RTC Conference Primers: #8 – Mountain West ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on October 29th, 2010
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor
Predicted Order of Finish
- San Diego State (13-3)
- BYU (12-4)
- New Mexico (11-5)
- UNLV (11-5)
- Colorado State (9-7)
- Wyoming (6-10)
- Utah (6-10)
- TCU (3-13)
- Air Force (1-15)
All-Conference Team (key stats from last season in parentheses)
- G: Jimmer Fredette, Sr, BYU (22.1 PPG, 4.7 APG)
- G: Dairese Gary, Sr, New Mexico (13.1 PPG, 3.9 APG)
- G: Tre’Von Willis, Sr, UNLV (17.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
- F: Afam Muojeke, Jr, Wyoming (16.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
- F: Kawhi Leonard, Soph, San Diego State (12.7 PPG, 9.9 RPG)
Billy White, Sr, San Diego State (11.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG)
Drew Gordon, Jr, New Mexico – Gordon left UCLA midway through the Bruins awful season last year after never meshing with Ben Howland and his system, and as a result, he won’t be eligible for Steve Alford until after the first semester. But Gordon showed enough talent in his years in Westwood that he will be a welcome addition for what was an undersized Lobo team last season. However, Gordon did tear the meniscus in his right knee in mid-October and, although he is not expected to miss any game action, he may miss out on valuable practice time leading up to his expected December 17 debut.
What You Need to Know
- Best In The West? Given the Mountain West’s history as a contender for the title of the top non-BCS conference in the nation, and given that the Pac-10 is at its lowest point in memory, it’s quite possible that, at least for 2010-11, the MWC may be the best conference in the West. Last season, four MWC teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament, and in just over a decade of existence, only once has the MWC failed to place more than one team to the Big Dance (2000-01). However, major changes are afoot in the conference, as Utah and BYU, both consistently strong basketball forces, will be leaving for the Pac-10 and WCC, respectively. Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada will join the conference, but while those teams are capable of putting together strong seasons (Nevada, in particular, has recent success on the court), they’ll be hard-pressed to replace the production of the two Utah schools.
- Familiar Faces: When you look around the conference this season, there will be a lot of veterans up and down the rosters, as 70% of the players that averaged more than five points per game last season return. Only Utah, of the nine conference teams, will look drastically different, as they lost two starters to graduation, a third starter to transfer, and five additional bench players to transfers as well. Bolstering the general experience around the league is a flood of incoming transfers: Drew Gordon and Emmanuel Negedu at New Mexico, Quintrell Thomas at UNLV, Hank Thorns at TCU, Wes Eikemeier at Colorado State and James Rahon at San Diego State. Not only will there be a lot of recognizable players on the court, there continues to be a lot of stability on the sidelines, as for the second consecutive year, every head coach in the MWC returns.
- Non-conference Boost: Last season seemed to mark the first year of a new era in non-conference scheduling in the MWC. After earning a reputation as a conference whose teams would play consistently tough games, they slipped out of the top 20 in non-conference strength of schedule for a stretch from the 2006-07 season through the 2008-09 season. However, last year, the MWC addressed this in several ways. First and foremost, their teams were able to go out and get games against Pac-10 and Big 12 competition, but they were also able to get their teams in some good early-season tournaments, and they began the MWC/MVC Challenge, guaranteeing every team in the conference a matchup with a team from the Missouri Valley. That MWC/MVC Challenge will continue (the two conferences signed a four-year agreement), as will the involvement of conference teams in early-season tournaments (for instance, New Mexico plays in the Las Vegas Classic, UNLV in the 76 Classic, Colorado State in the Cancun Governor’s Cup, BYU in the South Padre Island Classic, Utah in the Diamondhead Classic, Wyoming in the Cancun Classic and San Diego State in the CBE Classic – and yes, the people that run these tournaments need to consult a thesaurus for an alternative to “Classic”). Additionally, the tougher non-conference scheduling continues, with conference schools making trips to places like Spokane, Berkeley, Logan, Ann Arbor, El Paso, Dayton, Tulsa, Louisville and Kansas City over the course of the non-conference slate.
