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LOGAN — Weekday nights in Laramie, Wyoming, were never intended to be so boisterous.
Over 5,500 fans packed into the Arena Auditorium on the campus of the University of Wyoming on Tuesday to watch their league-leading Cowboys go to battle with the visiting Utah State Aggies.
The student section brought a number of signs, including one with the words "beef" and "liver," an intended threat to the rival agricultural school 383 miles to the west. Another one insulted Utah State quarterback Levi Williams, who recently transferred from Wyoming.
Spectators in the building unabashedly jeered the referees at every questionable call. They managed to give their home squad continuous momentum, despite trailing for the majority of the game.
The intensity made its way down to the court, too. Cowboys head coach Jeff Linder was ejected from the game with back-to-back technicals in the first five minutes of the game. Aggies guard Steven Ashworth drained an early 3-pointer and turned around to shush the crowd.
In the end, it came down to the final seconds of overtime. Cowboys forward Graham Ike had the go-ahead putback, and a floater from Utah State's Rylan Jones rimmed out. Wyoming remained a co-leader of the conference, while the Aggies slid to seventh in the conference.
Graham Ike's game-winning put-back in OT against Utah State on Tuesday evening. pic.twitter.com/PKVIcdyvqM— Jacob Nielson (@Jacobnielson12) February 11, 2022
Just another February night in the Mountain West Conference.
Wyoming has emerged under Linder, a second-year coach, and All-MWC contenders Ike and Hunter Maldanado. A team with nine wins two seasons ago has all but locked in an auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament. They've reignited a loyal audience in one of the most rural places in America, making the old railroad town of Laramie the hottest destination in an otherwise frigid state.
And it's not the only place out west where it's happening. Just 65 miles to the south, Moby Arena in Fort Collins, Colorado, has turned into a riot.
A week ago, a sold-out crowd of 8,083 people willed MWC Player of the Year candidate David Roddy and the Colorado State Rams to a last-second win over San Diego State and then flooded the court in celebration.
In a college basketball climate where the grass always seems to be greener and the transfer portal is a necessity, Colorado State coach Niko Medved has managed to keep and develop his team from within. The experienced-laden squad is currently 18-3 and a shoo-in to the Big Dance.
Colorado State hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013, Wyoming hasn't been there since 2015; that's likely about to change. And expect these teams to bring company. For the first time since 2015, the Mountain West Conference is set to be more than a two-bid league.
Boise State has four players averaging double digits and are tied with Wyoming for first place in the conference. The traditional football school attracted a crowd of over 10,000 people Saturday to the ExtraMile Arena to watch the Broncos take care of bottom-feeder San Jose State.
Tack on traditional power San Diego State, who sits on the bubble; Utah State, who still has an outside chance at a fourth straight trip to March Madness despite ten losses; and Fresno State, who is still trying to build a resume, and there are six teams still in contention for the tournament.
You could argue it's the best league in college hoops west of Texas this season.
As of Friday afternoon, the conference boasts six teams in the top 60 of the NCAA NET rankings: Wyoming is 27th, Boise State is 35th, Colorado State is 36th, Utah State is 45th, San Diego State is 53rd and Fresno State is 57th. By comparison, the Pac-12 has five teams in the top 60, the West Coast Conference has four.
Andy Katz of Fox Sports recently called it a potential "banner season for the Mountain West."
The last comparable year for the conference was 2013 when five teams went to the NCAA Tournament. Now nine years later, it could happen again.
Following Wyoming's OT win over Utah State, Jon Rothstein said live on CBS Sports: "Tonight watching Utah State showed me, for the first time this season, that this league has a legitimate chance to have five teams in the NCAA Tournament."
This would be wildly profitable for the conference. Last season, conferences made roughly $1.7 million per NCAA Tournament game that a conference member played in.
The league's competitiveness has made for some entertaining basketball.
Six of Wyoming's nine conference wins have been decided by one possession or in overtime; four of Utah State's six conference losses have gone down to the final play; Boise State has played in four one-possession or overtime games.
"We all expected to be very good," first-year Utah State head coach Ryan Odom said about the conference in January. "The numbers really show that as you look across the depth that we have within our conference, it's as good of a conference as there is in the country. Night in and night out, it's going to be a dog fight."
With four weeks until the start of the Mountain West Conference tournament, seven of the 11 teams have a .500 record or better in conference play. A dozen matchups between top 60 teams in the NET rankings remain.
The strength of each team gives everyone an opportunity to bolster their appropriate resumes as the league nears March. The intensity can only heighten.
And if it's a must-attend product on a 24-degree Tuesday evening for the people of southeast Wyoming, it's must-watch TV for college basketball fans.