Take Two: Best of the Mountain West?

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
12:00
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Sadly, this could be the last hurrah in the emerging UNLV-San Diego State rivalry, since the Aztecs will be moving on to the Big West (and Big East in football) after this school year. But last season's games were classics and we should certainly savor these matchups while we still have them.

Both will be in the preseason Top 25. Both have loads of talent. Both have passionate fan bases. But which Mountain West power will be better this season: the Runnin' Rebels or the Aztecs?

Two of our writers give us their take:

Eamonn Brennan: UNLV

[+] EnlargeAnthony Bennett
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesFreshman Anthony Bennett should help UNLV have one of the top frontcourts in the nation.
If predicting the Mountain West title race was a matter of political discourse, I would say there is a clear choice facing us in this selection: There is the steady, sure thing (San Diego State), and then there is the risk-reward proposition. That would be UNLV.

And I'll admit it: I'm tantalized by the latter's talent. Freshman Anthony Bennett is the best power forward in the class of 2012. Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch was the highest-ranked center in the class of 2011. Mike Moser had an excellent all-around 2011-12 season, and he's still just scratching the surface of his ability. When Birch becomes available after Christmas, that trio gives the Rebels the best frontcourt in the Mountain West, hands down. It's arguably the best frontcourt in the country. And I believe guards Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins (not to mention freshman Katin Reinhardt and USC transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones) are talented and experienced enough to run Dave Rice's uptempo-style offense effectively.

All of which is no disrespect to Steve Fisher's program, or the players that currently inhabit it. Junior forward Jamaal Franklin has NBA-level talent and senior guard Chase Tapley is a fantastic outside shooter who knows his way around a big MWC (and NCAA tourney) matchup. That's going to be a deep, experienced bunch.

Having said that, and at the risk of making one of my favorite student sections in the country ("The Show") getting really mad at me on Twitter, it's not unfair to say San Diego State was just a teensy bit overrated in 2011-12. The Aztecs finished the season ranked No. 69 in overall adjusted efficiency, per KenPom. That single number is not a perfect encapsulation of a team's season, but compared to some of the top-15 poll love I've seen them get this summer, it is an instructive reminder.

Even if SDSU improves en masse, I'd argue its ceiling is still somewhat limited. UNLV, on the other hand, is like Lil' Wayne: no ceilings.* Maybe I'm falling in love with the sexy pick; maybe there's too much that can go wrong with UNLV for me to heap the praise just yet. But I'm fully tantalized. I admit it.

*It helps if you read this sentence in Lil Wayne's voice, as it is the template for every garbage line he's rapped since 2010.

Myron Medcalf: San Diego State

[+] EnlargeJamaal Franklin
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesWith the likes of Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State will again be tough to defend on the perimeter this season.
I can’t wait to see this UNLV-San Diego State battle in the Mountain West. There’s always a war when the two teams meet, and I expect nothing less in 2012-13. But I think the Aztecs will win the MWC, not the reloaded Runnin’ Rebels.

It’s certainly a tough pick. Dave Rice has assembled a frontcourt that looks like a Marvel comic book cover. But I can’t ignore the point guard questions his program faces without Oscar Bellfield. Plus, adding so many newcomers (only five current Rebels logged minutes last season) could create chemistry problems.

But SDSU kept its core. This is not a program that’s reworking anything. It’s simply adding onto the talented squad that it had last season. Xavier Thames, Jamaal Franklin (reigning Mountain West player of the year), three-year starter Chase Tapley and James Rahon all return to solidify what could be America’s most complete backcourt. The latter appears to be UNLV’s greatest weakness.

But Steve Fisher also added size to counter the Rebels’ frontcourt, its obvious strength. Enter former St. John’s starter Dwayne Polee II, Virginia transfer James Johnson (6-9, 238 pounds) and former Utah big man JJ O’Brien. To find success this season, Rice will have to create the proper rotation. And as much as Khem Birch, Mike Moser and Anthony Bennett guarantee depth for UNLV, I wonder what Rice will do with so many talented guys who appear to play the same role.

Last season, SDSU and New Mexico shared the conference’s regular-season title. UNLV, at 9-5, finished second. With Nevada in the mix and Colorado State strong again, the MWC will be tough at the top. One or two losses will separate the champs from the rest of the contenders.

So I have to pick the team that I expect to display the most poise as the season unfolds and the league tightens up. That team is San Diego State, simply because the Aztecs know exactly who they are right now as they get ready for the season. And UNLV, as talented as that team will be, has some things to figure out. And there are no guarantees that the Rebels will solve those riddles by the end of the year.

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