This was supposed to be the season when the Mountain West Conference did some major damage in the NCAA tournament. The league sent four teams to the Big Dance for the first time ever and both New Mexico and Brigham Young had history-making campaigns.

But the first weekend of the tournament ended Sunday without a single Mountain West team in sight. The Sweet 16 will go on as schedule on Thursday and Friday with the entire Mountain West sitting in front of their television sets.

Eleven conferences will have at least representative in the Sweet 16 but not the conference that rated sixth-best in conference RPI this season.

The Sweet 16 not having a Mountain West squad in it normally wouldn’t jump out as an issue but it does this year after the league’s outstanding regular season. The four teams went a collective 2-4 in the NCAA tournament — New Mexico and Brigham Young went 1-1 with second-round ousters and UNLV and San Diego State were one-and-done casualties.

The league likes to think of itself as the best conference outside the six major power conferences. But a lack of NCAA postseason success continues to haunt it, particularly when teams from lower-rated leagues like the Atlantic-10 (seventh this year), Missouri Valley (ninth), Conference USA (11th), West Coast Conference (13th) and Horizon League (14th) routinely have teams advancing to the Sweet 16 or further.

Even conferences such as the Colonial Athletic Association (George Mason to the Final Four in 2006) and Southern Conference (Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008) have better recent postseason accomplishments worth boasting about.

Oh yeah, the Ivy League has a Sweet 16 team this year too even though a solid Cornell squad was handed a tough task by drawing a No. 12 seed. All four Mountain West entrants had better seeds but it didn’t help.

Particularly bad was regular-season Mountain West champion New Mexico, a No. 3 seed, being run off the floor by 11th-seeded Washington in Saturday’s second-round game. The Lobos were supposed to be embarking on a deep run – star player Darington Hobson was boasting about an Elite Eight appearance – and they lost to a squad from a league (Pacific-10) that drew season-long criticism for its weakness.

So when the Sweet 16 heats up this week, Washington will be lacing up the sneakers and hitting the hardwood while the Lobos will be wondering what happened. BYU, led by star guard Jimmer Fredette, also will be pondering the same thing though the seventh-seeded Cougars were beaten by a superior athletic team in second-seeded Kansas State.

UNLV lost on a last-second shot by Northern Iowa sharpshooter Ali Farokhmanesh and San Diego State fell short against Tennessee. Both Northern Iowa and Tennessee are Sweet 16 participants while the Rebels and Aztecs can both watch their respective games this week with envy.

Yeah, the Mountain West will have a lot to prove when the 2011 NCAA tournament arrives.

Can we change the name to Big Least?

Speaking of disappointing conference performances, that subject can’t cease without discussing the Big East.

The league had eight teams in the NCAA tournament and only two of them reached the Sweet 16 – No. 1 seed Syracuse and No. 2 seed West Virginia.

Such little representation isn’t what the league had in mind when this tournament began. But No. 3 seed Georgetown was routed in the opening round by 14th-seeded Ohio University, No. 2 seed Villanova barely squeaked by 15th-seeded Robert Morris in the first round and lost to 10th-seeded Saint Mary’s in the second round, and No. 3 seed Pittsburgh was a second-round loser to sixth-seeded Xavier of the Atlantic-10.

Joining Georgetown as first-round losers were No. 6 seed Marquette, No. 6 seed Notre Dame and No. 9 seed Louisville.

Sounds more like the “Big Least” to me than the powerful Big East.

Scarier is the probable expansion of the NCAA tournament to 96 teams. I saw the other day that Big East commissioner John Marinatto thinks all 16 of his teams could make the tournament with an expanded field.

That qualifies as another significant reason to root against expansion of the tourney. If expansion eventually goes through, the evidence shows more opportunities should be provided to teams from conferences that often get shafted at selection time — leagues like the Missouri Valley, for example – than adding more middling programs from the power conferences.

Tournament thoughts

–Anyone else wondering how far Saint Mary’s might have advanced in last year’s NCAA tournament when Patty Mills and Daimon Simpson were the leading players after this year’s Omar Samhan-led group reached the Sweet 16? The Gaels were shafted by the selection committee last season.

–Cornell’s Sweet 16 appearance isn’t a surprise to anyone who closely follows college basketball. The current group led by NBA prospect Ryan Wittman, superb point guard Louis Dale and 7-footer Jeff Foote are in the tournament for a third straight year and nearly beat Kansas earlier this season. Cornell is a battle-tested veteran group that is well-coached by Steve Donahue.

–Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez was already a household name after his terrific play in a February upset of Duke and winning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors but how superb was he in the final two minutes of the contest against Michigan State on Sunday? The Terrapins overcame a nine-point deficit with Vasquez scoring 10 of his 26 points and took a brief lead on his spectacular basket with 6.6 seconds left before the Spartans won the game on a buzzer-beating 3-point basket by Korie Lucious.

–Tough break for Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas to suffer a serious Achilles’ tendon injury while trying to lead the Spartans back to the Final Four. The absence of Lucas will give Northern Iowa a better chance at staging a Sweet 16 upset. Of course, there’s no chance of the Spartans taking the Panthers lightly after Northern Iowa’s upset of top-seeded Kansas.

–Saw some chatter about Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt being in danger of losing his job despite reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Hewitt had the Yellow Jackets playing for the national title (see the 2004 loss to Connecticut). Perhaps programs like Oregon, Auburn, Seton Hall, St. John’s and DePaul ought to hold off on filling their openings in case Hewitt suddenly becomes available.

–Tom Penders is out as Houston’s coach despite the Cougars making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years. The hot rumor has Billy Gillispie as the leading candidate to replace him. It took Gillispie just two seasons to flame out as Kentucky’s coach but he previously did a good coach at two Texas universities — Texas-El Paso and Texas A&M.


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