- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
UNLV has been one of the most impressive teams in the country to date. San Diego State was supposed to be down this season after a dream campaign in 2010-11, but Steve Fisher's team has jumped out to a 14-2 start and a top-25 rankings. Meanwhile, Steve Alford's New Mexico team has been sneakily solid all season; it could be one the most underrated teams in the country.
Those three contenders should form a very intriguing title race, but they aren't the only MWC teams with punch. Former Florida assistant Larry Shyatt has Wyoming sitting at 14-2, its best start since 1950-51, thanks in large part to some particularly sturdy defense. Colorado State flirted with the NCAA tournament at-large bubble for much of 2011, and this season's version possesses one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Even Boise State -- for which hoops is usually an afterthought -- is 10-5 and appears able to upset the balance of power on any given night.
Put it all together, and pound for pound, the Mountain West appears to be one of the six best hoops conferences in the country this season. Here's a revised look at the league as it readies itself -- finally -- to commence conference play this weekend:
The favorite: UNLV. First-year coach Dave Rice arrived at his alma mater with a plan in mind: to put the "Runnin'" back in "Runnin' Rebels." He's done exactly that, and the Rebels have thrived. Rice has transformed this team -- which played a slower, more defensive style under now-Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger -- into a team that not only defends well but does so just before it races upcourt to finish a fast-break layup or secondary-break jumper before its opposition even knows what hit it. The Rebs rank among the top 25 teams in the country in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted tempo this season. Runnin' Rebels, indeed.
Of course, running is all well and good, but winning the way UNLV has won this season -- upsetting then-No. 1 North Carolina in Vegas, holding Illinois to 48 points in Chicago, throttling Pac-12 favorite Cal 85-68 -- requires serious talent. Rice has it. In large part, that's thanks to UCLA. Mike Moser and Chace Stanback are both Bruin transfers, and both have been stars in UNLV's early run to the cusp of national contention. That's one big reason this conference, if even temporarily, has left its West Coast "power six" counterpart in the dust.
The Runnin' Rebels, in every sense of the term, are back.
Other contenders: San Diego State's dream season -- the 34-3 record, the No. 2 NCAA tournament seed, the wild and crazy student section, "The Show" -- came thanks to a coterie of seniors (Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, D.J. Gay) and a first-round NBA lottery pick (Kawhi Leonard), so the common and entirely reasonable assumption was that this team would plummet back to earth in 2011-12. But the Aztecs just keep winning. Fisher's team is 14-2 so far, its only losses coming to Baylor and Creighton, as last season's spot-shooting specialist, guard Chase Tapley, has become this season's lights-out perimeter scoring threat. This team isn't what it was last season, but it's hardly experienced the drop-off most expected.
Meanwhile, New Mexico has quietly and steadfastly built an impressive 14-2 record of its own, led by another UCLA transfer, forward Drew Gordon. The Lobos have yet to prove themselves with a truly marquee win -- their best victory was probably a New Year's Eve home win over Saint Louis -- but Alford's team has played sterling defense to date and it possesses one of the toughest home gyms, University Arena, known solely and fittingly as "The Pit."
Those three are the top contenders, but Wyoming ranks No. 38 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy, and will give plenty of teams issues with its intensely slow, grind-it-out style. Shyatt, a former Florida assistant who coached Wyoming for one season in 1997-98 before leaving to take over at Clemson and who returned this season out of a sense of unfinished duty, might end up as one of 2011-12's best stories.
Player of the year (so far): UNLV's Stanback. He is the leading scorer for one of the nation's best offensive teams. Even better, he gets his in efficient fashion. To date, Stanback's offensive rating (a measure of offensive efficiency) is 127.6, ranking him No. 30 among players with similar usage rates. His combination of size (6-foot-8), athleticism and 3-point marksmanship (a 47 percent clip) makes him one of the most difficult players in the country to guard, and a big reason this UNLV offense has become so very lethal.
Freshman of the year (so far): This conference's sudden strength even without BYU has been built in large part on the play of veterans, and none of the top contenders has a freshman who has particularly stood out so far this season. Boise State's freshmen have played a major role in the program's slight uptick, particularly 6-foot-6 swingman (and Australian national) Anthony Drmic, who ranks fifth in the league in points per game (14.4) and, like Stanback, gets those impressive numbers through efficient offensive play. He should be a good one. Another Australian, UNM's Hugh Greenwood, is another one to keep an eye on.
Wins to brag about: UNLV over North Carolina, Illinois and Cal; TCU over Virginia; New Mexico over Saint Louis; San Diego State over Arizona and Cal; Wyoming over Colorado; Colorado State over Colorado
Losses that sting: New Mexico State and Santa Clara over New Mexico; Green Bay and Denver over Wyoming
Pleasant surprises: San Diego State is the pleasant surprise of the league to date. By all rights, this team should have been in for a down season. Instead, it could be the biggest threat to UNLV's dominance in the post-BYU era. Wyoming won't blow anyone away on the offensive end, but Shyatt's ability to get his team playing such solid defense this early in his tenure (and after the Cowboys were rather brutal defensively in 2010-11, no less) has been as intriguing as Shyatt's "I'm Coming Home"-scored story. And Colorado State hasn't defended much this season, but watch the Rams play and you'll get to see plenty of offense. No complaints here.
Biggest disappointments: There isn't much to work with here, to be honest. The two truly bad teams in this league -- Air Force and TCU -- were expected to be bad, and the rest of the noncontenders in the conference have played mostly solid hoops to date.
Three questions going forward
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.
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).