As fans of the Mountain West Conference, we all must be honest with ourselves. This is not the best basketball we have ever seen played, and it really hasn’t been for the last few years. But, since the conference’s inception in 1999, there have been some really, really entertaining seasons and some phenomenal teams. So, as March Madness gets underway, let’s quickly pause that and take a trip down memory lane to see the top 8 MWC men’s basketball teams of all time. DISCLAIMER: I will mention this for the sake of getting ripped to shreds in the comments, but I am only including seasons since 1999 (sorry UNLV fans, we know your championship season would be number one) and will also be including former members of the conference.
8. 2001-2002 Wyoming Cowboys
Steve McLain’s Cowboys were THE team in the Mountain West in 2001/2002. The Cowboys went 22-9 overall and posted an 11-3 record in conference play. They boasted a starting five that spread the ball around, having four starters average double figures in scoring. Led by Wyoming native Marcus Bailey, the Cowboys received an at-large bid into the tournament as an 11-seed. They went on to take down 6th-seeded Gonzaga, notably known as the programs biggest modern-day win. The following game they would fall to Arizona, but this Cowboy squad still grabs a spot on this list thanks to their strong conference showing and tournament upset.
7. 2007-2008 Runnin’ Rebels
Lon Kruger had a habit of putting together some really good squads in his time with the Rebels, and 07-08 was another example of that. Wink Adams was an absolute blast to watch, and he had his way with MWC defenses all year. The Rebels finished second in the conference, but they rattled off three straight wins in the conference tournament, beating BYU at the Thomas and Mack Center to secure a berth to the NCAA tournament. Entering the tourney as an 8-seed, UNLV dispatched of Kent State in the first round, before losing to eventual NCAA champion Kansas in the following game. Their performance in conference play and the conference tournament coupled with losing to the eventual national champion lets this UNLV squad grab a spot in our top eight.
6. 2015-2016 Fresno State Bulldogs
I will start with a disclaimer, I am well aware this team lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This is probably a pick that most people didn’t expect to make the list, and frankly I did not think it would either. However, if you look deeper into this Bulldogs squad it is really safe to say that this team was really, really good. They posted a 25-10 record, and 13-5 in conference play to finish second in the league. This was not a spectacular year for the Mountain West overall, but Fresno State clearly had a special team this year. The real reason this team made the list is because of how they finished the year, rattling off nine straight wins before losing in the NCAA tournament to the now-Pac-12 Utah Utes. After falling to Nevada in mid-February, it appeared the Bulldogs didn’t have much to play for until the MWC tournament. Instead of just coasting into the tournament, they rattled off six straight wins to end the regular season, and took down regular season-champion SDSU in the tournament championship game to reach the NCAA tournament. They only lost two home games all year, and Marvelle Harris was one of the best MWC players in the last five years. Also, watching Karachi Edo and his rec-specs on the court gave this team a little boost in the rankings as well.
5. 2004-2005 Utah Utes
When Utah departed from the Mountain West, many thought the pain would be felt in the football department for the conference. Given it’s success in football, that still is probably true, but the Utes played some really competitive basketball in their time with the conference. In 04/05, Andrew Bogut led the Utes to a 13-1 conference record and a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Bogut absolutely dominated the Mountain West, averaging over 20 points a game en route to becoming a 1st-round draft pick in the NBA draft. After beating UTEP and Oklahoma in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Utes would eventually fall to Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. For their time in the Mountain West, this was far and away the best Utes team.
4. 2013-2014 SDSU Aztecs
Under legendary coach Steve Fisher, the 13/14 Aztecs were one of the most hard-nosed teams in MWC history. The unique part about this team was the fact that they were primarily led by a group of transfers, and their calling card was exceptional defense and second-chance points offensively. Point guard Xavier Thames led this scrappy crew to a regular season Mountain West championship, notching 31 total wins including a win at Kansas, widely regarded as the biggest win in program history. Entering the NCAA tournament as a 4-seed, the Aztecs narrowly escaped their first matchup against New Mexico State, but did go on to soundly beat North Dakota State to earn a berth into the Sweet Sixteen. They would go on to lose to Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen in one of the most entertaining games of the entire tournament. This was not the best team in SDSU history, but it was certainly the most surprising team in program history that used a blueprint of experienced transfers to win close games throughout the year.
