Spotlight shines on Mountain West

LAS VEGAS -- Prior to his hiring as Colorado State's coach last spring, Larry Eustachy had a rather unflattering opinion of the Mountain West Conference.

"I thought it was overrated," he said. "Everybody does. That's the perception that's out there, and I bought into it."

After just one season, however, Eustachy's image of the MWC has changed. He certainly isn't alone during what has become a historic season for the league.

Five of the conference's nine schools received berths to participate in this season's NCAA tournament, which begins this week. To put that into perspective, the MWC received one more bid than the ACC despite having three fewer teams (nine to 12).

Those who follow the league closely probably aren't surprised by the record number of berths. For most of the season, the MWC was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the RPI.
"Nationally, I'm not sure that's something most people would know," Boise State athletic director Mark Coyle said. "It'd be a great trivia question at a bar."

Four schools -- New Mexico (No. 3), UNLV (No. 5), San Diego State (No. 7) and Colorado State (No. 8)-- received top-eight seeds in the 68-team field. Also in the bracket is Boise State. As one of the "last four in," the Broncos will take on LaSalle Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, with the winner advancing to the round of 64.

"I don't think there's a dominant team going into this year's tournament," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. "There's so much parity. All five of our teams have a chance to advance deep. This is a big year for our league."

Although it's never been this strong, the MWC has had its share of good teams since its inception in 1999. It was only two years ago when San Diego State received a No. 2 seed, while BYU (which is now in the WCC) was seeded third.

For the most part, though, the MWC has had disappointing results in the NCAA tournament. No conference team has advanced past the Sweet 16. The previous time a current MWC school reached the Elite Eight was in 1991, when UNLV was a member of the Big West.

Last season, the four Mountain West schools that received bids went a combined 1-4 in the tournament.
"We've accomplished some great things this year as a league," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "But there's no question that we need to have some postseason success to validate what we've done."

MWC commissioner Craig Thompson agrees.
"That's definitely the next step," he said.

And he believes this is the year it can happen.

New Mexico may have its best team yet under Alford, who has won four MWC titles in the past five seasons. The Lobos are ranked No. 2 in the RPI and No. 2 in strength of schedule -- numbers that would've put any school from a Big Six conference in line for a No. 1 seed. Instead, New Mexico settled for a No. 3 seed in the West, which is generally regarded this season as the weakest of the four regions.

UNLV is also capable of making some noise, especially if freshman Anthony Bennett -- a future NBA draft lottery pick -- plays well. San Diego State has been in the Top 25 virtually all season, and Colorado State is a senior-laden team that rebounds as well as any squad in the country.

"We need to have multiple teams do well," Alford said. "We've had splashes. We've had teams get in and win a game. We've had teams get in and win two games and get to the Sweet 16. But as far as having multiple teams do it … this is the year."

Indeed, the MWC has never looked stronger.

Coaches such as Alford, Eustachy and San Diego State's Steve Fisher are national names who are considered among the best in their field. Players such as Bennett at UNLV, Jamaal Franklin at San Diego State and Colton Iverson at Colorado State are worthy of some sort of All-American mention, while up-and-coming programs such as Boise State have progressed more quickly than expected.

Even the league's bottom-tier schools have had bright moments. Wyoming opened the season 13-0. Air Force -- which owns wins over San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico -- is headed to the CIT, and Fresno State twice defeated UNLV. Nevada entered the league this season after winning the WAC a year ago.

"It's the perfect storm," Thompson said. "We have veteran coaches. We have senior-laden teams like Air Force and Colorado State. We have an influx of new people at UNLV. New Mexico could do great things in the tournament and then start out in the preseason top 10 next year.

"It's funny. As I travel around, I hear a lot of people say, 'Something is wrong with the numbers. There's no way they're the top 1 or 2 team in the RPI.' But look at who we've played. Look at who we've beaten."

Fan support is strong at virtually every school. An average of 9,447 showed up for MWC conference home games. UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico all averaged between 12,400 and 16,600.

Coyle arrived at Boise State 16 months ago after a seven-year stint at Kentucky. He said he was "blown away" by the league's depth and the environments teams face on the road.

"Night in, night out, it's a battle," he said. "Look at the scores across the conference. It's insane how close these games are. It's really going to prepare teams for what's ahead."

The success of the league has to be particularly refreshing to Thompson. For years, the MWC has felt disrespected in the college landscape because of its non-BCS status. A few years ago, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff threatened to file an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS, alleging that its postseason football system was an illegal monopoly that restricted free trade. The argument was that the system was set up to financially reward certain conferences, while others (such as the MWC) were left behind.

The lawsuit never came to fruition.
"For 14 years, we've lived with that non-BCS label," Thompson said. "I say, 'So when TCU wins the Rose Bowl and Utah wins the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, are we still non-BCS? When do we lose the labeling?' I get that we don't have the same resources and history and stuff. But we're proving we belong.

"Not just in football, but basketball, too. Now we just need to have seasons like this continually."

The Broncos had planned to leave the MWC for the Big East after this season, but they decided to return after most of the Big East's top programs announced they were leaving the league.

More and more these days, Coyle is confident that Boise State is where it belongs.

"If you talk to our fan base and our coaches, we want to be a part of the Mountain West Conference," he said. "It's a conference that's rising and improving. From a football standpoint, we've done a lot of special things.

"Now you're seeing it happen on the basketball side. If we continue to build that brand, we'll start to get that national recognition we deserve. There's a lot of excitement now because we've got our footprint out there, our identity. It's time for the Mountain West Conference to shine."