Alexander: New commissioner will try to polish Big West’s basketball reputation

Dan Butterly has been with the Mountain West Conference for 21 years, and has been its Senior Associate Commissioner for the past eight. He finds it easy to recall when the Mountain West was just another men’s basketball conference.

It didn’t take much to jog his memory.

“We went from the 16th-rated league (nationally) in 2018-19, one of our worst seasons ever in terms of ratings, to the 10th- rated league this past year,” he recalled.

“And it wasn’t just done because San Diego State was a top-five consistent team all season long. It was because our lower-ranked teams came up into the top 200 and made all the conference games quality games.”

If he can do that in his new league … well, the Big West would settle for just getting a second team into the NCAA Tournament once in a while.

Butterly will take over the Big West commissionership July 1 from Dennis Farrell, after wrapping up his work with the Mountain West and transitioning alongside Farrell for a month.

It will be a new experience, and kind of a weird one, for those who have been around the conference for any length of time. Farrell has been employed by this conference for 40 years – when he arrived in 1980, it was the PCAA – and has been the commissioner since 1992, which means that five of the nine current members of the conference know no other commissioner.

It is going to be a strange new world anyway. Butterly is joining the conference at the same time that it adds two new members, Cal State Bakersfield and transitioning Division I newbie UC San Diego. And he is joining at a time when the near future of college sports is tied to the novel coronavirus pandemic, so there’s no guessing when campuses will be open or when – or even if – fall sports will take place.

Not surprisingly, of 20 questions asked of Butterly in an introductory Zoom conference call this week, 13 involved the pandemic in one form or another. Firm answers were, and are, hard to come by as long as there’s no inkling of what the landscape will look like by August.

As for basketball? It’s relatively easy to figure out that the Big West needs work, aside from maybe UC Irvine, which won a game in the 2019 NCAA Tournament and would have been the favorite to reach the 2020 version of March Madness had the schedule gotten that far.

The conference has been playing men’s basketball since 1969-70. In 50 NCAA tournaments, it has had multiple entrants nine times, the last in 2005 and the last before that in 1993.

That’s the second goal.

“The goal, I think, in the next five years or 10 years … we’re gonna have a team in the NCAA Tournament, but (the ambition is to) have a team that can get in the NCAA Tournament and advance in the NCAA Tournament. The next phase will be having two teams in the NCAA Tournament and have them advance on the men’s basketball side.”

To get that done – and Big West teams have won a game in the tournament only five times in the past 20 years, and never more than one per tournament – a lot of the work will have to be done during the season. This past season, Irvine was No. 114 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, and after that the falloff was fairly steep: UC Santa Barbara 177, UC Riverside 210, Hawaii 215, UC Davis 218, Cal State Northridge 233, Cal State Fullerton 261, Long Beach State 306, Cal Poly 323.

The first trick is scheduling, and in a conference with quite the variance of nonconference scheduling philosophies, maybe it will take the new guy coming in and restoring some order.

“I look at it as the Three Musketeers analogy: all for one and one for all,” Butterly said. “You’ve got to work collectively to boost the profile and boost the competitiveness and the rankings of the league.

“It doesn’t help if you’ve got a team that’s ranked in the top 50, top 75, if the rest of the league is ranking 200 and below. What you’ve ultimately got to do is get the coaches to understand scheduling and boosting their NET rankings now, to be in a position once you get out of nonconference play (and) into conference play that you know you’re not lowering your best team’s NET ranking.

“It isn’t easy. You’ve got to get the coaches to understand the philosophy and get their trust and help them to understand what you’re trying to do to improve.”

Butterly said the Mountain West had put an emphasis on analytics in forming schedules, and that quite likely will be an emphasis here, though he recognizes that some schools will certainly have to play nonconference guarantee games to make ends meet.

When you know you’ve succeeded is when you go on the road and win those guarantee games. According to one survey UCR was No. 1 in the country in that department in 2019-20, pocketing $265,000 and victories at Nebraska, Fresno State and San Jose State – the latter two members of the, um, Mountain West.

Every little bit helps, eh?

“Those are the things I want to look at: How we’re scheduling, where each program stands, what they need and how the conference office can assist them in getting what they need and being successful at the same time,” Butterly said.

It’ll be a big ask for his new conference to emulate his old conference any time soon, but why not aim high? Anyway, without a real NCAA Tournament this past year, Butterly let his imagination run wild.

“That was one of the really disappointing things for me,” he said, “to miss the national championship game between San Diego State and Utah State.”

Hey, a guy can dream.

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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