Is the Mountain West on the verge of a basketball renaissance?
The conference placed two teams in the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday, and for a league that has found itself firmly in one-bid territory for the last three years, that represents a significant step forward.
The banner carriers are UNR, which earned the No. 7 seed in the South region as an at-large entrant, and San Diego State, which earned the No. 11 seed in the West by virtue of winning the MWC tournament.
Now, the question is, can either team make a run?
UNR (27-7, 15-3 MWC) profiles as the kind of team that can win its way to the second weekend. The Wolf Pack play a unique style, with a lineup full of tall, lanky athletes who can all shoot the ball. UNR opened as a pick 'em against No. 10 seed Texas, but if the Pack makes its 3-pointers, a trip to the Round of 32 is likely.
That would set up a game against the winner of No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 15 Georgia State. UNR would obviously be a heavy favorite against Georgia State, and Cincinnati is the type of team prone to upsets, as the Bearcats play at an extremely deliberate pace and struggle to score, both key attributes that lead to letting opponents hang around.
While UNR was a tournament lock, San Diego State (22-10, 11-7) had to win its way in after an underachieving regular season. The Aztecs found their stride down the stretch and closed strong, beating UNR in the regular-season finale for both teams, then winning the anticipated rematch in the Mountain West semifinals in blowout fashion, 90-73. San Diego State then topped New Mexico to claim the league crown and make the MWC a multi-bid league.
The Aztecs will open the NCAA tournament against No. 6 Houston in Los Angeles. Houston is a 3.5-point favorite, but SDSU has enough athleticism in the frontcourt to hang with the AAC champs.
After cutting down the nets at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, San Diego State first-year coach Brian Dutcher said his senior core of guard Trey Kell and forwards Kameron Rooks and Malik Pope will continue to push the Aztecs to keep their season alive.
"I don't think this team is satisfied at all," Dutcher said. "I think some teams are satisfied to get in tournament. This is the second trip for Malik and Trey, and Kam's been there with Cal, and so I've got veterans that played in this environment before and are ready for this moment and are going with no other intention other than to win games in the NCAA tournament."
A Cinderella run (or runs) from a Mountain West team would be coming at the right time for the conference. UNR returns most of its contributors next year, while San Diego State is also building around a strong freshman nucleus. Head coach Paul Weir had New Mexico in the league title game in his first season on the job, and Marvin Menzies had UNLV back at 20 wins in his second season.
With the league positioned for a general resurgence in quality, a Sweet 16 appearance by UNR or San Diego State would raise the Mountain West's profile just in time for the rest of the teams to take advantage next year.