It has been a slow, gradual process but over the last ten plus years the Mountain West has become a power player in the world of college basketball. Even through the instability of conference realignment with defections and additions the conference has not only gotten its foot in the door, but has pushed it open and gained entrance into the room once only reserved for the ACCs, Big Easts and Big Tens of the world.
The first step in gaining acceptance into this elite club is to earn multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. That is something the Mountain West has accomplished, since 2002 they have earned at least two bids to the big dance. Another piece of evidence that the conference has staying power is, much like the “power 6” conferences they have seen eight different members grab bids. Proving that not only is the MWC strong enough to snatch multiple bids on a yearly basis, it also has the depth from top to bottom to have different teams vying for those bids. Since 2002 Utah, BYU, UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State, Air Force and Wyoming have all represented the conference that is in just its 15th year of existence.
In the last 11 years the conference has garnered 30 invites to the NCAA Tournament with 11 of them coming in the last three seasons during the MWC’s latest push to join the elites of college hoops. The next step in this natural progression for the conference is to have its representatives win more games in the tournament. From 2002-12 the 30 Mountain West invitees have only managed 13 wins with seven of those coming in the last three seasons.
The emergence of the Mountain West thus far can be looked at in three phases. First, 2002-2004 when the conference earned nine bids with five coming from Utah (3) and BYU (2), but in that three-year span there is only two wins to show for all those bids, one from Utah and the other from a 21-8 Wyoming team in 2002.
From 2005-09 the western conglomerate earned two bids per year but again despite having two teams, Utah in 2005 and UNLV in 2008 reach the Sweet Sixteen, they only won five NCAA Tournament games in that time (UNLV had the other win in 2008).
The latest phase in the conference’s evolution has taken place over the last three seasons, 2010-2012. The have earned 11 bids including four in both 2010 and last year, the difference is they have the same number of wins (7) as they earned in the previous eight years combined.
The early years were dominated by Utah and BYU who both left the conference in 2011, the Utes and Cougars earned 12 bids and six wins before their exit. Starting in 2010 those two were joined by New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State who ascended to the upper reaches of the conference. The three new contenders have received eight of the 11 bids the conference has earned since 2010 and four of the wins for the conference including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in 2011 by the #2 seed (the highest seed ever earned by the conference) San Diego State. In 2012 without BYU and Utah the league earned four bids; UNLV a 6 seed, New Mexico a 5 seed, San Diego State a 6 seed and a 20-11 Colorado State earned an 11 seed. Once again the league earned the bids but not the wins as New Mexico was the only team to win a game.
Entering this season the scuttlebutt was that the Mountain West would be one of the most competitive conferences in the country. The top three contenders were a given but could Colorado State make it a four-team race? The Rams currently sit at 17-4 and 4-2 in the Mountain West right in the thick of the conference race. A big reason for that has been senior guard Dorian Green who has been a big part of CSU’s return to the post-season with trips to the CBI, NIT and NCAAs since Green’s arrival.
“For us to improve together as a team each and every year and getting so much playing time early in our careers definitely helped us out.” Green says has been a key to the Ram turnaround.
He says playing in the Mountain West is a test every night, “it’s tough every night no matter if you are at home or on the road, that’s what you want, it gives you a chance to put games on your resume.”
And home is where they have excelled, not having lost a game at Moby Arena since November 19th of last season to Southern Mississippi, who ironically was coached by current Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy.
Green says it is a focus on home games, “We know how important it is to win at home, you have to win at home and sneak some games on the road in conference.” And protecting the home court is important if the Rams want to accomplish their goals, “our goal is to win this conference and go to the NCAA Tournament and make a run.”
Colorado State looks like its well on its way to making the conference at least a group of four in the NCAA Tournament.
During the early part of the season it looked as though the fearsome foursome of the Mountain West may turn into a six pack. Wyoming who finished the non-conference without a blemish at 13-0, including a win over then ranked Colorado and in good shape to make a run at a tournament bid. The Cowboys stumbled in conference play to the tune of a 2-5 start. They do however have a chance to rebound with five games still remaining against the league’s top four teams.
Boise State jumped out to a 12-2 start including a road win at Creighton, but has fallen off with a 2-4 conference mark. But like Wyoming they still have six chances to upgrade their tournament resume before the conference tournament.
Despite Wyoming and Boise State falling off the pace, Air Force has gotten off to a 4-2 start but are in desperate need of a marquee resume builder or two, and they will have opportunities with season series against New Mexico and San Diego State still on the schedule as well as home games with Colorado State and UNLV.
Over the past ten years the Mountain West has slowly earned its way onto the elite landscape of college basketball and with down years in the ACC, SEC and Pac-12 in terms of NCAA bids, the league has a chance to take another step in its evolution.