Mountain West keeps quality in region
It's no secret the Pac-12 is down this season. Frankly, that's an understatement. And when the Pac-12 is suffering, the perception of West Coast hoops suffers, too.That would be a mistake in 2012, and not only because the new-look West Coast Conference is shaping up to have one of the more entertaining conference title chases in the league's history. No, the Mountain West, even sans Brigham Young, is still a hotbed of hoops.
How many NCAA tournament bids can this league receive?
One? Two? Three? Four? OK, four is pushing it, but UNLV, SDSU and UNM should have viable claims, depending on how the conference race plays out. And hey, if Wyoming or CSU can pull off a conference tournament miracle well, never say never. Can any team challenge UNLV?
Does New Mexico, which has feasted mostly on so-so opponents since its two November losses, really have what it takes to hang with the ultra-impressive Rebels? And what about San Diego State? Sure, the Aztecs have been a pleasant surprise, but that's a far cry from legitimate title contention, right? Fortunately for us, we get to find out as soon as Saturday, when SDSU opens league play by hosting -- you guessed it -- UNLV.Is this conference really better than the Pac-12?
Actually, this one is easy. Yes. The MWC is 11-3 against the Pac-12 this season. Moving on. Revised predictions
1. UNLV: This is the most talented team in the league, with the kind of blue-chippers (Moser and Stanback, among others) SDSU and BYU possessed last season, not to mention a young and energetic coach, a brutal home building and one of the more effective (and appealing!) styles in the league. It's theirs to win.
2. New Mexico: I'll take the Lobos to finish above SDSU, if only because Alford's team has been so stingy on the defensive end this season. But this spot, and SDSU's one below it, might as well be interchangeable.
3. San Diego State: See above. The Aztecs have been merely solid all around; they don't excel on either end of the floor. But Fisher's team deserves credit for its excellent start, and it should be right there when all is said and done.
4. Wyoming: If the Cowboys can maintain this huge defensive improvement, their style -- slow, plodding, insert your adjective here -- could present serious issues for the rest of the league.
5. Colorado State: The Rams don't play much defense, but they score more efficiently on a per-possession basis than all but 12 teams in the country. Still, that D has to improve.
6. Boise State: The same can be said for the Broncos' impressive young squad, which can score the ball but has lost its five nonconference games thanks to its generous FG percentage defense.
7. Air Force: The Falcons aren't horrible, but they aren't particularly good at anything, either. They'll likely finish ahead of TCU -- and no one else.
8. TCU: The Horned Frogs got a really nice win in the nonconference against Virginia, one of this league's best such wins to date. TCU is off to a nice 10-5 start, but the Horned Frogs' per-possession numbers don't speak favorably for this team's chances to avoid the MWC cellar.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).
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