The chartered aircraft carrying San Diego State’s Final Four men’s basketball team lifted off from Louisville’s Muhammad Ali International Airport on Sunday evening and headed west.
It landed four hours later on a tarmac in San Diego. I half expected Pac-12 Conference commissioner George Kliavkoff would be there to greet it, wearing a bright-yellow safety vest and waving in the plane with a couple of orange batons.
It would be out of character and off brand for the Pac-12 to seize on the momentum of the Aztecs NCAA Tournament run and extend an immediate invitation to join the conference this week.
The Pac-12 presidents and chancellors are mindful of optics. They respect tradition and observe etiquette. The old-guard leadership wouldn’t be caught dead trying to draft off San Diego State’s basketball success.
That said, they should totally do it.
This is no time for the “new” Pac-12 to act like the “old” Pac-12. The conference shouldn’t wait another week (or month). It should just invite San Diego State now and end the charade.
The Aztecs are a no-brainer for the Pac-12. San Diego State has the academics, culture and Pacific Time Zone geography. It would also add 1.1 million television households in a region where the Pac-12 badly needs it.
We’ve talked about San Diego State as a possible Pac-12 addition for months. The conference is going to add somewhere between 0-4 new members. It could decide to stay at 10. But I just don’t see how the presidents and chancellors can ignore the opportunity to get back into Southern California.
I also don’t know why it should wait.
The Pac-12 CEO Group approved the exploration of four possible members. San Diego State was among those carefully studied. I was told by sources that the Pac-12 explored culture, geography and academic fit. Then, as a final measure, it planned to involve media partners and determine if the potential addition brought an increase in media-rights value.
If yes, they’d be invited.
If no, they would not.
Over the last several months, Bob Thompson, the retired Fox Sports Networks president told me numerous times that San Diego State was the only school that presented a no-brainer for the Pac-12 in his media-world mind. I checked back in with Thompson on Monday.
Any change of heart?
“Nope,” Thompson said. “Biggest available West Coast market other than Los Angeles, Southern California location, good facilities, investment in their programs, etc. Looks like Utah to me.”
San Diego State already has its toe dipped in the Pac-12. The men’s soccer program already competes in the conference. Also, next year, the Aztecs will join the Pac-12 in women’s lacrosse.
There’s still a media-rights negotiation to wrap up. And the Pac-12 has one more football season to play with UCLA and USC in the fold. But there’s meaningful life after the Trojans and Bruins for the Pac-12. One that involves San Diego State and, maybe, SMU.
The Aztecs invested $7.2 million in men’s basketball in the last fiscal year reported to the NCAA. That figure ranks in the bottom half of the Pac-12, within a few hundred thousand dollars of Colorado, Oregon State and Cal. In case you’re wondering, the SDSU program keeps its costs down by traveling mostly via commercial airline flights.
San Diego State chartered a flight to Maui earlier this season and took a few private trips in the Mountain West Conference, per athletic department sources. It also chartered to and from Louisville for the weekend, too. But by comparison, UCLA spent $11.9 million and Arizona invested $12.2 million in men’s basketball. They never fly commercial. I’d like to see what kind of power San Diego State men’s basketball might become with more to spend.
The deep tournament run couldn’t have come at a better time for San Diego State. NCAA Tournament victories are not why the Pac-12 should add the Aztecs. It’s a bonus. Final Fours come and go. But SDSU’s on-court success underscores the commitment — and opportunity. The Pac-12 shouldn’t pretend we’re not all thinking about it.
A few more things…
• CAL HIRE: Mark Madsen has emerged as the leading candidate for the vacant Cal men’s basketball job. He’s currently coaching Utah Valley who is playing in Tuesday’s semifinals of the NIT.
Cal’s athletic department is a mess and support of the basketball program reflects that. Athletic director Jim Knowlton and university leadership haven’t adequately supported the revenue-generating sports. It should come as no surprise that those programs haven’t flourished.
Former Bears coach Ben Braun did a nice job of working around Cal’s administration to foster 1-on-1 relationships with some key university gift givers (See: the Levi Strauss empire and the Goldman family). That’s partly why I like Madsen for the Cal job. He knows how to win and would connect with those same high-value donors. Madsen could pull Cal out of its death spiral.
• FINAL FOUR: The research staff took a quick look at the men’s Final Four teams and who each school defeated to advance to Houston.
UConn - beat 13, 5, 8, 3 seed.
San Diego State - beat 12, 13, 1, 6 seed.
Miami - beat 12, 4, 1, 2 seed.
Florida Atlantic - beat 8, 16, 4, 3 seed.
Best tournament resume? Miami. Can’t ignore that. Most dominant outcomes? Connecticut. The Huskies are blowing good teams out by double digits. But San Diego State’s win over Alabama — the bracket’s top overall seed — was the most impressive win.
Who wins it all?
Tell me in the comment section.
• WHAT’S UP: I’ve asked a number of college basketball coaches what they think is happening in the men’s NCAA Tournament. This is the first time since seeding was implemented (1979) that none of the No. 1, 2 or 3 seeds advanced to the Final Four.
Bad seeding? Transfer portal? Something else?
Oregon coach Dana Altman pointed to Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rosters that were laced with upperclassmen, seasoned transfers, and lots of experience.
Altman said: “The covid thing changed the game. Everybody got old. You’ve got to be a little older now. You have a 25-year-old playing against an 18-year-old right now.”
San Diego State has eight seniors on its roster, including Matt Bradley (a transfer from Cal). It has five juniors. Coach Brian Dutcher started four seniors and one junior in the Elite Eight win over Creighton. The four other players who got minutes on Sunday were: senior, senior, senior and junior.
• QUIT WHINING: I’m hearing some whining about the men’s Final Four field. A few of the naysayers have pointed out that the postseason hasn’t reflected the regular season. The teams that were highly ranked for most of the regular season were knocked out of the tournament.
Can we stop with that nonsense?
There really wasn’t a dominant team in the regular season. I’d argue that the tournament is a perfect reflection of that. Also, you earn your way to the Final Four on the court. It’s not only fair, it’s great theater.
The highly seeded teams lost and were eliminated. That’s how a single-elimination tournament works. This has been an amazing event. If you prefer a college postseason with a limited field that is stacked in favor of the high seeds… one that goes out of its way to ensure that the most successful, highest-ranked regular-season teams make it to the championship… you still have college football and its four-team invitational tournament.
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Your last sentence in this column is one of the greatest wrap-up commentaries ever since you've been doing this independent writing - "If you prefer a college postseason with a limited field that is stacked in favor of the high seeds… one that goes out of its way to ensure that the most successful, highest-ranked regular-season teams make it to the championship… you still have college football and its four-team invitational tournament."
Absolutely outstanding! 100% truth-telling! Golden!
Aztecs alum here and current lecturer at the University too. I just booked my trip to Houston. Can’t believe I’m typing those words! John you’ve been a voice of reason these past few months and i truly appreciate your coverage. You’re right SDSU doesn’t deserve a spot in the Pac-12 because they’re in the Final Four, they deserve a spot because the University has earned it!!!