March Madness is the greatest show in sports. The phrase, coined by Jon Rothstein, “we sleep in May” has transcended beyond being just a battle cry. It’s a promise. 68 teams from across the country locked in a weeks-long combat. The best of the best in an almost non-stop sprint to the Final Four and beyond. The NCAA tournament truly is one of the purest marriages of sport and entertainment. Before the madness, however, comes the storm before the storm; the Mountain West tournament. Before college hoops take over the nation, it’s centralized in one city, the college basketball tournament capital of the world.
Las Vegas is known for one thing: putting on a show. And Mountain West basketball is one of the best shows Sin City has to offer. The Mountain West tournament, separate from yet undeniable connected to the NCAA tournament, is more than just a way for the conference to determine which of its teams receives an automatic bid. It is its own thing with its own personality, and certainly with its own entertainment value. It acts as an unignorable and crucial introduction, prologue, or preamble to the greatest show in sports.
Since its birth in 2000, the Mountain West conference has been the wild west, a league packed with action and parity. It has always been difficult to foresee unfolding of the regular season and even more difficult to foresee the tournament results.
Even though the wild west tournament has always been hard to predict, this year might prove especially difficult — and exciting.
The Mountain West has already seen lots of success this year and is on the verge of returning to a three or a four-bid league.
Although the last three years of Utah State facing San Diego State in the final game have become repetitive, the tournament is anything but stale.
Last year’s tournament was a bit of an anomaly. San Diego State, coming in as the No. 1 seed, topped Utah State. Before that, the last time the top seed won the Mountain West Tournament was in 2017 when Nevada to a win over No. 2 seed Colorado State.
Only six times has the 1 seed won the conference tournament. The No. 2 seed has won the tournament eight times, the most of any seed, and every seed from No. 1 to No. 7 has played in the championship game. The lowest-seeded team to ever win the championship was Colorado State as the No. 6 seed when they beat another low seeded team was No. 4 UNLV Rebels in 2003.
Last year was also the first and only time that the championship game featured the same matchup for three consecutive seasons. The only other time the same matchup repeated itself was when UNLV and BYU faced each other twice in a row in 2007 and 2008. For a league defined by parity and a tournament defined by chaos, repeating the same matchup not twice, but three times should be almost impossible. But in the Mountain West, the impossible is more probable than it seems.
This year, however, it is not only beyond outlandish for Utah State and San Diego State to yet again meet in the title game, it’s truly impossible. The way the bracket is set up, the two teams would meet in the semifinals, if they meet at all. While destiny prevented the Aggies and Aztecs from a fourth consecutive matchup, the tournament won’t be too unfamiliar. Some recognizable faces are determined to maintain the USU and SDSU heavy power structure that has been in place for three years. Aggie senior Justin Bean, for example, has never not concluded his season with a championship game. On the other side, Aztec coach Brian Dutcher is well on his way to becoming a Mountain West legend and has also never concluded his season with the Aztecs without a Mountain West Championship game.
Despite the best efforts of the Aggies and Aztecs, things in the Mountain West will undoubtedly change. It has been an uncharacteristic three years for the conference, and the league is well overdue to return to its chaotic and unpredictable ways. The Mountain West Conference has had 10 different champions in its relatively short history. In the same 22 year period, the Pac-12 has had eight different champions, and the WWC only three. Other than Air Force, Boise State, San Jose State, and TCU, every team that has ever played in the Mountain West has played in and won a championship at least once, a game that has been decided by an average margin of just 7.09 points. Eight of the 22 championship games have been decided by four points or fewer and the only time the game wasn’t close was in 2000 when UNLV blew out BYU 79-56. Since 2014, six different teams have won the championship and four of those teams, Wyoming, Fresno State, Nevada, and Utah State, did so for the first time.
San Diego State is the current champion and will try to defend their throne with back-to-back championships. Doing so has proven to be very difficult, but possible. With their win last year, the Aztecs dethroned Utah State after their two-year win streak. Before that, New Mexico won three in a row in 2012, 2013 and 2014 after dethroning the Atztecs after their own two-year win streak in 2010 and 2011. UNLV also has back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008.
Breaking from the USU vs. SDSU tradition, the most likely scenario is Boise State or Wyoming playing against Colorado State or San Diego State in the title game. If this happens, the Broncos could position themselves to win their first-ever Mountain West Championship. Wyoming and Colorado State are both in the hunt for their second, while San Diego State is on the verge of their second time winning back-to-back with their seventh title.
This year, the league is headlined by four very capable and elite teams in Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State, and Wyoming. Those four combine for a record of 93-25 overall and 55-16 in conference with the Rams, Aztecs, and Cowboys each boasting just a single home loss. The NET rankings feature a trio of Mountain West teams at 28, 29 and 30 with Colorado State, San Diego State, and Boise State respectively. Behind the leaders, at a respectable 48, sit the Wyoming Cowboys. Utah State comes in at 63, Fresno State at 69 and UNLV at 92.
The top four teams in the league have been dominant all year long and while each of them has a solid argument to punch a ticket to the big dance, all four will be eager to get off the bubble with an automatic bid. Only one can do so though, and no path to the mountain west championship is an easy one.
The Mountain West is reliably a multi-bid league, but all four of those teams playing in the NCAA Tournament could be a stretch. Partially because it’s not a guarantee that one of those four teams will win it in Vegas. 5 seed UNLV or 6 seed Fresno State are both capable of beating anybody and could easily sneak in and steal a bid. 7 seed Utah State has experience in the tournament and the Aggies know their only way into the madness is through a championship, and it is never wise to count out the Nevada Wolfpack despite being a 8 seed.
The conference has only had a single bid three times has had as many as five. The conference has consistently receiving two bids since 2018, but has had three as recently as 2015 and four in 2012. Though it seems a certainty that the Mountain West will be sending multiple teams to the NCAA tournament, there is nothing guaranteed. Four bids seem likely and widely accepted, but until Selection Sunday, it’s impossible to know how many or what teams from the Mountain West will get an invite.
First, 11 teams will battle for one automatic bid. After the king is crowned, the rest wait for scraps. The remaining 10 will hope for an unknown number of at-large bids to be gifted the conference. As many as four teams could be in the running to be bailed out by one of those at-large bids. If one of the heavyweights wins it all, just three teams will be sweating it out on Selection Sunday, with the rest of the field knowing their fate. However, if the bid is stolen, it could put all four of the favorites on the bubble.
While returning to a five bid league is still most likely a goal to be reached in the years to come, becoming a four bid league this year seems well within the realm of possibility, meaning that 11 teams could be fighting for not just one, but four tickets. For seven of those teams, the only way to get in is to win the tournament. For the other four, the only way is to prevent one of those seven from doing so. Colorado State and Boise seem to be the safest, but it would not be a shock to see the Rams and Broncos joined by the Aztecs and Cowboys. If anyone other than those four brings home the hardware this weekend, however, one of them will almost assuredly be giving up their seat.
As has become custom in Las Vegas, there is a lot on the line this weekend. Few will win big, and many will return home empty-handed. Despite the inevitable disappointment that will be felt by some this weekend, the Mountain West Conference has reason to celebrate. The conference itself is stronger and deeper than it has been in some time, and the teams and programs seem promising for years to come.