Power Pyramid: MWC is now impressively confusing us all

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Now that we're into mid-January, the separation process should fully be taking place. Only that's not the case because the Mountain West is so good that it's going to beat itself up and making ranking its teams all the more difficult. But fun! And now it's looking like the Pyramid is producing teams that not only will easily make the NCAAs but also have good, good chances at winning a game or two. Or three. Or in some cases, yes, four.

Here's how this week is shaping up.

Top Tier

1. Creighton (17-2).
Why it's here: The Pyramid does not operate like the polls. Teams do not get punished for losing. And yeah, Creighton lost Saturday to Wichita State, but that was at Wichita State, the Bluejays kept it close, and both teams will be cruising into the NCAAs. Plus, I'll go all Peter King on you -- how coincidental, as Wichita, Kan., is his hypothetical neutral-field city -- and would take Creighton over WSU tonight if they played in an empty gym in ... Jacksonville!

Something you should know: For as solid as Creighton is, this speaks to the Missouri Valley's power: The Bluejays have lost back-to-back league games every year for the past nine seasons. Upcoming, two road games.

Up next: Wednesday at Drake; Sunday at Southern Illinois.

Couldn't keep myself from sharing this photo. Something about it. (Getty Images)

2. Wichita State (17-2).
Why it's here: Gotta give me some love here: I promoted WSU last week before the Creighton game, then it went out and made me look good. And I love when teams do that because the occasion is so rare. The Shockers are a different team with Carl Hall back from that broken thumb. Last year Gregg Marshall got this team to a No. 5 seed, and as of now that achievement seems repeatable.

Something you should know: Unlike Creighton's anecdote above, Wichita State hasn't been taken out in consecutive Missouri Valley games since the 2008-09 season. Most impressive, yet again.

Up next: Wednesday at Missouri State; Saturday vs. Bradley.

3. Gonzaga (17-2).
Why it's here: Rankings can be so fickle when a team loses at the last second and gets docked. It's why I can't budge Gonzaga. I'm not sure I would have even if it beat Butler, either. But the Bulldogs look good. and I'm not anywhere close to joining the club that's ready to point and say, "See! Same old Gonzaga." I still maintain the WCC will be theirs by, minimally, a two-game margin.

Something you should know: Gonzaga's gamut of a nonconference schedule is now over. So let's review: vs. West Virginia; vs. Clemson; vs. Oklahoma; vs. Illinois; vs. Kansas State; vs. Baylor; at Oklahoma State; at Butler. A 4-2 record. Good, but upon reflection probably not as good as we'd have expected. And now the loss to Illinois is showing more decay.

Up next: Thursday at BYU; Saturday at San Francisco.

A Cut Below

4. New Mexico (16-2).
Why it's here: Credit to the Lobos for being the last unbeaten team standing in the Mountain West. Yes, already. UNM is 3-0, and I have to admit I'm not surprised at all that we've had this kind of logjam. Beyond this group, it's particularly impossible to have any sort of sorting that makes sense.

Something you should know: What's really going to help New Mexico this season -- and years past have shown the selection committee to be skittish in the way it hands out its seed to the Lobos -- is the No. 7 RPI and No. 9 overall strength of schedule as of today. The Mountain West isn't going to let those numbers take a big dip, either. Lobos are tracking toward a No. 4 seed or better by now.

Up next: Wednesday vs. Colorado State; Saturday at San Diego State.

Sign of the year? Has to be. (US Presswire)

5. UNLV (15-4).
Why it's here: Yeah ... now I'm starting to get confused. UNLV lost at Colorado State on Saturday, but Colorado State has lost at San Diego State and, yeah, we're going to be doing a lot of this over the next six weeks.

Something you should know: It's entirely possible I'm being stubborn with this team, and if this week doesn't deliver two home wins, then it's really time we reexamine a talented but inconsistent group. Let's look at the best wins: Iowa State, Cal, Northern Iowa, San Diego State. At best, two of those teams are making the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, Oregon, UNC, New Mexico and Colorado State -- quite possibly the four best teams Vegas has faced -- have all beaten the Runnin' Rebels.

