For once, the Mountain West may not need to worry about furthering its reputation as a perennial underachiever in the NCAA tournament.
Unless the league's non-conference performance improves the next few weeks, it may find it difficult to replicate its usual 3 to 5 NCAA tournament bids, let alone produce any teams seeded well enough to be favored to beat their opening-round opponents.
One year after sending five teams to the NCAA tournament, finishing first in conference RPI and entrenching itself as the West's premier league, the Mountain West has slipped to eighth in conference RPI and the WCC is nipping at its heels for that spot. Though surging San Diego State boasts wins over Creighton, Marquette and Washington, the rest of the Mountain West is a meager 1-21 against teams currently ranked in RealTimeRPI.com's top 70.
UNLV is the symbol of the league's underachievement thanks to a middling 4-4 record highlighted by a stunning 20-point home loss to UCSB and two squandered chances for quality wins at home against Arizona State and Illinois.
Preseason league favorites New Mexico (7-3) and Boise State (8-2) have better records, but the Lobos fell at home to New Mexico State on Tuesday night and the Broncos dropped a home game to Saint Mary's three days earlier. The closest either has come to a marquee win is New Mexico's home win over a solid Cincinnati team and Boise State's home win over improving Utah.
Behind the top four, the league lacks the depth it has enjoyed in recent years.
Colorado State (7-4) is in rebuilding mode after losing five starters, Wyoming (7-3) has lost to the best three teams it has faced and Fresno State (6-5) has thus far been unable to build on its strong finish to last season. Utah State (6-2) has shown glimmers of promise in wins over USC and Alan Williams-less UCSB, but it won't be nearly enough if the Aggies don't get suspended center Jarred Shaw back by conference play.
It's not a huge surprise the Mountain West is a bit down this season considering the talent exodus the league endured this offseason.
Anthony Bennett, Jamaal Franklin and Tony Snell turned pro before they exhausted their eligibility. Kaitin Reinhardt and Mike Moser both transferred from UNLV, Robert Upshaw left Fresno State and Jesse Carr suffered a career-ending knee injury during the offseason. And that's not even counting graduated seniors like Air Force's Michael Lyons, Wyoming's Leonard Washington, UNLV's Anthony Marshall and San Diego State's Chase Tapley.
With New Mexico returning four starters and Boise State bringing back its entire rotation, the hope entering the season was that those two could carry the banner for the league in non-conference play while other programs found their footing. There's still plenty of time for the Lobos and Broncos to reemerge as league favorites, but for right now, it's San Diego State that has done the Mountain West's heaving lifting out of conference.
The good news for the Mountain West is opportunities for quality wins remain before the start of league play in a few weeks.
New Mexico meets Marquette on Saturday in Las Vegas. Fresno State visits Florida on the same day. San Diego State travels to Kansas on Jan. 5. And Boise State participates heads to Hawaii over Christmas to participate in a Diamondhead Classic that also includes undefeated Iowa State and Saint Mary's.
Were the Mountain West to secure a couple more quality wins in those games, it would go a long way toward helping the league position itself to put three or four teams into the NCAA tournament.
If not, the Mountain West's concern won't be more upset losses in March. It will be simply getting its usual allotment of teams into the field.
- - - - - - -