When the Boise State men’s basketball team joined the Mountain West Conference in 2011, the league regularly sent multiple representatives to the NCAA Tournament.
The Broncos were among five Mountain West teams to qualify for the tournament in 2013 and were one of three to go in 2015.
But the past two seasons, the conference has sent only the Mountain West Tournament champion to the field of 68, a disappointing trend the league’s presidents tried to address this summer by mandating stronger nonconference schedules for member schools.
The hope is that the conference will return to being a multi-bid league this spring.
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“It’s just a jumble now, but the right things have to happen as far as who wins the (conference) tournament and who wins the league for us to get multiple bids,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “I think as coaches, none of us are worried about that. We’re all just worried about our teams and if we can be in that position to be one of those teams at the end that either wins the conference tournament or wins the conference, then you’ll be in a great position because you’ve got some terrific RPIs in this league.”
If the Broncos (10-2) have it their way, they’ll claim the tournament crown and automatic bid in early March and leave the rest of the Mountain West scrambling for an at-large berth.
Heading into conference play — which begins for Boise State against Colorado State at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (CBS Sports Network) in Taco Bell Arena — the Broncos have the second-best RPI ranking among Mountain West teams at 29th (rankings are through Monday). Preseason favorite Nevada is 23rd, and second-place pick San Diego State comes in at 55th.
The RPI rankings are used as an evaluation tool for the NCAA selection committee, and the lower the number, the better.
“This league is a grind, and it’s just tough games every night and who knows who is going to finish where,” Rice said. “There are six to seven teams that could probably win the thing this year. You could finish first, you could finish seventh. It’s crazy how much parity there is in the Mountain West.”
Based on current RPI rankings, Nevada played four nonconference games against teams that rank among the top 60, winning at home vs. Rhode Island (17) and UC Davis (57) while losing at Texas Tech (43) and at a neutral location to TCU (6).
San Diego State lost at Arizona State (4), won at home vs. Gonzaga (48) and won at a neutral location vs. Georgia (51).
The Broncos have five opponents within the top 100, losing at SMU (67) and at a neutral site to Iowa State (46), while winning on the road at Oregon (92), at home against Southern Utah (89) and at a neutral site against Illinois State (66).
The surest way to Boise State’s eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in program history is to win the Mountain West Tournament, which has been the Broncos’ outspoken goal from the get-go.
“It’s going be the team that finds a way to improve that ends up being there in March,” Rice said.
Aside from Boise State, which was picked to finish third in the preseason media poll, here’s a look at the teams expected to contend for a title in the Mountain West this season:
NEVADA WOLF PACK
RPI rank: 23rd
Returning starters: PG Lindsey Drew, jr.; G/F Jordan Caroline, jr.
Outlook: The reigning Mountain West regular-season and tournament champions are the definitive No. 1 until proven otherwise. In addition to two returning starters, four transfers are eligible to play this season after sitting out last year: Kendall Stephens (Purdue), Hallice Cooke (Iowa State) and Cody & Caleb Martin (N.C. State). Caleb was chosen as the MW Preseason Newcomer of the Year. They also landed graduate transfer Darien Williams from St. John’s.
SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS
RPI rank: 55th
Returning starters: G Trey Kell, sr.; F Malik Pope, sr.; G Jeremy Hemsley, jr.
Outlook: After advancing to the NCAA Tournament six years in a row, the Aztecs have failed to qualify the past two seasons. Longtime coach Steve Fisher turned the reins over to longtime assistant Brian Dutcher this year. While the Aztecs have the talent to contend, it will be up to the untested Dutcher how far the team will go.
FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS
RPI rank: 147th
Returning starters: G Jaron Hopkins, sr.; G Jahmel Taylor, sr.; F Bryson Williams, so.; G Deshon Taylor, jr.
Outlook: The Bulldogs finished fourth in the Mountain West regular-season standings last season, right on the heels of third-place Boise State. With four starters back, the Bulldogs should be in the mix to contend for a top spot. They have five players averaging double digits in scoring.
RPI rank: 112th
Returning starters: G Louis Adams, sr.; F Alan Herndon, sr.; F Jordan Naughton, jr.; G Alexander Aka Gorski, sr.
Outlook: The 2017 CBI Tournament champions return four starters, but they may not be the Cowboys’ best players this season. Junior guard Justin James, the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year a year ago, and senior forward Hayden Dalton played key minutes off the bench last year and should be even better in 2017-18. Despite a core group of returners and a strong postseason run to conclude last season, the Cowboys were picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll.
RPI rank: 101st
Returning starters: G Kris Clyburn, jr.; G Jovan Mooring, sr.
Outlook: Yes, the Rebels finished tied for last in the Mountain West standings last season with just four wins, but they return leading scorer Jovan Mooring and added a top-15 prospect in freshman center Brandon McCoy. The 7-foot McCoy is already leading the conference in scoring (18.9) and is second in rebounding (10.9). The Rebels also will get a boost from senior guard Jordan Johnson, who sat out last season after transferring from Milwaukee. UNLV was tabbed to finish sixth in the preseason poll.
Players to watch
- JORDAN CAROLINE, NEVADA: The 6-foot-7 junior guard/forward had one of the best games in Nevada history when he scored 45 points in an overtime win at New Mexico on Jan. 7. Caroline was named the 2017 Mountain West Tournament MVP and is expected to contend for player-of-the-year honors. He is nearly averaging a double-double at 17.0 points and 9.1 rebounds.
- JUSTIN JAMES, WYOMING: Chosen as the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year and the MVP of the College Basketball Invitational last season, James led the Cowboys in scoring despite coming off the bench. The 6-7 junior guard has moved into a starting role this season and is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 rebounds.
- BRANDON MCCOY, UNLV: The McDonald’s High School All-American and consensus five-star recruit has lived up to his billing so far, as he leads the Mountain West in scoring (18.9) and ranks second in rebounding (10.9). The 7-0 freshman center is considered a candidate to enter the NBA after one college season and was chosen as the preseason MW freshman of the year.
Boise State’s Mountain West home games
Wednesday: Colorado State, 7:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Jan. 3: New Mexico, 7 p.m.
Jan. 13: San Diego State, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 17: Utah State, 7 p.m.
Jan. 24: San Jose State, 8 p.m. (AT&T/ROOT)
Feb. 3: UNLV, 6 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Feb. 14: Nevada, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Feb. 17: Air Force, Noon (AT&T/ROOT)
March 3: Wyoming, 5 p.m. (AT&T/ROOT)
Note: Mountain West Tournament is March 7-10 in Las Vegas.