When the Aztecs host rival BYU on Saturday, they can do much more than avenge their only loss of the season. The conference title and a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament will be on the line
This is an article from the Feb. 28, 2011 issue
Last year's Selection Sunday was a heady moment for the Mountain West Conference, which landed an alltime-best four NCAA tournament bids, including a No. 3 seed for New Mexico, the league's regular-season champion. Six days later, by the end of second-round play, all four teams had been sent home.
As disappointing as those exits were, a similar run of hasty departures this March will cause far more anguish across the conference. At week's end BYU and San Diego State were a combined 52--3 while ranking second and third, respectively, in the RPI. The Cougars and the Aztecs have been so good—and the offensive eruptions by BYU guard Jimmer Fredette so spectacular—that they have turned another possible four-bid Mountain West season (Colorado State and UNLV are in the mix for at-large spots) into a mere footnote. In fact, the MWC is poised to make history. Since the NCAA began seeding tournament teams in 1979, two members of the same nonpower conference have never received No. 2 seeds in the same year. Mountain West associate commissioner Dan Butterly thinks that's the least this duo deserves.
"They're proving that the Mountain West Conference is on par with anybody in the country," Butterly says. "We believe we deserve a Number 1 seed, if not two Number 1 seeds, depending on what happens coming down the stretch."
With the top four teams—Kansas, Ohio State, Texas and Pitt—all losing last week, it's possible the MWC champ could earn a No. 1 seed, which would be a first for the 12-year-old league. Both the Cougars and the Aztecs will be rated high enough to get their preferred subregional site (BYU in Denver and San Diego State in Tucson), but each team's Final Four hopes could be helped by placement in the West regional in Anaheim, the closest and most favorable location for both schools.
An added wrinkle is a religious restriction at BYU that prohibits the team from playing on Sundays. The West regional's Thursday-Saturday schedule would accommodate the Cougars. Having won the teams' first showdown, BYU may need only one more win over SDSU (either on Saturday in San Diego or in the league tournament) to steal the coveted spot from the Aztecs. But if either team runs the table until Selection Sunday, it will be hard for the committee to keep them off the top line of the bracket, making them the first top-seeded team from a mid-major conference since Memphis in 2008.