Night Line: Wednesday Night Just the Beginning of Mountain West DramaPosted by BHayes on January 10th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Aaaaand exhale. For those taking in the action from the first night of conference play in the Mountain West this evening, there was hardly a moment to catch a breath. The eight teams in action (Colorado State was the lone conference member to sit out tonight) gave audiences across the Mountain West, from Fresno to Laramie, competitive, inspired basketball in a mesmerizing first act for the MW – a conference that has the potential to produce one of the most competitive and entertaining conference seasons we have seen in quite some time. Highlight reels were spun (you are not from this world Jamaal Franklin), early claims of conference supremacy submitted (yet another statement W from the Lobos at the Pit) and the shot heard ‘round the Mountain West was fired on a wild Wednesday night you should not soon forget.
The Mountain West may have shifted more than a few pairs of eyes out West this evening, and be forewarned college basketball fans – those peepers may not be turning away anytime soon. In this age of the mega-conference, the nine-team Mountain West feels like a vestige of a bygone era, a league filled with teams that know each other a little too well, a full home-and-home schedule for all league members, and a slew of cozy, but treacherous home courts. Only the Ivy and Patriot leagues have fewer members among automatic-bid conferences, and the limited size of the MW is a big reason for the competitive balance we are witnessing this season. The conference is currently fourth in Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings, but the league boasts a whopping six top-50 squads. Yes, six of the nine conference members currently rest in Pomeroy’s top-50, and while that number surely will change as the nine teams brutalize their own over the course of the next two months, the MW currently has more top-50 clubs than both the 15-team Big East (second in Pomeroy’s rankings) and the 12-team ACC (third). Only the Big Ten, the undisputed top conference in America this season, has more top-50 teams than the Mountain West, with eight.
While a serious case can be made for the Mountain West as the second best conference in the land, the campaign’s biggest hole has to be the conference’s lack of a premier team. UNLV, with as much talent as any team in the country, has failed to put it all together to this point, with losses tonight at New Mexico and earlier in the year at UNC looming as the most significant squandered opportunities. The Lobos took care of business in Albuquerque tonight and have a win at Cincinnati to their name, but are they really a cut above the rest of the conference? The jury is still out on San Diego State, who may only be a Nick Johnson block away from a dramatic shift in national perception, and still could be the conference’s most dangerous March contender. Rounding out the sextet of top-50 teams are Colorado State, Wyoming, and Boise State, a trio that has, by and large, taken care of business in the non-conference without any major fireworks (Boise’s win at Creighton being the notable exception.)
So let’s not push the whole “only the Big-Ten is better!” thing just yet. Regardless of the MW’s current resting spot in the Rushmore of college hoops conferences, the league should have no peer when it comes to consistently competitive, exciting basketball. Even the bottom three of Fresno State, Air Force and Nevada will provide trouble for visitors — just ask San Diego State, who narrowly escaped the Central Valley tonight with a three-point win. Every road triumph will be earned, one of many reasons why the Mountain West will double as the Must Watch Conference in 2013.