San Diego State (NCAA Seed: #5): The Aztecs return all five starters from last season’s MWC Tournament champion team, and lose only two contributors, while getting back frontcourt contributors Tim Shelton and Mehdi Cheriet from injury and adding James Rahon, a transfer from Santa Clara, to address the team’s biggest weakness, their lack of a consistent proven three-point threat. The Aztec squad is highlighted by the most talented frontcourt in the conference, with conference player of the year candidate Kawhi Leonard joined by talented and athletic seniors Malcolm Thomas (10.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG) and Billy White. Leonard started out his freshman season somewhat slowly, especially offensively, where he failed to score in double figures until his sixth game, but he improved markedly as the season went on, hitting double-digits in 17 of his 20 games after the new year. He racked up a total of 17 double-doubles, dominating the MWC Tournament on the way to Tournament MVP honors and becoming the first freshman in the history of the conference to earn first-team All-MWC honors. And the consensus is, there is still room to grow, as he showed increased confidence in his jumper as the season progressed. Leonard will certainly be a force to reckon with every night out, but perhaps the key to this Aztec team is point guard and senior leader D.J. Gay (10.5 PPG, 3.2 APG). Gay doesn’t shoot a high percentage (37% from the field), and with his slight frame and stature (he’s listed at 6’0, 167 lbs, and both figures are likely generous), he can be taken advantage of physically at times, but he is a bulldog and a true floor general, and often as he goes, so go the Aztecs. He rarely turns the ball over, initiates good offense and is unafraid to pull the trigger if all else breaks down. He’s not often flashy, but in the end he may be the key for Steve Fisher’s talented squad to win the regular season title. He’ll team with sophomore Chase Tapley (7.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG) in the backcourt, and freshman point LaBradford Franklin should get some time off the bench as the point guard of the future. Both Gay and Tapley are competent three-point shooters (38% and 37% respectively), but neither is what you would call a pure shooter, so expect Rahon to see some time in that role. While the outside shooting will remain a question mark until the Aztecs can prove differently, this team should control the glass against just about everybody they play this season (their early season trip to Gonzaga could be a good test of that claim), they seem to relish playing defense as a group and there will be no shortage of players capable of scoring either in the half-court or in transition. In a tight MWC race, San Diego State stands a bit taller than the rest.
- BYU (NCAA Seed: #7): For the Cougars, it all begins and ends with Jimmer Fredette, the MWC Preseason Player of the Year. Last season, Fredette was BYU’s leading scorer in 24 of their 36 games, and in six of the 12 games where he was not the leading scorer, he either did not play or was limited by illness. Fredette is a savvy scorer, capable of knocking down jumpers from deep (he hit 77 threes at a 44% clip last season) or getting in the lane and scoring in a variety of ways there, but his specialty is drawing contact and getting to the line. Not only did he draw a 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes last season, but he also then converted his free throws at an excellent 89% rate. On top of that, he runs the offense very efficiently, gets teammates involved and is an effective distributor and a solid if unspectacular defender. When you pair Fredette with junior Jackson Emery (12.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.7 APG), perhaps the most underrated player in the conference, if not the country, you’ve got the makings of one dangerous backcourt. Emery is nearly as good of a shooter as Fredette (he hit 85 threes while shooting 43% from behind the arc and actually had a better true shooting percentage, 64.7%, good for 12th in the nation), but is also a disruptive defender, swiping 91 steals last season and creating easy looks for the Cougars in transition. Having that kind of veteran leadership in the backcourt makes it easier for head coach Dave Rose to withstand losing Tyler Haws to a two-year LDS mission and Michael Loyd, Jr. to transfer. Backcourt depth will be provided by sophomore Nick Martineau and freshman Kyle Collinsworth, for whom there are big expectations. Up front, BYU expects another Collinsworth to contribute, this one a familiar name, Chris Collinsworth (3.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG in 2007-08), back from his own two-year mission. Junior Noah Hartsock (6.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG) is the lone returning starter up front, and he’ll be aided by junior James Anderson (1.2PPG, 1.0RPG) and sophomore Brandon Davies (5.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG), two long and lean athletes up front who have yet to live up to their potential. While Rose can expect to get plenty of scoring from his backcourt, he’ll need to find somebody up front to replace some of the dirty work done by departees Jonathan Tavernari and Chris Miles, while finding a reliable third scoring option to take some of the pressure off Fredette and Emery. While the backcourt should be truly special, there are too many as yet unanswered questions to pick BYU over San Diego State. But the fact remains than in his five previous seasons as a head coach in the MWC, Rose has never finished lower than second, and there is little reason to believe he’ll start now.
