Loyal Cougars

The Challenge: Imagining an annual WCC-MWC showdown

The WCC is thriving, but needs marquee wins. We have them covered — in the form of an imaginary showdown with the Mountain West.

If you’re like me (read: addicted to college basketball), you’ve been inundated with different “challenges” around this time of year. It’s not a bad time of year; indeed, the excitement of pairing one conference against another in a winner-take-all challenge is one of the highlights of the late November/early December stage of college hoops.

As I was watching unranked North Carolina — beholden to losses to Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham — and savvy coach Roy Williams take down Tom Tizzo’s top-ranked Michigan State, I got to thinking about the future of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Not only will one school play in the challenge in consecutive years, but for different conferences (read: Maryland), but the made-for-TV event is catching on across the nation. The Big East-SEC Challenge is another strong brand, and even the ill-fated Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge was a good idea at the time.

So what will it take to bring the Challenge atmosphere to the west? First, a confederation of schools (we call them “conferences”) agreeing to match up the best against the best, and all the way down.With the connections of the Mountain West Conference and the West Coast Conference, these two leagues could be pioneers in this regard.

With some basic research provided by Google and Wikipedia, I’ve crafted the Mountain West-West Coast Challenge, presented by Loyal Cougars. We took the top five teams in each league, per the final regular-season standings a year ago, and paired them against each other.

Give it a try, and keep an open mind. You might find a matchup you like. And more importantly, a couple of these wins could prove vital to a team’s resume by March.

Battle of the Mid-Major Rising

New Mexico (29-6 in 2012-13) at Gonzaga (32-3)
Both of these teams swept through conference play last year, but both also saw disappointing early exits in the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga lost a stunner to Final Four-bound Wichita State, while the Lobos were rocked by Ivy League upstart Harvard in an opening-weekend classic.

Both teams also lost key players in the offseason, namely to the NBA draft. But watch for a strong guard line in this matchup: the effervescent Kevin Pangos will try to defend the Kennel from the likes of breakout Aussie star Cameron Bairstow and big man and double-double machine Alex Kirk.

Mountain America vs the Australian-American Connection

Colorado State (26-9) at Saint Mary’s (28-7)
On paper, these two somewhat surprised their way to a second-place finish in their respective conferences. Also on paper, this matchup should see very different crews taking to the hardwood.

The Gaels lost approximately 500th-year senior Matthew Dellavedova, but return the likes of big man Brad Waldow to offer a stronger inside game in this matchup. The Rams would rely on their standout transfer talent in former Navy guard J.J. Avila and Arizona transfer Daniel Bajerano.

The Dave Rice Hardwood Classic

BYU (24-12) at UNLV (25-10)
Call it the Dave Rice Hardwood Classic. Or just call it BYU’s return to a less-than-hospitable Thomas & Mack Center, where the team (and its fans) were regularly thrown through the haymaker. But this year’s Runnin’ Rebels teams is unlike any the Cougars would have seen from their former days in the Mountain West Conference.

BYU is one of the youngest teams in the NCAA, eligibility-wise, with no four-year seniors on the roster. UNLV, on the other hand, has a starting lineup comprised entirely of transfers — including walk-on Kevin Oleikabe, who led Fresno State in scoring two years ago before transferring to UNLV to be closer to home and his ailing father.

It’s no secret that the Rebels like to run, and this year’s BYU team would be more than adequately suited to try to run with the House That Tark Built. Expect a high-scoring, defense-optional game where the team with the ball last wins.

The Cali Clasico

Santa Clara (26-12) at San Diego State  (23-11)
The Cali Clasico heads south when the Aztecs hope to defend home court better than a couple of weeks ago when Arizona made its way into Viejas Arena.

This Santa Clara team is a far cry from the current No. 1 team in the land, but it’s not without talent of its own. Junior Brandon Clark has pushed senior Evan Roquemore at the point guard spot, with both averaging nearly identical assist numbers on a Bronco team that likes to move the ball around.

San Diego State might rely on super sophomore Winston Shepherd in this one. The 210-pound forward does a little bit of everything for the Aztecs, averaging 11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Shut down the former Findlay Prep star, and his team just might follow. Good luck with that, though.

The Battle of the Big West Castoffs

Boise State (21-11) at Pacific (22-13)
Yes, yes, I know — Pacific wasn’t in the WCC a year ago, so the Tigers shouldn’t be eligible for the challenge, right? But Pacific’s Big West tournament title from a year ago makes them more than capable of taking on a Boise State squad that advanced to the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 2008.

Preseason all-name candidate Sama Taku would lead the Tigers into a very physical match up with Anthony Drmic and the Broncos — who lead the NCAA in scoring.

Both of these teams could have played in the Big West this season, before the WCC came calling for former member Pacific and Boise State stuck around the Mountain West in lieu of bolting for the American in football and the Big West in all other sports. The Battle of the Big West Castoffs would make for excellent ESPNU viewing.