Up next: Wednesday vs. Wyoming; Saturday vs. Nevada.

6. Memphis (14-3).
Why it's here: Memphis has now won eight in a row, and it's about time to start giving credit to how this team plays defense. It's still not all there -- and I can't shake the feeling Memphis will lose one or two really stupid ones within the next month -- but I am willing to vault the Tigers up amid the befuddling MWC.

Something you should know: Mentioning that defense, Memphis is getting better and better at swiping the ball. The Tigers are stealing it away from opponents 14.6 percent of the time, only out-thieved by five other teams in the nation. I think this percentage actually goes up in upcoming league games.

Up next: Tuesday vs. Tulane; Saturday vs. Marshall.

7. San Diego State (14-4).
Why it's here: Just the bingo ball that popped up, really. SDSU started 2-0 in the MWC but fell at home to UNLV and then on the road to Wyoming. Neither game was particularly super close.

Something you should know: An examination of the team's profile on KenPom.com shows now that the Aztecs don't do anything particularly well except not turn the ball over. That's the kind of quality that prevents losing more than enhances chances at winning. SDSU's win over UCLA only has so much mileage.

Up next: Wednesday at Nevada; Saturday vs. New Mexico.

8. Boise State (13-4).
Why it's here: Like SDSU, has lost two in a row in the league. But the losses were worse: against New Mexico (fine), but then at Air Force, wherein Boise State allowed 91 points, the most the Falcons have ever scored in MWC play. Not good things, yet I remain tied to BSU in a similar way that I like UNLV, only on a lesser level. The team remains one of the best long-range threats in the country (42.1 percent 3-point shooters).

Something you should know: BBState.com tracks how players score in "points per shot," which is a cool stat that shows how much impact players can have in terms of volume vs. efficiency. And Boise State's Jeff Elorriaga leads the Mountain West at a 1.38 standard when the ball leaves his hand.

Up next: Wednesday vs. Fresno State; Saturday at Nevada.

9. Wyoming (15-2).
Why it's here: Now that Luke Martinez's career could very well be over, it's hard for me to totally put faith in Wyoming. The team split a win (against SDSU) with a loss (against San Diego State) and I want to see if that's the trend to expect here, maybe even tilting toward more bad losses than good wins. A tentative approach for a team with just two losses, I know.

Something you should know: The Pokes' SOS sits at No. 133 right now, which is behind Boise State (105), Colorado State (50), San Diego State (39), UNLV (28) and New Mexico (12), rendering Wyoming's tournament profile more suspect than any other MWC hopeful as of this week.

Up next: Wednesday at Fresno State; Saturday vs. San Diego State.

10. Bucknell (16-3).
Why it's here: Just because it's in the Patriot doesn't mean I can punish Bucknell. At least not yet. Not enough teams have played well enough to warrant a demotion. The Bison have started league play 3-0 and won all their games by double digits.

Something you should know: Age matters, especially at lower levels. With an average experience of 3.17 years on this team, Bucknell is the most-veteran squad in the Patriot League. You combine that with Mike Muscala being the best active player in the league, Lehigh not having CJ McCollum for at least another month, and there remains the possibility Bucknell runs the table.

Up next: Wednesday vs. Lehigh; Saturday at Holy Cross.

Base Blocks

11. Colorado State (15-3).
Why it's here: Colorado State is the only one-loss team in the Mountain West, which is crazy in the same way UNM is the only unbeaten left. But two road games are ahead for the Rams, who are 2-3 on the road this year.

Something you should know: When I go through and rank teams, I try my best to not be influenced or even be aware of where all the squads are ranked in RPI, KenPom, Sagarin, etc. So this week I was so surprised to see CSU ranked at No. 22 in KenPom and No. 23 in Sagarin -- the highest of any MWC team in both systems. Maybe I'm not giving Larry Eustachy's team enough credit.

Up next: Wednesday at New Mexico; Saturday at Fresno State.