- New Mexico (NCAA Seed #10): Gone are Darington Hobson and Roman Martinez, the former to early entry in the NBA draft and the latter to graduation. Also gone are contributors Will Brown and Nate Garth to transfer. With those departures, the Lobos will certainly be a much different team than they were last season when they won the regular season conference crown, but despite something of a shift in styles to come, this will still be a very good team. Three starters do return, led by senior point guard Dairese Gary, who many felt was the best player on last season’s Lobo team, despite the presence of Hobson, the conference player of the year. Gary is a strong little player with a fearlessness in the lane and a self-assurance in clutch situations that is infectious. He is one of the best players in the nation at using his combination of strength and quickness to get in the lane and draw fouls (he drew 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes last season) and he also boasts more than a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. His backcourt mate, junior Philip McDonald (10.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG), also returns. McDonald is a pure shooter who is a perfect complement for a driving point like Gary who should also see additional three-point looks in the absence of Martinez. The final returning starter is junior forward A.J. Hardeman (7.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG), an athletic player who specializes in playing tough defense, grabbing boards and finishing around the rim. Three bench contributors from last season also return for their sophomore seasons this year, and each will have the opportunity to increase their role: point guard Jamal Fenton (3.5 PPG, 1.1 APG), off-guard Curtis Dennis (2.7 PPG, 1.2 RPG) and swingman Chad Adams (1.6 PPG, 1.1 RPG). But, in replacing the departed four, the most production should come from a group of six newcomers, including two Division I transfers: junior center Drew Gordon (from UCLA) and sophomore forward Emmanuel Negedu (from Tennessee). Gordon will be eligible in December and will immediately give the Lobos a post-player the likes of which they never had last year. Gordon averaged just over 11 points and five rebounds per game in his six outings with the Bruins last year, and he is a pretty skilled big man who can turn into a good third scorer for the Lobos. Negedu was cleared to play by New Mexico doctors (although doctors at both Tennessee and Indiana would not do so) after a scary heart-related collapse last September led to a defibrillator being implanted in his chest. On the court, he is mostly just an athlete, capable of rebounding and blocking shots in with the big boys, and assuming he remains healthy (let’s all hope so), he’ll be a good pair with Hardeman. Additionally, the Lobos also boast the best group of incoming freshmen in the conference, with 6’11 center Alex Kirk, 6’7 swingman Tony Snell and 6’3 guard Kendall Williams all capable of earning a spot in the rotation immediately. It may take head coach Steve Alford a couple of months to decipher everyone’s role, but once the rotation is set, this team has as much talent as any team in the conference.
- UNLV (NCAA Seed: #12): At the end of last season, it was expected that the Rebels would return their top eight scorers and nine of their top ten. Since then, junior Matt Shaw was dismissed from the team for failing a drug test, senior Kendall Wallace tore his ACL and senior guard and leading returning scorer Tre’Von Willis pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge. Willis was suspended for a minimum of three games (including two exhibitions), but Shaw and Wallace won’t be back this season, and with them go the two most effective three-point shooters on the team, a role for which there is no obvious answer on the current Rebel roster. Regardless of those losses, the Rebels still return the entire starting five from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Willis is the clear go-to guy for the Rebs as their leading scorer and most effective offensive player. He’s got a strong mid-range game, range out to three, the ability to go by his defender to the hoop and a good eye for setting up his teammates, in addition to being a tenacious man-on-man defender. Willis will be joined in the backcourt by junior Oscar Bellfield (9.3 PPG, 4.8 APG), with the frontcourt of senior swing Derrick Jasper (6.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG), junior forward Chace Stanback (10.7 PPG, 5.8RPG) and junior center Brice Massamba (4.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG) returning as well. Stanback was the team’s second leading scorer, and he is a versatile offensive threat, capable of initiating offense from the high post, stepping outside and knocking down the occasional three, scoring inside with slippery post moves, and forcing turnovers either through steals or blocks with his long arms on the defensive end. Jasper is also a versatile athlete on the wing, although he has never been completely healthy in Vegas following a microfracture surgery while at Kentucky and an MCL sprain that caused him to miss the last 13 games of last season. And then there’s Massamba, who has a tendency to show moments of great talent followed by long stretches of ineptitude. The talent is under there somewhere, and if head coach Lon Kruger can coax it out on a more consistent basis, the Rebels could really have something there. UNLV also sports a couple interesting returning sophomores in Anthony Marshall (5.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG) and Justin Hawkins (3.3 PPG, 1.4 RPG), both of whom were intriguing in their minutes as freshmen. Marshall is a lefty combo guard while Hawkins is a rail-thin project with long arms; both have the capability of turning into defensive nightmares. Front court depth will come from two more interesting prospects: redshirt freshman Carlos Lopez and Quintrell Thomas, a transfer from Kansas. Despite the losses of Wallace and Shaw, the Rebels are still very much in the mix in the MWC. They’ll defend like crazy, play efficient half-court offense and take advantage of transition opportunities, but at some point the absence of a deadly three-point threat could be the difference between first and fourth place at the top of a tough conference.
