The college basketball season is only four days complete. I get it.
So far, however, the Mountain West has shown that it is not ready for primetime. Recent history tells us that the conference is in dire need of valuable non-conference victories immediately, or the MWC will fail to record multiple bids for a second consecutive season.
Two of the headlining games for Mountain West contenders have passed, with #17 Saint Mary’s pushing past the Nevada 81-63 on Friday and #14 Gonzaga pounding SDSU Monday by a score of 69-48. Early season tournaments aside, these two games could have been a heads-up to the tournament committee that it is time to change the what’s-up-with-the-Mountain-West rhetoric. Instead, both teams were run out of the building by their WCC counterparts.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The Mountain West still has a handful of meaningful games before league play begins on December 28. San Diego State participates in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic in December, a tournament that features Utah, Stephen F. Austin and Illinois State. The Aztecs also have an important neutral site contest against California next Monday in Sacramento. Nevada participates in the GCI Great Alaska Shootout (Weber State and Iona are notable potential opponents), New Mexico heads to Anaheim for the Wooden Legacy (Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Dayton, UCLA are included) and Utah State takes on the two-day Cancun Challange where it will face Purdue and either Texas Tech or Auburn.
But if recent history tells us anything, it’s that the MWC is already in trouble. The table below shows the at-large bids from the Mountain West, dating back to the 2011-12 season.
|Team, NCAA Seed (Year)||Non-Conference Wins (KenPom Ranking)|
|San Diego State, 8 (2015)||Utah (8), BYU* (28), Pittsburgh (78)|
|Boise State, 11 (2015)||@ Saint Mary's (67)|
|San Diego State, 4 (2014)||Creighton* (17), Marquette* (68), Washington (98), @ Kansas (7)|
|Boise State, 13 (2013)||@ Creighton (15)|
|San Diego State, 7 (2013)||UCLA* (49), @ USC (104), Indiana State* (91)|
|UNLV, 5 (2013)||Iowa State (30), @ California (56), Northern Iowa (68)|
|Colorado State, 8 (2013)||@ Denver (47), @ Washington (81), Evansville (85)|
|San Diego State, 6 (2012)||Long Beach State (36), @ Arizona (51), California (29)|
|UNLV, 6 (2012)||North Carolina (6), Illinois* (76), California (29)|
|Colorado State, 11 (2012)||Colorado (81), Denver (73)|
The NCAA Tournament committee places an incredibly heavy weight on quality non-conference victories, especially of the top 50 variety. Colorado State was snubbed of a tournament bid back in the 2015 season despite 27 wins, mostly due to a relatively weak non-conference schedule, even though the Rams were a perfect 13-0. Last year, San Diego State narrowly missed the tournament due to a neutral site loss to San Diego and a home loss to Grand Canyon. SDSU picked up a quality victory over California, but its noteworthy defeats were the thorn in the side of the Aztecs. A lack of at least one or two top 50 victories in non-conference play is nearly a guarantee of an NIT appearance. Losses to sub-par teams are even more harmful than top 50 victories are helpful.
The table below is a list of current Mountain West tournament contenders with notable upcoming non-conference games on the right. Mountain West pundits will point to these important games in the following weeks.
|Team||Current KenPom Ranking||Notable Non-Conference Games (KenPom Ranking)|
|San Diego State||56||
|New Mexico||83||Virginia Tech* (47), @ Illinois State (93), @ Arizona (10)|
|Utah State||111||Purdue* (18), BYU* (48)|
Road and neutral site matchups (SDSU vs. California, New Mexico vs. Virginia Tech and Utah State vs. Purdue & BYU) will be imperative to the Mountain West's success moving forward. The results of these remaining eight games will make or break the 2016 season for the league.
To be a respected conference, the MWC must capitalize on opportunities during the non-conference portion of the schedule. Thus far, the Mountain West has failed to silence the doubters. It's not what the fans want to hear, but it's the reality of mid-major conferences hoping for additional bids on Selection Sunday. With two disheartening losses early in the season, the MWC has lots of work to do prior to the start of the conference season.