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MWC basketball seeks signature victories

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During the 2012-13 college basketball season, the Rodney Dangerfield coaches of the Mountain West Conference were at a loss.

The league, at long last in its opinion, finally got some of that respect it had been seeking for years thanks to a November and December tear through non-conference play that set it up for the No. 1 or 2 RPI (Rating Percentage Index) in the nation.

With so much talent leaving after last season (10 of the 15 All-MWC players are gone and teams like Air Force, UNLV and Colorado State are replacing three or more starters) and no win on the league’s résumé to date against a currently ranked opponent, the league isn’t generating the national buzz it was at this time last year.

But don’t call it a down season for the league, says senior associate commissioner Dan Butterly.

“Based upon the student athletes that we lost coming out of last year … I’m very excited about where we are as a conference in men’s basketball,” Butterly said. “If you look at (Monday morning’s ESPN.com) RPI numbers, we have six teams in the top 80 and nine of the 11 teams (in the league) are in the top 140. That’s pretty doggone strong.”

The league’s top three teams – Boise State, San Diego State and New Mexico – are a combined 22-2 with the only two losses coming to undefeated No. 1 Arizona and to undefeated No. 22 Massachusetts.

Arizona’s T.J. McConnell (4) maneuvers against UNLV’s Deville Smith. The Rebels were trying to upset the now No. 1 Wildcats on Saturday, but came up short. (John Miller / The Associated Press)

Arizona’s T.J. McConnell (4) maneuvers against UNLV’s Deville Smith. The Rebels were trying to upset the now No. 1 Wildcats on Saturday, but came up short. (John Miller/The Associated Press)

But where are the big wins? While San Diego State knocked off in consecutive days a then-ranked Creighton and a then-ranked Marquette on a neutral court, those two teams are receiving a grand total of two points in this week’s Associated Press Top 25.

In non-conference play a year ago, the league boasted wins over No. 8 Cincinnati (UNM) and No. 11 Creighton (Boise State) on the road; over No. 21 Connecticut (UNM) on a neutral court and over No. 19 Colorado at home (Wyoming). There were four more wins at Pac-12 programs and several wins over high-RPI mid-majors not to mention a November/December league win percentage of 78.4 (91-25). As of Sunday, the league’s non-conference win percentage was 65.6 (61-32).

“You’re always looking for those marquee wins and I think we got some of those in the past couple weeks,” Butterly said of San Diego State’s wins over Creighton and Marquett and UNM’s Saturday win over Cincinnati.

There is no bigger week for that marquee win than now. Starting with UNLV’s near upset of now-No. 1 Arizona in Tucson on Saturday, the Mountain West had circled three road games against college basketball blue bloods as golden opportunities. The others are Boise State tonight at No. 11 Kentucky and UNM vs. No. 13 Kansas on Saturday in Kansas City, Mo.

Butterly admits one of those wins would do wonders for the perception of the league, but also stands firm that the numbers don’t lie about the league being on solid ground.

“If you look at the teams we’ve got, we’re not in a rebuilding, we’re in a reprogramming phase,” Butterly said. “Our teams are playing pretty well. I think we’re in a very good position.”

HONOR SHARED: UNM’s Cameron Bairstow averaged 22.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots last week in a win at New Mexico State and a home win over previously unbeaten Cincinnati, not to mention going 16-of-17 (94.1 percent) from the free throw line in those games.

That was good enough for the senior from Australia to earn his first Mountain West Player of the Week honor. He shares the award with San Jose State freshman Jalen James, who posted the third triple-double in league history (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) in a Saturday road win at Houston.

POLL SPEAK: Despite a win at NMSU and one at home over previously undefeated Cincinnati, the Lobos on Monday not only didn’t climb back into the two major polls, they lost ground.

UNM’s 62 points in the “others receiving votes” portion of the Associated Press Top 25 is nine fewer than they received last week. The team’s 28 points in the USA Today Coaches poll is eight fewer than last week’s 36.

Many voters rewarded previously unranked teams like North Carolina, Colorado and Missouri for big wins over the past week, leading to UNM to fall on some ballots. The Lobos actually appeared on 19 of 65 AP ballots, which was two more than last week, but were dropped to a lower ranking by eight of those voters, including the Seattle Times’ Percy Allen who had UNM at No. 19 last week but left them off his ballot on Monday.

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A road win at New Mexico State and a home win over previously undefeated Cincinnati weren't enough for the New Mexico Lobos to break back into the Associated Press or USA Today Coaches Top 25 polls on Monday morning.

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