Over the last few years, the Mountain West has gained attention largely as a football conference. The Mountain West has sent one team to the BCS in each of the last three years, and twice the Mountain West representative knocked off a major conference foe, with Utah beating Alabama in 2009 and Texas Christian University knocking off Wisconsin in 2010.
But this year, the Mountain West is proving its mettle on the hardwood. The conference has two teams ranked in the top 10 in the nation, joining the Big East and the Big 12 as the only conferences with multiple teams ranked that high. And on Wednesday night, those two elite squads faced off in one of the marquee games of the season. No. 9 Brigham Young University handed No. 4 San Diego State its first loss of the season on the back of star guard Jimmer Fredette, who poured in 43 points for his third 40-plus point effort in his last four games. Both teams now have a record of 20-1.
While no one expected San Diego State to be ranked in the top five this late in the season, the success of the Aztecs shouldn’t be entirely shocking. Their coach, Steve Fisher, won a national championship with Michigan in 1989 and recruited the Fab Five to Ann Arbor in 1991, which to this day is the most famous freshman class of all time, headlined by eventual NBA stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard. When Fisher took the reins at San Diego State in 1999, the Aztec fan base had suffered through losing seasons in 13 of the last 14 years. After six years of building the program up, San Diego State has seen consistent success, with six straight 20-win seasons. In fact, since the start of the 2005-06 season, the Aztecs are a combined 137-53.
This San Diego State squad boasts some serious talent and experience. Kawhi Leonard, a 6-foot-7 small forward, is averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game and is projected to be a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. In addition to Leonard, the Aztecs feature three senior starters, making San Diego State one of the most experienced teams in the nation. Already this year, San Diego State has defeated perennial power Gonzaga, as well as a trio of strong mid-majors in St. Mary’s, Wichita State and UNLV, who have each won at least 16 games.
While BYU is ranked lower than San Diego State right now, that is likely to change with Wednesday’s result, which could push BYU into the top five. This should be the fifth straight year that the Cougars make the NCAA tournament, which would give Head Coach Dave Rose five tourney appearances in six seasons at the helm. Last year, BYU won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1993, and this year’s squad appears poised to surpass that accomplishment by making a deep tourney run.
BYU’s offense is essentially a one-man attack starring Fredette, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. Fredette leads the nation in scoring, averaging over 27 points per game, and he does it in a very efficient fashion, nailing 49 percent of his shots from the field, 90 percent of his free throws and 41 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. On average, Fredette and his wingman, marksman Jackson Emery, knock down six three-pointers a game.
Even before the headline-grabbing win against San Diego State, BYU had posted several impressive victories this season. The Cougars are the only team besides our Hoyas that has defeated Utah State. Like San Diego State, BYU has defeated St. Mary’s and UNLV, and they also handed Arizona, the second-ranked team in the Pac-10, a 22-point shellacking at a neutral location.
In a year in which the top teams all appear deeply flawed, stars like Leonard and Fredette can carry their teams a long way. We’ve seen the Mountain West in the BCS. With BYU and San Diego State, don’t be shocked if we see the Mountain West in the Final Four too.
Parimal Garg is a senior in the College. Taking the Court appears in every other Friday edition of Hoya Sports.