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.
– 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.