What the Mountain West needs is love, sweet love, Joe Santoro writes | NevadaAppeal.com

What the Mountain West needs is love, sweet love, Joe Santoro writes

Joe Santoro
Nevada coach Eric Musselman argues a call with an official across the court.
Thomas Ranson/LVN

The Mountain West needs some love.

The home of the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team has become the conference nobody ever seems to notice.

The latest snub is ESPN’s ranking of the best seven conferences in the nation. The Mountain West is nowhere to be found.

“I keep stating it,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said last week. “It’s real hard to win a game. Every game is hard. Every team is talented.”

Except, apparently, in the Mountain West. ESPN, the trend-setter for all things college sports, believes the best seven conferences are, in order, the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Big East, American Athletic and Pac-12.

The Mountain West, for all we know, is behind three Indiana high school conferences, two City of Sparks Rec Leagues and the NBA G-League. Maybe that’s why ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the No. 6 ranked Wolf Pack and their 24-1 record as no better than a projected No. 4 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. Houston, of the American Athletic Conference, by the way, is a No. 3 seed.

“I can only compare to the conferences we’ve played this year,” said Musselman, when asked where his team fits into the national college basketball landscape.

The Wolf Pack is 3-0 against the Pac-12 this year after beating USC, Utah and Arizona State. It’s 1-0 against the American Athletic Conference after a 10-point win against Tulsa. The Pack hasn’t played a team from ESPN’s other five favorite conferences, which is probably why the cable network isn’t all that impressed with that 24-1 record.

“I look at last year, that Cincinnati team (of the American Athletic Conference),” said Musselman of the Pack’s 75-73 victory in the NCAA tournament after trailing by 22 with under 12 minutes to play. “They were real freaking good. We went toe to toe with them. Texas (of the Big 12) was real good last year (the Pack beat the Longhorns in the NCAA tournament last year).

“We’re a lot better than we were last year.”

The Mountain West, unfortunately, isn’t. Lunardi still believes the Pack will be the only team from the Mountain West in this year’s NCAA tournament, despite Utah State’s 20-6 record (as of Tuesday morning) and Fresno State’s 19-6 record. Lunardi also believes Utah State will be among the first four teams not invited to the tournament and Temple of the American Athletic Conference will be among the last four invited in.

Musselman, though, isn’t allowing the national media to color his perception of his own basketball team.

“I know we’d win the Pac-12,” he boldly said last week. “I don’t have any question about that. We played two on the road (Utah and USC) and one (Arizona State) in a neutral site. I would have loved to have had two home games against the Pac-12. I have no doubt we’re the best team if we were in the Pac-12.”

Musselman also took a stab last week at ESPN’s No. 2-ranked conference. “I watch a lot of games at night,” Musselman said. “I watched two Big 10 games (one night last week). We can play with those guys.”

Forgive Musselman if he was merely puffing out his Wolf Pack chest last week. All he was doing is defending the honor of his team and his maligned conference.

Somebody has to.

The Pomeroy College Basketball Rankings (kenpom.com) ranks the Pack as the 17th best team in the country. The NCAA tournament selection committee’s formula for ranking teams (NET, which stands for NCAA evaluation tool) has the Pack at No. 11. Blame the Mountain West schedule, which still has six teams with fewer than a dozen victories this year, for dropping the Pack out of the Top 10 in both of those rankings.

But if the Mountain West is so weak, why did the Wolf Pack win two games in the NCAA tournament last year after winning just one in the Mountain West tournament? Why did the Mountain West put one team (the Pack) in the Sweet 16 last year, the same amount as the Big East and one more than the Pac-12 and American combined?

“I feel good where we’re at and where we’re continuing to go,” Wolf Pack sixth man Jazz Johnson said. “I don’t think we necessarily need to be in those (top-rated) conferences to prove that we deserve to be talked about at that level.”

