- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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There is nothing mid-major about San Diego State, New Mexico, UNLV and at times a few others in the Mountain West Conference. The capacity of their arenas, the coaching salaries, the money put into the programs and the ability to buy nonconference games dispute any attempts to label some of the top teams in the conference.
Placing multiple teams in the NCAA tournament also discounts any second-tier status. Two seasons ago, five of the nine teams made the dance. Those aren't mid-major numbers.
But to maintain its status as an alternative to the traditional five, much like the Atlantic 10, the MWC has to get its bottom in gear and can ill afford to let the nonconference portion of the schedule pass without significant victories.
Getting a team in the Sweet 16, as San Diego State achieved last month, helps camouflage the problems. Having only one other team in the tournament that whiffed in the round of 64 for the second consecutive season -- New Mexico -- doesn't help the situation.
What we saw this season: The problem was that the MWC was only those two teams.
New Mexico and San Diego State played two tremendously competitive and high-level basketball games that would have matched any other conference's top two teams. Duke-Syracuse was better, but that game wasn't between the top two teams in the conference, considering Virginia won the ACC. New Mexico and San Diego State have fostered a healthy, and much-needed, rivalry.
UNLV shares a similar rivalry with both schools, but the Runnin' Rebels couldn't find any form of consistency.
Getting zero teams in the NIT is an indication of the lack of quality depth in the conference. Boise State was supposed to follow up a First Four appearance with another NCAA berth, only to miss several opportunities to impress.
"We didn't have the number of quality nonconference wins that we did the year before, and that's why we got two teams in the tournament,” said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher. "We played enough of them, but we didn't win enough of them.”
Fisher cited the opportunities UNLV and Boise State had, but neither was able to get the necessary wins.
"Sometimes luck is involved,” Fisher said. "Whatever it was, we didn't get enough of them. The best win might have been New Mexico beating Cincinnati. But the teams in our league were good.”
Of course, Fisher is being modest. The best win was San Diego State winning at Kansas. That victory silenced critics who have taken to knocking down the MWC's ability to compete at the highest level during the season. The victories in the NCAA tournament aren't always over top teams, as matchups and seeding can play a role.
"The bottom hurt us,” said Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt. "There were pretty good teams left out. But we didn't get the wins in November and December like we did the year before. You're only talking about four or five more wins against the BCS leagues.”
The MWC got what it deserved. SDSU and New Mexico were the two best teams and the ones that should have been in the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs lived up to their seeding and reached the Sweet 16 with strong performances before falling to new rival Arizona. New Mexico once again failed to get out of the first game, this time losing to a middling Stanford team that suddenly got hot enough to reach the Sweet 16.
"Our league was better than people thought,” Fisher said. "It was a difficult league to win on the road, but we didn't get enough nonconference games to enhance the RPI.”
That must change. The coaches are confident it will in 2014-15.
"That's a mouthful,” Fisher said. "X was so good last season, and Josh Davis was the missing ingredient. He was relentless on the boards. We'll miss them both. The question will be is how much better are the returnees? Can we play the two bigs Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol [a transfer from Arizona] together and how much? We've got the post players. And then how much can our new kids contribute right away?”
"San Diego State will be the favorite,” said New Mexico coach Craig Neal. "Boise will be pretty good. The rest is up for grabs.”
The Broncos, who slid back after the NCAA tournament berth in 2013, kept their most valuable possession when coach Leon Rice decided against going to Washington State.
"We were a whisker away last season,” Rice said. "We were probably a little too small last year. Recruiting has filled that need. The Broncos will be a lot bigger and what could be our most talented team.”
Said Fisher: "I thought Boise would be really good, but they had a hard time winning close games. That Australian kid [Nick Duncan] is pretty good, and so is Drmic [also from Australia].”
The sleeper pick among the coaches is Wyoming, assuming Larry Nance Jr. is healthy from his torn ACL.
"He's as good a big guy as any in the league -- maybe the best -- and Larry Shyatt does a great job,” Fisher said. "They make you play at their place no matter what they've got.”
"We were right on the cusp,” he said. "We were never the same once Larry went down. But this is the first time in years we've got four starters back. I'm pretty optimistic.”
UNLV has always had talent, even with early-entry departures. Dave Rice, who flirted with South Florida, ended up getting a contract extension through 2018-19. Losing Bryce Dejean-Jones as a transfer and seeing Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith declare for the draft normally would mean a slip. But counting out the Rebels is never smart. Deville Smith will likely need to be the leader.
The Lobos have been the most consistent winner along with San Diego State the past six years. But this will be Neal's toughest test as an assistant or head coach. Gone are Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk. Cullen Neal and Hugh Greenwood will be the likely lead guards, with the need for big men to emerge fast.
"This is not an easy conference,” Neal said. "It is highly competitive, with great venues and great players.”