- Colorado State (NIT): The Rams took fifth in the conference last season (tied with Utah(, but it was a distant fifth, considering they lost by an average of 19.3 points per game to the four teams above them. However, they return six of their top seven scorers from last season and get back point guard Jesse Carr (8.8 PPG, 2.5 APG in 2008-09), who started 18 games as a freshman in 2008-09 before missing most of last season due to injury. Carr’s return will let leading returning scorer Dorian Green (11.8 PPG, 2.5 APG) shift over to his more natural two-guard role. Up front, seniors Andy Ogide (11.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG) and Travis Franklin (10.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG) are the biggest producers, but there’s plenty more talent as well, with Greg Smith (7.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and Andre McFarland (5.3 PPG, 1.3 RPG) the most notable. Head coach Tim Miles has plenty of veteran talent on the roster, but Colorado State has to prove it is capable of playing with the cream of the conference before being considered a true contender.
- Wyoming: Despite a disaster of a season a year ago, head coach Heath Schroyer returns all five starters from a team that had better expectations for itself than what they produced last season. A combination of injuries and immaturity killed last season’s momentum before it ever got started, so it will take some changes in attitude and a little bit of luck for the Cowboys to turn things around, but the potential is there. The starting five actually looks pretty good, with pint-sized junior JayDee Luster (5.7 PPG, 4.3 APG) manning the point, sophomore Desmar Jackson (11.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG) at the two, junior swing Afam Muojeke, the leading returning scorer for two seasons running, senior Djibril Thiam (9.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG) at the four and junior Adam Waddell (9.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG) manning the post. There are a lot of things that need to change for Wyoming to even finish this high (turn the ball over less, clean the glass more, better shot selection, a commitment to defense – these just for starters), but the talent to do so is here. It is just a matter of Schroyer being able to reign some of that talent in.
- Utah: The Utes have gone through a complete housecleaning this offseason, with eight letterwinners departing (only two via graduation) and nine newcomers on their way in. As a result, this team is a nearly blank slate. Certainly the team will build around 7’4 junior center David Foster (4.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG), probably the best shotblocker in the nation now that Jarvis Varnado has graduated. Foster blocked almost four shots per game last season in just over 21 minutes nightly, and when he is on the court he is capable of erasing defensive mistakes, allowing Utah defenders to stick on their man just a little more tightly. His offensive game, however, still needs work, although he was improved in 2009-10. Another jump forward in production on that end would go a long way towards cooling head coach Jim Boylen’s seat. Elsewhere, senior forward Jay Watkins (9.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG) is the team’s leading returning scorer, with sophomore center Jason Washburn (5.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG), junior point guard Jace Tavita (1.4 PPG, 2.0 APG) and sophomore swing Shaun Glover (3.4 PPG, 2.0 RPG) other returnees vying with newcomers like junior college transfer Josh Watkins for playing time.
