ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A great league has a great race again.
That seemed to be the general consensus Monday among Mountain West coaches who again sang the praises of the night-in, night-out nature of the conference that has four teams within one loss of league-leading New Mexico.
“I believe that probably the rest of the pack was happy New Mexico is not undefeated and now it appears there might be a conference race,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said Monday.
No. 20 UNM (17-3 overall, 4-1 MWC) remains alone in first place in the conference standings, but the league as a whole seems content knowing the Lobos won’t be running away with the regular season crown. The hope is it keeps the league in the national conversation more than a race with one team multiple games ahead of the pack.
And national respect remains the big topic of discussion among the league coaches.
One question asked to multiple coaches was about the need of a league team to make a deep NCAA Tournament run in March.
“I don’t buy the argument that we’re not legitimate as a league just because we haven’t had a Final Four team,” UNM coach Steve Alford said. “… We’re a very good league and if people on the outside don’t feel that way, schedule our league and you’ll get a pretty good idea how good our league is.”
A week ago, Alford took shots at both national Top 25 polls for only having one MWC team — his Lobos — ranked. Monday, UNM (20 in the Associated Press Top 25 and 22 in the USA Today Coaches poll) and SDSU (22/20) were ranked while UNLV and Colorado State received votes in each poll.
Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt said he thinks the polls should be done away with and just look at stats like the RPI, which ranks the MWC as the second-best conference in the nation as of Monday morning.
“I think the best yardstick is to do away with the pundits and the analysts and all the people that have biases from the schools they went to and the leagues they played in … and just look at the numbers,” Shyatt said. “The numbers would speak volumes this year that this league from top to bottom has terrific talent, terrific coaching and has done the job. The numbers have no bias.”
18-GAME SCHEDULE: One number that has had the league’s attention this past week is 18. That’s the number of league games the MWC will play next year when there are 11 basketball members, up from this season’s 16-game schedule.
SDSU’s Fisher, the league’s longest tenured coach, doesn’t like the idea because it cuts into non-conference scheduling flexibility.
“I’m the only guy here for 14 years,” Fisher said. “I’ve watched the growth, the success, the recognition, the national exposure, the national success and it has all been created by our initial ability to schedule and then beat programs from BCS conferences with big names and do it selectively. We’ve all been able to do that.
“You put 18 games on the schedule, it adds to the degree of difficulty to do that. I’m talking out of school a little bit, but I’m a strong advocate of the 16-game schedule. There was no consultation from the coaches, I don’t think. I think this was made by others and I don’t think it was a good idea.”
Colorado State’s Larry Eustachy joked Fisher was mad because he beefed up his nonconference schedule next year when he thought he’d have easier games playing in the Big West, before SDSU announced it would stay in the MWC.
“Steve (Fisher) was going to go to the Big West so I heard he scheduled the Lakers and the Mavericks,” Eustachy said. ” … He’s kind of in a bind I imagine.”
Alford and Boise State’s Leon Rice both said 18 games is nice if it helps avoid unbalanced scheduling that forces schools to play some teams only once a season.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: SDSU’s sophomore forward J.J. O’Brien, who had a double-double on Saturday against the UNM Lobos with 12 points and 10 rebounds, was named the MWC Player of the Week.
O’Brien, the Utah transfer, averaged 12.0 points and 6.5 rebounds and shot 66.7 percent in wins over UNM and Nevada.
COLORADO STATE: If the Rams (16-4, 3-2) make a run in the league standings, they may look back on last week’s loss in the Pit as their defining moment.
CSU trailed by 22 to UNM before a comeback cut the lead to three in the final seconds before losing 66-61.
“It was the first time I saw our team, the first time since I’ve been associated with these guys that we actually showed some toughness and some real grit,” Eustachy said.
A season ago, before Eustachy took the CSU job, the Rams mustered no such rally in the Pit.
“We played last year in that situation (and the lead) went to 30,” Eustachy said. “This year, we got it down to three. … It was a positive and I thought we carried it over to Fresno State.”
Three days after the Lobos loss, CSU went on the road and comfortably beat Fresno State 74-63.
— This article appeared on page D2 of the Albuquerque Journal