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Saturday, March 10, 2012
MWC championship: What to watch for

By Eamonn Brennan

You already know the drill: Even without dearly departed Brigham Young, the Mountain West has been the West Coast's best basketball conference all season long, but one notably divided between haves (maybe the better term is "have-talents") like UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico and the have-nots like Boise State, TCU and Air Force. Colorado State was the league's one true bubble question, but after this week's advance to the MWC semifinals -- where all of the top-four seeds held -- the Rams are in solid tournament shape. When you send half your league to the NCAA tournament, you're doing something right.

On Saturday night, No. 1 seed San Diego State will face No. 2 seed New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament final. Seeds held, but that counts as a bit of a surprise, because UNLV's semifinals loss to UNM Friday night marked the first time the Rebels lost in their home gym -- the Thomas and Mack Center, site of this year's MWC tournament -- all season.

What does this game have in store? Let's briefly break it down:

Drew Gordon
Drew Gordon's interior presence should be a key concern for San Diego State in the Mountain West tourney final.
Can the Aztecs disrupt the Lobos' offense? This game pits the Mountain West's most efficient offense, New Mexico, versus the league's second-most efficient defense in San Diego State. New Mexico's raw efficiency numbers were a bit deceiving, because they racked up two silly games against Air Force, but the point remains: This is a good offense, one of the nation's 35 best (per KenPom.com), and one that thrives on ball movement and efficient shooting. The Lobos tally an assist on 64.5 percent of their possessions this season, the third-highest assist-to-field-goal rate in the country. With the ball flying around the court so rapidly, perhaps it's no surprise New Mexico also has a tendency to turn it over, which it did on 20 percent of its possessions in MWC play, the seventh-worst mark in the conference. San Diego State will have to pressure New Mexico along the perimeter, disrupting that ball movement and perimeter attack.

But it can't afford to lose track of forward Drew Gordon in the paint, either. Gordon's interior presence was a major reason why the Lobos led the conference in offensive rebounding rate this season, and he'll like the matchup he sees Saturday: Per KenPom's effective height metric, New Mexico is one of the 50 tallest teams in the country. San Diego State ranks No. 233. The Aztecs don't force a ton of turnovers on the perimeter in general this season, so they might be better off packing it in and swarming Gordon at every turn.

Can San Diego State force a close game? When you look at the efficiency breakdowns and matchups for these two teams, there are few areas in which SDSU has been notably better than New Mexico this season, particularly on offense. San Diego State was the MWC's fifth-most efficient offense in conference play, and the general impression of this team as a bunch of perimeter-oriented sharpshooters led by Chase Tapley isn't very accurate: SDSU's effective field goal percentage of 48.5 ranked No. 7 in the MWC this season.

If this game is a shootout, SDSU is at a disadvantage. Indeed, its best hope to take down the seemingly (despite the seeds) superior Lobos is to slow the game down, make everything difficult for UNM, and hope Jamaal Franklin -- the MWC player of the year and arguably the most talented player on the floor tonight -- can take over at key moments down the stretch. Franklin's last-second heroics against Boise State got the Aztecs here in the first place. They may need it tonight more than ever.

Whatever happens, we know this: The MWC's three best teams are refreshing to watch. After days of Big East and Big Ten tournament action -- in which teams grind each other into the ground, often preferring strength and physicality and deliberate (read: slow) pace over skill and aesthetic appeal -- flipping to Friday night's UNLV-New Mexico semifinal felt like a breath of fresh air. Fast breaks! Secondary offense! Spread sets! Post players with finesse! What's all this?!

We can only hope for more of the same Saturday. If the season to date is any indication, we'll get it. And we'll get a downright thrilling affair to boot.