Mountain West primer: What a race
Of all the conferences in the country, the Mountain West -- the third-rated league in the RPI -- will get the highest percentage of its members in the NCAA tournament.
I said it in the preseason, continued to shout it during the nonconference season and believe it to be true as conference play begins this week.
The favorite: This is sort of a deflection, but it's really, really hard to pick one. New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV all have the talent and have proved, in one way or another with quality wins at home or on the road, that they have the ability to win the regular-season title.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Julie JacobsonAnthony Bennett and a now-healthy Mike Moser lead a monster frontcourt in Vegas.
I can't see how the champion doesn't lose at least three games during the course of the season. The home courts in this league are completely undervalued nationally. Winning at the Pit, Viejas Arena or the Thomas & Mack is as difficult as it gets. There will be trip-ups along the way in the nonconference season (UNM to South Dakota State, UNLV to Oregon), but the atmosphere is at another level during conference play. Look for some more MWC classics this winter. The regular-season champ is coming from that group of three.
Other contenders: Wyoming is a stunning 13-0 -- one of only four unbeatens left in the country -- and can't be dismissed based on the lockdown defense the Cowboys are playing. The Cowboys have also shown the ability to come back on the road. This team is down a key body in Luke Martinez, but dismissing the Pokes would be a mistake. Colorado State has an anchor inside in Colton Iverson and an experienced lot that has gone through the MWC. Larry Eustachy is new to the league but not to competing for league titles. This ultimately will be a five-team race for the conference title.
Player of the year (so far): This is as tough as trying to decide which team should be favored. UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett is averaging 19.9 ppg and 9.1 rpg. The Canadian is the most talented player in the league and has NBA scouts drooling. New Mexico's Kendall Williams has been a constant presence for the Lobos in their surge. You could make a strong argument for Wyoming's Leonard Washington as well. But I'd lean toward San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin. He was a preseason All-American and hasn't disappointed. He is leading the Aztecs with 17.2 points and 9.9 rebounds a game. Franklin didn't play as well in the two losses -- 11 points against Syracuse and nine against Arizona -- but he shined in the best win over UCLA with 28 points. This race might be decided by which team wins the regular-season title.
Freshman of the year (so far): Bennett has been sensational for the Runnin' Rebels. He has played like a first-team All-American and a legitimate national player of the year candidate. He is a constant double-double threat. If you were starting a team off an all-star group out of the Mountain West, you'd have to select Bennett first. He may end up being the top pick in June's NBA draft. Bennett needs to continue to demand and command the ball inside for the Rebels. He cannot be ignored.
Wins to brag about: Boise State at Creighton; Wyoming over Colorado; New Mexico against UConn and at Cincinnati; San Diego State over UCLA.
Losses that sting: New Mexico to South Dakota State; Fresno State and Nevada to UC Irvine; Nevada to Drake; Colorado State at Illinois-Chicago
Pleasant surprises: Wyoming and Boise State. The Cowboys are way ahead of schedule in Larry Shyatt's rebuilding phase. Having the Pokes enter the conference undefeated has to be one of the biggest surprises of the season. Boise State is also further along than expected. The win at Creighton will keep Boise State in play for a postseason bid, barring a collapse. The Broncos were also a few possessions away from stealing a win at Michigan State. To have two programs predicted to be near the bottom competing at the top shows the depth of the conference.
Biggest disappointment: Nevada. The Wolf Pack still have time to remedy this issue, but I expected Nevada to come into the league and be an immediate contender. The Pack dropped their opener by 14 at Irvine and fell by 10 to one of the worst Missouri Valley teams in Drake. Nevada did win at Washington and is playing better going into the conference, but the offense has to snap its erratic play.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Michael ConroyKendall Williams and the Lobos hope to open MWC play in style with a win over UNLV at the Pit.
Three questions going forward
1. Will the Mountain West put six teams in the NCAA tournament? Unlikely but possible. That's the number Joe Lunardi has in his latest Bracketology. That would be six of nine members in the Dance, which would be an incredible feat. Boise State has one of the best wins at Creighton and can't be pushed aside as an NCAA team. Wyoming should have a gaudy record with a slew of road wins. CSU lacks the high-quality nonconference wins, but it did last season too and grabbed an at-large bid. San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV are virtual locks barring a highly unlikely disaster in league play.
2. How will Martinez's injury affect the Cowboys? The senior guard is out with a broken finger for the foreseeable future. Wyoming has been fortunate so far but doesn't have as many scoring options. Over the long grind of a conference season, not having one of the team's most experienced players may take a toll on this group, especially in tough road environments.
3. Will UNLV maximize the frontcourt trio of Bennett, Mike Moser and Khem Birch? The Runnin' Rebels haven't had a lot of time to mesh these three due to the injury to Moser and the first-semester ineligibility of the transferring Birch. But now there is no excuse. This should be the top front line in the conference and in the West. If the Rebels can exploit this advantage, UNLV has a real shot in March to be the team it was projected to be in the preseason.
1. San Diego State: The Aztecs weren't able to win their two toughest games this season against Syracuse and Arizona, but the one thing they don't have is a bad loss. This team may be the one to rely on the most going forward.
2. UNLV: The Runnin' Rebels have the best player in the league in Bennett, which should allow UNLV to ultimately edge out New Mexico. I underscore the word should.
3. New Mexico: UNM has been a consistent winner over the past four years under Steve Alford, and this season is no different. But the home loss to South Dakota State and the drilling at Saint Louis is a concern.
4. Colorado State: The Rams are the most experienced team in the Mountain West. In the grind of the season, that should pay dividends, especially on the road.
5. Wyoming: I'm predicting the Cowboys will be the last remaining unbeaten team in the country, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the Pokes winning the conference. Getting through the grind of playing the above teams twice could weigh on this young team.
6. Boise State: Under Leon Rice, the Broncos are on schedule for a basketball renaissance. Having the conference affiliation decided is a huge boon for the program. Rice now knows he can lock in on being a MWC contender going forward.
7. Nevada: The Wolf Pack were supposed to be a top-five MWC team this season but haven't had the necessary production up front or been as consistent away from Reno to warrant a higher spot.
8. Air Force: The Falcons return the core of their team and have played games tight, but they don't have the breakthrough win yet. Still, don't sleep on playing at Clune Arena. It is never easy at the Academy.
9. Fresno State: The Bulldogs eventually will climb under Rodney Terry, just not quite yet. The Bulldogs have defended well, but scoring has been a challenge.
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