The 2020-2021 men’s basketball regular season has come and gone. Now that the smoke has cleared, and the Mountain West came up short on bids for the NCAA Tournament. Despite a strong season from numerous teams, the conference went from a real chance at bids for four teams to a disappointing two.
In what was touted a few weeks ago as the strongest and deepest the Mountain West has been in years on the hardwood, it came up short. This post will examine how this season’s success and ultimate disappointment compares to previous seasons.
This will not be a deep look at past MWC men’s basketball seasons. For the sake of simplicity, the winning percentages of the top four teams each season will be examined, as that was the number of teams the conference hoped to have gone dancing this year. The winning percentage will then be compared to the number of teams who actually went to the top tournament. The range of this scope will go back to the 2012-2013 season when the conference sent five teams to March Madness and is commonly seen as the peak (pun intended) of MBB in the Mountain West.
Winning Percentage of the top four teams:
2021: 85.2%, 75.5%, 71.4%, 69.2%
2020: 93.8%, 76.5%, 62.5%, 62.5%
2019: 85.3%, 80.0%, 71.9%, 61.8%
2018: 78.4%, 71.9%, 66.7%, 65.6%
2017: 80.0%, 66.7%, 62.5%, 60.6%
2016: 73.7%, 71.4%, 63.2%, 62.5%
2015: 79.4%, 75%, 73.5%, 71.4%
2014: 86.1%, 79.4%, 61.8%, 60.6%
2013: 82.9%, 74.3%, 71.4%, 67.6%
NCAA Tournament Bids
2021: 2 (San Diego State and Utah State)
2020: 0* (Covid, but two teams, Utah State and San Diego State, would have likely gone)
2019: 2 (Nevada, Utah State)
2018: 2 (Nevada, San Diego State)
2017: 1 (Nevada)
2016: 1 (Fresno State)
2015: 3 (San Diego State, Boise State, Colorado State)
2014: 2 (San Diego State, New Mexico)
2013: 5 (New Mexico, Colorado State, UNLV, San Diego State, Boise State)
There is obviously more to the picture in each of these seasons, but a few things can be pulled from the information above. First, outside of 2015, the Mountain West hasn’t come close to matching their success from 2013, especially in terms of tournament bids. Secondly, the conference has basically become a league carried by one or two teams, which was especially true during Nevada’s three-year run. It was true in 2020 as well, and San Diego State was robbed of seeing how far they could go in the tournament.
Most importantly, it demonstrates how strong the MWC was this year. Over the past nine years, the conference had their fourth-strongest showing from the first and second-place teams, the third-strongest showing from a third-place team, and the second-best winning percentage from the fourth-place team in the conference. While the top-four of 2021 doesn’t match the depth of 2015, it does tie or beat every direct comparison to the famed 2013 season. Then why were only two teams selected for the tournament this year compared to five that season? The answer is almost sure to be conference prestige.
The problem is apparent: the Mountain West doesn’t carry the same weight it used to as a basketball conference, and it no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. But as for the answers to this issue, it’s not as apparent. Here are some suggestions:
- A return of traditional powers: It’s no secret that New Mexico and UNLV, two former cornerstones of the conference, as far removed from their glory days. The Lobos are a mess financially, and they just fired their coach. The Runnin’ Rebels have been mirrored in mediocrity more than anything, and it didn’t help that their prized recruit found legal trouble before even arriving on campus. If either of these teams could resemble anything close to their former selves, it would go a long way.
- Sustained Success: San Diego State and Utah State have each made the conference tournament for the past three years and have shown no signs of slowing down going forward. That is big for the conference. Colorado State and Boise State are consistently above-average teams who can’t seem to get over the hump. Nevada and Wyoming are young, but the potential and talent is evident. If even half of these programs can sustain their success for the foreseeable future, it would go a long way towards getting the outside perception of the conference back to its old standards.
- Win tournament games: This is easier said than done, but it is a straightforward goal. Winning on the nation’s biggest stage is what elevates teams and, in turn, elevates conferences. The MWC is in desperate need of a team that can be penciled in to make the Sweet 16 every year. They could also use an extended run by a team (think Butler or Loyola-Chicago) to make national noise and reestablish the conference.
- Schedule better out of conference games: And win them: If March Madness wins are raising the ceiling, strong non-conference wins are raising the floor of the conference. Overall, the Mountain West does not make big splashes in their out-of-conference schedule. Recently, the MWC has ditched the Missouri Valley crossover challenge in favor of the Atlantic-10. It’s a step up, if nothing else, and an annual opportunity for the conference to edge out some wins that will pay dividends later in the season. However, more is needed.
The objective could not be more straightforward. Do whatever is possible to make everyone on the outside notice the Mountain West in all of the best ways. Much of that will be winning early and often, but winning without being noticed won’t be enough, as that is what happened this year. Teams need to win when it counts, and that can start as soon as this weekend.