New Mexico’s loss muddies the Mountain West race

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It wasn’t even a week ago that No. 18 New Mexico had the Mountain West Conference all but wrapped up.

After wins over No. 21 UNLV and No. 24 San Diego State in the span of four days, the Lobos not only vaulted themselves into a two game lead in the conference standings, they staked their claim to the title of Best in the West. That’s why the last week for this team was so confusing.

After going into Ft. Collins and losing to Colorado State, the Lobos got run off the court by TCU in the second half, losing 83-64 after being tied at the half. Combine that with UNLV’s 68-58 win over Air Force and SDSU’s 74-66 win over Colorado State, and we’re right back to where we started — a three-way tie atop the Mountain West.

So where do we go from here?

For starters, barring a collapse by any of the three league leaders, the MWC will be sending three teams to the NCAA Tournament. Those three teams are that good and the Mountain West on a whole is that strong.

What’s left to be determined is seeding in the Mountain West Tournament. Assuming all three teams win their final two games, the year will end in a three-way tie for the regular season title. Since all three teams split their round-robin, the tie-breaker goes to record against the team in fourth-place. Since we’re assuming everyone wins out, SDSU would be the No. 1 seed. They already own a win over TCU and play them at TCU in the final day of the regular season. That assumption may be too soon, however, as both New Mexico and UNLV have lost when visiting the Horned Frogs.

Under those same assumption, UNLV would thus be the No. 2 seed. Both UNLV and New Mexico split with TCU, but the Lobos also split with Colorado State, who is currently sitting in fifth place. Assuming that UNLV wins out, they will own the tiebreaker with UNM as they have already beaten the Rams at home. But again, UNLV going into boulder and leaving with a win is no guarantee; CSU has beaten the Aztecs and the Lobos already this season.

I guess the question everyone has at this point is how well these three teams will perform in the tournament. The answer? A beautifully simplistic copout: it all depends on the matchup.

San Diego State is like Missouri-lite. They have a terrific perimeter attack, but they lack depth and don’t have all that much size up front. UNLV can run and gun with the best of them, but the Rebels have a tendency to struggle when the going gets tough. They don’t win on the road and have blown a couple of big leads. New Mexico is as enigmatic as they are talented. Thanks to their defense and their ability to shoot the three, the Lobos probably have the most upside of any team in the conference, a theory backed up by the fact they are probably the most talented team as well. It also makes you wonder: if they are so talented, why are they so inconsistent?

Its a tough question to answer.

The only thing tougher to figure out is what is going to happen in the last week of Mountain West play.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.