Mountain West pulls spectacular NCAA flameout


As they were rocketing back to Earth on Apollo 12, lunar module pilot Alan Bean turned to flight commander Pete Conrad and in a voice tinged with melancholy asked, "Is that all there is?"

You could say the same thing about the Mountain West Conference after the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

One win. Four losses.

Is that all there is?

The Mountain West has rocketed back to earth, too. But unlike Bean and Conrad and Apollo 12 command module pilot Dick Gordon, its representatives in the madness that is March did not attain dizzying heights.  

Bean, Conrad and Gordon shot for the moon and made it. Mission accomplished.

New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV and Colorado State shot for the moon and crashed and burned. Mission abject failure.

This wasn't Bean, Conrad and Gordon splashing down in the Pacific and jubilantly waving to the crew on the U.S.S. Hornet. This was Gus Grissom "screwing the pooch" when an escape hatch blew on Liberty Bell 7 upon re-entry, sinking his Mercury space capsule to the bottom of the sea.

Wasn't this supposed to be the year the Mountain West followed up on the Sweet 16 efforts of San Diego State and Brigham Young last season to finally shed its midmajor reputation and ensconce itself as the premier basketball conference in the West?

During New Mexico's 68-59 victory over San Diego State in the MWC championship game at the Thomas & Mack Center, Tom Penders, who formerly coached in the Ivy League and at Texas, told his NBC Sports Network audience the Mountain West was no longer a good conference for college basketball, but a great conference.

Eight days later, this is what the headline on the NBC Sports Network website said: "No teams in Sweet 16: What happened to the Mountain West?"

And this from Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports: "Loser: The four Mountain West teams were dismissed ingloriously (and) this tournament confirmed what we've been saying all along: It was a lousy season for hoops out West."

Yahoo!'s Jeff Eisenberg labeled the Mountain West as the conference that got exposed. "If the Mountain West appeared to pick up the slack for the faltering Pac-12 in the regular season by notching some marquee wins and getting four teams into the NCAA Tournament," he wrote, "that trend abruptly stopped in March."

It almost always does.

When it comes to the Mountain West and the NCAA Tournament, Peter Frampton never fills in when the guitar player gets sick. Rarely is there an unexpected pleasure.

Since what remains of the original Mountain West schools left Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson holding the bag to form their own league in 1999, only three of its members have gotten as far as the Sweet 16. The first time was in 2007, when UNLV's Lon Kruger pulled a rabbit from his hat against Georgia Tech and Wisconsin in Chicago, and then there were the Aztecs and Jimmer Fredette last year.

Take away UNLV's 33-19 record in 19 NCAA appearances, and what remains of the MWC is just 33-75 in the Big Dance. Too bad Utah and BYU had to leave, because each has accounted for 27 NCAA Tournament berths, which is even more than the Rebels.

But the Fat Man left Utah years ago and, like Rick Majerus, the Utes and Jimmer are gone, too, and yet none of that hindered what remains of the Mountain West (and what soon may be part of Conference USA) from putting together what appeared to be a competitive season. Maybe there weren't any great teams, but there weren't any bad ones, either.

At least that's how it looked when they were playing each other. When they stepped out of that comfort zone to play against somebody else in the only place it counts -- in the NCAA Tournament -- the Mountain West pretty much screwed the pooch, as they said at NASA about Gus Grissom and Liberty Bell 7.

One day, they'll probably also be rescuing the Mountain West's RPI from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on the Discovery Channel.

"Is it March more of the same?" asked UNLV legend Greg Anthony, on that spot for cell phones that ran on a continuous loop during the Tournament's first weekend.

For the Mountain West teams who promised so much but delivered so little, the answer unfortunately was "yes."

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

 

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