Dwayne Polee, Steve Fisher

Conference Catch-ups: Could the MWC send four dancing?


Conference play is upon us, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Mountain West Conference Catch-up:

Favorite: San Diego State
We’ve gotten used to this notion but not with the Aztecs up there by themselves. Jamal Franklin has done exactly what’s expected of him (more on him in a bit) and they’ve gotten great shooting from Chase Tapley (15.8 ppg)and improved play from Xavier Thames (10.5 ppg). Though they’ll need to find a reliable post presence — Franklin leads the team in rebounding at the wing spot, with the next-closest being DeShawn Stephens’ 5.2 per — against teams like New Mexico and UNLV, who already have that.

Contenders: UNLV, New Mexico
A lot of those around the game knew UNLV would be here at this point. Mike Moser being injured, at this point, keeps them as a contender, and not the favorite. They’re still getting great production from Anthony Bennett and Anthony Marshall (10.6 ppg, team-leading 5.5 apg). As well as Katin Reinhardt (10.4 ppg). New Mexico made its statement with a comeback win over Davidson, then a win at then-no. 8 Cincinnati. Losing at St. Louis after a horrid first half didn’t help, but this team has been steady otherwise, with the contributions of Kendall Williams (14.9 ppg, 4.7 apg) and Alex Kirk (11.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) has been improved in the paint.

Biggest Surprise: Wyoming
When a team that was expected to finish in the middle of their conference starts the season 13-0, it’s a surprise. Yes, the schedule has been a variable gigantic cupcake, but the Cowboys did collect a home win over Colorado and went on the road and took down Missouri Valley Conference contender Illinois State, within a four-day span. Now they’ve got to legitimize the hype, with games against San Diego State and UNLV, back-to-back in conference play, twice.

Biggest Disappointment: Fresno State
It’s not so much that they were expected to do great things this season, it’s just that I didn’t see the Bulldogs being this bad. They’re currently 6-7, with three of those wins over non-Division I teams, including the epic failure of a 39-30 victory at UC-Riverside. They also beat San Diego….Community College. They do have victories over UCLA-killer Cal Poly and Long Beach State, but this team is capable of so much more.

Best player: Jamal Franklin, San Diego State (17.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.2 apg)
He’s the best player on, for now, the best team. Franklin’s picked right up where he left off last season, pacing the Aztecs in scoring and rebounding while improving his ability to distribute. There are a few other candidates, like UNLV’s Anthony Bennett (more on him later though), New Mexico’s Kendall Williams and Boise State’s Derrick Marks. But for now, it’s still Franklin.

Best freshman: Anthony Bennett, UNLV (19.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
No brainer, right? If he’s not the best overall player, Bennett is definitely the best freshman in the MWC. He’s stepped right into a spot that the Runnin’ Rebels desperately needed production from, in the post, and has done so as consistently as anyone this season. It’s probably his lone season in college, so Dave Rice better get the most out of him.

Three Predictions
-Four conference teams will be dancing in March
Is this so far-fetched? Nope. Everyone expects San Diego State and UNLV and sees New Mexico as having a better-than-average shot at the NCAA Tournament. But I totally see Wyoming making it. The back-to-back wins over Colorado and Illinois State have me believing, as long as they can stave off the loss of Luke Martinez to a broken hand, at least until he returns, if he does. If not, Colorado State could make it in if they get 2-3 upsets in-conference, which would mean a few wins over SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico.

-Wyoming will finish the season with less than five losses
The Cowboys have already won 12 games, but let’s look at their remaining schedule. They’ve obviously got four games against UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State. I still maintain they’ll take at least three of those six games, probably at home. Then home-and-homes with Boise State and Colorado State, which I believe they’ll sweep. The Cowboys will also sweep the remaining conference games, with or without Martinez. If he comes back early, I fully believe Wyoming will could lose three or less. I believe that much in Larry Shyatt.

-Boise State will spoil someone’s MWC Tournament
Derrick Marks (17.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.4 spg, 88.6-percent free throw shooting) is making a heavy case as the sleeper pick for MWC Player of the Year and should be a first team all-conference member when all is said and done. Anthony Drmic (15.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has complimented Marks well and as a team the Broncos are shooting 39.8-percent from three-point range. They’ve already got home wins over Creighton and LSU and they’ll get plenty of film on UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico, enough to know how to beat them. I could totally see a run to the conference tournament championship game in their future if the cards fall right.

