SALT LAKE CITY — Who could ever imagine BYU or Utah playing in the top college basketball conference in America?
Right now, the Cougars are in the 10th-best league and the Utes in the 6th-best. But what if they’d stayed in the conference they helped create nearly 15 years ago?
That’s right, the Mountain West Conference is ranked as No. 1 in the country according to RealTime RPI and has been for several weeks now.
The MWC has good teams from top to bottom and the top four — New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State and San Diego State — are all projected to be high seeds in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Everybody raves about the Big Ten this year, but it is ranked No. 2 behind the MWC, while the vaunted Big East is No. 3.
Of course, the MWC is helped by the fact that it has only nine teams, which means fewer bad teams than the larger conferences. But to be rated No. 1 is quite an accomplishment for a league that was never better than 4 or 5 when BYU and Utah were in it.
This year, BYU would be no better than the No. 5 team in the MWC, while Utah would be struggling to stay out of the cellar.
The four aforementioned teams are virtual locks for the NCAA Tournament each with 20 wins already with Boise State, with its No. 46 RPI ranking, on the bubble. The Broncos (18-8), Wyoming (18-9) and Air Force (15-10) should all get postseason berths, perhaps a couple of them in the NIT.
Among the “Big Four” in the league, New Mexico is No. 3, UNLV is 14 Colorado State 15 and San Diego State is 32 in RPI rankings.
Another thing you can say for the old MWC is the games were usually exciting and venues such as the The Pit, the Thomas & Mack Center and the Viejas Arena at San Diego topped anything the Utes and Cougars are experiencing now with the possible exceptions of Arizona’s McKale Center and the McCarthey Athletic Center at Gonzaga.
SLC PROJECTION: If ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi knows what he is talking about (and someone with a degree in bracketology should), Salt Lake should be in for a quite the lineup of NCAA games next month.
The University of Utah is hosting the NCAA second-round (still can’t get used to calling these first-round games the second round just because of those silly play-in games) at the EnergySolutions Arena March 21 and 23.
If Lunardi is right, and a lot of things can change in the next two weeks, we’ll get a Pac-12 school, a Mountain West school, a WCC team that just may be ranked No. 1 in the country as well as the school that late Rick Majerus coached until this season.
His Salt Lake City bracket has Gonzaga as a No. 1 seed playing Mercer, Arizona (3) playing South Dakota State, Colorado State (6) against Middle Tennessee State and Saint Louis (9) against Missouri.
On the other hand, perhaps it won’t be that exciting for local fans since Arizona was in town earlier this month at the Huntsman Center, Gonzaga will be making an appearance in Provo this week and Majerus no longer roams he sidelines for Saint Louis.
BIG TWO: Perhaps the Big Sky should re-name itself the Big Two. At least for basketball.
The league has two good teams in Montana (19-6) and Weber State (20-5) and a whole bunch of, well, lousy teams.
Only one other team has a winning record — Sacramento State at 13-12 and the other eight all have losing records for a collective mark of 87-145. You’ve got two teams with a 78.0 winning percentage and the other nine at 37.5 percent.
So once again, it should come down to a battle between the Grizzlies and Wildcats in the Big Sky finals to determine the league’s NCAA berth.
REST OF STATE: Win or lose against Gonzaga this week, BYU will likely finish third in the WCC and play in the quarterfinals Thursday, March 7. A win there gives the Cougs a matchup with St. Mary’s in the semifinals.
Utah State will finish fourth or fifth in the WAC as it is currently tied with Texas-Arlington for fourth place at 9-5. That means those two schools will get first-round byes and likely meet up in the final game of the second day in Las Vegas on March 14.
Utah is pretty much locked into one of the bottom three spots for the upcoming Pac-12 Tournament, also in Las Vegas, with its 3-11 league record, fighting with Oregon State (3-12) and Washington State (2-13) to stay out of the cellar.
Southern Utah, in its first year in the Big Sky, stands in fourth place in the Big Sky and if the T-Birds hold on, they will make the conference playoffs, which takes the top seven teams, instead of six this year.