The Mountain West Conference has never been stronger, yet it’s only sending three teams to the NCAA tournament and one of them — No. 8 BYU — is leaving the league after this season.
Moreover, the Cougars are not the same dominant team heading into the NCAA tournament without suspended post player Brandon Davies.
The MWC ranked fourth in the RPI this year, behind the Big East, Big Ten and Big 12, which received 11, seven and five bids, respectively. The ACC (four) and SEC (six) also received more bids than the MWC.
New Mexico coach Steve Alford lobbied for greater respect heading into the league tournament in Las Vegas, but his conference’s chances of getting four teams in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year took a dive when the Lobos’ pinballing point guard Dairese Gary blew out his right knee in their semifinal game against BYU Friday night.
With Gary out, the Lobos were unable to beat BYU for a third time, and the Cougars (30-4) advanced to the championship, where they were lambasted by No. 7 San Diego State 72-54 Saturday night.
The Aztecs (32-2), who avenged BYU’s sweep in conference play, earned the conference’s automatic bid and on Sunday earned the 12-year-old league’s highest seeding ever when they were announced as the No. 2 seed in the West. They’ll face Big Sky champion Northern Colorado (21-12) Thursday in Tucson, Ariz.
Two weeks ago, BYU was ranked third in the country and had designs on a top overall seed. But without Davies, they’ve slipped to eighth in the rankings and earned a No. 3 seed in the Southwest. The Cougars will face Wofford (21-12) Thursday in Denver.
UNLV (24-8) is the eighth seed in the Southwest and will face Illinois (19-13) Friday in Tulsa, Okla.
New Mexico and Colorado State are likely headed for the NIT, and Air Force (15-15) will face North Dakota (19-14) on Tuesday in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com tournament. Those teams haven’t met since 1965.
Before this year, the highest an MWC team had ever been placed was New Mexico’s No. 3 seeding last year. The deepest a league school has ever gone in the NCAA tournament is trips to the Sweet 16 by Utah in 2005 and UNLV in 2007.
Two weeks ago, BYU looked like a Final Four favorite. Then came Davies’ suspension for violating the school’s honor code and BYU’s subsequent shift to a four-guard lineup.
They were 27-2 with Davies and are 3-2 without him, with their two losses coming to New Mexico and San Diego by 18 points each.
Now, national scoring leader Jimmer Fredette, who scored a career-best 52 points in the semis, will try to guide the Cougars at least as far as Danny Ainge did in 1981, when they reached the round of 8.
Without Davies, the Cougars sport a smaller lineup that was no match for the longer, deeper, faster Aztecs. And any team with size and speed in the NCAAs could counter Fredette’s explosive scoring.
"It’s a big factor. He’s a key player on that team," San Diego State forward Billy White said. "We took advantage of that and crashed the boards, just played San Diego State basketball. We knew if we just tried to contain Jimmer and tried to make everybody else shoot, we knew that we had the game."
Without Davies, the Cougars were outscored by the Aztecs 38-14 in the paint, and they shot just 32 percent.
In addition to BYU bolting to the West Coast Conference this summer, Utah is leaving for the Pac-12, and losing both teams from the "Beehive State" is a big blow to the MWC.
"They’ve been great members. Two storied programs. Two outstanding programs," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "We’ll miss those programs but this will be a great league and other teams coming in are terrific and we’ll move forward and we wish Utah and BYU great success in the leagues they’re going to, and we know the league as it goes forward the Mountain West Conference will be very, very tough."
Boise State, which lost to Utah State in the Western Athletic Conference championship game Saturday night, will replace BYU and Utah next year in the Mountain West.
The musical chairs aren’t over with: TCU leaves the league after next year, and Fresno State and Nevada come on board in 2011-12.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher insists the league will be just fine through the next two years of change.
"Well, Vegas is going to be in it, New Mexico is going to be in it, we’re going to be in it, and they’re adding other teams, so we’ll have a league that we believe will be very formidable," he said. "How good remains to be seen. We’re losing two very good programs with some history about them, and yet we’re gaining some teams that are also proud. I think we’ll continue to have a really good league."
Alford knows there will be some growing pains.
"Losing two institutions and just gaining one, I think we’ve got a year of transition next year that we’ve got to be extremely careful about," he said. "And then the next year adding two I think quality institutions will really help from that standpoint. Next year we’re in a year of transition. It’s going to be an interesting year."