I guess that’s why they call it March Madness. It’s fair to wonder whether or not a 3-4 day tournament is a valid way to decide a conference champion, especially the champion title that leads to an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Fair or not, several Mountain West teams altered their season narrative to some degree in Las Vegas. Some a little, some a lot. I did my best to weigh both the regular season and conference tournament in these final power rankings. Flame away.
1. Utah State - 26-8 (12-6), #40 NET
Alright, alright, alright. Give me a minute. I went back and forth on this too. San Diego State had one of the greatest seasons in mid-major history. 30-2 is beyond impressive. Utah State bested the Aztecs on Saturday, but I still believe that San Diego State is the best team in the conference and well-deserving of a 2-seed in the big dance. That said, Utah State won the tournament. They flew close to the sun against both New Mexico and Wyoming, teams they should have smoked, but it doesn’t matter. Sam Merrill came up big when it mattered. I’m as conflicted as you all are, but the champions should end the season 1st in this poll. As noted in the opening paragraph, it can easily be debated that a one-off tournament shouldn’t decide NCAA Tournament fate, but I suppose that’s why it’s called March Madness. Aggies are 1st.
1B. 2. San Diego State - 30-2 (17-1), #4 NET
This Boise State alum is having a horrible flashbacks to 2010, when the Broncos infamously lost to Nevada after a botched field goal attempt. That team was one of the greatest, if not the greatest non-P5 teams ever. NFL talent abound. Still, somehow didn’t win the conference title thoroughly (I don’t believe in ties). Thankfully, unlike the old BCS, this postseason format will not heavily penalize the Aztecs. San Diego State will still be a 2-seed at worst, and their Final Four hopes still intact. Hell, maybe even improved (2-seed in Sacramento >>> 1-seed in New York). Still, it has to be conflicting times for Aztecs fans. Historically dominant team, 30-2 is something most programs can’t even dream of...yet that costly blemish remains. San Diego State is the best team in the Mountain West. They just picked a bad day to have a bad day. Out of principle, the Aggies finish ahead of them in this poll, but the Aztecs still present the conference’s best shot at a special NCAA Tournament run. Here’s hoping the conference tournament setback results in a pissed off SDSU team this March.
3. Boise State - 20-12 (11-7), #90 NET
Example #2 of how much of a difference one week can make. Boise State was absolutely gutted by UNLV one week prior to the conference tournament. Despite that, Leon Rice and his Broncos bucked past trends of sucking in the conference tournament and upset the Rebels on their floor on Thursday of the tournament. San Diego State shot the Broncos out of the gym on Friday, but the win over UNLV puts the Broncos firmly in the NIT discussion. In a tournament littered with shockingly disappointing results (we’ll get to that), the Broncos didn’t participate for once. Boise State finishes 3rd in NET. That combined with a decent showing in Vegas means the Broncos finish 3rd in these rankings. With star transfers Emmanuel Akot, Marcus Shaver, among others coming off redshirt next fall, expect the Broncos to receive a healthy dose of hype for the 2020-2021 season.
4. UNLV - 17-15 (12-6), #109 NET
Ugh, what to do here? UNLV, Nevada, and Colorado State, all teams I’ve ranked anywhere from 2nd-6th in these power rankings, all bowed out early in the conference tournament. I slot the Rebels in here because losing to Boise State isn’t as embarrassing as losing to Wyoming. T.J. Otzelberger’s debut campaign was inconsistent. Disappointment leading up to the shocking upset at Viejas, which will ultimately be what this season is remembered for. Still, it appeared the Rebels were poised to play spoiler in the conference tournament. Ultimately they’ll advance from this conclusion to the season with a belief that the program is on the track to returning to former glory.
5. Nevada - 19-12 (12-6), #91 NET
What is there to say? Nevada entered the conference tournament with the hype that maybe it was the chief threat to San Diego State’s supremacy. Instead they became the second team in conference tournament history to lose to the 11-seeded team (Colorado State the first, the night before). This was undoubtedly one of the worst losses in program history, unconscionable considering the program’s status only a season ago. They’ll rank 5th here because of their NET ranking, but Wolf Pack fans enter the off-season unsure about Steve Alford after a stunning loss like that.
6. Colorado State - 20-12 (11-7), #106 NET
see: Nevada. Colorado State’s debut season under Niko Medved featured reasons for optimism going forward, but also a bitter taste entering the off-season after becoming the first team in conference tournament history to lose to the 11-seed. To add insult to injury, that loss happened to come with “IT SUCKS, TO BE, A C-S-U RAM” chants from Wyoming fans. Better days are ahead for this young program, but obviously that’s a crappy way to conclude the season.
7. New Mexico - 19-14 (7-11), #144 NET
New Mexico has had one of the most disgraceful seasons in program history this winter. That aside, the Lobos closed the season playing some of their better basketball. The win over San Jose State was not a surprise, but the Lobos pushed eventual conference champion Utah State to the brink. It was an upsetting performance, because the Lobos had Aggie stars Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta sitting on four fouls each, but failed to attack them in the closing minutes of the game. A valiant effort, but nonetheless this program is not anywhere near where it should be. Make no mistake about it: New Mexico’s plight in this sport has played a role in the conference's diminishing amount of bids to the NCAA Tournament in recent years. Be better, Lobos.
8. Wyoming - 9-24 (2-16), #269 NET
Oh shoot me dead, you know I had to do something. Allen Edwards was completely dead in the water as head coach of Wyoming. While his status remains up in the air, nobody on God’s green earth expected the Pokes to push anyone in the conference tournament. Then history was made. No 11-seeded team had ever won in a game in the conference tournament, and Wyoming won TWO this past weekend over rival Colorado State and Nevada. To make matters more confounding, the Pokes pushed Utah State to the very end as well. Wyoming was dreadful in the regular season, and as a result I can’t put them any higher than 8th, but a magical run in Vegas just might keep Allen Edwards around in Laramie for another year. Maybe, possibly. (Edit: Or not.)
9. Air Force - 12-20 (5-13), #220 NET
The Falcons were put into an unenviable position in the conference tournament, but ultimately made the best of it. Defeating Fresno State on Thursday, the Falcons were rewarded with an afternoon date with San Diego State. In the first half, the Falcons were very good, flashing what many expected to see from Air Force during the season. As the Aztecs usually do, they stomped that fire out in the second half, but the Falcons could have easily been embarrassed in this contest. I’m not sure what is next for Dave Pilipovich (edit: apparently we do. Ouch), but this has to go down as a disappointing season for the Falcons.
10. Fresno State - 11-19 (7-11), #161 NET
This feels like a harsh ranking for the Bulldogs, but I suppose that’s what happens when you get bounced from the conference tournament on Wednesday. A loss to Air Force ended a season defined by inexperience for the young Bulldogs. Recruiting and experience will dig this program out of this hole, and positive signs were shown along the way, but obviously Fresno State fans expect better. Expect this program to aim for the middle-of-the-pack next season.
11. San Jose State - 7-24 (3-15), #288 NET
10 consecutive losses to end the season. The Spartans lost to New Mexico in the play-in round of the conference tournament, ending another dreadful season on the hardwood. I’m not sure what more to say. Across the athletic landscape, San Jose State needs to do better. It’s unrealistic to expect every sport to be competitive, but outside of women’s basketball, +.500 seasons are a rarity for this athletic department. Something need to change.
That’ll do it! Thank you to those who read this weekly section this winter.
How will San Diego State and Utah State fare in the big dance? Will the conference see anyone added to the NIT? Early expectations for 2020-2021? Comment below.