12. Stephen F. Austin (16-1).
Why it's here: Continues to be the most surprising + impressive team I've seen this year. The Lumberjacks still aren't going to sniff the Top 25 when the polls are released later on Monday, but the team's now on an 11-game winning streak and is 7-0 in the Southland.

Something you should know: This is a rarity. Northwestern State is SFA's next opponent. It puts up exactly 85 points per game, No. 1 in the country. As it so happens, the Lumberjacks allow 49.4 per game, the best defense in the country and the only team keeping opponents under 50. Mark me down for SFA 70, NWSU 65.

Up next: Saturday at Northwestern State.

13. Belmont (15-4).
Why it's here: Belmont enters the Pyramid for the first time this season based off its 6-0 start in a new league, the Ohio Valley, that's seen the Bruins win games by an average of 22.1 points. Rick Byrd's team also has two OK wins, over Stanford and Middle Tennessee State, so I'm ready to take a chance.

Something you should know: The Ohio Valley has three top-tier teams this season in Belmont, Murray State and Eastern Kentucky, which spent a quick couple of weeks at the beginning of the season in the Pyramid. Belmont took care of EKU 83-76 at home last week, and as you can see below, a rematch awaits just five days from now. If Belmont wins it, essentially will have to bottom out not to win the OVC in its inaugural year. Fairly big one at EKU this Saturday. Then, there's this:

Up Next: Thursday at Morehead State; Saturday at Eastern Kentucky.

14. Louisiana Tech (16-3).
Why it's here: Totally anonymous team to most college basketball fans, sure, but La. Tech -- Karl Malone's alma mater -- is the last unbeaten remaining in the WAC. The Bulldogs are now 7-0 in league play, overcoming the fact they shoot just 41 percent from the field, which isn't sustainable for long-term winning.

Something you should know: Michael Kyser on a roll. Kind of. The sophomore is getting just over 21 minutes/game but making the most of those on the defensive end. Kyser is blocking 15 percent of opponents' shots when on the floor, the fifth-most impressive rate in the nation. La. Tech does indeed bring the D. Saturday is a big one.

Up next: Thursday at San Jose State; Saturday at Utah State.

15. Saint Mary's (15-4).
Why it's here: Gaels just wanna have fun (my favorite hashtag on Twitter that needs to catch on) and they played a beauty of a game at BYU last week. Matthew Dellavedova's shot-and-prayer-hop was so good it catapults Randy Bennett's team into the mix.

Something you should know: Is this the best offense at SMC under Bennett? Right now, yes. The Gaels are 11th overall in adjusted offensive efficiency, the highest they've ever been on KenPom.com, with a 116.7 points-per-100-possessions clip. The team is more than Delly; Stephen Holt, Brad Waldow and Beau Levesque (names you're not familiar with, I'm sure) are contributing frequently and have stumped SMC amid an albeit kind-of weak schedule.

Up next: Thursday vs. San Diego; Saturday vs. Pepperdine.


Outside the Pyramid:

-- Utah State fell to New Mexico State and Denver, leaving me no choice but to send it out with a boot. Aggies now in a fight with La. Tech for WAC supremacy, if that's even a thing possible in the WAC.

-- Western Illinois is responsible for removing North Dakota State. Both teams are 7-1 in the Summit League, but damn, I can't reward WIU right now because the style of play is just miserable. Games regularly end in the 40s.

-- Southern Mississippi is a 15-4 team that's undefeated in C-USA and on the verge of breaking through. Just have to see a little bit more.

-- Weber State is also right there. This is actually the tightest it's been all year between teams 14, 15 and the two or three outside the cut.

-- Montana is off to an 8-0 start in the Big Sky, but its schedule has been so weak I can't legitimately consider the team yet.

-- Akron has reeled off nine straight wins, and if it gets two more, I might have to lump Keith Dambrot's team in.

For more college basketball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnCBB on Twitter, subscribe to our RSS Feed and college hoops newsletter. You can follow Matt Norlander on Twitter here: @MattNorlander.

 
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