Sunday, March 12, 2017 | 3 a.m.
Last year, San Diego State went 28-10 overall and romped to the Mountain West regular-season championship with a 16-2 record. Then the Aztecs were upset in the title game of the league tournament, and when Selection Sunday came, they were left out of the big dance.
UNR escaped a similar fate this weekend, edging past Fresno State and Colorado State to win the Mountain West tournament, and when the NCAA tournament brackets are announced today, the Wolf Pack will be nestled safely inside the velvet rope. Had they lost, however, the story would have been similar to last season. Even with a 28-6 record and an RPI in the top 40, UNR probably would not have earned an at-large berth had they been upset in the league tournament.
That’s the state of the Mountain West right now. The conference is way down (KenPom.com ranks it ninth nationally) and so lightly regarded by the selection committee that even dominance such as SDSU’s 2015-16 campaign is not rewarded. It has become the definition of a one-bid league — conference tournament champions only allowed, others need not apply.
It wasn’t always like that. As recently as four years ago, the Mountain West earned four at-large bids in the NCAA tournament. League champ New Mexico earned an automatic bid and a No. 3 seed, while UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado State and Boise State also garnered invitations.
The decline has been steady since then. Two MWC teams earned berths in 2014 (New Mexico and San Diego State), 1.5 made it in 2015 (SDSU claimed the auto bid, while Boise State was cast into a play-in game), and finally just one team in 2016 and 2017.
UNLV’s decline has been one of the major factors in the Mountain West’s slide into irrelevance. The league’s flagship program should be aiming for the NCAA tournament every season, but it’s been three years since the Rebels have even dreamed of making the field.
The rest of the league is suffering from the same issues plaguing mid-major conferences around the country, as Power 5 schools rack up more money, more TV exposure and the vast majority of available at-large berths (as of Saturday, the ACC was projected to place as many as 10 teams in the field of 68).
Self-inflicted wounds have also contributed to the Mountain West’s fall. With the league lacking depth, the strength of the non-conference schedule takes on added importance. Most of the teams in the Mountain West have trouble getting quality opponents to travel to their gyms, however, so they settle for filling their non-conference schedule with low-level Division I opponents, or even DII squads.
San Diego State played one DII school this season, beating San Diego Christian by a score of 81-58. The Aztecs are one of the only MWC teams that can try to get away with scheduling games like that, because they (along with UNLV) have the cachet to also attract quality opponents like Gonzaga and Cal (both on the SDSU slate this season).
The rest of the league has no such luxury, and yet Boise State still scheduled a home game against Division II Northwest University (an 85-46 win), and Colorado State hosted Fort Lewis (a worthless 84-75 win), and Wyoming played Western State and Colorado Christian (two wins by a combined score of 155-109). Those games hurt the strength of schedule for the Mountain West overall, and when it comes time for the selection committee to review résumés, all those contests against non-DI opponents are held against the league.
UNR coach Eric Musselman didn’t schedule a Division II team this year, and he thinks the Mountain West would be taken more seriously by the NCAA tournament committee if the rest of the league followed suit.
“I think the league office and the coaches and the athletic directors, we're all searching to try to figure it out,” Musselman said. “I can only say what I see playing Division II teams. As a coach, I don't get up for a Division II game. I think that would help, not playing those Division II [teams].”
As the divide between the power conferences and the small conferences widens, there are fewer avenues available for upping the strength of schedule. An attempt was made two years ago with the Mountain West—Missouri Valley Challenge, but the MVC has a top-heavy quality distribution similar to the Mountain West, so most of the games ended up not moving the SOS needle.
The only surefire way to make the league stronger is for the teams within the Mountain West to get better. UNLV has to field a Top 25-caliber team annually, New Mexico has to power through the Craig Neal doldrums and get back to winning 25 games per year, San Diego State has to win its big non-conference games and UNR has to max out its current run by representing the league well in the NCAA tournament.
A league with three or four stalwarts making each other stronger, drawing bigger crowds, getting higher TV ratings and attracting better opponents is the only way to make the Mountain West relevant again.
Until that happens — until UNLV returns to glory, and the rest of the league recruits better and puts quality teams on the court — the Mountain West will continue to be left out in the cold in March while the power conferences are having a ball.
“San Diego State, what they did last year, 16-2, what an incredible season,” Musselman said. “How they didn't make the tournament, I have no idea. I think it's not fair.
“But that's the world we live in.”