Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Tournament preview: Mountain West
By C.L. Brown
Would it be so wrong to want a rubber match between regular-season champion San Diego State and No. 2 seed New Mexico? Both teams have won six of their past seven games entering the league tournament. The only loss for both came to each other on the road. The Aztecs and Lobos towered over the league while parity defined every remaining team, with the exception of last-place San Jose State. UNLV and Nevada finished tied for third, but were only two games over .500 in conference. The three-way tie for fifth place featured 9-9 teams in Boise State, Wyoming and Fresno State. There’s really no telling which teams will challenge San Diego State and New Mexico for the title.
The Mountain West tournament contains a bad omen for the Aztecs. While the regular-season champion has advanced to the final 10 out of 14 years, the No. 1 seed has taken home the trophy just three times. San Diego State in 2006 and New Mexico last season are the only two teams to have won an undisputed regular-season title and the tournament title in the same season.
Cameron Bairstow and New Mexico want to three-peat as Mountain West tournament champions, preferably over San Diego State.
What’s at stake?
San Diego State is in a tough position because the only thing that might be at stake is pride. Winning the league tournament might not provide a bump for its NCAA tournament seeding. Losing it might not matter either because the Aztecs won the regular-season title and their body of work -- including a marquee win at Kansas -- speaks for itself. The motivation is likely to come from within. SDSU coach Steve Fisher is a believer in league tournaments, so it’s not like he’s going to rest players -- he’ll be playing to win the game.
Boise State would be viewed much differently if it had an ability to close out games. The Broncos have to look back at a two-point loss to Wyoming, a four-point loss to UNLV, and a pair of losses to San Diego State by a combined five points and wonder what might have been. They enter the league tournament with a double-overtime loss to Nevada and an overtime loss to Air Force in consecutive games. Fresno State is the only team that dominated Boise, beating the Broncos 76-56. Entering the season, the Broncos had good reason to believe they would earn a second-straight NCAA berth for the first time in school history. Boise will need its luck to change in the closing minutes for that to happen now.
Team with the most to gain
The view nationally is that San Diego State is the best team in the Mountain West. Despite their second-place finish in the standings, the feeling in Albuquerque, N.M., is that the Lobos are better. They beat the Aztecs at home by 14 and seemed headed for another double-digit win at SDSU. New Mexico held a 16-point lead with 12 minutes left in the second meeting before succumbing to an Aztecs rally. The Lobos, who have won the past two league tournament titles, want another opportunity to face San Diego State. If they get it and win, it could help keep them out of the 8-9 game and staring at the possibility of playing a No. 1 seed in the third round.
UNLV, like Boise State, has been close to turning from a good team to a contender. Six of the Rebels' losses, including a 63-58 setback at Arizona, came in games decided by only two possessions. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi does not include the 19-12 Rebels on his latest installment of Bracketology, and their résumé probably isn’t strong enough for an at-large bid. But it wouldn’t be too shocking if they had a run in them. The tournament is being held on their home court, the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. They won at New Mexico and were within two points against San Diego State before being held to two points in the final 2:33 of a 73-64 loss.