MWC Basketball: UNLV, BYU, New Mexico Put Dancing Shoes On Layaway

Chris GolightlyCorrespondent IJanuary 13, 2010

OMAHA, NE - MARCH 22:  Sasha Kaun #24 of the Kansas Jayhawks attempts a shot against Kendall Wallace (top R) #5, Curtis Terry #31 and Rene Rougeau #24 of the UNLV Runnin' Rebels during the Midwest Region second round of the 2008 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on March 22, 2008 at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The best basketball west of the Big 12 is played in the Mountain West Conference. BYU, New Mexico, UNLV, and San Diego State are picking up the slack in an unfortunate and uncharacteristic down year for the perennially powerful Pac-10.


The potential is present for this to be an historic year for the MWC. In its respectable 11 year history, the MWC has never placed more than three teams in the NCAA tournament and has never had more than one team advance past the first round.


The pieces are in place, but will the puzzle come together?


Four schools currently possess a top 40 RPI. Three are either ranked in the top 25 or have been and are among the "others receiving votes." Five programs are on pace for a 20 win season.


While it would be foolish to argue that the MWC is on par with some of the country’s truly elite conferences, the quality and balance of the Mountain West is impossible to discount.


Postseason buzz is already abundant. Insecure mumbling about four NCAA bids is gaining steam, supplanted by seemingly reasonable dialogue.


Questions loom above the conference like the Rocky Mountains:


Is the MWC a four bid league?

Will the conference’s top contenders beat each other up to the point that it costs the league on selection Sunday?

Will this be the year multiple teams advance to the second round and beyond?


The answers are almost simple:


It’s too soon to tell.

Probably not.

I wouldn’t bet against it.


At this point, trying to accurately predict NCAA tournament teams in January is like hoping a fast food restaurant will accurately process and deliver your drive through order during the evening rush.  San Diego State is the equivalent of a No. 9 combo, no ketchup, no lettuce, add bacon, sub onion rings, with a large diet coke, easy ice.  Far too many variables in play.


That being said, reasonable assumptions can be made.



Is the MWC a four bid league?


BYU, UNLV, and New Mexico are all in great shape.  Barring a collapse, all three should make the NCAA tournament.


It wouldn’t take much, however, in a conference where it is notoriously difficult to win on the road, for such a collapse to occur.  New Mexico is off to an 0-2 start and scooting perilously close to bubbly instability.


If a magic number for the MWC existed, 25 would be that number.  Any team in the MWC that reaches 25 wins by selection Sunday cannot be left out.


As a point of reference, last year Steve Fisher’s Aztecs were considered one of the biggest snubs on selection Sunday.


They were 23-9.


Right now, BYU has 16 victories, New Mexico 14, UNLV 13, and San Diego State 12.


Are four bids likely? No.


Are four bids a possibility? Absolutely.  



Will the conference’s top contenders beat each other up to the point that it costs the league on selection Sunday?


Losing on the road to an NCAA tournament quality team doesn’t damage a tournament resume. There’s no shame in dropping games in Provo, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, or San Diego. With the strength of the conference, even a hiccup at home to another top team won’t prove terribly damaging, provided it doesn’t become a habit.


If the top teams “beat each other up,” or in other words, distribute losses fairly evenly among each other, no one gets hurt. Each team plays six total games against the rest of the perceived upper tier.


Any team that scrapes through with a 3-3 record would be in great shape.


Two-4, not so much.

One-5, no chance.


Where the Aztecs, Rebels, Lobos, and Cougars really need to be careful is when they take on the bottom five-ninths of the conference. San Diego State lost at Wyoming on Saturday.  That’s strike one. Lose two or three of those and the NIT awaits.



Will this be the year multiple teams advance to the second round and beyond?


Last year, BYU and Utah were both unceremoniously bounced from the NCAA tournament’s first round. The malodorous disappointment still lingers like burnt salmon in a tiny kitchen.


This March should be different.


All four hopefuls are capable of inflicting some damage if invited. That’s a given. Upsets are an integral part of the madness.


The Big Dance is all about matchups. Seedings, playing styles, momentum, experience, athleticism, nerves, motivation; it all gets tossed into the fickle first round mixing bowl.


The MWC has a great chance to validate itself in March based on simple math. 


More Representatives+Higher Seeds-Luke Neville=Increased likelihood of first round success.


All unfair jabs at NBA Developmental League Superstar Luke Neville aside, March could see UNLV, BYU, and New Mexico all wearing home jerseys for round one. Throw in an athletic but inconsistent Aztec team sneaking in as an 11 or 12, and a breakthrough seems downright probable.


For now only one thing is certain: In a conference fighting a never-ending, uphill battle for respect, midseason fanfare means nothing if ultimately replaced by the deafening thud of postseason flop.