Boise State, Nevada And UNLV Are Among Potential Mountain West At-Large Candidates
Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley and WCC have failed to impress in the first month of the season
The Mountain West’s mid-major competition is off to a rough start
It’s no guarantee by any means, but at the very least, the Mountain West is back in the multi-bid discussion.
Boise State slipped past Grand Canyon in double overtime Wednesday night, ensuring that the Broncos will finish non-conference play without a bad loss. Leon Rice’s team is 10-1 on the year with its most noteworthy wins coming on the road against Oregon and a home victory over Loyola Chicago. Both teams are ranked in the top 75 in KenPom.
It’s not the meatiest non-conference slate ever, but another road victory over a projected NCAA Tournament team in SMU on Monday would place Boise State in the position of possessing an at-large worthy resume. And thanks to struggles by the Mountain West’s non-power conference competition, the MWC could be in a formidable position to brush off its one-bid status.
Over the past ten seasons, the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley and WCC have combined to average 3.9 at-large bids per year. From 2012 to 2014, the three conferences sent a total of six at-larges to the Big Dance each season. In the latest bracket update by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, though, none of the three leagues have an at-large team in the 68-team field.
Each conference has had its issues.
The Missouri Valley has performed well relative to expectations, but the loss of Wichita State to the American has forced the MVC in position of placing only the autobid in the NCAA Tournament this season. The Atlantic 10 might be the most disappointing conference in mid/low-major basketball, as just one team (St. Bonaventure) has fewer than three losses to this point in the season. Even the WCC, which pegged Saint Mary’s as its preseason favorite, bolsters just Gonzaga’s non-conference resume worth at-large consideration.
The equation, ultimately, becomes rather simple: 32 teams will clinch automatic bids via conference tournament titles, and 36 teams will be selected as at-larges. As strong as the power conferences have been over the years, there has never been a season where every at-large bid went to the power conferences. Among mid-majors, the Mountain West, quite comfortably, has the best argument for an at-large bid at this point in the season.
Though Northern Iowa and Loyola Chicago have notched some quality victories in the first month of the season, the Missouri Valley has just three teams in the top 100 in KenPom, so the opportunities for resume-boosting wins from now until Selection Sunday are severely limited. The Mountain West has five teams in the top 75, and is the highest-rated conference among the non-power leagues according to KenPom.
Analytics could very well be on the side of the MWC this season as well. The NCAA announced sweeping changes to the selection process that will better utilize road victories and advanced metrics to gauge tournament teams, both of which helps the Mountain West.
Nevada, currently ranked 37th in KenPom and 19th in BPI and Sagarin (the two other metrics used by the committee this year), has four true road wins and will finish non-conference having played eight games outside of Lawlor Events Center in Reno. Assuming the Wolf Pack holds its own in league play and maintains a top 25 average in advanced metrics, Eric Musselman’s squad will likely return to the NCAA Tournament even without a conference tournament title. No mid-major ranked 22nd or better in KenPom has ever missed the NCAA Tournament, and that was even before the committee announced changes that would stress the importance of advanced metrics.
The Mountain West is far from returning to its 2013 glory, but the past four weeks have been a much-needed breath of fresh air. A Boise State victory on Monday could do wonders for this conference.