Power Rankings  (*-NCAA Tournament team)
1.) San Diego State *
2.) UNLV *
3.) New Mexico *
4.) Wyoming *
5.) Colorado State
6.) Boise State
7.) Nevada
8.) Air Force
9.) Fresno State

Jalen Coleman-Lands cleared to practice

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 10: Jarrod Uthoff #20 of the Iowa Hawkeyes defends against Jalen Coleman-Lands #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in the second round of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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When Illinois takes on Southeast Missouri State in the opener of the 2016-17 season, the Fighting Illini should have it’s starting backcourt out on the floor.

According to Jon Rothstein, Jalen Coleman-Lands has been cleared for all basketball activities. The sophomore two-guard has been recovering from a broken bone in his right hand.

The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 10.3 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from three, as a freshman. He, along with Malcolm Hill and Michael Thorne Jr., is one of three returning players who averaged double figures last season.

Coleman-Lands will team up with Tracy Abrams, a point guard who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing the past two seasons due to injuries.

This could prove to be a make-or-break year for John Groce, who enters his fifth season at the helm. He guided the Illini to an NCAA Tournament in his first season, but hasn’t been back since.

The key for the Illini is health. Abrams gives them experience and leadership, but it won’t be a surprise if there’s some rust in his game after spending the past two seasons on the sideline. Having a healthy Coleman-Lands will help stabilize the backcourt, while Hill, an all-conference caliber forward, and Thorne anchor the frontcourt.

NBC Sports projected Illinois to finish eighth in the Big Ten this season.

Curtis Jones jumps over Tom Crean

Tom Crean
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Indiana held its annual Hoosier Hysteria on Saturday night.

One of the highlights from the team’s dunk contest was when freshman guard Curtis Jones jumped over Indiana head coach Tom Crean.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a newcomer us his coach as a dunk contest prop. Last week, Rawle Alkins cleared Arizona head coach Sean Miller en route to a reverse jam.

Like Alkins, Jones was a sought-after scorer. The 6-foot-4 two-guard was rated No. 69 overall in the Class of 2016 by Rivals. He picked Indiana over offers from Cal, Cincinnati, Georgetown and more than a dozen other high-major programs.

WATCH: Edmond Sumner take off from the foul line

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers dunks the ball during the game against the St. John's Red Storm at Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Edmond Sumner is a big reason why Xavier is likely going to be a preseason top-10 team.

On Saturday night, during Musketeer Madness, Sumner won the team’s dunk contest when he took off from the foul line.

Sumner defeated freshmen Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin. J.P. Macura, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, took home the honors last year.

The 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore is coming off a debut season in which he averaged 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

WATCH: Duke goes crazy for Chase Jeter’s bottle flip

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Chase Jeter #2 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on in the second half against the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The bottle flip has become an international sensation in recent months.

It’s as simple as it sounds: flipping a water bottle in the air, attempting to have it land upright.

Duke sophomore forward Chase Jeter, in front of 9,300-plus fans, successfully pulled off the bottle flip on Saturday night at Duke’s Craziness.

Jeter, the 6-foot-10, played in a reserve role as a freshman, averaging 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last season. He will be part of a loaded frontline that includes heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, as well as redshirt senior Amile Jefferson, who returns to the lineup following a foot injury.

Auburn to honor Charles Barkley with a statue

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Former NBA player and commentator Charles Barkley looks on prior to the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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The greatest player in Auburn program history will honored with a statue outside of the team’s home arena.

The university announced that Charles Barkley, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, will be the fourth athlete to be given a statue, joining Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton.

“It just means a great deal to me,” Barkley said in a statement. “Being a kid from Alabama, going to Auburn. I think everybody knows what Auburn means to me. It’s going to be pretty cool.”

Barkley, currently working as an analyst for TNT, was the SEC Player of the Year in 1984, as well as a second team All-American. He averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in 84 appearances for the Tigers.

His number 34 is retired at Auburn.