- TCU: Head coach Jim Christian figures to have an exciting backcourt this season, with junior guard Ronnie Moss (14.9 PPG, 5.9 APG), a second-team all-conference selection last season, and energetic backcourt mate Greg Hill (8.2 PPG, 2.0 RPG) being joined by 5’10 Virginia Tech transfer Hank Thorns (2.7 PPG, 2.4 RPG in 2008-09 at VT). Up front, however, only three players return: sophomore forward Nick Cerina (6.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG), junior forward Kevin Butler (5.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG) and sophomore swing Garlon Green (4.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG). Beyond those players, everyone else is new, with three junior college transfers and two incoming freshmen being counted on for some kind of contribution. While the backcourt could be exciting at times, this team is probably too small and too inexperienced to make any real impact in a conference of this caliber.
- Air Force: The Falcons have won exactly one game in the last two years worth of conference play in the MWC: a seven-point win over last year’s 3-13 Wyoming squad. Last year, however, the Falcons had injuries at least partly to blame for their problems, as they were beset with a barrage of injuries to key contributors throughout the season. This year, three starters return: versatile senior Evan Washington (10.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.0 APG), sophomore forward Michael Lyons (6.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG), and sophomore guard Todd Fletcher (4.2 PPG, 2.1 RPG). Senior Tom Fow figures to join them in the starting lineup after averaging 9.4 points per game and 2.9 rebounds a night last year. Beyond that, there are questions marks, as injuries continue to have an effect on the team even before play begins as 6’11 center Sammy Schafer is still struggling with constant headaches in the wake of a concussion he suffered last season, and is not in school and is not expected to be available at all this season. With Schafer, a couple of additional wins would not be out of the question, but without him, it is hard to see Tim Reynolds’ team making any kind of a move up the standings.
Top 10 RPI Boosters
- 11/16 San Diego State @ Gonzaga (8pm PST, ESPN2) – The Aztecs visit Spokane as part of the CBE Classic, but even a win over the Zags won’t advance Steve Fisher & Co. to Kansas City, as the four teams playing in the City of Fountains are predetermined.
- 11/16 Arizona State @ New Mexico (7pm PST, Vs.) – Our first look not only at the new Pit (New Mexico’s home arena has been updated over the last year or so – new luxury suites and state-of-the-art accommodations among the new features), but also the Lobos’ new players. Oh yeah, and the Sun Devils might be interesting too.
- 11/17 Utah State @ BYU (6pm PST, The Mtn.) – The Aggies visit Provo for a rekindling of their in-state rivalry and the first big test for the Cougars.
- 11/20 Wisconsin @ UNLV (4pm PST, Vs.) – As of now, it looks like the Rebels will have Tre’Von Willis back from suspension just in time to welcome the Badgers for an enticing early-season matchup.
- 11/29 USC @ TCU (5pm PST, The Mtn.) – TCU is young and untested, but hosting the Trojans before their new point guard, Jio Fontan, becomes eligible in December, might give the Frogs a hopping chance at an upset.
- 12/4 Wichita State @ San Diego State (7pm PST, The Mtn.) – The most attractive of a good slate of games in the challenge between the two conferences, the favorites from the MWC host the favorites from the MVC.
- 12/8 Colorado State @ Colorado (TBA) – A sneaky matchup between intrastate rivals with their eyes on bigger things this season. Certainly for the Rams, this is their first big test of the year, and likely a far more winnable game than their matchup with Kansas three days later.
- 12/11 Arizona vs. BYU in Salt Lake City (3pt PST, BYUtv) – The first of BYU’s two neutral-site games with Pac-10 schools in the span of a week (the Cougars face UCLA in Anaheim a week later) will see Dave Rose’s front-line tested by talented Wildcat forwards.
- 12/21 UNLV vs. Kansas State in Kansas City (6pm PST, ESPN2) – A rematch of the Rebels’ first regular season non-conference loss last season could bring an intriguing matchup between Willis and the Wildcats’ Jacob Pullen.
- 1/1 New Mexico @ Dayton (11am PST, CBS College Sports) – You may be a bit bleary-eyed on New Year’s Day, but the Lobos and the Flyers give you good reason to get up early (or, let’s be honest, set the DVR) and forego the bowl games in favor of an excellent intersectional battle in advance of conference play.
Key Conference Games
- 1/5 BYU @ UNLV (7pm PST, CBS College Sports) – This won’t be the Cougars’ last trip into the Thomas & Mack Center (they’ll still make an appearance at the MWC Tournament), but it will give BYU and its fans a good measure of the level of animosity that will be awaiting them around the conference in their final go-round.
