A coach of some repute who had spent time in both the Big Ten and Big 12, his defense that season ranked 100th or worse in virtually every statistical category in college football. Curious as to how one group could so thoroughly coat itself in such ignominy, I asked if things could get any worse over the final third of the season.
Arching an eyebrow and looking less than enamored about the prospect of broaching the topic, he offered this:
"If you're going to judge us on statistics alone, then, no, we're not a very good defense."
It was one of the most remarkable responses I'd ever received from any coach in any sport I'd ever covered, and that covers more than a few. If not statistics, what was I to judge his defense on? The color of their eyes? The height of the sky? Unrefined oil prices in Qatar?
Now, numbers may not tell the whole story, but neither do they mask ineptitude. Ultimately, they define a team for what it is or is not, paring back the layers to unveil its core strengths or its abundance of blemishes.
So if you'd care to utilize statistics in sizing up the defense being played in Mountain West men's basketball this season, the data is not only a good place start, it's one of the foremost factors in how a league once erroneously referred to as a "mid-major" has ascended the ranks of the royals.
Consider: As of this writing, five of the MW's nine teams rank among the top 50 nationally in either field-goal percentage defense or scoring defense. Finding an open shooter is like discovering a sapphire at the bottom of a soup bowl. Lanes are clogged like midtown Manhattan. And for those who do get to the rim, the resultant pile-up often makes it difficult to distinguish whether teams should be awarded first downs or free throws.
Heading into this week's games, eight of the league's nine teams are allowing 67.5 points or fewer on the season, meaning 143 (41 percent) of the nation's 345 Division I teams are allowing more. Of the 61 teams in the country currently limiting opponents to a shooting percentage to 40 percent or less, four of those teams --- UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico and Colorado State --- reside in the MW.
UNLV boasts the league's top field-goal shooting defense (38.5) after limiting Wyoming to just 28.8 percent last Saturday, the lowest shooting performance by a Runnin' Rebel opponent in Conference play this season. Overall, the Rebels have held teams to 34.5 percent or less from the field nine times this year and to 23.8 percent or less from 3-point range nine times as well.
San Diego State, which ranks second in the league in both field-goal percentage defense (38.7) and scoring defense (60.1 ppg), is threatening to erase school records in both categories. The record for field-goal percentage defense (39.6) and scoring defense (59.2) were both established during the team's NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 run in 2010-11.
New Mexico is limiting opponents to a shooting percentage of just 39.3 (39th nationally), a figure that would rank as the best in 46 years were it not for last season's effort of 38.4 percent. Providing the Lobos are able to hold opponents to under 40.0 percent the rest of the way, it would mark their first time accomplishing the feat in consecutive seasons since 1956-57 (38.6) and 1957-58 (37.2).
Colorado State, which entered last Saturday's meeting with the Lobos ranked ahead of them in field-goal percentage defense, saw that number dip slightly after UNM's Kendall Williams torched the nets for 46 points en route to a 52.9 team shooting percentage. The Rams are limiting opponents to 39.4 percent, a figure exceeded in the MW by only UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State.
Despite allowing a season-high 79 points at San Diego State last Tuesday, Wyoming leads the MW and is 11th in the NCAA in scoring defense, yielding just 56.5 points per game. And while better days are ahead for Coach Rodney Terry's young Fresno State squad, which currently occupies last place in the league, no one has questioned the Bulldogs' defensive tenacity. Fresno State is ranked 59th nationally, allowing 61.3 points per contest.
Impressive numbers all. Assuming, of course, that statistics have anything to do with performance.