The Mountain West had a bit of a bump last week with a few losses to teams that had been billed as breaking through the previous week. That’s OK. The league is still way ahead of schedule and looks the part as one of the top conferences in the country.
1. New Mexico: The Lobos pulled off a significant OT win at Indiana State, then smashed USC. UNM is 9-0 as it heads toward its most difficult stretch of the nonconference schedule. It hosts Valparaiso in the first matchup between two former Indiana Mr. Basketball winners (Bryce Drew and Steve Alford) and then a tough home-and-home series with rival New Mexico State in consecutive games. Nate Wolters and the pesky South Dakota State Jackrabbits are prior to Christmas before a rugged road swing to Cincinnati and then Saint Louis. Oh, and then the conference season opens with UNLV.
2. San Diego State: The Aztecs are rolling after the season-opening loss to Syracuse outdoors. San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin is playing like an All-American, and the run game of the Aztecs would/should make the San Diego Chargers jealous. SDSU is heading toward a softer portion of the schedule before the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, where possible games against Ole Miss and/or Arizona await.
3. Wyoming: The Cowboys are an incredible 9-0 under Larry Shyatt and playing the traditionally stingy Shyatt defense. Wyoming had one of its better weeks in years when it beat rival Colorado at home -- handing the Buffaloes their only loss -- and then coming back from 19 down to win at MVC contender Illinois State. The victory against the Redbirds should signify that the Pokes are no fluke. This is a team that suddenly has staying power.
4. UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels should be in the top spot later in the season if they live up to potential. UNLV has yet to fully click, but has won four in a row since a disheartening home loss to Oregon. Mike Moser, arguably the Rebels’ top rebounder and all-around player, was hurt for the Portland win. The Rebels could use him inside if they are to win at Cal. This is the first of three rugged road games for the Rebels, going to UTEP on Dec. 17 and North Carolina on Dec. 29. We should know a lot more about the potential of this squad by January.
5. Colorado State: The Rams suffered their first loss of the season, but it shouldn’t come as a shock. CSU had to go to Colorado after the Buffaloes had dropped a game at Wyoming. The Rams are still getting quality play out of Minnesota big man transfer Colton Iverson. Larry Eustachy has settled in quite nicely in Fort Collins, and there is no reason to believe CSU won’t be in the thick of the NCAA bid chase in March. But don’t sleep on the Rams’ next road game. UIC beat Northwestern and will be a tough out for CSU. More importantly, it has become a chance for a quality win.
6. Boise State: The Broncos came down to Earth a bit with a humbling 19-point loss at Utah. But in Boise’s defense, the Broncos were playing Utah on a night in which they honored the late, great Rick Majerus. Boise State was also playing the second of two straight road games after winning at Seattle last Sunday. Boise State hosts LSU next Friday in a game that should give a better barometer as to how far the Broncos have come recently.
7. Air Force: The Falcons have two losses, but both are to teams that will likely be in the NCAA tournament (Colorado and Wichita State). The experience on this team will make it tough to knock out in the Mountain West. Air Force still has some difficult games against Florida and at Richmond before MWC play begins.
8. Fresno State: The Bulldogs did a few things Nevada couldn’t -- beat Pacific and win on the road. Fresno State won at Long Beach State and took down Cal Poly, the same team that beat UCLA. Rodney Terry has the Bulldogs relevant here early in the season. The schedule gets more daunting, though, with a home game against Colorado wedged between road games against Washington State and UCLA.
9. Nevada: The Wolf Pack have been the league’s biggest disappointment so far in their first season. Nevada hasn’t been able to find consistency on the road, losing at UC Irvine, Marshall and Pacific in overtime. The latter two are likely postseason teams. Still, Nevada needs to play like more of a veteran team on the road. Nevada will find out just how difficult this conference can be on the road in late January when it has to go to UNLV and New Mexico on the same trip.