Mountain West has become one of nation’s top basketball conferences

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – From the mountains to the desert to the beach, it’s a treacherous trek. Pitfalls far outnumber rest stops on the conference road, and Steve Fisher knows the map better than anyone.

Fisher was a basketball pioneer in the Mountain West. He walked the sidelines when the league was formed in 1999 and is the only coach still standing. He came from the Big Ten, and now he might be a part of the next-best thing.

“This is a league full of high-caliber teams, Top 25 teams,” the San Diego State coach said.

The Aztecs are the highest-ranked conference team at 16th in The Associated Press poll. UNLV and New Mexico, ranked 24th and 25th, respectively, collide at 7 p.m. today at The Pit in a blockbuster Mountain West opener.

The league’s top three teams combined for a 38-6 nonconference record. Wyoming, which sits in the shadows of the Top 25, is one of four undefeated teams in the nation.

“It truly is the best that I’ve ever seen the league,” said the Rebels’ Dave Rice, who has been in it as a head coach or assistant for all but one year.

In the updated Ratings Percentage Index, the Big Ten ranks as the nation’s top conference, with the Big East recently edging the Mountain West for No. 2.

“That’s huge for our league to be second or third in the country ahead of several power leagues,” said Lobos coach Steve Alford, a former Big Ten player and coach.

A strong league is built by coaches and headlined by star players, and the MW has marquee talent – UNLV freshman forward Anthony Bennett, San Diego State junior guard Jamaal Franklin and New Mexico junior guard Kendall Williams, to name a few.

Rebels junior Mike Moser, a UCLA transfer who considered jumping to the NBA last summer, said his first trip through the conference was an eye-opening experience.

“Last year, I think I went into league really not knowing how good it was. Almost being new and ignorant to the fact, I thought the preseason was bigger than the league,” Moser said. “It’s something you’ve kind of got to experience. This conference is like no other.

“There’s nothing you can take for granted, because every team is so good and the travel schedule is so hard. You have to stay mentally focused the whole season. It’s good to have a healthy fear of everybody, and I definitely have a healthy fear of this conference.”

The point came when Moser said he realized, “Wow, this is no joke.”

The 16-game trek begins today, and one can only guess how many losses the top seed will have incurred when the nine teams converge in Las Vegas for the tournament in mid-March.

“I think 13-3 would be a great year, and 12-4 is realistic for a champion in the conference,” said coach David Carter of league newcomer UNR.

Predicting the order of finish is no simple task, and no coach is willing to take it on.

“I’m not much of a prognosticator,” Rice said.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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