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Is it Mtn. West or Mtn. Worst?

BYU's Mekeli Wesley and Trent Whiting entered the interview area Thursday night, dressed in warmups, their gym bags already packed and slung over their shoulders.

No need hanging around to get cleaned up. There's all summer for that.

An argument could be made that's all the Cougars did in the second half — packed their bags.

The Cougars' season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a tepid 84-59 loss to Cincinnati.

"This," said coach Steve Cleveland, "wasn't one of our better efforts."

The same could be said of the entire Mountain West Conference.

BYU's loss completed an abysmal post-season effort for the three MWC regular season champions. Utah played so dreadfully in a first-round NIT loss to Memphis that interim coach Dick Hunsaker suggested the fans get their money refunded and accused his team of looking ahead to summer vacation.

Wyoming showed little initiative in losing to Pepperdine in the NIT's first round, as well. Now this. The Cougars played poorly but trailed by only five at the end of the half against Cincinnati.

In the second half, they played worse.

Meanwhile, the Bearcats rained in seven 3-pointers in the second half to build their lead to 26.

"When they shoot the basketball like that, we don't have the depth, size or athleticism to do anything about that," said Cleveland.

Except, of course, cover their heads.

Five days ago, there was considerable grumping around the West about the lack of respect for the MWC, which amid much fanfare, split off from the Western Athletic Conference. But two seasons later, the new conference is struggling for respect. Only BYU — the conference tournament champion — got an NCAA bid this year.

As it turned out, that wasn't a bad thing.

Cleveland spent part of the interview session on Wednesday calling the teams in the MWC "great programs" and applauding the talent level in the league. He noted that there are few, if any, road trips tougher than New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. But nobody was paying much attention. Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins inadvertently showed a lack of concern over BYU when he said during the week that he felt good about his team's chances to advance through the first two rounds. Kent State players, who were on the winning end of an earlier game with Indiana, spent some of their post-game time talking about Cincinnati in the next round, without even mentioning the possibility of playing BYU — even though the BYU-Cincinnati game was yet to tip off.

But early on, the Cougars showed they had left their best game in Las Vegas at the MWC Tournament. The nation's best free-throw shooting team, they missed three of eight in the first half and made only 67 percent for the game. Terrell Lyday hit just five of 11 field goals and had four turnovers, Trent Whiting four of 10, with four turnovers.

The pride of this year's Mountain Worst, er, West Conference was on its way to going down in flames. Daniel Bobik missed badly on a long shot that rattled off the glass, barely touching the rim. Wesley roared in for an open dunk but launched it off the back of the iron.

"I'm very, very proud of this team. There's no way I'm going to let one game detract from what we've accomplished this year," Cleveland insisted.

Although BYU's return to prominence was indeed impressive, that doesn't change the fact that this was a forgettable season for the league. Its three best teams all conceded meekly in the post-season. Only fourth-place New Mexico, a winner over Baylor in the NIT, is still playing.

"I think it's been a long time since a Mountain West or WAC team had only one representative (in the NCAA Tournament)," said Cleveland.

Indeed, it has been 18 years since fewer than two teams that currently make up the MWC were invited to the NCAA Tournament.

The selection committee never looked as smart as it did in 2001.

"We weren't that far away from where we needed to be," said Cleveland of the first half.

Yes, they were.

And so was everyone else in their neighborhood.


E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com