Dick Harmon: MWC exposure is biggest story through first half of league play
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
What do we know about Mountain West Conference basketball as Round 2 begins?
Well, many of last fall's preseason projections have held true.
Selected favorites San Diego State and BYU have stayed atop the league race and have chiseled their way into the top 10 nationally at No. 6 and 8, respectively. These two teams are easily the face of the league and regularly get their due on SportsCenter.
Why is that so important?
It's simple: When you play on three different cable networks scattered across the satellite and cable spectrum, MWC sports are tough for many college fans to find.
Still, the league is overcoming that roadblock this year.
In a nutshell, this is the most recognition MWC basketball has ever received in a single season, and it will prove valuable come Selection Sunday when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee meets next month to map out brackets and seeds.
It is important that committee members are exposed to MWC stories and teams more than ever before. It could lead to a No. 2 or No. 3 seed for a couple of league teams, which is a stepping stone to making a run in the postseason.
And that is big for SDSU, which has never won an NCAA Tournament game, and the Cougars, who have struggled to get past Round 1.
Right now, the MWC is ranked fourth in conference RPI behind the powerful Big East, Big Ten and Big 12. Leading the MWC is BYU's No. 2 RPI, followed by No. 3 SDSU and No. 31 UNLV.
The league got its lofty RPI by going on the road and winning games in November and December. The Cougars and Aztecs have both been great on the road, while UNLV skipped into the rankings early in the season with big wins at Nevada, Louisville and Kansas State.
This momentum heading into the Round 2 is huge for the league.
And yes, we have to mention it. There is the Jimmer factor — Jimmer glimmer. The kid has brought the MWC more recognition than anyone since Utah's No. 1 draft pick, Andrew Bogut, in 2004.
As pressure mounts on the BYU senior to keep up his act, Jimmer Fredette remains the nation's leading scorer at 27.6 points per game. He is averaging a whopping 34 points a game in conference play and has been called the most unique college performer to come along in years.
Also, Fredette has become a regular guest on SportsCenter, the Jim Rome and Dan Patrick radio shows, and has been featured on nearly every major sports magazine. Internet sites and newspapers like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have only pushed the MWC agenda forward.
Fredette and San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard have stepped forward as the league's two best players. But Colorado State's Andy Ogide has the Rams in position to make some noise, and New Mexico's Drew Gordon, a transfer from UCLA, is making a case for newcomer of the year.
Colorado State's win over UNLV in the Thomas & Mack Center was a significant breakthrough in the league's first round, and when the Rams came within 1.8 seconds of taking San Diego State into overtime in Moby Arena this week, it signaled major progress for Tim Miles in making his team a contender, if not for the regular season, but in the league tournament as well.
There are plenty of questions still to be answered: Is UNLV going to fix its shooting woes, perhaps with a spark from post players? Is New Mexico going to come on like gang busters like it did a year ago after a slow start? Can BYU, which played 5-of-8 games on the road in the first round, hold serve and break through on the road? Will San Diego State keep winning since its only setback in Provo? Is Utah capable of finishing late in games and knocking off some contenders?
This is one of the league's best seasons so far. It is getting ink and achieving the rankings and attention it deserves.
While the refurbished Pit at New Mexico is drawing an average of 14,884 fans per game, both the Marriott Center in Provo and SDSU's Viejas Arena sold out regularly in January. The Fredette Show has brought BYU's average attendance to 20,923 for league games.
The second round will have some key games starting with UNLV at BYU today, and the Rebels hosting San Diego State in the Thomas & Mack on Feb. 12. The Cougars travel to San Diego State on Feb. 26 for a huge rematch on the Aztecs' home court.
"What you do," said BYU coach Dave Rose, "is prepare and worry about the next game. All we can do is be concerned with Saturday and after that, the game Wednesday."
So, what's the biggest thing January brought the MWC? Headlines and sound bites that really count.
It won't hurt come March Madness.
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