Originally Published: January 21, 2013

The rise of the Mountain West Conference

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

On Sunday, Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt stepped onto the pulpit and evangelized like a Southern Baptist preacher.

But the Good Book wasn't the subject of his sermon.

Darrell Walker/Icon SMILarry Shyatt and Wyoming have helped drive the MWC's rise in national relevance.

"Our league is finally getting national recognition," he told ESPN.com. "Our bottom [tier] isn't acting like a bottom [tier]. We have a situation where there couldn't be a coach who's really comfortable at home or on the road in our league this year. There's no way. And that's odd."

The Mountain West's growth is one of most surprising developments of the 2012-13 season.

Joe Lunardi's latest bracket on ESPN.com features six of the Mountain West's nine teams. The conference is ranked second behind the Big Ten in overall RPI. And six Mountain West squads are ranked among the top 55 squads in Ken Pomeroy's ratings.

Those teams -- Boise State, UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State, Wyoming and Colorado State -- are all ranked in the RPI's top 50.

"The top half of the league has been performing at a high level nationally for years and now the so-called lower division is winning at a high percentage," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said via email. "When half the league is .500 in league play after the first two weeks, you know you have a very deep conference."

The combination of quality and parity has created a high level of uncertainty in the conference. Saturday's results exemplified its unpredictability.

San Diego State, ranked 15th at the time, scored just nine points in the first half of a 58-45 road loss at Wyoming. Colorado State outplayed the same UNLV team that defeated San Diego State on the road last week in a 66-61 victory. Air Force scored 91 points in a win over short-handed Boise State.

Entering this week, six teams are at .500 or better in conference play. New Mexico is 3-0, but Lobos coach Steve Alford said he doesn't believe any team has truly separated itself from the field yet.

"The parity in the league just keeps getting stronger," Alford said. "It's not like there's one team that's 9-10 deep on a given night."

The Mountain West may begin to establish a more concrete hierarchy in the coming days. Colorado State travels to New Mexico on Wednesday. UNLV will host Wyoming on Thursday. On Saturday, New Mexico will play at San Diego State and Air Force will go to Wyoming.

It's a fascinating slate, but it's just as intriguing to consider the conference's overall position.

Most of the Mountain West's teams encounter geographic quandaries in recruiting. They're either in remote locations or Pac-12 country. Yet they've matured individually with experience, talent and the development of their unheralded prospects.

"We're not going to get the five-star guy," said Colorado State's Larry Eustachy. "But a lot of stuff comes with the five-star guy. About nine million suitcases, a lot of baggage, a lot of entourage. So you've gotta find the guy that plays well against the five-star kid in the summer but isn't as highly recruited. And believe me, there's a lot of them."

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Jake Roth/USA TODAY SportsIn Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State may have the league's top player.

San Diego State (Jamaal Franklin) and UNLV (Anthony Bennett, Mike Moser) are led by NBA prospects. Boise State is young but relentless on offense (26th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings).

Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson (14.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG) has made Colorado State tougher.

Wyoming lost top scorer Luke Martinez, who was suspended from the program last week as the result of a bar fight. But the Cowboys' defense (18th in adjusted defensive efficiency) will keep them alive in the race.

New Mexico's Alex Kirk (12.3 PPG, 7.9 RPG) is a key component for a Lobos team that's arguably the most balanced in the conference. Air Force is led by five seniors.

They don't win the same way or use the same tactics and strategies. But the conference's strong start suggests that there's quality within that diversity.

"There's no debating it, the Mountain West went out and earned the national respect that it [has]," said Boise State's Leon Rice.

But the high praise for the conference, which will retain San Diego State and Boise State as members, may not last. In college basketball, leagues are often judged by their performances in March.

And the perennial knock against the Mountain West has been that its best can't compete with the top teams around the country once they reach that stage. Four programs were granted at-large berths to the NCAA tournament in 2011-12. Only New Mexico won a game in the Big Dance.

Since its inception in 1999, the league has gone 15-33 in the NCAA tourney, and it has never sent a squad to the Elite Eight. That, in the modern climate, is usually the barometer for a conference's success.

"Fair or not, that's how you get judged," said San Diego State's Steve Fisher. "And I think that's the next step for our league is to get a team to the Final Four, have multiple teams get to the Sweet 16 and win in the tournament. So I would say, yeah, I think it's fair."

