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Analysis | NCAA tournament bracketology: Don’t sleep on the Mountain West


Any discussion of the Mountain West’s recent basketball exploits invariably ends with a dismissive wave at the conference’s NCAA tournament performance.

The league’s representatives are a combined 3-15 in the tournament since 2015, a figure that includes Nevada’s Sweet 16 run in 2018. Last year, the Mountain West’s four-team contingent went winless, the first time any conference with at least four representatives was wiped out without a victory since the 1989 SEC went a miserable 0 for 5.

But this isn’t about making noise in the field of 68. There is plenty of time to discuss that down the road. It’s about getting to March in the first place.

And here’s the thing: The top half of the Mountain West has things wired well. At least for now.

The conference has produced five top-40 teams in the NET, the NCAA basketball committee’s preferred sorting tool when it comes time to bracket the field. Boise State and San Diego State are consensus top-40 teams across all the metrics listed on the NCAA team sheets. Nevada, New Mexico and Utah State fare better in results-driven formulas than predictive measures.

The Kansas State revival is in full swing after its win over rival Kansas

And now for the best part: That five-team top tier is a combined 19-2 against the league’s six other teams. New Mexico, which went undefeated in nonconference play and could afford a dicey loss or two more than some others at the top of the Mountain West, took setbacks at Fresno State and at home against UNLV this month.

Also helpful: The top five will nearly max out their games against one another. Each Mountain West team plays eight home-and-homes in conference play and has two league opponents it meets only once. The lone single-game pairing among the conference’s top five is New Mexico-Utah State.

It’s worth the reminder that individual teams earn tournament berths, not leagues. But the best thing that could happen to the Mountain West is if there continues to be a clear stratification between its top five and its bottom six.

It could allow all of the top five to flirt with 25-win seasons, adding value to conference games routinely seen in power conferences.

This would not, of course, be the best thing for Air Force, Colorado State, Fresno State, San José State, UNLV and Wyoming, because it would entail a lot of losing. And given each team’s competitiveness at times this season — some more than others — there will probably be some surprises as league play continues.

Still, it’s not hard to conjure up a pathway for each of the Mountain West’s top five teams to be in the at-large discussion entering the week of the conference tournament. And while strength in numbers can’t guarantee a turnaround once the postseason begins, it certainly can’t hurt any, either.

Last four included: Nevada, Missouri, Maryland, Penn State

First four on the outside: Oklahoma State, Southern California, West Virginia, Texas A&M

Next four on the outside: Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Utah, Utah State

Moving in: Iona, Milwaukee, Nicholls, Penn State, Princeton, St. Francis (Pa.), U-Mass. Lowell, VCU

Moving out: Cornell, Dayton, Fairleigh Dickinson, Pittsburgh, Siena, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, UMBC, Youngstown State

Conference call: Big Ten (11), SEC (6), Big 12 (6), ACC (6), Big East (5), Mountain West (4), Pac-12 (3), AAC (2), WCC (2)

Bracket projection: South vs. West; Midwest vs. East

(1) BIG TEN/Purdue vs. (16) MEAC/Morgan State-NEC/St. Francis (Pa.)

(8) Boise State vs. (9) N.C. State

(5) Auburn vs. (12) Nevada/Penn State winner

(4) BIG EAST/Xavier vs. (13) WAC/Seattle

(3) Virginia vs. (14) IVY/Princeton

(6) Providence vs. (11) Arizona State

(7) Michigan State vs. (10) CAA/College of Charleston

(2) Texas vs. (15) SOUTHERN/Samford

Feinstein: Mike Brey has always had perspective. That makes it easier to walk away.

Now the projected top overall seed, Purdue is tied for the most Quadrant 1 victories (seven). The Boilermakers earned four of those in nonconference play, so it’s not merely a byproduct of beating up on the many good-but-not-great teams the Big Ten has to offer. … Auburn is a tricky team to peg right now — 16-3 overall, no dreadful losses, top 25 in all metrics on the NCAA team sheets and a mere 2-2 in Quad 1 games. A No. 5 seed is fair, but the Tigers could turn out to be a few lines better. …

It sure looks like Virginia is in decent shape to spend back-to-back March weekends in Greensboro — first for the ACC tournament, then for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. … The first team to 20 (and 21) victories is College of Charleston. The Cougars have won 20 in a row entering Saturday’s visit from Hofstra.

