Just a year and a half ago, the Mountain West conference looked like it was on its way out of college basketball relevance. Brigham Young, which had earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, was leaving along with Utah. The only replacement at the time? Lowly Boise State basketball.
The way things were shaping up, it appeared that the small league was becoming less of a high mid-major collection of talent, and instead just another mid-major.
Instead, 18 months later, the conference looks stronger than ever. While the past couple weeks have realistically settled the league's top core a bit, the talent among the Mountain West remains undeniable. No. 19 San Diego State and No. 20 New Mexico both grace the AP top 25, while the conference has four teams ranked in the top 31 of Ken Pomeroy's version. The latest RPI rankings show six of the nine MWC teams in the top 55, the highest percentage of any conference, helping make the argument that the Mountain West no only has overcome power conferences such as the SEC and the Pac-12 in strength, but it also can be called the best conference in the west.
With the entertaining play of New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV and undefeated Wyoming leading the show, there's plenty to watch. That includes the star performances of the Aztecs' Jamaal Franklin and the Rebels' Mike Moser (who is coming off a dislocated elbow), the four interesting top-50 freshmen who entered the pool, or the solid state of the bottom of the league keeping the start of league play on Wednesday intriguing.
The Mountain West very well could send a high percentage of its teams -- up to six -- to the NCAA tournament this year, potentially filling out the field with not-so-lowly 11-2 Boise State (the only team to defeat No. 16 Creighton this year) and 12-2 Colorado State, which is anchored by former Gophers center Colton Iverson (14.5 points and a hefty 8.9 rebounds a game) in his first eligible season there.
The challenge will be to keep that momentum going as January gives way to March. The Mountain West has had impressive starts before -- last season three different teams touched the top 25 -- but as a whole, the tournament efforts have been lackluster and the general consensus was that teams have peaked too early. From 2008 forward, the Mountain West has gone 8-15 in NCAA tourney play, with three of the four teams that made it a year ago failing to play past their first day.
With Boise State announcing it would stay put -- it was originally in a package deal with San Diego State to move to the Big East in football and the Big West in all other sports -- on New Year's Eve, there is potential again to keep the league together, and even grow.
Just how the league will blossom has been hinted to early, but remains to be seen.
• With Boise State backing out of the agreement to join the Big East, there might be an opening for San Diego State to do the same. Now that the Broncos are gone, the Aztecs aren't required to stay if there is no other western team in the league. The Mountain West agreed to pay up to $3 million of Boise State's exit fees ($5 million) from the Big East. The fees mostly will come from the Broncos' year-end distribution.
• In light of Jim Boeheim's ascent to No. 2 on the all-time list for coaching victories, notching 903 and passing Bob Knight, ESPN Stats and Information put together a list of the most likely current basketball coaches to get to 900. Butler's Brad Stevens (fastest ever to 50 and 100) is on the list but the 36-year-old quickly responded that he has "no shot." At the top of the "most likely" list are West Virginia's Bob Huggins (717 at age 59) and Kansas' Bill Self (487 at 50).
• Earlier this week, Marquette and UConn played a great game, but afterward, most of the talk was about a bizarre situation at the start of overtime that cost Connecticut -- the eventual 82-76 loser -- two points.
At the start of overtime both teams lined up facing the wrong direction, unknowingly, and when the Huskies got the ball, they headed toward the wrong basket. Shabazz Napier's layup was goaltended, but just then, the referees realized their mistake. They ultimately ruled that 12 seconds had elapsed and the basket did not count. However, according to the NCAA rule book (Rule 5, Section 1, Article 3), in that conundrum "all activity and time consumed shall count as though each team had gone in the proper direction." Officials admitted their mistake the following day.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
1. Michigan: The Wolverines solidified their place with a dominating performance at Northwestern.
2. Indiana: The Hoosiers have fallen from their pedestal a bit, but Indiana is still plenty strong.
3. Minnesota: One game is, well, one game, but the Gophers made good on early hype vs. Michigan State.
4. Ohio State: Deshaun Thomas would like some help. Still, the Buckeyes had no problem vs. Nebraska.
5. Michigan State: Don't be fooled into thinking this is a down year. Tom Izzo gets his teams to play.
6. Iowa: This might be the least talked-about team with the potential to finish much better than predicted.
7. Illinois: Now we really KNOW what we already knew: It's hard to win on any Big Ten visiting court, again.
8. Purdue: After not doing much in non-conference play, the Boilermakers upset No. 11 Illinois.
9. Wisconsin: This Badgers team has a lot of improving to do. Still, Wisconsin is always tough to beat.
10. Northwestern: Things are rough in Wildcat land with Drew Crawford (dislocated shoulder) gone for the season.
11. Penn State: A scrappy performance in nearly upsetting Wisconsin on its home court, even without leader Tim Frazier.
12. Nebraska: There were early happy surprises for Tim Miles' bunch, but Big Ten competition is too much for now.