The Mountain West’s biggest problem is it simply doesn’t play enough games against Top 25 teams. The conference is 2-15 against Top 25 teams this year but that includes a 1-11 record against the Wolf Pack. It’s 0-4 against Top 25 teams not in the Mountain West: Air Force lost to Michigan, Fresno State lost to TCU, San Diego State lost to Duke and, this hurts the Pack most of all, Utah State lost to Houston.

The American Athletic Conference isn’t all that much better against Top 25 teams (5-21) but at least four of its five victories did come against teams outside of their own conference.

There are more reasons why the Mountain West doesn’t get a ton of national respect. The conference, which began in the 1999-00 season, has never gotten a team past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Mountain West teams are just 22-47 in the NCAA tournament overall. Utah and BYU, two teams no longer in the Mountain West, own five of those 22 victories. The Mountain West has sent just four teams to the NCAA tournament over the past three seasons.

The conference also has a losing record all-time against the Big East, Big 10, Pac-12, Big-12, SEC and ACC. You can count on two fingers the number of national postseason tournament titles the Mountain West has produced in its first 19 seasons (the Wolf Pack in the 2016 CBI and Wyoming in the 2017 CBI).

It all adds up to the Mountain West not cracking ESPN’s top seven conferences list. That’s also the reason why the Pack tends to drop a spot or two in the Top 25 rankings when someone below them happens to beat another Top 25 team.

It’s the price you pay for playing in a conference ESPN merely considers as late-night programming when the bulk of the nation is fast asleep.

The good news, of course, is none of this matters. The games are still won on the court. Not the internet.

“It, obviously, comes down to March,” Johnson said.

And, truth be told, Musselman simply loves it when his team gets disrespected. He scours the internet each and every day for items to get his players’ silver and blue blood boiling because, after all, watching San Jose State game film won’t do it.

“There was an article the other day, where opposing coaches said we don’t have a point guard, we take bad shots, a whole bunch of stuff,” Musselman said. “It’s awesome. We put that up in our locker room.”

So, go ahead, national media. Disrespect the Wolf Pack’s schedule. Tell everyone the Wolf Pack aren’t playing anybody. Write their 24-1 record is built on smoke and mirrors.

“We love the bulletin board material,” Musselman said. “Keep it coming. I hope there’s more unnamed scouting reports. Those are awesome when they are in print.”

Musselman needs those sort of things to motivate his team. The Mountain West, after all, isn’t doing it. The Pack is hardly breaking a sweat against Mountain West teams lately, winning 10 games in a row by an average of 22 points.

That’s why Musselman isn’t relying on the actual games this season to prepare his team for the NCAA tournament. There’s little of value, after all, in a 22-point victory in February over an overwhelmed Mountain West team that can benefit you in the NCAA tournament.

So don’t worry, Pack fans. The Mountain West isn’t preparing the Wolf Pack for the NCAA tournament. The Mountain West isn’t going to make the Wolf Pack soft.

Not with Musselman around.

The regular season for Musselman has been nothing more than four months of practice time for the NCAA tournament. The games are just for fun.

“Every day we’re finding something new that we have to work on because, obviously, we don’t play a perfect game,” Johnson said.

Musselman will never allow his team to believe it has just played a perfect game, even if it looks like perfection to everyone else.

“You have to keep your team engaged,” Musselman said. “You try to keep them from having boredom. You have to keep things fresh. We like to add things, add wrinkles.”

That’s because San Jose State, Colorado State, Wyoming and the rest of the Mountain West don’t keep things fresh for this Pack team. There’s not a team in the Mountain West that can go toe to toe with the Pack if the Pack is motivated. Nobody in the league can guard them. Nobody has their experience, size and talent. Nobody has their confidence and swagger.

“It’s really just about keeping on all the little things so we’re focusing on getting better every day,” Johnson said. “Muss does a good job of reminding us that the season is coming to a close. It’s not time to relax. It’s time for us to ramp it up a bit, actually.”

The Mountain West is just a part of that ramp.