(1) AAC/Houston vs. (16) HORIZON/Milwaukee

(8) Arkansas vs. (9) C-USA/Florida Atlantic

(5) Rutgers vs. (12) SUMMIT/Oral Roberts

(4) Connecticut vs. (13) MAAC/Iona

(3) Gonzaga vs. (14) BIG WEST/UC Santa Barbara

(6) Miami vs. (11) Wisconsin

(7) MOUNTAIN WEST/San Diego State vs. (10) Northwestern

(2) Kansas vs. (15) BIG SOUTH/Longwood

If Houston was going to lose a game in the American Athletic, it was probably going to be because its offense sputtered. And so it came to be Sunday with a 56-55 defeat at home against Temple. The Cougars are going to be fine, but it does nudge them down to the last of the No. 1 seeds. … Arkansas is like a lesser version of Auburn. The Razorbacks don’t have a lot of oomph at the top of their résumé beyond a defeat of San Diego State in the Maui Invitational, but the metrics nearly all point to the Hogs wearing a home jersey in their postseason opener. …

Miami has split the first six games in a stretch that sees the Hurricanes play seven of 10 on the road. That’s solid, especially because the schedule turns and Miami finishes with five of seven in Coral Gables. … Back-to-back-to-back losses over the past week knock Kansas down to the No. 2 line.

(1) SEC/Alabama vs. (16) SOUTHLAND/Nicholls-SOUTHWESTERN/Southern

(8) Iowa vs. (9) New Mexico

(5) Baylor vs. (12) ATLANTIC 10/VCU

(4) Marquette vs. (13) SUN BELT/Marshall

(3) BIG 12/Kansas State vs. (14) MISSOURI VALLEY/Southern Illinois

(6) Duke vs. (11) Ohio State

(7) Illinois vs. (10) Kentucky

(2) Arizona vs. (15) AMERICA EAST/U-Mass. Lowell

Alabama was a No. 2 seed in 1987, 2002 and 2021 but has never finished on the top line. All of the team-sheet metrics have the Crimson Tide as a top-three team for now. … VCU enters the field after Dayton’s loss at George Washington on Saturday. The Atlantic 10 is on track for its first one-bid season since 2005. …

Victories over Georgia and Texas A&M aren’t exactly the most riveting results, but they do represent Kentucky doing what is required. The Wildcats have won three in a row since their no-show at home against South Carolina. … Arizona won a 58-52 slugfest against UCLA on Saturday, improving to 1-5 when scoring less than 67 points under second-year coach Tommy Lloyd. It’s a good sign that the Wildcats, who are up to the No. 2 line, can thrive in that sort of game.

(1) Tennessee vs. (16) OHIO VALLEY/SIU Edwardsville

(8) North Carolina vs. (9) Memphis

(5) WCC/St. Mary’s vs. (12) Maryland-Missouri winner

(4) TCU vs. (13) ATLANTIC SUN/Liberty

(3) Iowa State vs. (14) PATRIOT/Colgate

(6) Indiana vs. (11) MAC/Kent State

(7) ACC/Clemson vs. (10) Creighton

(2) PAC-12/UCLA vs. (15) BIG SKY/Eastern Washington

Coach Wooden’s gym might be old, but inside UCLA still sparkles

All hail the Ohio Valley, which heads into the week with a six-way tie for the conference lead. Needless to say, SIU Edwardsville holds a tenuous place in the projected field. … Since the Big 12 went to 10 teams and a double-round-robin schedule in 2011-12, the following teams have won at Baylor and Kansas in the same season: 2022-23 TCU. That’s the list. (Though in fairness to 2020-21 Texas, the Longhorns won at Kansas but had their game at Baylor wiped out.) …

There are a lot of Big Ten teams just a three-game winning streak away from knocking on the door as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. Just look at Indiana, which ripped off victories over Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State to solidify its postseason standing. … Creighton is a top-20 team in predictive metrics and a borderline top-50 team in result-based evaluations. The Bluejays’ seeding just about splits the difference.

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