Climbing Ev'ry Mountain

Is the Mountain West this year's Missouri Valley Conference?


Oct. 26, 2006

By Bryan Armen Graham



Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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It was one of the biggest stories in college basketball during the 2005-06 season.


The Missouri Valley Conference sent a record four teams to last year's NCAA tournament and had two others -- Missouri State (RPI No. 21) and Creighton (No. 39) -- come tantalizingly close to joining the party. And while the mere inclusion of four schools marked a coup for the nation's second-oldest Division I league, Selection Sunday was only the beginning.


Though UNI fell to Georgetown and Southern Illinois bowed to West Virginia in the first round, both Bradley and Wichita State registered a pair of high-profile upsets to advance to the Sweet 16 -- which proved sweet vindication for league commissioner Doug Elgin, who had spent the season fighting those critics in the media and around college basketball that had suggested the MVC manipulated the RPI to its benefit. That had suggested its teams weren't for real.


"Any major coach hiding behind that notion that we have cracked the code, tell that coach to come play our teams and see how overrated we are," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin famously told the Washington Post. "That notion that we have somehow outsmarted the system is a bunch of crap. ... It's easy to make those statements when you're not willing to back it up."


According to the critics, the Valley's formula for beating the RPI is simple: 1) Have the league's top teams schedule winnable games against teams projected to have favorable RPIs. 2) Win those winnable games and avoid all bad losses, building a strong RPI without necessarily beating North Carolina or Connecticut. 3) When league play begins, the top teams should have uniform strong RPIs and the middlers have competent ones. 4) All of a sudden league games that used to be triple-digit RPI killers have become Top 50 RPI boons.


(The NCAA's most recent tweak to the formula -- giving a bonus to teams that win games away from home -- only helps those non-BCS programs like the MVC schools which can rarely get one of the big boys to come to their homecourt.)


This year, the Mountain West Conference has four schools with deadly serious NCAA hopes: San Diego State, Air Force, BYU and New Mexico. In addition, Utah and UNLV have strong teams and viable tournament prospects.


"Our league will be very competitive this year," said coach Dave Rose, whose BYU side returns four starters including 6-foot-11 sophomore standout Trent Plaisted. "Seven of the nine teams return at least three starters and five return four or more."


New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay has been among those who have openly posited that the Mountain West is positioned to be this year's Missouri Valley Conference. The Lobos are one of a number of league teams that have upgraded their schedule to a moderate degree in accordance with the Valley paradigm.


"First and foremost, we are trying to adhere to the NCAA tournament selection committee guidelines by playing more games on the road and facing more upper-tier competition," McKay said. "We have five games away from The Pit for the first time in 19 years and have five contests against teams in last year's final RPI Top 100. We are also finding a competitive balance with regional competition that I think our fans will enjoy."


Each of the six teams with designs on the NCAAs plays a respectable out-of-conference slate:


·          Air Force has an away game with Wake Forest, a road date at Colorado and meets George Washington in the Cable Car Classic in Santa Clara, Calif.


·          Brigham Young opens at UCLA, meets Michigan State in Auburn Hills, Mich., plays Utah State at home and hosts the BYU Holiday Classic featuring Oral Roberts and Seton Hall


·          New Mexico hosts Colorado and Kansas State, travels to UTEP and Texas Tech and meets Wichita State at the Las Vegas Classic


·          Prohibitive MWC favorite San Diego State hosts California, travels to Washington State and meets Arizona in the San Diego Slam event


·          UNLV hosts Minnesota and meets Arizona, Nevada, Texas Tech and Houston on the road


·          Utah hosts Colorado and Washington State, travels to Utah State and participates in the San Juan Shootout with possible games against Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Virginia


No upper-tier league in college basketball has experienced the same kind of parity as has the Mountain West. Through the first seven years of its existence, six different teams have won the regular-season championship. Among the top 10 conferences in the final 2005-06 RPI, the MWC is the only league to have six different conference tournament champions the past seven years.


But with the regular season less than two weeks away, it's up to the MWC teams to get victories in the non-conference portion of their schedules. Remember: Valley teams won two-thirds of their OOC games last season (with very few unsightly losses), and six of those teams had 10 or more wins entering league play.


Indeed, the math voodoo is just that -- smoke and mirrors -- unless the schools win the games.

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