Analysis:

Mountain Best: Counting down the league’s 10 best nonconference victories

The Mountain West has gained notoriety for racking up wins this season

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Associated Press

New Mexico’s Kendall Williams (right) shoots over Valparaiso’s Chris Perez in the Lobos’ 65-52 victory on Dec. 8, 2012, at University Arena in Albuquerque, N.M. This game didn’t quite make the cut for the Mountain West’s top 10 nonconference victories this season.

Mountain West Conference basketball teams have drawn a lot of national attention this season. That’s only going to increase with conference play beginning this week, because there won’t be many more interesting league races featuring really talented teams.

A big reason for the attention is what the teams have been able to accomplish in nonconference games. There have been several headline-making victories, and here we’re counting down the top 10.

As with any list, this one is up for debate. I didn’t use any hard-line criteria and focused more on location than margin of victory. I also tried to factor in records, RPI, kenpom.com rankings and how the victory may age (is the opponent getting better or worse?).

Throw that all together and you could come up with different results. These are mine and I can defend each slot, though I don’t think I have the only right answer (except at the top).

The countdown contains only five of the league’s nine teams, with Colorado State (13-2) the most notably absent member. The Rams will have plenty of chances for quality wins in league play. It’s worth mentioning again: The Mountain West’s seven returning members are 82-14 against Division I opponents this year.

Road games will be more difficult than ever, and the conference champ is likely going to suffer at least three defeats. There aren’t any off nights with the possible exception of Fresno State, but teams like UNLV would be wise to take every opponent seriously.

That’s a lesson junior forward Mike Moser, who’s questionable for UNLV’s Mountain West debut at 7 p.m. Wednesday night at New Mexico on CBS Sports Network, said he learned last year.

“As a younger kid, being 16, you don’t really know how good Air Force is. You don’t really know how good Colorado State is, or how good New Mexico is or San Diego State. These aren’t teams that you see as a kid,” Moser said. “Being a freshman, (you think), 'Boise State?' I thought the same last year, but going and playing them was probably the toughest game of my life. It’s something you’ve got to experience. This conference is like no other.”

On to the top 10 victories:

    • 10. New Mexico 86, Davidson 81

      Nov. 12 in Albuquerque

      The first game in the countdown is also the first one chronologically.

      Playing late at University Arena, or The Pit, as part of ESPN’s 24 hours of college basketball, New Mexico erased a second-half deficit and pulled out a nice victory that set a tone for its nonconference season.

      Warning: This is a Lobos-heavy list.

    • 9. UNLV 76, California 75

      Dec. 9 in Berkeley, Calif.

      This is the first of two Rebels games on the list, but it’s probably the one you expected to be ranked higher. Here’s why it’s not:

      Cal is 3-5 in its past eight games, including 0-5 against top-100 RPI teams. Three of those games were at home.

      This was an important victory for UNLV, though it did come at the cost of Moser’s right elbow. However, it’s difficult to say right now whether the Bears are actually any good.

    • 8. New Mexico 77, Indiana State 68, OT

      Dec. 1 in Terre Haute, Ind.

      This was an ugly but effective road victory on what turned out to be a big day for the league. Dec. 1 shows up twice more in the countdown.

      By the way, the Lobos ended up covering the 6.5-point spread in overtime, a result that seems to be happening a lot this year when favorites of five points or more go to extra time. Maybe it’s just me.

    • 7. UNLV 82, Iowa State 70

      Nov. 24 at the Thomas & Mack Center

      The Rebels controlled this game despite giving up 24 offensive rebounds, which is how the Cyclones usually stay in games. They’re in the top 15 in the country in grabbing offensive boards.

      Iowa State bounced back from this game with a nice 21-point victory against BYU, and it has a lot of winnable games in its Big 12 slate. This could end up being UNLV’s only nonconference victory against an NCAA Tournament team.

    • 6. Wyoming 81, Illinois State 67

      Dec. 4 in Normal, Ill.

      With 17:04 remaining in the game, Wyoming had just a 1.5 percent chance to win. Coach Larry Shyatt's team trailed by 19 at the time.

      The importance of this win may fade down the stretch because of Illinois State’s 0-3 start in league play, but it’s still really, really impressive.

    • 5. Wyoming 76, Colorado 69

      Dec. 1 in Laramie, Wyo.

      The Mountain West went 1-3 against Colorado this year: The Buffs beat Air Force by 15, Colorado State by nine and Fresno State by seven. Only the undefeated Cowboys were able to notch one for the league, riding a balanced attack — five players in double-figure scoring — to the victory.

      Overall the Mountain West went 7-8 against the Pac-12, though tossing out newcomer Fresno State makes that record 7-5. Every team except Boise State played at least one Pac-12 opponent.

    • 4. New Mexico 66, Connecticut 60

      Nov. 19 in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

      Playing in the Big East, UConn is going to get a lot more chances for marquee victories. Depending on how the Huskies perform, this victory may look significantly more or less impressive as the season wears on.

      As it stands, though, it’s the Lobos’ second-best victory, one of a league-leading three they own against top 50 RPI teams and it’s a big reason coach Steve Alford’s team is ranked No. 11 in the RPI.

    • 3. San Diego State 78, UCLA 69

      Dec. 1 in Anaheim, Calif.

      This didn’t seem that great at the time — it was UCLA’s third loss in five games — but since then Ben Howland's Bruins have figured things out and are riding a seven-game winning streak, including a victory against Missouri.

      By the end of the year, this may actually look like the best victory of the bunch.

    • 2. New Mexico 55, Cincinnati 54

      Dec. 27 in Cincinnati

      The Lobos had fouls to give at the end of this game, so they smartly used them up to take down the clock and limit Cincinnati’s chances of hitting a game-winner.

      Had the Rebels not tripped up against Oregon, which would have been a great victory itself, the Mountain West could have had a chance to go 2-0 against the Bearcats. As it stands, the Lobos went to Cincinnati and handed the Bearcats their first loss of the season, which is good enough for the second-best nonconference victory of the season.

    • 1. Boise State 83, Creighton 70

      Nov. 28 in Omaha, Neb.

      This game inspired more expressions of “What the?” than any other Mountain West win this season.

      This is Creighton’s only loss to date, and it’s the first home November loss for the Bluejays since 1989. Boise State pulled it off thanks to Derrick Marks' career-high 35 points.

      This was nearly a huge week for the Broncos, who had lost by four to Michigan State just before this game. Still, there’s no question it was the best victory of a stellar nonconference season for a league that has a great chance to send at least four teams to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.

    Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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