What happened to the Mountain West?

Mountain West mess: San Diego State's Zylan Cheatham (14) defends the ball from Boise State's Nick Duncan (13) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Boise, Idaho, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. Boise State won 78-66. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)
AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger

The once-prominent mid-major conference has fallen on hard times.

The Mountain West was considered a top mid-major basketball conference not too long ago.

As recently as 2013, the conference sent five (out of a then-nine possible teams) to the NCAA Tournament — more than the ACC and SEC, and equal to the PAC-12, Big 12 and Atlantic 10 conferences.

However, by 2016 the conference only had one representative in the tournament — No. 14 seed Fresno State, who upset conference favorite San Diego State in the MW Tournament and then promptly lost in the first round to Utah (a former MW team).

It’s not uncommon for mid-major conferences to experience ups and downs, but the MW is an intriguing case because of the quality of programs involved in the conference. SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico are established programs with decorated histories, and the fact that they are all struggling — at the same time — right now is surprising to say the least.

What’s the reason behind the MW’s demise? The answer isn’t so simple. In reality, it’s a number of factors that, when combined, make up a perfect storm. But in an effort to simplify things, we’ll talk about a couple of the biggest reasons behind the conference’s fall.

One of the biggest reasons for the conference’s struggles has to do with the current state of SDSU. In recent years, the Aztecs have by far been by far the most successful team in the conference, consistently finding themselves ranked in the Top 25. However, after struggling in non-conference play last season and losing in the MW Tournament, the Aztecs missed the NCAA Tournament, breaking a streak of six consecutive trips to the Big Dance.

This season, SDSU was supposed to be the clear favorite to win the conference and challenge for a spot in the Top 25. Instead, the team has sputtered to a 9-7 record, and currently sits at the bottom of the MW standings with a 1-3 mark in conference play.

Watching the team who was supposed to be the class of the MW struggle to make it out of the conference cellar in a down year doesn’t bode well for the rest of the conference, and raises questions about the overall quality of the conference.

However, not all the blame falls on SDSU. The conference’s most recognizable and accomplished program, UNLV, is in a state of disarray as well.

UNLV (9-9, 2-3) fired Dave Rice last year in the middle of a disappointing season that saw the team fail to win 20 games. After the season, UNLV hired Chris Beard, only to lose him a few weeks later to Texas Tech.

UNLV eventually hired Marvin Menzies, but by that time the damage had been done–the entire recruiting class left, four players transferred and five others declared for the NBA Draft, leaving the Runnin’ Rebels with just three returning players.

Mountain West test of faith: San Diego State Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher gestures during the second half of the Mountain West tournament college basketball game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, NV.. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire)

Mountain West test of faith: San Diego State Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher gestures during the second half of the Mountain West tournament college basketball game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, NV.. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire)

Menzies faces an uphill battle at UNLV, and it will likely take years for the conference’s biggest name to return to any sort of prominence at the national level — a major blow for the conference’s brand. Think West Coast Conference Basketball without Gonzaga, or MW Football without Boise State.

But all hope is not lost.

While it’s true that most of the conference’s traditional powers are struggling this season, the conference does have a couple of teams who are outperforming expectations this season and carrying the rest of the conference.

Boise State (11-4, 4-0) currently sits atop the MW standings in what many thought was going to be a rebuilding year. The Broncos returned only one starter from last season, and were expected to finish in the bottom half of the conference. Instead, the Broncos have surged to 11 wins this season thanks to players like Chandler Hutchinson and Paris Austin — both bench players last season — taking their games to the next level.

Right behind Boise State is Nevada (14-3, 3-1), who is a team on the rise in the MW. The Wolf Pack won 24 games and the CBI under first-year head coach Eric Musselman last season, and entered this season looking to push for an NCAA Tournament berth. The team could be well on its way, led by a balanced attack of transfers — Marcus Marshall and Jordan Caroline — and team veterans — Cameron Oliver and D.J. Fenner.

As it stands, the Wolf Pack may be the conference’s best hope for making some noise this postseason.

With teams like SDSU and UNLV struggling, and it being unclear whether or not Boise State and Nevada can sustain their success, it appears that the MW is well on its way of being a one-bid league yet again. The future doesn’t look as bleak as the present, but it could take some time before the conference is a multi-bid league again.

Can the MW return to prominence? Of course it can. Just not this season.

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