On Nov. 9, 2020, the Mountain West announced they would alter the format for all men’s and women’s basketball programs. Every team will play each other in a two-game series within the same week, both matches in the same arena.
The Mountain West Format Could be a Factor in Conference Seeding
The Boise State Broncos hosted the New Mexico Lobos in the conference opener on Dec. 21, 2020. The echo of the ball against the hardwood filtered throughout the arena. Players squeaked their shoes as they cut and shifted speeds, and coaches could be heard clearly from underneath their masks. As the camera panned out during stoppages in play, all that could be seen was a sea of orange and blue… seats.
In the second half, Boise State senior forward Derrick Alston Jr. found himself on a clear break to the basket. He emphatically flushed the ball through the defenseless net—one of his many dunks on the night. The rim repositioned and he landed with his arms spread, running to the defensive side of the court. He acted as if imaginary fans boisterously yelled and jumped with delight.
The color commentator excitedly said, “If fans were here, it would be electric!”
If fans were there. What an unfortunate, but relatively normal present-day thought. Usually, a dunk of such caliber would either shift or extend momentum. Boise State defeated New Mexico 77-53, so momentum was rather moot, anyway.
In a normal season, the Lobos would later get a chance at home to avenge the loss. This season, they had to play the Broncos two nights later due to the Mountain West format change. Again the game was in Boise, and again Boise State comfortably handled New Mexico, 89-52.
Under the format, each Mountain West team will play 20 games broken down into ten two-game series. The games will be played a day apart and in the same arena. Conference play started in late December and is slated to end the last week of February. The purpose behind the schedule is to ensure the safety of the student-athletes, coaches, and staff by considerably limiting travel. With good intentions aside, this will benefit some teams more than others.
Even though “home court advantage” has lost meaning this season, the change could hinder certain programs. Teams like New Mexico use their crowd for a tremendous advantage. The Pit has always been touted as a dangerous cruel atmosphere for opponents, but there’s a good chance the Lobos don’t play a true home game this season. New Mexico, along with in-state rival New Mexico State, relocated out of state before the season began. This decision was due to the tight restrictions New Mexico has set to deal with its high amount of COVID-19 cases.
Just like each state, each program is different. But the format will remain, creating some interesting late-season scenarios.
Finding A Balance
Let’s go out on a crazy whim and say San Diego State wins the conference. The Aztecs and sarcasm aside, three other programs will legitimately be jostling for conference seeding: Boise State, Colorado State, and Utah State. The Broncos may also be battling for a possible at-large NCAA Tournament bid. Here’s a look at how each ends the season:
Boise State: Two-game series at San Diego State
Colorado State: Two game series vs. Air Force
Utah State: Two Game series vs. Nevada
Boise State has proven they can play on the road, taking down BYU in Provo on Dec. 9, 2020. The Broncos could split that series against the Aztecs, but it still appears the Rams and Aggies have favorable ends to the conference regular-season.
The Mountain West did a fine analysis while planning this schedule, however. Boise State, though having to play at Colorado State and San Diego State hosts Utah State. Colorado State must travel to Utah State and San Diego State but welcomes Boise State to Fort Collins. Utah State hosts the Rams and Aztecs, but play the Broncos in Boise.
In less wordiness, the schedule balances out, and more so for Utah State. The Aggies had a dismal start to the season, waving away any shot at an at-large Tournament bid in March. If they’re able to lock in the second seed in the Mountain West tournament, their path presents a great opportunity.
The End is in the Air
The true deciding factor, however, leaves us at the mercy of COVID-19 yet again. What if the guidelines relax and fans are allowed to attend games later in the season? Having to play back-to-back games against a rival and their hostile supporters will be quite difficult. For example, Boise State may lose a non-attendance home game to the Rams or Aggies, but then, in what could be a must-win type scenario, have to play two games in three days with a raucous crowd backing the Aztecs.
That, however, is highly unlikely. California, along with Colorado, reported the first cases of the coronavirus variant on Wednesday–a more infectious strain.
It all depends on the vaccine, state guidelines, and the comfort level of each program. The question is: Will it be fair to allow fans under this format? Well, nothing is fair at the moment, so we can only hope it all balances out once more. Each team must be mentally prepared for the ever-changing landscape that is the 2020-21 college basketball season.
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