SAN JOSE, Calif. — An unlikely spokesman stepped up this week to promote New Mexico, UNLV and the rest of the Mountain West. Charles Barkley is as serious as a comedian, but when he talks, people listen.
By Sunday night, his opinion could be popular, or it could be just another joke that bombed.
“The Big Ten is overrated,” said Barkley, an analyst for TNT and CBS. “Believe it or not, the Mountain West is better.”
That statement is about to be put to the test. Fair or not, a handful of NCAA Tournament games played all over the country might determine if the Mountain West deserves a spot on the map with the most powerful basketball conferences.
A league-record five teams are playing in the field, but if none survive the first weekend and advance to the Sweet 16, critics will be armed with ammunition to shoot holes through the Mountain West’s image.
“We understand as coaches it’s important for us to have some postseason success,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said. “No one is naive. Everyone understands the magnitude of playing in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a big deal.”
UNLV (25-9) is a No. 5 seed in the East Region and opens against 12th-seeded California (20-11) at 4:27 p.m. Thursday at HP Pavilion. A year ago, the Rebels were upset by another Pacific 12 Conference opponent, Colorado, in their opener.
The four MW teams in the tournament flopped a year ago, exiting with a 1-4 record as only the Lobos won.
New Mexico is again the conference’s greatest hope. The Lobos (29-5) won the regular-season and tournament titles, rank 10th in The Associated Press poll and sit in the No. 2 spot behind Duke in the Ratings Percentage Index.
“The top four teams in the league are physical, athletic and all really good defensive teams, which I think you have to be to give yourself a chance to advance,” said New Mexico coach Steve Alford, whose team is seeded No. 3 in the West.
Boise State (21-10), the lowest-seeded team from the league at 13, opens today as a 1½-point favorite over La Salle (21-9) in a play-in game at Dayton, Ohio. UNLV and San Diego State (22-10) also are slight favorites in their openers, while Colorado State (25-8) is a 3-point underdog against Missouri (23-10). The Lobos, 11-point favorites over Harvard (19-9) on Thursday at Salt Lake City, could be headed for a Saturday showdown against Arizona.
“I like the other coaches in our league and just want our conference to do well,” Rice said. “We’re zoned in on our game, but we also love basketball and love being part of March Madness, and so we will keep an eye on the other conference teams.”
Oddsmakers appear to be skeptical about the Mountain West’s chances of making an outstanding impression. At the LVH sports book, the total tournament wins for the five teams is posted at 4½.
“I think for the Mountain West, we’ve got to go win more than a couple games if we’re calling this the best conference in the nation,” Rebels junior forward Mike Moser said. “It definitely puts a lot of pressure on all of us.”
Maybe an unfair amount of pressure. Is the MW, which has been rated the No. 1 or 2 conference in the RPI for most of the season, a failure and a phony if its teams get eliminated early?
“Probably to some degree, the tournament is overemphasized in general,” Rice said. “I could talk about the proliferation of the NCAA Tournament, where sometimes regular-season titles and conference tournament titles are not valued as much as they were a number of years ago. But that’s the system in place, and that’s what is important now, so we recognize that.
“Our No. 1 goal every year is first and foremost to get into the NCAA Tournament, and we’ve been able to achieve that.”
UNLV has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2008, dropping its opener three years in a row. But what the Rebels bring this year is the highest-profile player in the conference, freshman forward Anthony Bennett.
The Aztecs open against Oklahoma (20-11) and Lon Kruger, who coached UNLV to the Sweet 16 in 2007.
“I’ve been in the league for 14 years. I’m the only guy. And the league has never been as good as it is right now,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “I think the respect of the league is there. I do think there’s an opportunity this year for somebody to advance deep.”
If not, Barkley will be eating his words.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.