Pac-12 vs. Mountain West Men’s Hoops Whiparound Debate
Posted on January 12, 2023
Recently, two of our senior writers, Dane Miller and Stephen Vilardo, struck up a Twitter conversation about the relative strengths of the Pac-12 and Mountain West as men’s basketball conferences.
That conversation evolved into a wide-ranging whiparound debate, complete with supporting stats and facts, and the result was this column.
Let’s listen in as they get into the particulars of their views.
Dane: The Mountain West Conference has improved this season with the re-emergence of UNLV and New Mexico on the national stage.
Anchored by San Diego State, the league appears positioned to land three or four teams in the Big Dance.
But the hierarchy in the West has traditionally been dominated by the Pac-12 with the WCC nipping at its heels. So, tell me Stephen, why is the Mountain West better than the Pac-12 this season?
Stephen: Dane, first off, let me start by mentioning I am not saying a Mountain West team could jump in the Pac-12 and win it. Nor am I predicting a deeper NCAA Tournament run from a MW team than a Pac-12 squad.
The top two teams in the Pac-12 are better than any team in the MW.
However, I do think that a number of teams from the Mountain West could challenge for the third through probably the eighth or ninth places in the Pac-12 if we were to combine the conferences.
Your question was why do I see it as the better conference at the moment? Mainly conference RPI.
As of games completed on 1/8/22, the Mountain West was rated as the fourth-best league in the nation in conference RPI, ahead of some traditional Power Conferences, including the Big East, ACC, and Pac-12.
And this is even with potential MW preseason favorite Wyoming struggling through injuries and a 5-11 start to the season and going winless in conference play.
Putting the Cowboys’ underachieving aside, the MW could be a five-bid league come March and perhaps six would be deserving.
Dane: Okay, but the Mountain West is 1-11 in First Round and Play In games since 2016. The league hasn’t had a team advance out of the First Round since Nevada in 2018.
Meanwhile, the Pac-12 has had two Final Four appearances and five Elite Eight appearances since the 2016 season.
And depending on matchups, Utah and Arizona State could advance out of the First Round this year along with Arizona and UCLA as a given.
Realistically, which teams from the Mountain West could you see advancing to the Round of 32?
Stephen: Depending on matchups? We could say that to be true with any team either of us might mention with the exception of Arizona and UCLA.
The Wildcats and Bruins could probably sleepwalk through an opening-round opponent and still win.
The Bruins tested it out last week in the second half against USC, only they didn’t sleepwalk, they just slept through the final 20 minutes and still won.
Arizona tested out also, and did not win!
Knocking down free throws is a good way to advance in March. Nevada and New Mexico both get to the foul stripe and are currently 11th and eighth in the nation, respectively, with 17.9 and 18.1 made FTs per game.
The Wolf Pack are second nationally with 25.87 made FTs per 100 possessions.
The Lobos have some offensive firepower with Jamal Mashburn, Jaelen House, and Morris Udeze. UNM ended Oral Roberts’ 10-game winning streak on Monday.
Defense also travels in March. Boise State is locking opponents down this season. San Diego State is always great on that end of the floor, but this year is getting more offensive production.
Matt Bradley is finally finding his stroke and has been on fire the last few weeks.
UNLV forces a turnover on 27.4% of opponents’ possessions, trailing only Tennessee in the national ranks, and is getting almost six more scoring chances per game than opponents.
That formula has worked for teams in the past in March. The Rebels could make noise.
So, I could see all five of those teams—Nevada, New Mexico, UNLV, Boise State, and San Diego State—all getting out of the first round. And “depending on the matchups,” maybe even deeper.
Dane: I’ll give you San Diego State as a potential team to advance out of the First Round. But I am not convinced that New Mexico or UNLV has what it takes to win a game in the Tournament.
The MWC is a three-bid league if the Selection Show were held today, in my opinion.
The Aztecs would probably be the third-best team in the Pac-12 this season if they played in the Conference of Champions.
The Lobos would likely win games in Albuquerque, but I am not convinced they would pull out victories in places like Pullman, Tempe, or Boulder.