3. 2006-2007 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
UNLV has fielded some pretty competitive teams in the past two decades, but this was probably the most successful one. Lon Kruger’s Rebels played a very entertaining and fun style of basketball, and they had talent to go with their swagger. Not to say that the Rebels were a “mean” team, but they had some big bodies that were not afraid to mix it up. Led by future NBA’er Joel Anthony, the Rebels finished the year 30-6 and reached the Sweet Sixteen as 7-seed, pulling off a massive upset against number 2-seeded Wisconsin. UNLV was actually picked to finish 6th in the conference, yet they ended up solidifying their tournament berth with a MWC tournament championship against BYU. The conference was strong that year as well, as Air Force was nationally ranked and both SDSU and BYU had strong teams as well. This was probably not the Rebels’ most talented team, but they had a winning aura about them so it is safe to say it was their most successful season in the Mountain West, at least on paper.
2. 2017-2018 Nevada Wolfpack
Man, this Pack’ team was solid. Finishing the season 29-8 and 15-3 in conference play, Nevada won the regular season conference title and found themselves nationally ranked throughout the majority of conference play. With the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline leading the way, the Wolfpack played one of the most thrilling NCAA tournaments of any Mountain West team. Advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, the Pack’ won their first two tournament games by a total of only six points, and even their eventual loss to Final Four-bound Loyola Chicago was a heartbreaking 1-point loss. As a 7-seed, their thrilling second-round win against second-seeded Cincinnati was a landmark victory for the program, and they more than deserve the number two spot in this ranking.
1. The Entire 2010-2011 Mountain West
The entire reason for this article was actually sparked by a conversation with fellow college hoops fans about the glory that the Mountain West once was in basketball. This particular year was one of the most headline-grabbing seasons in the history of any Mountain West sport in any season. Jimmer Fredette and Kawhi Leonard made the entire nation focus on the Mountain West for a season, and it was truly a magical season all around. UNLV and Colorado State also had really strong teams, and New Mexico won 22 games as well. I think the best part about this season was the atmospheres that nearly every arena had in the Mountain West. The Marriott Center was a sea of thunderous white, UNLV had the Thomas and Mack Center jumping again, The Pit in New Mexico was its normal rocking self, and Viejas Arena in San Diego was listed as a bucket-list atmosphere for any college basketball fan to witness in person. You know the conference was at it’s height when the nationally broadcasted SDSU-BYU game at Viejas Arena in San Diego was noted as the hardest ticket to find in the city’s history, a city that has contained pro sports franchises for over 50 years.
BYU and SDSU both went on to reach the Sweet Sixteen, each falling in games that could have easily gone the other way. BYU had one of the most prolific stars in college basketball history in Jimmer Fredette, and a host of co-stars like Noah Hartsock and Jackson Emery. This team fielded players who could literally shoot the ball from anywhere on the court at all positions, which proved to be a problem for gritty SDSU who conceded the regular season title to them by being swept in the regular season by the Cougars. SDSU had future NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard leading the way, and the Aztecs were one of the most daunting defensive and rebounding teams in the country. Contrary to BYU’s unbelievable scoring ability, San Diego State’s success hinged on the inside presence of Leonard, athletic center Malcolm Thomas and hard-nosed forward Billy White. BYU’s ultimate downfall was their lack of defensive fortitude, as they wound up giving up 83 points to Florida in their Sweet Sixteen loss. SDSU’s only black eye was their sometimes offensive misfortunes, while despite not turning the ball over their lack of a superstar outside shooter hurt them at times. Error-free point guard DJ Gay and backup guard James Rahon did give them some help from outside, but facing Kemba Walker and UCONN in their Sweet Sixteen loss was not the best matchup for the more defensive-minded Aztecs. The Cougars and Aztecs could each have been Final Four teams without question, and if the Cougars had defenders like Leonard and Thomas they would have, whereas if the Aztecs had shooters like Fredette and Emery many pundits think they would have been national champions.
With all things considered, the 2010-2011 season was the highlight of Mountain West basketball, but there seems to be something brewing in the current era. Nevada is strong and talented, Utah State might be the favorite next season, and SDSU seems to be on the brink of returning to their usual and consistent form. If New Mexico and UNLV can turn things around a bit, there will be strong competition in some of the most basketball-crazed markets in the league. Additionally, teams like Colorado State, Wyoming, Boise State and Fresno State seem to be cyclical, where every few years they turn out some really good teams. Justin Hutson’s Bulldogs are probably the closest, and in a good year it is believable to think that the Save Mart Center can be a top venue in the conference. Here’s to a great March Madness, and here’s to hope for some good times coming our way in the Mountain West.