- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
Let's get one thing out of the way quickly: the Mountain West Conference is underrated. It has been for a while. That's the unfortunate downside to playing in the Time Zone That TV Forgot.
It's still hard to imagine, though that a conference that ranks third on KenPom.com (ahead of the ACC, Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC) is only in line for one top-five seed. But that's what Joe Lunardi says, and we certainly won't fight back: More lower-seeded MWC teams mean more potential Giant Killers. The best ones, though, might not be the teams you'd expect.
New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State and San Diego State look like NCAA locks as the MWC tourney begins Tuesday. Boise State is one of Lunardi's last four in. No one else even qualifies for the bubble. But two other teams could make things interesting in Las Vegas this week.
Air Force and Wyoming played their way out of tourney contention during the conference season. But, oddly, they retain surprisingly high Giant Killer ratings. The Falcons' 21 mark is tied with UNLV and only slightly trails San Diego State (23.4); Wyoming, which started the season 13-0 and now stands at 18-12, is just behind at 20.7 Given the way championship week tends to go, and what we've already seen this season (like 20-loss Liberty winning the Big South), it's not out of the realm of possibility for one of these teams to run the table and steal a bid, adding another dangerous Giant Killer to the field in the process. Air Force, with its 3-point prowess (35.5 percent of total points, 24th in the nation) and slow pace, has the feel of a GK, as does Wyoming, thanks to an even slower tempo (337th in the nation) and more 3-happy approach (42.6 percent of attempts).
But a big run by either team could potentially knock Boise State out of the field, which would be both unfair and unfortunate. Not only are the Broncos 45th in the BPI (ahead of Baylor, Butler and Villanova, among others), not only did they win by 13 at Creighton and lose by just four at Michigan State, but they make a damn fine Giant Killer. Boise currently checks in with a 32.0 rating, bolstered by a host of positive qualities. The Broncos are slightly above-average offensive rebounders (and rank third in the country on the defensive glass), score 31.9 percent of their points from 3-point range and don't turn the ball over much. Should Boise make the tourney, it'll scare some highly seeded team.
But not as much as Colorado State will. The Rams are one of the least-heralded teams in the MWC, but they are the top potential GK with a 44.3 rating. Led by the massive Colton Iverson, they are the nation's second-leading offensive rebounding team (as important as any stat in our Secret Sauce, which factors into the GK ratings), and the country's top defensive rebounding team (which adds to an impressive base power rating). That gives them a huge possession advantage and compensates for an offense that doesn't shoot many 3s and a defense that doesn't force turnovers. CSU also plays slower than average and takes care of the ball on offense, meaning it can grind a game out against anyone. The Rams will probably be seeded too highly to be an opening-round GK, but they are precisely the type of team that could win, say, a 7-2 matchup in the Round of 32.
That round is likely where UNLV and San Diego State would have to do their damage, too. The Rebels are currently a 6-seed in Lunardi's bracket, but they could slide. They're a better team than a GK (21.0 rating), though; they have a negative Secret Sauce. The same goes for San Diego State, currently projected as a 9-seed with a 23.4 GK rating. The Aztecs struggle from 3-point range, only grab offensive boards at an average rate and don't force many steals.
And as for New Mexico? Well, the Lobos are certain to be a top-5 seed and thus a Giant for the duration of the tournament. But they are exceedingly vulnerable, with just a 63.6 Giant rating, including a -3.4 Secret Sauce -- the product of lousy offensive rebounding (29.1 percent of misses), an offense that is over-reliant on free throws (46.2 percent of their points) and a defense that can't guard the arc (37.1 percent of points allowed from 3-point range, second-worst in the nation). From a historical point of view, those stats don't bode well.
And that's unfortunate for the MWC. Back in December, we asked whether this was the season the conference could break through after a series of disappointing showings in March. With the Lobos looking like prime pickings for a hungry GK and the other top teams likely to be under-seeded or miscast as Giant Killers, the path to producing even one Sweet 16 team is as rocky as, well, the mountains for which the conference is named.
Jordan Brenner takes a look at why the Mountain West Conference could again have trouble in the NCAA tournament this year, although they do have a few teams capable of pulling off upsets.