For mid-major conferences (and make no bones about it, that’s exactly what the Mountain West is whether you like that term or not), the non-conference schedule is when rivals get together, lock arms and march in unison against all comers. San Diego State fans may hate UNLV (and vice versa) from January to March, but at this time of the year, Aztecs are rooting for Rebels (and Lobos and Broncos and Rams and the like) to maximize the overall strength of the conference. It’s sort of like Thanksgiving dinner in a dysfunctional family. Early on, everybody’s working together to make a great dinner. The turkey’s in the oven; the pumpkin pie is cooling on the windowsill; Aunt Bertha’s working on the mashed potatoes; Uncle Fred’s passing out liquid cheer by the pint-full; the kids are playing quietly on the floor. Good times. That’s the non-conference slate. Everybody is still on speaking terms. Hours later, people have eaten too much; perhaps a little too much of that cheer got consumed. The kids are screaming at high pitch. An argument has started over, well, nobody really remembers what. Past grievances begin to be aired. That’s the conference schedule. Everybody hates each other again and even if they can’t remember exactly why, surely somewhere there’s a good reason.
But so far, in the early stages of this Mountain West season, that kitchen seems filled with a few too many cooks who don’t exactly have their eyes on the dish. There’s some smoke coming out of the oven. The gravy’s boiled over. One of those bratty kids knocked the pie off the window sill and the dog got up on the counter and into the mashed potatoes. It’s all going to hell and dinner hasn’t even been served yet. To turn this metaphor back into basketball, here we are three weeks into the season and these are the five best non-conference wins among the 11 Mountain West conference teams (with current KenPom rankings of the opponents in parentheses).
- UNLV by three over Indiana (#25)
- Colorado State by six at Northern Iowa (#45)
- San Diego State by 14 over California (#52)
- UNLV by two over Cal Poly (#99)
- Boise State by seven over UC Irvine (#112)
That’s it. We’ve got to include some wins over two Big West teams as ingredients for our big feast. As the saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (to completely mix metaphors), and you can’t make multiple NCAA Tournament bids out of a conference that looks poised to leave non-conference play without many great wins. That said, there are still some chances out there. Boise will get a home crack at Oregon next weekend. San Diego State won at Kansas a couple years back and will host the Jayhawks this season. UNLV still has Oregon, Wichita State, Arizona State and Arizona on their schedule. New Mexico travels to Purdue this weekend followed by Northern Iowa at home next weekend. And there are other chances. But to make a long story short, the margin for error with this conference is already getting awfully thin.