In the shadow of the Pac-12, the Mountain West is the second most prominent conference in the West. But their basketball teams are floundering across the board. Fresno State was their only bid to the NCAA tournament this year, and they fell to former Mountain West member Utah 80-69 in the first round. The Mountain West, recently held in regard as high as some of the power conferences, needs to salvage its reputation and reestablish itself as an authority in college basketball.
The Mountain West was founded in 1999 by charter members Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah and Wyoming, and TCU joined in 2005. Following the departures of Utah (to the new Pac-12) and BYU (independent WCC affiliate) in 2011 as well as TCU (to the Big 12) in 2012, the conference considered a merger with Conference-USA but ultimately decided to expand to fill the holes.
Boise State — with their successful football program — was the first new member in 2011. They were followed by Fresno State and Nevada in 2012 and San Jose State and Utah State in 2013.
The expansion initially resulted in success: Five teams — San Diego State, New Mexico, Boise State, UNLV and Colorado State — went to the tournament in 2013. Such a high number of bids for a non-power conference reflects the Mountain West’s reputation as a tough and talented conference in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee.
And there is no shortage of former Mountain West players in the NBA, like Andrew Bogut and Kawhi Leonard. Most recently, former Wyoming forward Larry Nance, Jr. (son of Cavaliers great Larry Nance) was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers.
But, in just a few short years, the conference’s reputation has dwindled away. This year was the first since 2001 that the Mountain West sent only one team to the tournament. Lamenting the committee’s snub of the Aztecs (San Diego State) this year, Bryce Miller of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote that the Mountain West, in the eyes of the NCAA, is now considered among the mediocre one-and-done conferences (instead of the power conferences).
“The reputation of the Mountain West Conference stinks — leaking respect the way a 1977 Chevy pickup spits oil,” he wrote. “The [Mountain West] … might as well be the Sun Belt, Summit or SWAC right now.”
Several administrative factors, such as recruiting and scheduling, contribute to this precipitous decline. Smaller, non-power conference schools like those in the Mountain West have to prove their worth (mostly to a computer) by beating ranked schools, frequently in out-of-conference play. Relying on its own reputation, the conference has not sought out enough of these types of challenging match-ups.
“The non-conference setup with the Missouri Valley Conference, however, isn’t the answer,” Miller wrote. “In fact, it’s part of the problem.”
Without much in-conference competition to beef up their resume, San Diego State — arguably the best team in the conference this year — was left out in the cold, failing to receive an at-large bid after their loss to Fresno State in the conference tournament final. Consistently strong programs such as UNLV and New Mexico had a down year — UNLV even fired coach Dave Rice in January due to both coaching and recruiting issues — and, consequently, damaged the reputation of the conference’s other teams.
The Mountain West’s struggles could simply be chalked up to a bad year or so, but fans won’t stand for the failure much longer. With the pressure of their history driving them, the Mountain West’s schools will need to make whatever changes necessary to rejoin college basketball’s elite.