Kendal Williams, Larry Gilmore Jr.

2013 Mountain West Conference tournament preview

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Before the season began much was made of the talented newcomers at both UNLV and San Diego State, with both teams predicted to not only rise to the top of the Mountain West but also make a splash nationally. Yet once the Mountain West season played out the answer to the question of best team in the conference was a simple one: New Mexico.

Steve Alford’s team won the conference by two full games, with point guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk being two primary figures. Colorado State won 11 conference games and finished second in Larry Eustachy’s first year in Fort Collins. This group, unlike last season’s NCAA tournament team, has size in the form of 7-footer Colton Iverson and with him in the middle the Rams punished teams on the glass consistently.

UNLV has plenty of talent, led by Anthony Bennett, but they haven’t always looked like a cohesive unit on the floor. SDSU’s biggest concern is the health of point guard Xavier Thames, who’s been dealing with back issues for much of the season. But even with Thames’ issues the Aztecs still have one of the league’s best players in Jamaal Franklin.

SDSU’s quarterfinal against Boise State may be the biggest game of the entire weekend, as both could use another resume-building victory (or two). It can be argued that up to six teams are capable of winning the Mountain West tournament (Air Force being the sixth), and that should make for an exciting weekend in Las Vegas.

The Bracket (.pdf file)

Where: Las Vegas (Thomas & Mack Center)

When: March 12th-March 16th

Final: March 16, 6 p.m. CBS

Favorite: New Mexico

Given New Mexico’s two-game margin it’s difficult to put any other team in this spot. Williams and Kirk have been outstanding, and while Tony Snell’s always been a factor offensively the junior’s improved on the defensive end of the floor. Add in Hugh Greenwood and Jamal Fenton and the Lobos have more than enough depth on the perimeter. Cameron Bairstow starts alongside Kirk inside, and senior wing Chad Adams give UNM a versatile defender off the bench.

And if they lose?: Colorado State

Don’t expect UNM to fall to the Wyoming/Nevada winner in the quarters but a loss to either San Diego State or Boise State in the semis is more than possible. If the Lobos are to go down Colorado State would be the team to watch. The Rams lost at UNLV by just two points and of the top five seeds they’re the only one to win at Air Force. In addition to Iverson in the front court CSU has Greg Smith and Pierce Hornung, two tough veterans who help CSU in a variety of areas.

Other contenders: UNLV’s home court advantage, especially when the Runnin’ Rebels have it rolling, cannot be ignored. Anthony Marshall leads the conference in assists but at times it seems as if there are too many offensive options on the floor. SDSU’s hopes hinge on the back of Thames; if he’s healthy and can manage the quick turnarounds the Aztecs can win the tournament.

Sleeper: Boise State

Armed with wins over Creighton, UNLV and San Diego State, the Broncos may need one more win to feel comfortable in regards to their NCAA tournament hopes. Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks are both threats to go for 30 points or more on any given night, and Jeff Elorriaga is an excellent three-point shooter. If Boise State takes care of the basketball (7th in the Mountain West in assist-to-turnover ratio) look out.

Deeper sleepers: Air Force is the team to watch here. Dave Pilipovich’s team will end up in the NIT at the very least, with senior guard Michael Lyons leading the way. Lyons dropped 45 on Colorado State in a close loss to the Rams in Colorado Springs, and in the regular season finale he scored 30 to help lead Air Force past New Mexico.

Studs:

– G Kendall Williams (New Mexico): The Mountain West Player of the Year race looks to be wide-open and Williams is one of the players under consideration. He scored 46 in New Mexico’s win at Colorado State last month.

– F Anthony Bennett (UNLV): Bennett has the build of a pro right now, and he’s extremely difficult to stop in the paint.

– G/F Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State): Last year’s Mountain West Player of the Year is averaging 17.0 points and 9.4 rebounds per game on the season, and he’s the only player in the Mountain West to be ranked in the top three in both categories.

– C Colton Iverson (Colorado State): The Minnesota transfer averaged a double-double (14.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg) in conference play, the lone Mountain West player to do so.

– G Michael Lyons (Air Force): Lyons averaged 17.6 points per game on 47.3% shooting, doing so despite being the first line of any opponents’ scouting report.

Prediction: Look for some entertaining finishes, with Air Force being an upset possibility in the quarterfinals. But in the end New Mexico will repeat as tournament champions, knocking off Colorado State. 

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

BUBBLE BANTER: All of the action on the fringe of the NCAA tournament

Fred VanVleet
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Tonight’s bubble action. This post will be updated as the games are completed.

Cincinnati at UCF, 7:00 p.m.
Pitt at No. 12 Miami, 7:00 p.m.
No. 25 Wichita State at Drake, 8:00 p.m.
Ole Miss at Florida, 9:00 p.m.
Georgia at No. 22 Kentucky, 9:00 p.m.
Arkansas at Mississippi State, 9:00 p.m.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: A Big 12 and a Big Ten showdown

Denzel Valentine
(AP Photo/Al Goldis)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 10 West Virginia at No. 6 Kansas, 7:00 p.m.

The last time these two teams got together, West Virginia actually knocked off Kansas in Morgantown. It was the third time in the last three seasons that WVU has beaten KU at home. So there’s some revenge at stake here. But there’s also the whole Big 12 title race, which West Virginia currently leads. If the Mountaineers win tonight, they’ll be up by two games on Kansas with the tie breaker and just seven games left to play. The Jayhawks regular season title streak could be over if that happens.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 8 Michigan State at No. 18 Purdue, 7:00 p.m.

We think the Spartans are back to their early season form after wins over Maryland (at home), Northwestern, Rutgers and Michigan. If Michigan State really wants to prove something to the college basketball world, they will go into West Lafayette tonight and get a win. Denzel Valentine vs. Raphael Davis will be fun.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. Pitt will pay a visit to No. 12 Miami in a game the Panthers could really use a win in. Pitt hasn’t been the most consistent team in the country and without adding a few quality wins they could be looking at the bubble.
  2. Duquesne will be paying a visit to No. 19 Dayton, who moved into a tie for first place in the Atlantic 10 thanks to VCU’s loss on Saturday.
  3. Georgia is right there on the bubble, and they will have a chance to try and push themselves into a better spot when they play at No. 22 Kentucky tonight.
  4. Creighton probably has to win out to have a shot of making the NCAA tournament, and that includes tonight, when they host No. 5 Xavier.
  5. No. 7 Virginia will be hosting Virginia Tech, who picked off the Wahoos in Blacksburg earlier this year.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 1 Villanova at DePaul, 8:30 p.m.
  • No. 25 Wichita State at Drake, 8:00 p.m.