BOISE — The Boise State mens basketball team sweated out Selection Sunday a year ago, nervously watching as the 68-team bracket was unveiled before finally seeing its spot in the field.
If the Broncos 10-3 as they open Mountain West play Saturday night against Fresno State want to avoid a similar fate (and another trip to Dayton, Ohio, the airport screening area of the NCAA Tournament), they need conference wins.
Lots of them.
A repeat of last years 9-7 conference mark (tied for fourth) and a loss in the first-round of the Mountain West tournament wont be good enough this time around.
The league is not as good or well-regarded, and the Broncos dont have a marquee road victory like Creighton to put atop their résumé. Boise State, which more importantly does not have a bad loss, dropped games at Kentucky, versus Saint Marys at home and against Iowa State in the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
Last year, the Mountain West considered the No. 1 or No. 2 conference in the country by some ratings received five bids to the NCAA Tournament. The teams went 2-5. New Mexico, a No. 3 seed, flamed out in the first round to Harvard. San Diego State, a No. 7, fell to No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast.
The league has yet to recover from those hits to its credibility. The 11 teams up from nine a year ago are 0-14 against top-25 RPI teams. After posting 26 top-100 RPI nonconference victories last year, the league has fewer than half that total now (12).
It feels like a three-bid league to most observers, including Boise State coach Leon Rice. The league has averaged 3.6 bids over the last five years.
So how exactly does Boise State assure itself of one of those three bids?
Winning the regular season would do it. Of course, winning the conference tournament title would do it, too, but Boise State is 0-2 all-time in the tournament.
Finishing second might also do it. Place third and youre left to squirm a bit, particularly if someone below you in the standings wins the tournament.
With the additions of Utah State and San Jose State, the league has gone to 18 conference games, two shy of a true round-robin format. Boise State will miss out on Colorado State at home and San Jose State on the road.
Last years second-place finisher (Colorado State) was six games over .500 (11-5). So Boise State needs 12-6 (at least) to feel good about Selection Sunday.
Twelve wins in a balanced league. Twelve wins in a league where everyone may need 12 wins to get in the big dance. Twelve wins in a league where road victories are a crusade, to use Rices word.
Boise State went 2-6 on the road in league play last season and needed a last-second 3-pointer to defeat Wyoming. The Broncos, in order to fulfill their elevated expectations, will need better this year.
Last years run to the NCAA Tournament, the first-ever at-large selection for Boise State, was an unexpected journey, a trip of discovery.
The path is clearer now, but not easier.
The countdown starts Saturday. The verdict comes Selection Sunday.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444,Twitter: @MurphsTurph