All hail the mighty Mountain West
SAN DIEGO - When looking at conference RPI rankings, it's pretty much a who's who of the traditional basketball powerhouses.
The top conference RPI belongs to the Big Ten, with Indiana and Michigan breaking into the top five in the AP poll and restoring their programs to greatness. Next up is the old standby of the Big East, which, as the conference plays out its swan song as a basketball power, currently boasts the No. 1-ranked team in the nation with Louisville. Third in line is the traditional basketball power of the Mountain West, where New Mexico ranks 12th in RPI, San Diego State ranks 15th in the AP poll, and…
Yep, you read that right. As 15th-ranked San Diego State prepares to host UNLV — which ranked 24th before last week's loss to New Mexico — the Mountain West is the third-best basketball conference in the land. It ranks ahead of the ACC, with its Tobacco Road bluebloods Duke and North Carolina. It ranks ahead of the Big 12, home of the country's most intriguing national title contender, the Kansas Jayhawks. It ranks ahead of the Pac-12, with college basketball's most-hyped freshman in UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad, and the Atlantic 10, home to giant killers like Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and Temple.
The top six teams in the Mountain West — New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State, Boise State, San Diego State and Wyoming — have a 74-13 record, with nonconference wins over teams with much more publicity, such as No. 12 Creighton and No. 24 UCLA, as well as UConn, Colorado and Iowa State.
How exactly does the youngest conference in Division I sports become one of the best in the land, sporting six teams in the top 35 in RPI?
"In the early stages it was BYU and Utah and everybody else was an afterthought, and maybe rightfully so," said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, the only Mountain West coach who has been in the conference since its inception in 1999. "Now this is a league filled with high-caliber teams, Top 25 teams, nationally ranked teams … and we've lost those two teams, BYU and Utah. The pillars from before are no longer here.
"We've beaten good programs. We've beaten the programs that have been long-standing pillars in the national rankings, and when you do that you gain respect. The next step for the Mountain West will be to get a team to the Final Four."
Remember, this is Steve Fisher, who came here from Michigan and walked around the San Diego State campus with basketball tickets in his coat pocket, giving them away to anyone who would take them. Now the Aztecs have sold out every home game of the 2012-13 season.
Winning helps. That leads to television exposure, which helps even more. Television can show the exciting style of basketball being played in the Mountain West, giving a national stage to players like San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin — whose toss-it-off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself at Fresno State provided this year's biggest did-he-just-do-that moment — and UNLV's Anthony Bennett, one of only three freshmen selected as Wooden Award finalists. (Franklin also made it.)
It's remarkable to think that just three years ago, this conference sent only two teams to the NCAA tournament — and both teams are no longer in the conference. This year it's entirely possible that six Mountain West teams could be playing in March Madness.
Just look at the RPI rankings at RealTimeRPI.com: New Mexico is 12th in the country; UNLV 24th; Colorado State 27th; Boise State 28th; San Diego State 29th; and Wyoming 35th. It's no longer a place where losing a couple league games means killing your chances for an at-large bid.
The best players want to come to schools where they can do two things: win, and get noticed for winning. The Mountain West now has both.
Chase Tapley, a four-year starter at San Diego State who has averaged more than 15 points the past two seasons, can remember when his conference garnered no respect at all.
"When I first committed to San Diego State, I'd have people saying, ‘Geez, the Mountain West?' " Tapley said when asked about how the MWC landscape has changed. "People were talking about the Big 12, Pac-12. But from my freshman year 'til now, each and every year it just got harder and harder and harder. More players started coming, good players. … It still amazes me when you see how now everybody on the West Coast wants to be in the Mountain West."
Send six teams to the tournament and even more players will want to play in the Mountain West. And send a team to the Final Four? Who knows.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com