It was downright striking while crafting yesterday's bracket projection just how familiar the Mountain West looked.
So many of the characteristics were similar, though not entirely identical, to the Missouri Valley Conference's 2006 season. The Valley's run that year is the gold standard of a mid-major league gaming the system, in effect combining a peak in quality (the Valley was the nation's sixth-ranked conference that year) with shrewd scheduling and opportunistic early-season results.
Guess what? This year's Mountain West contingent might just be better, and less than eight weeks before Selection Sunday possesses six credible contenders for an at-large NCAA bid among its nine teams.
Having good teams --- New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV were well-regarded before the season, while Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming have all proven better than anticipated --- is a requirement, of course. But there's more to it than that, and what the Mountain West has going for it mirrors the Valley of seven years ago, to some degree.
That means following these guidelines to make good teams look even better on paper (and in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee), just as the likes of Bradley, Northern Iowa and Wichita State did back in '06:
1. Play strong nonconference schedules and hold your own
The foundation of anyone exploiting the RPI formula scrutinized by the selection committee is to create a cushion with a good nonconference strength of schedule --- and hope the rest of your league does the same. Fifty percent of the RPI is based on opponents' winning percentage, while 25 percent is opponents' opponents' winning percentage.
Put less awkwardly, play good teams and hope the teams you play face good teams, too.
So here's what the Missouri Valley did in 2006 (moving forward, all data from that season is provided by CollegeRPI.com):
Half the league played top-100 nonconference schedules, and all found themselves in tournament contention (Bradley, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Wichita State eventually made the tournament). The conference's weaker entities at the time scheduled in the hopes of winning games, and all of them had the decency to at least be mediocre (if not better) outside the league.
Now, as for how the Mountain West stacks up through last night (data courtesy of CBSSports.com for all 2013 Mountain West figures moving forward)
|San Diego State
Admittedly, this is not as impressive as the Valley, circa 2006. But four teams, all credible NCAA contenders, are loitering around the top 100. Two other at-large possibilities (Wyoming and Boise State) avoided losing all that much. And no one played a truly horrible schedule, which will help down the road.
2. Collect a handful of stout nonconference victories
Playing great schedules only does you so much good, both as a team and as a league. There needs to be something to show for it.
In 2006, Valley teams defeated Iowa (No. 7 in the RPI), Louisiana State (No. 13), George Mason (No. 26), Indiana (No. 34) and Bucknell (No. 42). That might not seem like much, but stacking quality wins on top of solid schedules did a world of good in manipulating the RPI.
At this stage, the Mountain West's members own victories over Colorado (No. 18), Cincinnati (No. 20), Creighton (No. 21), Connecticut (No. 30), Iowa State (No. 38) and UCLA (No. 43). Chances are, most (if not all) of those triumphs will retain a fair bit of value to the end of the season. And consider this, too: This year's Mountain West has done that despite having one fewer team than the '06 Valley.
3. Play a double round-robin during the conference season
The expansion of conferences away from traditional alignments (between eight and 10 teams) to larger associations bloated often for the purposes of TV revenue and contesting a football title game (aims which often dovetail) have deprived power conferences of one of their great advantages.
If you have 10 teams and five are really good, that means the sixth- and seventh-best teams are getting 10 exceptionally strong games to cycle into their RPI figures, and that doesn't even count the conference tournament. There are fewer guaranteed strong games when the double round-robin is tossed out the window, especially if expansion waters down a league in basketball. Along with that, opponents' accomplishments only help a team once rather than twice with a single meeting as opposed to a home-and-home.
The 2006 Missouri Valley earned a bump from its double round-robin. With six strong teams, a fair number of decent nonconference victories and fairly stout nonconference schedule strengths, a mathematical vortex of sorts was created to boost everyone in the league. Those factors, to varying degrees, are helping the Mountain West and its members this year while they go through a 16-game league schedule.
4. Make sure teams at the top of the table didn't lose much out of conference
This is rather intuitive, but should be mentioned nonetheless. Once league play begins, it's a zero-sum game for everyone. The Mountain West's teams will go .500 over 72 total games league games.
In 2006, the Valley's top six teams combined for 12 losses outside the league. This season, the Mountain West's top six teams combined for 10 nonconference setbacks. There's no gaming the RPI if the winning percentages of the best teams are around .500 rather than .850 (or better).
5. Limit the wretchedness at the bottom of the standings
It's a rare day when every team in a conference is truly a tough out --- and proceeds to demonstrate it --- especially with conferences that are larger now than they were a decade ago. Again, this is another advantage for leagues of 10 teams or less, one that wasn't so apparent in the past.
It's even less likely for a mid-major league to avoid an awful team or two at the bottom. Yet even though the '06 Missouri Valley had four teams with losing records, everyone won at least eight games against Division I opponents and all but one team earned 10 victories versus D-1 competition. Relatively speaking, the Valley's bad teams weren't all that bad for a mid-major league.
At the moment, all but one Mountain West team (Fresno State) has a winning record. Each team in the league except the Bulldogs has 10 wins. At year's end, it's unlikely there will be multiple (if any) albatrosses on the conference schedule, which is crucial. It's possible to prop up the RPI by snagging good victories and facing strong slates, but it can also be done if the damage done by a league's cellar dwellers is minimized.
6. The NCAA contenders must suffer few, if any, against the bottom of the league
Maybe the most underrated aspect of the Missouri Valley's success in 2006 was how little of a nuisance the bottom four teams (Drake, Evansville, Illinois State and Indiana State) proved to be while the top six teams piled up victories.
Perhaps nuisance isn't the right word. But in the end, the Top Six went 44-6 against the Bottom Four, which means the postseason contenders weren't being saddled with lousy losses on a regular basis.
This might be a trickier in the Mountain West this year, where Air Force, Fresno State and Nevada are already 2-5 against the six current contenders. Of course, only two of the league's teams currently reside outside the top 100 (feisty Air Force checks in at No. 91).
Clearly, the Mountain West and its members aren't following the exact same path as the Missouri Valley did in 2006. But there are some similarities, and it's worth noting those before a power-conference coach with a 10-8 league record starts caterwauling in March about how half of a non-power conference's teams wound up in the NCAA tournament.
Chances are, the top two-thirds of the Mountain West is competitive enough to do fine against the bubblers from leagues with bigger profiles. Considering how well they've scheduled, those Mountain West teams are almost certainly smarter in one significant regard.
--- Patrick Stevens