Not a minute of the conference season has been played, but the overall feeling of disappointment and inopportune performances during the non-conference schedule has left a gray cloud over the Mountain West.
San Diego State, named the MW champion at media days, has a victory over #14 California (now currently unranked) but has stumbled multiple times in its first few weeks. SDSU has failed to score 51 points in four contests and has dropped games to Arkansas Little-Rock, San Diego, and Grand Canyon.
Boise State, expected to compete with San Diego State for the MW title, has missed opportunities to boost its tournament resumé. The Broncos have fallen to Arizona twice and Michigan State before holding off Oregon for a must-win in mid-December.
If the season ended today, UNLV and New Mexico would likely have the best chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament. UNLV has knocked off Indiana and Oregon, but have lost three of its last four matchups. New Mexico has a win over Northern Iowa and a moral victory in a 12-point loss to Purdue, but collapsed with a bizarre loss to Rice last time out.
So let's dive into the stats. A lot of basketball is yet to be played, but we can already start to get an idea of where the Mountain West stands as far as tournament bids.
To study a small, but relative sample size, I narrowed the data down to the last five Mountain West seasons.
In these last five years, 17 teams have reached the big dance, or 3.4 teams per season. Of the 17 teams, the average tournament seed was 7. The average seed of the Mountain West Tournament champion was 5.8, while the average seed of the regular season champion/co-champions was 5.25. San Diego State had a 2 seed back in the 2010-11 season, while Boise State had a play-in game for the 13 seed in the 2012-13 season.
The average winning percentage of the 17 teams in non-conference play was 85.4%. As of the time of the publication, Nevada sits atop the Mountain West with a 8-3 record, 72.7%. Three schools (Boise State, UNLV, Fresno State) are a half-game behind at 8-4, 66.7%.
Here's a quick look at the tournament resumés (as of Tuesday afternoon)
|School||Best Potential Non-Conf. Record||Strong Wins (KenPom)||Bad Losses (KenPom)||KenPom Ranking|
|Nevada||9-3||CS Fullerton (242)||149|
|Boise State||9-4||Oregon (30)||Montana (172)||72|
|Fresno State||9-4||Cal Poly (127)||111|
|UNLV||9-4||Indiana (23), Oregon (30)||82|
|Utah State||8-3||UC Irvine (94)||150|
|Air Force||9-4||Army (140)||214|
|New Mexico||9-4||Northern Iowa (66)||Rice (260), Auburn (130)||62|
|Colorado State||8-5||Northern Iowa (66)||Northern Colorado (325), UTEP (236)||156|
|San Diego State||8-5||California (54)||San Diego (265)||78|
|Wyoming||8-5||Marshall (220), Southern (185)||188|
|San Jose State||5-7||Idaho (264), Seattle (295), Santa Clara (239)||329|
So what needs to happen for multiple Mountain West teams to reach the NCAA Tournament?
To begin, schools like Indiana, Oregon, California, and Northern Iowa need to continue to impress and avoid the bubble. If these teams are able to do so, the RPIs of the MW teams will improve and the wins will look much stronger.
The rest is up to conference play.
In the last five seasons, the winning percentage in conference play by at-large Mountain West schools was 69.8%. This mark would be equivalent to a record between 12-6 and 13-5. Combining this win total to the non-conference records, every school but San Jose State would be in the range of 20-22 wins. 20 victories typically places schools on the "bubble", in which the tournament committee takes attributes such as strength of schedule, strong wins, bad losses, RPI, BPI, and other factors into consideration before choosing the most attractive teams to place in the bracket.
The best-case scenario would go as follows: Boise State, UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State finish above the 12-win mark and another team not previously listed pulls off a Wyoming-esque run in the Mountain West tournament to clinch an automatic bid. A San Diego State win over Kansas would do wonders for the Aztecs' tournament hopes.
The worst-case scenario would call for one team cruising through conference play and also winning the Mountain West tournament. This outcome would almost certainly place only one Mountain West team in the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, over three months of basketball is yet to be played, but with the growing importance of the non-conference season (which is nearly over) many conclusions and predictions can be made. Upstart teams such as Nevada, Fresno State, and Utah State could do some damage in the MW this season. Road wins against the top teams in the conference and a strong showing in the conference tournament will be vital to any Mountain West team searching for a NCAA Tournament berth.