- 1/11BYU @ Utah (5:30pm PST, The Mtn.) – the last time these two Beehive State rivals meet as members of the Mountain West.
- 1/15 San Diego State @ New Mexico (3pm PST, CBS College Sports) – the Aztecs take a rough road trip into the newly renovated Pit, giving us a chance to see if the Lobos are ready to defend their regular season championship.
- 2/12 San Diego State @ UNLV (5pm PST, CBS College Sports) – the last time the Aztecs played at the Thomas & Mack Center, they took home the MWC Tournament championship
- 2/23 UNLV @ New Mexico (6pm PST, CBS College Sports) – last season, each team won on the opposing team’s home floor in this matchup. Can the Lobos hold serve in 2010-11?
- 2/26 BYU @ San Diego State (11am PST, CBS) – for the first time in MWC history, two member institutions will play each other in a nationally televised non-cable game, with the two favorites in the conference set for a big battle a couple days shy of March that could determine the regular season champion.
- 3/2 New Mexico @ BYU (7pm PST, The Mtn.) – in the last week of the season, the Cougars host the final game of the season between the big contenders in the conference.
One of the hallmarks for the successful teams in this conference is great coaching. San Diego State’s Steve Fisher is the dean of MWC coaches, entering his 12th season with the Aztecs and compiling 198 of his career total of 382 wins at SDSU. Steve Alford has won 76 games in his three years with New Mexico, but has racked up a total of 384 wins overall. But it is UNLV’s Lon Kruger who leads all MWC coaches with 455 career wins, 137 of which have come with the Rebels. BYU’s Dave Rose has certainly joined those three as the most well-respected coaches in the conferences, winning 127 games in his five seasons in Provo and never finishing lower than second in the conference.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are a few coaches in the conference who have to be looking over their shoulders a little bit. If history is any lesson, Jim Boylen at Utah might be feeling a little bit of a fire under his seat. Despite winning the conference title two seasons ago, last year was a mess for the Utes and this offseason has done nothing to comfort the natives. Boylen was hired after previous head coach Ray Giacoletti strung together a pair of 6-10 conference seasons, consecutive outcomes that could not be forgiven despite a 13-1 conference record, a 29-6 overall record and a Sweet 16 appearance the year prior. Following last season’s 7-9 conference record and with an impending move to the Pac-10 and fertile new recruiting ground, Boylen likely feels at least some pressure to get things headed in the right direction. At Air Force, Tim Reynolds has a 36-56 overall record in his three years, and with what appears to be another season-long struggle awaiting, he can’t be all too comfortable. And finally, at Wyoming, Heath Schroyer has to fight the perception that he has lost control of his program. Last year down the stretch, the Cowboys appeared to phone in several games, and they were never able to show real improvement upon any of the numerous weaknesses. Throw in the fact that he has had six of his players transfer out of the program in his three seasons and Schroyer needs to get to work this season in order to be invited back for next year.
NCAA Tournament History
As Division-I’s youngest conference (its first NCAA Tournament appearance came in 1999), the MWC has played just 36 Big Dance games, winning ten. The conference’s current hurdle is placing a team in the Elite Eight for the first time in its history. The closest it came was in 2007, when UNLV lost a four-point heartbreaker to Oregon. That season’s run by UNLV also saw the #7-seed Rebels topple #2-seed Wisconsin in Chicago, arguably the biggest upset in the MWC’s nascent Tournament life.
Once again, the top of the conference should feature four very good and exciting teams, each of whom could make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. But it all starts in November and December where the MWC teams will need to win non-conference games and build up their resumes. Last season, the quartet of New Mexico, BYU, UNLV and San Diego State were a combined 51-7 in non-conference play, forming a strong base for the conference and allowing the tough games within their conference to boost their RPI rather than hurt it. For that formula to repeat itself, these four teams (and any others who hope to contend for post-season play) need to come out of the gate strong and win games like those mentioned in the RPI boosters section above and also those in the early-season tournaments and events that each team plays in. If the conference can perform nearly as well in the early parts of their schedule as they did last season, there is no reason to believe the MWC is incapable of matching last season’s outcome of four NCAA Tournament teams. Now, winning some games in the tournament once they get there (the conference was 2-4 in the Tournament last season) – that’s another story.