The Mountain West might have a problem
This year, after an impressive outing in which the Mountain West went 91-40 in non-conference play the league was rewarded with four coveted bids to the NCAA tournament. It was the first time since the 2011-12 season that the league sent four teams to the big dance. The bids came at a great time for the conference. Ever since the Mountain West peaked at five bids in 2012-13, the league has been trending downwards even suffering back-to-back seasons with a singular bid. Despite this decline, the conference has, for the most part, maintained status as a multi-bid league in recent years, although the most it has received under the current lineup of schools is three, when it did so just once in 2014-15, just a season after arriving adding three newcomers and arriving at the current selection.
The last time four bids were offered to the Mountain West, those four schools represented half of the eight-team conference, and ever since then, the Mountain West has been trying to once again reach that level of success.
Not only did the committee see it fit to send four bids to the league, however, the Mountain West was also the favorable seen in nearly every game. The conference was at one point flirting with the possibility of becoming a five-bid league but ultimately landed on four on Selection Sunday.
The 12-seeded Wyoming was set to play against 12-seed Indiana in the first four for the chance to play 5-seed Saint Mary’s in the round of 64. Then 6-seed Colorado State was matched up against 11-seed Michigan, 8-seed San Diego State was slated for a game against 9-seed Creighton, and the 8-seed Boise State Broncos would face 9-seed Memphis.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about these four bids was the fact that not one of them went to perennial powerhouses UNLV or New Mexico. Utah State, after having won two of the three previous championships also failed to earn a bid as did the Nevada Wolfpack, a program becoming very familiar with the top of the Mountain West in recent years. Certainly, it seemed that the Mountain West was once again fully loaded and ready to make a name for itself. With new teams finding momentum and success rising up alongside, and sometimes surpassing, storied and historic programs, the Mountain West seemed stronger than ever.
Selection Sunday was arguably one of the best moments in recent history for the conference. It was a culmination of the years of hard work from hundreds of student-athletes and coaches. It was an acknowledgment that, as many fans know, the Mountain West is indeed a premier basketball conference. It was a realization of the return of investment these programs have put into their basketball teams over the years and decades. Even the seven teams at home could take solace in the fact that the top teams were pushed to new heights by the rest of the conference and could take pride in the fact that theirs was one of the most well-represented conference and the best represented conference of mid-majors.
This elation didn’t last. Within just a few days after the names of four Mountain West teams were called, the league was completely eliminated from the NCAA tournament.
It may have been shocking to the fans players and coaches of the Mountain West, but the truth is, this failure wasn’t entirely unpredictable.
Big Cat, host of a popular Barstool Sports podcast Pardon My Take said,
“No Mountain West team has done anything… time and time again the Mountain West gets in and doesn’t do anything.” ESPN’s BPI listed all four Mountain West teams as over-seeded. Additionally, according to Insider, Michigan beating Colorado State was the number one upset picked with over 55% of people predicting the Wolverine’s win over the Rams.
The Mountain West was unique in its lack of success. The Mountain West was the only multi-bid league that failed to win a single game. The conference was the only to send four. The West Coast Conference and the PAC-12 both sent three, but both had at least one victory. Something the mountain west failed to do with an additional team. The Big East, Big 12 and SEC all sent six and the ACC sent five. All four of these conference won at least a game. The single-bid WAC got an upset win as 12-seed New Mexico beat 5-seed UConn before falling to Eric Musselman’s 4-seed Arkansas. The single-bid Ohio Valley Conference sent 7-seed Murray State into the round of 32, where they lost to another team from a single-bid league, The 15-seed Saint Peter’s Peacocks, from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, who propelled themselves all the way to the Elite 8.
This means that the Mountain West was not only vastly outperformed by its multi-bid peers, it was lapped by single-bid leagues. The Metro Atlantic Athletic went 3-1. The Ohio Valley went 1-1. The WAC went 1-1. The Mountain West went 0-4
To be fair, the conference drew a tough slate. Two Big 10 and a Big East matchup made for a difficult path to victory, although that’s hardly and excuse for going 0-4. The league’s performance was particularly upsetting because of the respect that the committee had shown the teams in the tournament. Wyoming, as an 12-seed, was bounced by a fellow 12-seed, but other than that, every team in the league lost in an upset.
This is not an anomaly, unfortunately. Rather this is becoming something of a pattern in the Mountain West. The conference is now 1-11 in the first round since 2016. Three of those eleven losses in upsets.
The last team to traverse beyond the round of 64 was Nevada, when the Wolf Pack lost in the Sweet 16 in 2018. That same year, San Diego State was bounced in the first round. Since arriving at the current lineup of schools, the Mountain West has amassed a NCAA tournament record of only 5-17 and sent just three teams beyond the round of 64. In addition to Nevada in 2018, San Diego State lost in the sweet 16 in 2014 and round of 32 in 2015.
This year, the Final Four consisted of the Big East, Big 12 and two teams from the ACC. In the title game, the Big 12 bested the ACC for the crown. While the Mountain West’s Final Four and championship game aspirations are admittedly lofty, even lesser goals are starting to seem equally out of reach for the conference.
In addition to being swept out of the NCAA tournament, Utah State lost in the first round of the NIT. The only post-season victories this year came at the hand of Fresno State in the Basketball Classic, meaning out of six teams from the conference that were invited to play post season basketball, only one found a way to win.
Fresno State not only found a way to win a game, however, the Bulldogs were named the Champions of the Basketball Classic after beating Eastern Washington, Youngstown State, Southern Utah, and Coastal Carolina. This post-season run was certainly uncharacteristic for the conference, and even though it didn’t happen in Big Dance Fresno State certainly does deserve credit for becoming the one out of six teams across three tournaments to have any success. Even with Fresno State’s impressive championship run however, the entire postseason record for the conference remains 4-5. Going 0-4 in the NCAA Tournament, 0-1 in the NIT and having an overall losing postseason record even after the Bulldogs win four straight for a Basketball Classic championship is not going to cut it for a conference that would like to continue to earn at-large bids.
The league’s inability to win postseason games could become a major problem for the conference. If the mountain west can’t figure out a way to consistently send teams beyond the first two rounds, it could risk losing some of the at-large bids that were given to the conference this year.
The Mountain West certainly earned the respect of the selection committee in 2022, but if the conference wants to keep that respect, it needs to start winning games. Going 0-6 in the past three tournaments, the conference is not putting together a compelling case to keep earning at-large bids.
Preparation for next march has already begun. For teams like Fresno State, Nevada, and Utah State, the expectation is to improve and find their way into the tournament. For teams like UNLV and New Mexico, the mandate is to return to their former heights, with ceilings as high as nearly any team in the country. Of course, for the Aztecs, Broncos, Cowboys, and Rams, the goal is not only to return but to advance beyond the round of 64.