What to watch at MWC tournament

The Mountain West Conference understands its purpose.

The MWC isn't too bloated. Sure, Utah State and San Jose State are joining the league next season, pushing the number of schools to 11. But retaining Boise State and San Diego State showed the league's foresight.

This season, seven of the nine MWC teams have had national relevance.

Wyoming, which is in the play-in game at the conference tournament in Las Vegas, was once one of four undefeated teams and ranked nationally. Maybe the Cowboys were overhyped early in the season, but it still shows the depth of this league.

Air Force has been a pleasant surprise with the production of Michael Lyons. Boise State became an NCAA tournament team a year earlier than coach Leon Rice projected. The big four teams -- New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV and Colorado State -- are yet again lining up for bids.

This is one of the most competitive leagues in the country, and one that doesn't ruin its purpose by expanding too far beyond its reach.

Top three storylines

Will the Mountain West get five bids?

The Mountain West is attempting to pull off an unprecedented move by getting five of its nine teams in the field. That kind of percentage would rival anything the Big East has done. New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State appear to be locks and so, too, should Boise State. One win would surely seal a bid for the Broncos.

Will UNLV play up to its potential?

The Runnin' Rebels are the home team, but they slumped down the stretch and are a No. 3 seed, drawing a pesky Air Force. UNLV hasn't clicked in multiple games throughout this season. The talent is in place, especially up front, for a run in March, but losing at home to Fresno State was a disastrous way to finish the regular season.

Will the Lobos pull off the sweep?

New Mexico won the regular-season title, and if the Lobos win the tournament, a high seed awaits. The onus is on the Lobos to put themselves in an advantageous situation in the NCAA tournament. Pick up two more quality wins, and they should be in a strong position.

Five players to watch

Kendall Williams, Jr., G, New Mexico: Williams won the MWC player of the year award. He lit up Colorado State with 46 points and became the Lobos' go-to player this season. Williams has cooled a bit since that game against the Rams, but still is a threat to score 20-plus in any game this week.

Jamaal Franklin, Jr., G, San Diego State: Franklin was the preseason player of the year and could have made a strong argument to win the award if not for Williams. Franklin averaged 17 points a game the past two seasons. If the Aztecs win the tournament, Franklin will be the reason why.

Derrick Marks, So., G, Boise State: Marks scored 38 points in a win over Colorado State. He dipped considerably with only four at UNLV, but then went off again for 27 at home against San Diego State. If Marks can replicate his home production on the road, the Broncos have a shot to beat the Aztecs and challenge for the MWC title.

Anthony Bennett, Fr., F, UNLV: If it weren't for the Big 12's Marcus Smart and Ben McLemore, Bennett would probably be the national freshman of the year. Bennett has faded down the stretch, though, with single-digit performances. If the Rebels are to be a factor this weekend, Bennett has to play up to his potential.

Colton Iverson, Sr., C, Colorado State: Iverson has had one of the better transfer seasons for a one-year player. He was the missing piece for an experienced team. Iverson is averaging nearly a double-double and has been on a tear of late in big games.

Hottest team: New Mexico, even with the one-point loss at Air Force, should be deemed the hottest team in the Mountain West. UNM had won six in a row and was within one shot of beating the Falcons in a tough road environment. The Lobos are playing to ensure they end up with a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament.

Coldest team: Nevada. The Wolf Pack are stumbling into the tournament, losing seven in a row. Nevada has been the biggest underachiever in the MWC. There is still talent to make it interesting, but Nevada fans shouldn't plan on spending the weekend in Las Vegas.

Sleeper pick: Air Force. The Falcons play UNLV in the quarterfinals -- a team they beat at home and lost to in Vegas in overtime. Then they could draw Colorado State in the semifinals -- a team the Falcons lost to by only three at home. I'm not sure anyone in the MWC would be surprised to see Air Force in the finals based on this bracket.

Potential upset victim: UNLV. The Rebels drew a team that has given them the most problems this season. The game is also in the afternoon, another possible issue if the Las Vegas fans don't make sure they turn out in droves to ensure a home-court advantage.

Best first-round matchup: San Diego State-Boise State. This is a rematch of Saturday's showdown at Taco Bell Arena, won by the Broncos. Boise State should be in the NCAA field regardless of the matchup, but this is easily the most evenly matched game in the tournament.

Best potential semifinal: The headline game would be San Diego State-New Mexico. Pitting Kendall Williams and Jamaal Franklin against each other would provide the MWC with star potential. These two teams have had a healthy rivalry the past few years, including splitting the two games this season.

Predicting a champion: New Mexico. The Lobos are the most complete team in the field with the scoring of Williams and the big man in Alex Kirk, the experience of Hugh Greenwood and a coach (Steve Alford) who has been in this position before. The Lobos have the most to play for with a chance to get a No. 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.