than anything.”
MWC Commissioner Gloria Nevarez told the Journal in Houston this week of the criticism the league had before this Aztecs run: “You know what you have to do to lose a game in the first round? You have to get into the first round and that’s no small thing.”
MONEY MATTERS: The MWC had already set its own record for total unit shares when the Aztecs made it to the Final Four with eight. The NCAA does not payout additional unit shares in the Final Four, meaning even with Saturday’s win by the Aztecs, the league’s haul this season will remain at eight. The previous record was seven in both 2011 and 2013.
The NCAA’s revenue distribution plan means those nine unit shares get paid out to the league’s members over a six-year window. At last year’s unit share valuation of about $340,000, the 11 MWC members will get to share about $2.7 million over the life (six years) of this year’s tournament payout, or roughly $247,000 per fiscal year.
Here is a breakdown of the current six-year window of unit share payouts for the Mountain West:
• 2017: 1 unit (Nevada 1)
• 2018: 4 units (San Diego State 1; Nevada 3)
• 2019: 2 units (Nevada 1; Utah State 1)
• 2020: 0 units (NCAA Tournament cancelled)
• 2021: 2 units (San Diego State 1; Utah State 1)
• 2022: 4 units (San Diego State 1; Wyoming 1; Boise State 1; Colorado State 1)
TOTAL: 13 units
Next year, the league will add the eight units from the 2023 tournament and drop the 1 unit season of 2017, paying out 20 units, a little more than $600,000 per school.