In the aftermath of the additions of Butler and VCU this offseason, the Atlantic 10 received some buzz as college basketball's seventh major conference.
The league may very well merit that honor in future years, but right now it isn't even the best of the next tier of conferences.
That title goes to the Mountain West, which is off to an even better start this season than it was last year when the league landed four teams in the NCAA tournament or the previous year when BYU and San Diego State spent most of the winter in the top 15. The Mountain West's six top teams have combined to amass a 41-3 record entering Wednesday's slate, with the three losses coming against Syracuse, Michigan State and Oregon.
Boise State (6-1) owns a road win at then-No. 11 Creighton. Wyoming (9-0) won at Valley contender Illinois State just a few days after handing Colorado its first loss. New Mexico (8-0) has toppled UConn and Davidson. Colorado State (6-0) blew away Washington by 18 points in Seattle. And that list of wins doesn't even include those tallied by UNLV (6-1) and San Diego State (6-1), the two prohibitive favorites to win the league entering the season.
Granted Air Force hasn't tallied in any noteworthy wins, Fresno State is rebuilding and Nevada has been disappointing, but that top six is better than the Atlantic 10's upper tier and could hold its own against some power six leagues. The Mountain West currently checks in fifth in conference RPI, ahead of the SEC and the Big 12.
Should we have seen this coming? Perhaps, in retrospect.
The success of San Diego State and UNLV was no surprise given their talent level, nor is it any shock to see Colorado State winning since the Rams returned the core of their NCAA tournament team from a year ago. New Mexico lost all-conference big man Drew Gordon, but their guard corps led by Kendall Williams and Tony Snell were accomplished enough that many projected the Lobos to return to the NCAA tournament as well.
One of the surprise teams is Boise State, which went 3-11 in league play a year ago but returned all five starters. The key to the Broncos improvement has been the development of sophomore guards Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic, the former who has doubled his scoring average to 18.7 points per game and the latter who is scoring more this season and at a much more efficient rate.
The other surprise is Wyoming, which won 21 games last season but went 2-6 on the road in league play. That's why Tuesday night's come-from-behind win at Illinois State was a very significant step for the Cowboys because it showed they could overcome adversity on the road and beat a quality team.
How will the league race play out? Three early thoughts.
• UNLV is the most talented team even before Khem Birch makes his debut this month, but the Rebels aren't playing well enough to win the league right now. Their lack of a true point guard is alarming, as is the fact that Bryce Dejean-Jones and Kaitin Reinhardt seem to have no conscience shooting contested jump shots early in the shot clock.
• Even if the top six teams in the league perform well all month and appear to be NCAA tournament-caliber entering January, there's no way the Mountain West can get six bids. The best-case scenario is five and the more realistic scenario is probably four because the top teams will all beat each other up in league play.
• Speaking of which, I wrote before the season that the Mountain West champ would have a minimum of four losses, and I'm standing by that. The road trips in the league are far too difficult for any of the contenders to storm to a 14-2 or even 13-3 mark. Between raucous crowds, altitude and formidable teams, every road win will be hard-earned.