The Mountain West and West Coast conferences are determined and poised to earn additional bids for the NCAA Tournament. Both conferences are more than just San Diego State and Gonzaga. However, with San Francisco’s 85-60 defeat of Nevada on Wednesday night, these hopeful mid-major programs may be hurting each other.
The Mountain West and WCC Look to Make Their Cases
Ignored, overlooked and undervalued. Mid-major student-athletes, coaches and supporters have the most anxiety on selection Sunday. As they gather in a ballroom, gym or some other random location (pandemic pending for 2021), knees shake, nails and hair get shorter and complexions become flushed and moist. Hope turns to joy for some, but others must face familiar disappointment when all they desire is a shot.
Power-5 (Power-6 if the Big East is included) schools with worse records and resumes flash across television screens. The overlooked teams watch as Camera feeds are routed to arms flailing, loud cheers and ecstatic embraces—again, pandemic pending. What will it take for mid-majors to break the norm and overcome NCAA conformism? A lot; and the opportunities may have already passed this season.
Sometimes it can be assumed that the media-heavy east coast has a bias toward schools in their region, but it’s more about games they can watch and analyze at a reasonable time. Even the Pac-12 has difficulty gaining exposure, but it’s hard tuning in at 10:30 EST for tip-off. That’s why there are people like yours truly to keep the nation informed—don’t check my ratings.
With all due respect to the Big Sky, Big West, and Western Athletic Conference, the Mountain West and WCC are two western mid-major conferences that can earn additional invitations. The battle has already begun between the two competitive divisions. Let’s explore the Tournament chances for UNLV, Utah State, Boise State, Nevada, San Francisco, Pepperdine and St. Mary’s.
UNLV, picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West preseason poll, has been a disaster to start the season. Their chances to earn an at-large bid in March are now non-existent. They would have to rely on winning the conference, which is always a possibility because the tournament is played on their home court. However, “home court” doesn’t exist in a COVID-run world.
Mountain West preseason No. 3 Utah State has already hurt themselves with losses to VCU and South Dakota State. Northern Iowa would have been a better win last season it would appear. The Aggies will need to dominate BYU on Saturday for any sort of case.
Boise State, slated to finish 2nd in the Mountain West, only lost to No. 17 Houston, but they needed a victory or to make it closer than a ten-point contest. The Broncos will need to also beat BYU on Dec. 9 to have any sort of consideration as an at-large. The Cougars are on everyone’s radar apparently.
An interesting team to focus on is Nevada. The Wolf Pack started the season 3-0 with quality wins against North Dakota State and Nebraska and a convincing defeat of Pacific. Nevada was picked to finish 6th in the conference, but there are opportunities to move up, especially with a coach like Steve Alford at the helm. Alford has over 600 wins as a head coach and 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, including four Sweet 16 trips. The Wolf Pack, however, took a massive step back with their loss to San Francisco. They will need a strong in-conference showing to help their chances.
Speaking of San Francisco, Todd Golden’s squad is an interesting program to follow this season. The Dons, picked to finish 5th in the WCC, upset then-No.4 Virginia last Friday, helping the program emerge onto the national scene. On the other hand, their lost to UMass-Lowell was tough, and they missed a chance to take down an A-10 school in Rhode Island. Yet, their dominating win over Nevada could possibly be very beneficial in three months. San Francisco just needs to figure out which team will show up for big games.
Pepperdine was picked as this guy’s WCC and NCAA Tournament dark horse this season. The Waves we’re selected to finish 4th in the WCC preseason standings. The main question is if their three-overtime thrilling loss to then-ranked UCLA last week is a resume builder or burden. They have the roster, they have a good coach and they have great in-conference opponents to earn quality wins against. The Waves have been presented an enormous opportunity and challenge on Sunday when a COVID-related scheduling change has them panned to face off against SDSU.
St. Mary’s has taken care of business so far with the exception of a season-opening 73-56 loss to Memphis. Defeating the Tigers would have bolstered their tournament chances early, but they can make up ground during conference play, where they’re expected to finish 3rd according to the preseason polls. Plus, they have a matchup against SDSU on Dec. 22 that could determine their future come March.
There’s been a noticeable trend throughout each brief analysis. The Mountain West and WCC have, and will continue to play each other. Both conferences are 1-1, and two contests have been canceled. There are 13 more games scheduled where the Mountain West and WCC meet before their respective conference games begin. However, does this benefit or hurt the programs?
If they continue to split victories, then it may hurt both conferences. Records will turn from great to decent, and quality wins may appear to be nothing more than average. Also, if only the top tier teams win these matchups, the overall strength of the conference could dwindle.
BYU and SDSU can ruin or grant dreams to middle-tier teams vying for position at the top of their conference or a spot in the Tournament. Going into the season, it’s assumed SDSU will be a lock from the Mountain West, and Gonzaga and BYU are locks from the WCC. Of the Mountain West bubble teams, BYU plays Utah State and Boise State. In regard to the WCC, SDSU has games scheduled against Pepperdine and St. Mary’s.
This is intriguing for Nevada and San Francisco. If Nevada does well in conference play, possibly winning the Mountain West, then that looks great for San Francisco. If the Dons play well against conference foes, maybe upsetting Gonzaga or BYU, then Nevada’s loss doesn’t seem all that bad. Both universities have presumably soft non-conference opponents leading up to Mountain West and WCC play.
It will be very difficult for either team to get four programs into the big dance, especially the Mountain West. With UNLV and Utah State struggling out of the gate, the conference will need Boise State and Nevada to play exceptional. The WCC have five legitimate contenders for tourney bids. San Francisco, Pepperdine and St. Mary’s control their own destiny and need to earn more big victories. Unfortunately, the WCC earning five nods is impossible, four invites is cautiously doable, but three teams in the Tournament may be a definite.
Western mid-majors need more opportunities to showcase their talented programs, but everything is a trade-off. It will be interesting to see which conference can prove their case better.