The best teams in the Mountain West should have been put on notice after the first night of conference play.
That was when San Diego State—a team that dominated UCLA in Anaheim and came a basket away from upsetting then-No. 3 Arizona in Hawaii—struggled to beat a Fresno State team that everyone though would finish at the bottom of the league this season.
The final score was 65-62. It wasn’t really a worry then for the Aztecs. They were a veteran group with the reigning conference player of the year on their squad. But they said all the right things afterwards.
“Like I said, everyone in conference real good,” junior Jamaal Franklin said. “We can't stress about who is better at this because everybody can get beat. You can't worry about that, you just gotta worry about getting the wins.”
That was a month ago and a month ago the country was singing the praises for the Mountain West. National analysts and writers were taking notice.
It wasn’t just the stellar 99-26 (now 100-26) record the conference accumulated against all other conferences (where eight of the nine teams posted winning records against out-of-conference foes). It wasn’t just the quality wins in those 99 victories (wins over ranked Colorado, Creighton, UCLA and UConn teams).
It was the play on the court. That first weekend of MW games were thrilling.
ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi predicted six teams in the NCAA Tournament field in the beginning of January; so too the Sports Illustrated’s Andy Glockner. That was more than the ACC or the Pac-12. The most teams the MW ever sent the Tournament was four.
Words like “quality” and “depth” were being tossed around, and rightfully so. The MW has been ranked as the second or third best conference in the country all year (the MW currently sits at No. 2, just behind the Big Ten).
But sometimes, depth can be a bad quality to have, especially for a conference normally considered a mid-major.
As the Mountain West hits the second half of its schedule this week, the question must be asked: does the depth hurt or help the conference?
Currently, only two teams are ranked in the Mountain West (No. 15/16 New Mexico and No. 25 SDSU, which is not ranked in the AP Poll).
The national perception of individual teams has not shot up with the rise of the quality in the league. The most ranked teams the conference has received in a single poll was three. Twice did the AP Poll have only one Mountain West team (New Mexico) ranked in the top 25.
And all this coming from the second or third best rated conference in the country.
“I’m amazed with the rankings,” New Mexico head coach Steve Alford told the Albuquerque Journal two weeks ago. “Just looking at the rankings and we only have one team ranked. To be the third best league in the country and only have one ranked team is bothersome, it really is.”
And this perception might hurt MW teams when it comes to Selection Sunday.
Lunardi only has four MW teams in his latest projection; Glockner has five, but has gone as low as four in the last few weeks.
The trouble is the depth. Teams are losing games that most believe they should not be losing.
The Aztecs lost at home to UNLV and on the road to Wyoming and Air Force. UNLV lost road games to Colorado State and Boise State. After upsetting San Diego State, Wyoming has lost four straight. And New Mexico’s only conference loss came when it scored only 34 points on the road against the Aztecs.
“Unfortunately when we do what other leagues are doing – beat up on each other – we seem to be penalized more,” Alford said.
The thing is that the Mountain West has not proven itself where it counts the most—in the NCAA Tournament. It’s one thing to beat the upper echelon of college basketball teams in the regular season. It’s another to do it in the one-and-done pressure of March Madness.
Since the league’s inception in 1999, the MW has gone 15-33 in the Tournament. It has never sent a team to the Elite Eight. And this also considering Utah and BYU, who were perennial MW contenders before leaving two years ago.
“Fair or not, that's how you get judged,” SDSU head coach Steve Fisher told ESPN. “And I think that's the next step for our league is to get a team to the Final Four, have multiple teams get to the Sweet 16 and win in the tournament. So I would say, yeah, I think it's fair.”
Fisher saw first hand the Mountain West’s best chance to get to the Final Four. Two years ago his Aztecs and BYU were ranked in the top 10 and the eventually in the top five in the country. Both fizzled out in the Sweet Sixteen.
Given that reputation, it doesn’t help that the league’s new found depth is translating into cannibalism.
“As a coach, you can't be comfortable home or away in our conference this year,” Wyoming head coach Larry Shyatt told the Denver Post, “because you know how hard these teams play and the talent they have.”
It’s just too bad that this year, that talent and depth might cost the Mountain West a few more deserved spots in the NCAA Tournament.