Just the other day, I was perusing my Twitter feed, which at this point has become 90 percent Cameron Newton, Jon Rothstein, and Coastal Carolina stans. And I stumbled over this tweet from the Enlightened One himself:
The WCC is usurping the Mountain West as the best non power conference on the West Coast. League is much more than Gonzaga. USF, Pepperdine, SMC already with strong efforts.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 27, 2020
Before I kissed my phone and thanked the Enlightened One for yet another invaluable piece of wisdom, I meditated on this for a second.
Certainly the WCC has come out hot to start the season. Gonzaga dominated two ranked teams. Saint Mary’s and BYU each followed up flat performances with strong ones over good teams. Even the teams below the “Big 3” might be putting it together this season. USF beat Virginia and crushed Nevada. Pepperdine took UCLA to triple overtime. Even LMU almost earned a split with Minnesota.
Since its inception in 1998, the Mountain West has long enjoyed a relatively elevated status compared to other mid-major conferences (including the WCC), not least in part due to it also being an FBS football conference, and its institutions comprised of larger, state institutions with somewhat rich athletic histories. It has sported prosperous eras on the hardwood. Starting with the 2009-10 season, it sent the following number of teams to the dance over a six-year stretch: 4, 3, 4, 5(!), 2, and 3, which is obviously more than most conferences can boast. This includes the WCC, who has sent three teams only once since the 2009-10 season.
What has been the main contributor to its perceived strength in basketball? Has it been depth? You see the number of tourney teams they had in the early 2010s. In fact, nine of 11 current members have appeared in the tournament since 2010.
Has it been the strong top tier? Despite fewer teams qualifying over the last five seasons, Nevada, Utah State, and San Diego State have all been viewed as legitimate threats for deep tourney runs at various points over that period.
This year? Not nearly as much fanfare. No ranked teams in the preseason poll to start the year, for the first time in three seasons.
To their part, SDSU — perhaps one of the best title chances as a true mid-major in quite some time — appears strong to start, despite losing the likes of Malachi Flynn and others. The Aztecs ran away from a UCLA team expected to be near the top of the Pac-12 this year, dismantled UC Irvine, handled Pepperdine, and looks again to be the class of the Mountain West.
But how about the other top-tier teams? Utah State has not fared well after losing its own star Sam Merrill, losing by 16 to VCU and then surprisingly by 24 to South Dakota State, has a decent win over Northern Iowa but also missed a good win against BYU. Boise State, picked to finish second by the media, competed but ultimately missed its opportunity to beat a strong Houston team. Nevada regressed after losing coach Eric Musselman last year but started well enough, rattling off three wins - including one at Nebraska - before getting pummeled by the aforementioned USF.
Ordinarily, after just the first week of the season, there wouldn’t be much panic. There’d be about 10 more non-conference games remaining - plenty of time to notch some resume-boosting wins.
But this is 2020. We are still playing in a pandemic. A late start to the season greatly reduced the non-conference slate already. Even the few remaining decent opportunities will be in danger of COVID cancellation up until the moment the ball is tipped. And while it is possible that a matchup with a lesser opponent opens up a spot for a greater opponent to fill in, the reverse is much more likely - schedule reshuffling often creates more matchups with non-Division I teams.
In years past, the Mountain West would fall back on its solid depth to carry it toward the postseason. Unfortunately, most expected to finish middle-of-the-pack took hits before play even began. Colorado State cancelled three games against Pac-12 teams due to COVID-19 concerns. Every D-I non-conference game for Fresno State has been postponed. New Mexico is now temporarily the University of New Mexico-Lubbock.
One team that actually got its shot at the big boys was UNLV. The Rebs built first-half leads against UNC and Alabama only to see them both pull away in the second period, while seeing their own comeback bid fall short to Davidson. Win any of those and it’s a nice pickup; instead it settled for a win over a not great (but hey, still Power 5) Kansas State - a win that almost certainly gets cancelled out by their earlier drubbing by Montana State at home. Whoops.
Currently, the average KenPom ranking for Mountain West teams is 149, behind the A-10 (108), WCC (114), and within range of the Missouri Valley (159) and even Conference USA (160). San Diego State (36) is the only team in the top 80. With non-con opportunities dwindling and the middling teams with an unrealistic chance to secure an at-large, in order to best position itself on Selection Sunday as a conference, it needs its top two or three teams to basically run the table against everyone else.
Complicating matters on that front, however, is this year’s conference play format. To further reduce travel in conference play, each team will play a pair of games against an opponent on the same floor both nights with only one rest day in between. It’s a bit luck-of-the-draw for which teams are home and away, but it seems likely that even the strongest teams will have trouble getting through such a fatiguing format unscathed.
For example, San Diego State remains a bright spot and started well enough such that a good conference showing easily could secure an at large bid. However, they face an eight-game stretch over three weeks with six games on the road at elevation: at Utah State, at Air Force, Wyoming, and at New Mexico (if they’ve been un-banished by then.) Losing to the latter three would be considered a bad loss. In a year where the middle and bottom tiers don’t appear very strong, if the upper tier stumbles over too many pitfalls, it may drag the conference into one-bid territory come March.
Of course, with the reduced inter-conference play, it would have to make judgement a bit more subjective come March. And it begs the ongoing philosophical question: what is the most fair way to judge conference strength? Does having a bunch of not-great-but-solid teams with decent computer ratings give off the perception of each team doing battle night in and night out? Does a very strong upper tier lend its strength to the rest of the conference, like a 12-0 Alabama and 11-1 LSU magically raising the profile of a 6-6 Mississippi State with four cupcake wins? Is the Mountain West being betrayed by its now awful bottom rung of Wyoming, Air Force, and San Jose State?
There is still time left. SDSU has a chance to really vault itself into the national conversation with a game at Arizona State. Boise and SDSU have games against BYU. Nevada travels to Grand Canyon. Someone could catch fire and win 16 conference games. One thing is for certain though, the margin of error is much reduced, and Rothstein’s narrative is a few missteps away from certainly becoming reality.