Shyatt disagrees with that assessment process. Winning in March demands talent and luck, he said. Shyatt was an assistant to Billy Donovan when Florida won the 2006 national championship following a 10-6 campaign in the SEC.

Shyatt trusts two things in evaluating programs: advanced stats and results. Computers, which favor the Mountain West, aren't "biased." Another gauge? The Mountain West, Shyatt said, competed with some of the nation's top teams during the nonconference season in true road games while other leagues enjoyed more neutral-site opportunities.

"Shame on the people who refuse to play road games," Shyatt said. "The Shakas and the Butlers and many of us ... we do. Some people say [the Mountain West] didn't play a high-profile schedule. Well, come play us. C'mon."

THE RUNDOWN

The Mountain West's most critical players:

1. Anthony Bennett (UNLV): If/when Bennett, one of the top candidates for national freshman of the year (18.5 PPG), jells with Mike Moser and Khem Birch in lineups that feature all three players, the Runnin' Rebels could be the best team in the conference.

2. Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State): Franklin's pass-off-the-backboard dunk was one of the season's highlights, but the junior is ranked third among Mountain West players who use a minimum of 28 percent of their team's possessions per Ken Pomeroy (101.2 offensive rating).

3. Colton Iverson (Colorado State): The Rams are second in offensive rebounding rate because Iverson (14.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG), who sat last season after transferring from Minnesota, is such a force inside for Eustachy's program.

4. Alex Kirk (New Mexico): The 7-footer has been in Beast Mode for the past month (he's averaged 16.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG and 1.6 BPG in his past five games) with a New Mexico team that leads the conference with a 3-0 mark.

5. Derrick Marks (Boise State): The sophomore guard is one of the top reasons (17.0 PPG, 45.5 percent from beyond the arc) Rice's squad possesses the conference's best offense.

6. Leonard Washington (Wyoming): The Cowboys took a hit when Martinez was suspended, but Washington (2.0 BPG, 1.5 SPG), a transfer from USC, will help the program maintain its elite defense.

7. Michael Lyons (Air Force): The senior, who averages 18.9 points and possesses the conference's top offensive rating (111.3), had 37 of his team's 91 points in a win over Boise State on Saturday.

8. Deonte Burton (Nevada): The junior (16.8 PPG) is the Wolf Pack's most significant weapon in their bid to avoid the MWC's basement.

The Weekly Forecast

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

A quick look at the temperature of college basketball as we head into a new week:

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AP Photo/Eugene TannerJohn Groce is seeing just how tough life in the Big Ten can be.

Turnarounds

Hot: Towson won a single game last season (a 66-61 win over North Carolina-Wilmington). But Jerrelle Benimon (16.9 PPG, 11.7 RPG and 2.2 BPG) has led the Tigers to a 5-1 start (second place) in the CAA. The Tigers will face Georgia State, George Mason and William & Mary this week.

Cold: Illinois didn't lose its first game of the season until Dec. 22 (82-73 against Missouri in St. Louis). But that streak seems like something the program enjoyed months ago. The Illini are 1-4 in the Big Ten. And after they play Nebraska on Tuesday, John Groce's squad will commence a streak that includes matchups against Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota. Ooh.

West Coast

Hot: Dan Monson's Long Beach State squad has won five consecutive games after a rocky nonconference slate. The 49ers will look for No. 6 when UC Irvine visits on Saturday. Oregon has won seven in a row, and the Ducks have already defeated Arizona and UCLA in their only meetings with those Pac-12 contenders this season. They'll face Washington and Washington State this week.

Cold: San Diego State has lost consecutive games for the first time this season. But the Aztecs can get rid of the taste from a weekend loss to Wyoming by knocking off Nevada and New Mexico this week.

Top-10 recruits

Hot: Nerlens Noel (10.8 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 4.1 BPG), the top recruit in the 2012 class per RecruitingNation, leads the SEC in block percentage, per Pomeroy. Shabazz Muhammad, No. 2 in the 2012 class, has scored at least 21 points in six of his past 10 games for UCLA.

Cold: Steven Adams (6.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.0 BPG) was supposed to make an immediate impact for Pitt, but the freshman hasn't blossomed on offense as quickly as his No. 6 rating in the 2012 class (per RecruitingNation) suggested he would. Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski (5.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG), No. 4 in that class, has been inconsistent throughout the season, too.

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