There is absolutely no doubt that the enormous success of both BYU and San Diego State this season has propelled the Mountain West conference to new heights nationally.
Just as the recent success of TCU and Utah (2008) has done for the conference in football, BYU and San Diego State have proven that this conference produces elite teams that can play with anyone, on any level, in the nation.
Both BYU and SDSU have been mainstays in the nation's Top 10 over the past two months. The only other conferences that can claim to have two teams in the Top 10 over that same period—the Big East and Big 12.
That is a pretty powerful claim the Mountain West can make.
The MWC is ranked fourth in conference RPI. The Big East, Big Ten, and Big 12 are No. 1, two and three, respectively. That means the MWC is ahead of such conferences as the ACC, SEC, and the Pac-10—the measuring stick (for now) of all other western conferences.
With a conference RPI at No. 4, it stands to reason that the MWC would be guaranteed to receive a plentiful number of NCAA tournament bids next month. With the ACC and SEC each targeting five bids, the MWC should have a good shot at receiving that many as well, right?
After all, the league got four bids last year, and this year's version of the MWC is even better—right?
Not so fast.
And the reason may just be the very teams that have lifted the Mountain West to their current status.
BYU and San Diego State have been dominant in the MWC—each currently has just one loss in league play. That has meant the next two teams in the standings—Colorado State and UNLV—have had a difficult time getting the signature win(s) needed to impress the selection committee.
Colorado State is currently solidified in third place in the MWC at 8-3. They are two games behind BYU and SDSU, and a game and half ahead of UNLV. Their remaining schedule includes games against each of three aforementioned teams, but the only home game among those is UNLV.
Assuming those games go as expected—losses at BYU and SDSU and a win over UNLV—and they win their other two remaining games (against Air Force and Utah), Colorado State would be 11-5 in the MWC and 21-9 overall. It would also assure the Rams of a third-place finish.
Finishing third in the nation's fourth best conference would seem to be—in and of itself—good enough to make the tournament.
However, given their lack of big-time wins (their best wins would be at UNLV and a neutral-court win over Southern Miss in December), Colorado State and head coach Tim Miles may still have to sweat things out selection weekend if they don't beat either of the "big two" in the MWC tournament.
The fourth-place team, UNLV, will be the toughest team from the MWC—as well as one of the toughest in the nation—for the committee to evaluate.
The Rebels now sit at 7-5 in MWC play and 19-7 overall. They have already played both BYU and SDSU twice—losing all four against the two. Their other conference loss is to Colorado St. at home.
The biggest strengths for UNLV are their non-conference wins. They have beaten Wisconsin—a likely top-four seed in the NCAA tournament—as well as Virginia Tech and Kansas State away from home. If the Rebels do make the tourney, it will be thanks to those wins.
Even with BYU and SDSU out of the way, it is quite possible UNLV could finish 9-7—or even 8-8—in the MWC. Their next two games are going to be tough—at Colorado State and at New Mexico. They also finish the season at Utah, which is never an easy place to win.
Winning two of those three would put them in decent shape to dance; winning just one would make them quite vulnerable; and losing all three would take the Rebels out of the running entirely.
The only MWC team with a win over BYU or SDSU this season is New Mexico, who beat BYU in Albuquerque. The Lobos, however, currently sit in fifth place at just 5-6 in conference play after a loss to the Aztecs Wednesday night. At this point, they face a steep uphill climb just to get back into the bubble conversation.
How many tournament bids will the Mountain West receive this year?
A win at BYU—meaning a season sweep—is about the only thing the Lobos can do get back in the discussion, shy of winning the MWC tournament.
Last season, New Mexico led the MWC's four-team charge into the NCAA tournament. The Lobos earned a No. 3 seed, very prestigious for a league who rarely receives top-four seeds. However, they could not capitalize on the distinction, falling in the second round to 11th-seeded Washington.
Overall, the MWC's four teams were a mediocre 2-4, with BYU as the other team to win a first-round game. This year, the expectation is for a much greater number of wins, if not a greater (or equal) number of teams.
BYU and San Diego State have a better than average chance of earning 2 or 3 seeds. The best scenario for the MWC would be for the Aztecs to win at home next weekend, and then for the two to meet again in the MWC Championship in Las Vegas. The winner could get a No. 2 seed, the loser very likely a No. 3, if both win all their other games.
Regardless, both of these teams will enter the tournament with high expectations. Anything short of Sweet Sixteen appearances for both would be considered disappointing.
Perhaps the best measure of how far the Mountain West has come will be the number of teams it has in the second weekend of the tournament—or beyond.
In that regard, two would be infinitely better than none.