Win 20 games, and you’re in.
That has been the rule for Mountain West Conference men’s basketball teams the last three years. Teams that have eclipsed the 20-win plateau have either gone to the NCAA Tournament or the NIT, and this year, Wyoming, Utah, Brigham Young and CSU are all within six wins of that mark.
Right now, four teams in the MWC rank in the Top 50 in the current RPI rankings that are used to determine NCAA Tournament berths. And according to MWC commissioner Craig Thompson, that fact bodes well for the conference.
“Statistically, anyone in the Top 50 has a good chance (of making the NCAA tournament),” Thompson said in a Sportswest television interview. “If you win the conference, you’re on the board. I think three (teams) is more realistic, though.”
One reason for the conference’s success this season is the simple fact that MWC teams have been shooting the lights out. According to the NCAA’s midseason trends released Jan. 27, the MWC leads the nation’s 32 conferences in field goal percentage at 46.6 percent and is second in three-point field goal percentage at 36.6 percent. Both CSU and Air Force rank in the top 10 in field goal percentage .
CSU’s Matt Nelson is leading the conference in field goal percentage at 65.5 percent (112-for-171). Among shooters who have taken a minimum of 50 shots this season, Nelson ranks No. 16 in the nation.
The Cowboys continue to be the class of the conference. With a 4-1 conference record, Wyoming is in a good spot to repeat as conference champs and return to the NCAA tournament. Also, the Cowboys’ 16-3 overall record marks the school’s best start since the 1942-43 season when Wyoming defeated Georgetown to win the NCAA championship, and went on to defeat the NIT Champion St. John’s to become the top team in college basketball for that season.
The Cowboys lost their first conference game of the season Monday, falling to San Diego State for the third time in a row dating back to last year. Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher expressed his respect for the Cowboys after the game.
“It’s nice to be able to beat Wyoming. They are the ones to beat,” Fisher said in a press release. “It makes us believe we have a chance to hang in this conference.”
Riding a four-game winning streak that includes a 78-68 win over New Mexico on Tuesday, the Utes have moved into a tie for first place with Wyoming and BYU. Although Utah is not currently ranked in any national polls, the team is No. 24 in RPI rankings, putting the Utes in a good spot to make a run at the NCAA tournament.
The Utes’ most recent victory gave head coach Rick Majerus’ his 398th win of his career and his 299th at Utah.
The other team at the top of the MWC is the Cougars. Most recently, BYU had the longest home winning streak in the nation (44 in a row) before it was broken by Utah. The Cougars are gearing up for a road trip that will begin in Laramie on Saturday before coming to Fort Collins on Monday.
“It’s a challenge,” BYU head coach Steve Cleveland said in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. “We have a chance to prove we can play with the big boys.”
Cleveland recorded the 100th win of his career after the Cougars defeated Air Force Monday.