Why is San Diego State so much better than UNLV?

Back in 2013 UNLV and San Diego State were 2 of the 5 teams the Mountain West sent to the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels snagged a five seed and lost in the opening round, while the seventh seeded Aztecs lost in the second round to Florida Gulf Coast. 

Both programs had been to four straight NCAA Tournaments and appeared to be set up to continue reaching the promise land in March. 

But since 2013, only San Diego State has held up as a nationally relevant program.

In the last seven seasons the Aztecs have been to the NCAA Tournament three times – and would have had a fourth last season. When San Diego State hears its name on Selection Sunday, it will be five NCAA Tournament worthy teams in eight seasons. 

Meanwhile UNLV hasn’t even sniffed the bubble for eight seasons. But how did one program sustain success, while the other floundered?

It isn’t because of lack of money. UNLV and San Diego State are consistently at the top of the conference men’s basketball budget. The most recent data (thanks to Nevada Sports Net for compiling it) has UNLV spending more on basketball than any other Mountain West team at $5,795,483. The Aztecs are second at $5,786,034. 

Looking at coach salary doesn’t show why the Aztecs are superior to UNLV either. Brian Dutcher signed an extension that gave him one of the most lucrative contracts in the Mountain West. The six-year deal only pays him $930,000 this season, but escalates to $1.53 million by 2025-26. 

T.J. Otzelberger will make $1.2 million this season and jump up to $1.5 million for the 2023-24 season. 

UNLV is clearly spending enough money to compete with San Diego State.

Even the talent level that each school has brought in is comparable. Over the last seven recruiting classes, UNLV has been ranked higher than San Diego State by 247 Sports five times. 

Obviously UNLV has landed some overrated players, Brandon McCoy could not defend anyone. Stephen Zimmerman could not finish at the rim. But Christian Wood, Pat McCaw and Derrick Jones have all seen varying levels of NBA success, but none helped UNLV to an NCAA Tournament. 

There is no real reason for UNLV to not be a mainstay at the top of the Mountain West like San Diego State. 

What it comes down to is quality coaching. San Diego State was run by its greatest coach, Steve Fisher, who then handed the program over to his assistant Brian Dutcher. 

Fisher had his team ranked in the top 100 of Ken Pom for 12 straight seasons. And even though Dutcher fell out of the top 100 in his second year, he might have put together the best two seasons of Aztecs basketball ever. After last season’s team would have landed a top two seed in the NCAA Tournament, Dutcher has this Aztec team ranked 20th by Ken Pom. 

Since the 2013 NCAA Tournament UNLV has had three head coaches actually coach games. (Chris Beard doesn’t count.) Dave Rice is still in basketball, but only as an assistant and has not landed another head coaching job. Marvin Menzies is not a basketball coach this season, as he was not retained at Grand Canyon and was moved over to be a special assistant to the president. 

Which leaves T.J. Otzelberger, who did end San Diego State’s unbeaten season last year. But year two has been a frustrating endeavor. 

It is possible we look back on this era of UNLV basketball and deem Todd Simon, the interim head coach after Dave Rice was fired in 2016, as the best. 

Simon took over a 6-24 Southern Utah team and has them at 17-3 this season competing for a Big Sky championship. 

UNLV provides the money and support. Talented players are more than willing to come to Vegas. It comes down to coaching. UNLV has to get good coaching. 

Otzelberger will have a couple of more years to prove he is capable of taking UNLV back to the top of the conference. But if he doesn’t, UNLV will once again be looking to fix the programs biggest problem. 

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