When somebody asks you, what is the best conference in the country in college basketball, most people will instantly say the Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, or the SEC. While it is evident that these conferences deserve credit for their extraordinary play and their numerous teams atop the rankings, I am going to make a case for a little talked about conference. This conference is the Mountain West. Even though the Mountain West has been hit by the current uncertainty of university conference membership, they are not letting this affect their play on the court. With BYU and Utah leaving the MWC for greener pastures this past offseason, this left the MWC with only eight member schools for the 2011 season. Utah and BYU had been key contributors to this conference’s success over the past decade but the remaining universities have moved on and maybe put up the best results in conference history this year.
Right now the MWC has two of their eight schools in the top 25 with (20-3) San Diego State and (21-4) UNLV, with (19-4) New Mexico and (18-5) Wyoming right on their heels. It wouldn’t surprise to see them get as much as 50% of their members in the top 25 at some point before the end of the year. The MWC also has six of their eight universities in the top 100 of the RPI. This puts the MWC at 75% of their schools in the top 100 of the RPI. Only the Big Ten has a higher rate at 83%. The MWC currently ranks as the 5th best conference in the RPI ahead of perennial powerhouses like the ACC and PAC 12 and just hundredths of percentage points behind the top rated Big Ten Conference. The MWC schools have racked up wins against the likes of Arizona, Cal (2), North Carolina, Illinois, Virginia, and Saint Louis who have all been rated in the top 25 at some point this year. Not included in this list are a number of other BCS schools like USC (3), Arizona State, Washington State, Boston College, Oklahoma State, Colorado (2), Texas Tech, and Utah. Most of these BCS schools have more resources than any of these MWC schools could dream of, but yet they have proven that money doesn’t buy wins.
Right now I legitimately think this conference deserves 4 bids to March Madness with the following schools: Locks to make the tournament UNLV (21-4) Best Wins: North Carolina, Illinois, Cal, New Mexico Questionable Losses: None Current RPI: 7 Strength of Schedule: 51 This is probably the easiest case to make out of all the MWC teams. Their win over, at the time #1 rated, North Carolina really propelled this team on the national stage. This is the best win this conference has produced this year and the only national recognition I have seen from the media on any team from the MWC. They have also taken wins from Illinois and Cal on their way to a solid overall season and a potential #2 seed. San Diego State (20-3) Best Wins: Arizona, Cal, UNLV, New Mexico Questionable Losses: None Current RPI: 21 Strength of Schedule: 85 San Diego State is one of those teams that have done nothing to shoot themselves in the foot and they show up for every game.
They have some goods wins but nothing that will get them considered for a top seeding like UNLV can receive. If they continue to play solid ball to finish the year I see them getting somewhere between a 3-5 seed. New Mexico (19-4) Best Wins: Saint Louis, Oklahoma State, Missouri State Questionable Losses: Santa Clara, New Mexico State Current RPI: 41 Strength of Schedule: 97 Even though this team doesn’t have any top caliber wins they have stockpiled a bunch of wins against quality opponents. Also in my opinion this team has the ability to make just as much noise in the big dance as UNLV and SDSU.
This team has depth and talent to go along with a great head coach in Steve Alford. This is my dark horse to make a big run in the tournament this year and they have the potential to make the final four if everything goes right. Right now New Mexico is looking at somewhere between a 7-10 seed. Still has work to do Wyoming (18-5) Best Wins: Colorado, UNLV Questionable Losses: Green Bay, TCU Current RPI: 84 Strength of Schedule: 163 Much like San Diego State, Wyoming has really played consistent all year and they haven’t had many slipups.
They just picked up their biggest win of the year last week against UNLV and going forward they can earn their way into the tournament. Their win over UNLV finally gets them in the conversation as a legitimate tournament team. This team also has a great group of players and they could be bracket busters in March. Don’t rule out a run to the sweet sixteen if this team slides in somewhere between a 9-12 seed.
Even though I think this conference deserves at least 4 teams in the tournament I am realistic. Many of the people deciding who gets in have what we call “east coast bias” or haven’t even seen these MWC teams play. I assure you these teams pass the eye test and if given a chance I think they would make serious noise in the March Madness. If given this opportunity I think many people would be convinced that this year the MWC is the most competitive conference in the country.