NCAA’s soft bubble might not save Aztecs

Craig Thompson and his Mountain West Conference brethren stand on the other side of the fence today, from seeking an objective process in football to hoping a subjective one in basketball falls in their direction.

From desiring a playoff in one sport to praying for a third NCAA Tournament berth in another.

“I think as I sit here, we have three teams in with Brigham Young, Utah and San Diego State,” Thompson said.

The league’s commissioner also spoke of NCAA chances for a UNLV team that had lost the previous evening, but I was pressed for time and couldn’t engage in comical conversation.

This was Friday afternoon, before San Diego State advanced to Saturday’s conference tournament final against Utah and lost 52-50 at the Thomas & Mack Center, before the last 24 hours became one of sweat and nerves for the Aztecs and a league thinking itself deserving of that third bid, before those who draw bracketology lines for a living updated their view of the Mountain West.

Before your child asked why someone named Joe Lunardi always makes you throw dishes across the room this time of year.

If the NCAA Tournament is as feeble in spots as a regular season that produced some of the weaker bubble teams in March history, it might not be a bad thing to advance those 1-2 seeds in your office pool straight to the Elite Eight.

The soft bubble is one reason those in the Mountain West either are actors worthy of Academy Award consideration or truly believe San Diego State will join Utah and BYU when the field is announced today.

The soft bubble is a product of a weak Southeastern Conference and Missouri Valley and made even frailer when teams like Notre Dame and Georgetown forgot the part about not only playing good people but beating them once every month or so.

Thompson once chaired the selection committee. He has been in the room, heard the arguments, listened to others justify how they evaluate teams, debated how much significance should be assigned conference tournament wins or losses, changed his mind from this team to that one.

“Some really put a lot of weight on the last few games you play in that conference tournament, and some prefer to look at the last 10, 12, 15 games,” Thompson said. “I was on the committee with a lot of (former) coaches, and when we got down to those last few bubble teams, they would always ask, ‘Who would you rather not play?’

“I was one never to put a lot of stock into that last game. It’s a pressure situation in a conference tournament. It’s the third time you have played that team. It’s one of 30 games.”

He and those in the MWC are hoping the current committee thinks in a similar manner. Following its loss Saturday, San Diego State had an RPI of 35 in a conference that has been rated the nation’s seventh best all season. There was a time when that high an RPI made for a guaranteed berth. Not any longer.

In winning their first two games here against UNLV and BYU, the Aztecs didn’t give the committee reason to judge a forgettable nonconference resume whose best win is Cal State Northridge. They have now.

A few hours following the final here, Lunardi in his ESPN projections had San Diego State out of the field, while Jerry Palm of collegerpi.com (who correctly predicted all 34 at-large teams last year) had the Aztecs solidly in as a No. 10 seed.

“I’m a good Catholic,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “I’m going to light two candles instead of one when I go to church (today). I’ll put an extra dollar in and light two … I don’t know. We’ve got a good team. I think we would represent our league and ourselves well if we got in.”

The Aztecs today are as bubbly as it gets, a team that has won 10 of its past 14 and yet spent a season changing lineups due to suspensions and injuries and illnesses. Thompson doesn’t think the committee is aware of it all. He is convinced.

“One fallacy you hear is that the committee doesn’t know everything about a team,” he said. “Trust me — they know everything about every team and game. It’s all documented and printed out. It’s all there in (the room).

“I talk to Stan Morrison, our league’s (selection committee) representative as often as possible. He watched 50 or 60 Mountain West games this year. He knows more about us than maybe I do.”

You would think the seventh-rated conference would be deserving of three berths.

Why, then, am I convinced it will get only two?

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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