Tournament preview: Mountain West


The Mountain West arguably underwent more change in a year than any other conference. That's why it probably should be considered a down year for the league, with programs such as New Mexico, Fresno State and UNLV dwelling in the bottom half of the standings.

Boise State shared the regular-season title with San Diego State but earned the No. 1 seed in the tournament after sweeping the Aztecs. Colorado State finished third in the league and will join the Broncos and Aztecs in the NCAA tournament.

But things feel different this season. Among its potential NCAA representatives, the league doesn’t seem to have that sleeper that could make a serious run, as it has in previous years. The lack of quality depth is reflected in the seasons New Mexico and UNLV had.

The Lobos lost their big three in Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow, who powered them to the league tournament championship the past season. The Lobos are normally dominant at home but lost five games in The Pit for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

UNLV coach Dave Rice had a complete roster overhaul, but it looked like it would be a smooth transition after his squad upset Arizona in December. Turns out UNLV peaked too early -- and dropped six of its next eight games.

By the time the Runnin' Rebels found some consistency with their newcomers and seemed to turn things around, freshman guard Rashad Vaughn went down with a left knee injury. Vaughn, their leading scorer, has missed the past month of play and initial hopes he would return for the league tournament now appear unfounded.

Barring a surprise run to the Mountain West tournament title -- which isn’t out of the question, considering it’s being held in the Thomas & Mack Center -- UNLV will miss the NCAAs for the second straight season.

What’s at stake?

There probably won’t be much movement, seeding-wise, should Boise State or San Diego State win the tournament. There just aren’t enough quality teams to really move the needle. Cutting down the nets in Las Vegas will be more about pride than anything.

The league doesn’t use a tiebreaker to determine its regular-season champion, so Boise State, despite beating the Aztecs twice, had to give up a piece of the title. The Broncos will be out to prove outright that they’re the best in the league.

The postseason makes stars, and Boise senior guard Derrick Marks, who led the league in scoring with 20 points per game, is primed for the spotlight.

San Diego State earned at least a share of the title for the fourth time in five seasons, but entering the season, the Aztecs had greater expectations than a conference title. They proved early on that they can play with the nation’s elite teams, after beating Utah and falling a basket short of topping Arizona.

Although they boast one of the best defenses in the nation -- ranked fourth in adjusted defense by Ken Pomeroy -- the Aztecs never found a replacement for Xavier Thames, offensively. They still have problems scoring, which is why they rank 172nd in adjusted offense. That could be a problem, should they square off with the Broncos for a third time, considering they only scored 46 points in each of their previous two meetings.

Team with the most to gain

Colorado State started the season 14-0 -- one of the last four unbeaten teams in the nation -- but fell off the national radar once league play began. It might be worthy of another look as a potential bracket-buster.

Senior forward J.J. Avila ranked in the top five in the league in scoring (16.9), rebounds (7.5) and shooting from the field (56 percent).

Coach Larry Eustachy has the Rams primed for their third NCAA appearance in four seasons. They did split their regular-season meetings with Boise State and San Diego State. Don’t be surprised to see the Rams, as the league's third seed, advance to the title game.

The past season, Wyoming looked like a tournament team until Larry Nance Jr. injured his knee. This season, it seemed the Cowboys were headed for disappointment again, after Nance was sidelined with mononucleosis. Fortunately for Wyoming, it turned out to be a mild case, and he missed just four games.

Nance led the team in scoring, with 16.1 points per game, and is the kind of player a team can rally around, especially when winning just three games could thrust the Cowboys into the Big Dance.