UNLV would probably be similar. I could see the Rebels winning some games in Vegas and then struggling on the road swings.
But one team we haven’t mentioned yet is Utah State. The NET rankings love the Aggies and KenPom has them in the Top 50.
Where do you think Ryan Odom’s team would stack up in the Pac-12? And do you think they can reach the Round of 32?
Stephen: First off, I would disagree with you on the number of bids for the MW if selections were made today.
I think the Conference would get four bids for certain and perhaps even five. And those five bids would probably be one more than the Pac-12 at this point.
I am seeing some “experts” from around the nation agreeing with you and putting three MW teams in the field recently and two from the Pac-12.
This at the same time, as I mentioned in the open, the MW is currently shown as the fourth-best conference in America based on RPI.
Better than the ACC, which some of these same experts are giving six spots, and the Big East, which is mostly shown as a five-bid league.
But getting back to your Utah State topic: That is in fact a good question. I joked about your “Matchup” comment, but the Aggies really could come down to a matchup issue.
If you look at KenPom they are 19th in adjusted offense and fall all the way to 84th on the defensive side of the ball. Almost a mirror opposite of the likes of Utah and Boise State, which are near them overall on that list.
Against the Broncos the last time out, Utah State was limited to just 59 points, its lowest total of the season.
The Aggies suffered through just 39% shooting from the floor and 33% on three’s—down from their NCAA-leading 42.8% from distance.
The thing I really like about the Aggies, though, is their depth. They are getting 32.1 points per game from their bench, the tenth most in the nation.
So, with the depth and the ability to knock down three-pointers, the Aggies could be a very tough out for anyone they may meet. The issue is when you rely on the three, the off night can get you.
How many more off nights they have between now and Selection Sunday could well determine if they get a chance at a deep run.
Since Odem took over, the Aggies have been held to under 70 points 12 times and have only managed to win one of those games. The lone win came against Fresno State this season on New Year’s Eve, 67-54.
I think in the Pac-12, Utah State would be able to shoot their way to victory in a number of games, and perhaps even pull off some upsets of the big boys.
But I will give you this one: In the Pac-12, I think USU would be a team we talked about losing some of the winnable games and potentially hovering towards the bottom end.
Having said that, this season, if the Aggies make the tournament, they again could be a team that could shoot their way to some wins and surprises people. Especially if they can create some defense.
However, if I was betting, I’d take a one-dimensional defensive team over an offensive one.
Dane: So, essentially what I am hearing is that the Mountain West is a stronger top-to-bottom league this year than the Pac-12.
The NET rankings have five MWC conference teams in the Top 50 and only three Pac-12 teams, so perhaps the Selection Committee will agree with you.
But, here’s my concern for the Mountain West. As of January 10th, the entire league had just six Quad 1 victories and is a combined 6-23 in those games. Comparatively, the Pac-12 has 17 Quad 1 wins and is a combined 17-36.
That means the MWC wins 26% of its Quad 1 games while the Pac-12 handles its business in 47%.
I measure a league’s strength based on its tournament performance and the Big Dance is essentially all Quad 1 games.
So, will you stand by your position that the MWC is better than the Pac-12 even if more Conference of Champions teams advance out of the First Round than the Mountain West?
Stephen: You summed it up perfectly in the fact that top-to-bottom the MWC is having a better season.
It is simply a deeper conference than the Pac-12 in mid-January. I will concede you bring up a good point with the Quad 1 wins.
To answer your final question, yes, I will stand by my position that the MWC is having a more successful season than the Pac-12 if, for example, Arizona and UCLA end up in the Sweet 16 and San Diego State bows out in the Round of 32.
One thing I will say is that this season the MW should have more opportunities to make it beyond the first round than the Pac-12 will. In other words, the Mountain West will get more teams in the tournament.
Either way, it should be fun to watch it play out, and hopefully, both conferences will continue to improve as the season progresses.
Dane: Well, there you have it. We will have to wait and see until the NCAA Tournament to finalize the debate between the Pac-12 and Mountain West.
Until then, the question of which conference is better arguably remains unresolved.
—More from Dane Miller—
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