After an off-season marked by the defections of two of the league’s founding members, not to mention the departure of some of its highest profile players and coaches, the Mountain West Conference was fully expected to take a significant step backwards in 2011-12.
Instead, as the 2012 Mountain West Conference Tournament fast approaches, the league is arguably better, and more competitive, than it has ever been.
Though only eight teams remained after Utah bolted to the Pac-12, and BYU left for the West Coast Conference, the new look Mountain West has managed to produce three NCAA Tournament locks (San Diego State, New Mexico, and UNLV), and a fourth team – Colorado State – who has an excellent chance of hearing its name announced on Selection Sunday.
Will the top seeds advance? Will a sleeper emerge? Below is a breakdown, as well as predictions, for all four Mountain West Tournament matchups on Thursday:
1 San Diego State (24-6, 10-4) vs. 8 Boise State (13-16, 3-11)
Led by Mountain West Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin, and guided by veteran head coach Steve Fisher, the Aztecs overcame the loss of four starters from last season’s 34-win, Sweet 16 squad to claim a share of the league title.
What these Aztecs lack in depth, size, and experience, they more than make up for in mental toughness, having gone 9-3 in games decided by 6 points or less as well as posting a 7-4 mark in true road games.
The Broncos, 3-11 in their inaugural season in the Mountain West, find themselves struggling heading into the conference tournament, having dropped its last four contests, including a 66-53 loss to SDSU last week in Boise.
Not only are the Aztecs attempting to win their third consecutive MWC Tournament championship, they’re also jockeying for position for next week’s NCAA Tournament. An upset loss to the Broncos would no doubt draw the wrath of the tournament selection committee come Sunday, so expect the Aztecs to avoid that wrath, and to comfortably cruise into the semis.
PREDICTION: San Diego State- 64 Boise State- 51
4 Colorado State (19-10, 8-6) vs. 5 TCU (17-13, 7-7)
No team enters the Mountain West Conference Tournament with more on the line than Colorado State. The Rams, who currently occupy one of those less than comfortable spots squarely upon the NCAA Tournament bubble, will likely have to defeat the fifth-seeded Horned Frogs in order to keep its neck off the March Madness chopping block.
The game seems to be a virtual coin flip. The teams split their matchups during the regular season with each squad winning at home – CSU by 6 in double overtime in Fort Collins, and TCU by 4 in Fort Worth.
In a game that seems destined to be the most competitive and compelling of the tournament’s first round matchups, free throws could prove to be the difference. Ironically, Colorado State – the Mountain West’s best free throw shooting team at just under 77% – made only 65% of their shots from the line against TCU this season.
The Horned Frogs, on the other hand – just a 69% free throw shooting team on the season – made an impressive 30 out of 36 in its two games against CSU.
If any game in the first round comes down to the very last possession, this is the best bet to be that game. I see Colorado State barely surviving, and further strengthening its tournament cause.
PREDICTION: Colorado State- 72 TCU-71
2 New Mexico (24-6, 10-4) vs. 7 Air Force (13-15, 3-11)
If basketball is all about matchups, it’s difficult to imagine a worse matchup for Air Force than the second-seeded Lobos of New Mexico. In its two regular season losses to New Mexico, the Falcons were outscored by an average margin of 34.5 points per game.
And the Academy had no answer at all for all-conference forward Drew Gordon. Against Air Force, the 6’-9” Gordon had his way, averaging 15.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest while shooting an eye popping 78% from the floor.
Against the rest of the Mountain West Conference, Air Force – despite its 3-11 mark – was largely competitive, having not lost by more than 18 points to any other team in the league. The Lobos, however, have proven to be the Falcons’ Kryptonite. It’s highly unlikely that this will change on Thursday.
PREDICTION: New Mexico- 75 Air Force- 55
3 UNLV (25-7, 9-5) vs. 6 Wyoming (20-10, 6-8)
As beatable as UNLV was on the road during Mountain West Conference play – the Rebels went just 2-5 away from Vegas in league games – Dave Rice & Co. were even more untouchable at home, winning all 15 of its games at the Thomas & Mack Center this season.
Just how dominant have the Runnin’ Rebels been in the city of Las Vegas? Of the 18 games UNLV has played in the 702 area code, the Rebels have won 16 of them by double figures. And in league games at the T&M, only San Diego State played UNLV to a single digit outcome.
Wyoming, one of the Mountain West’s most improved teams under first year coach Larry Shyatt, did upset UNLV 68-66 in Laramie last month, and were competitive for most of last Saturday’s 74-63 loss to the Rebels in Vegas. They’ve also held UNLV’s second leader scorer – Chace Stanback – to a miniscule 2 points in the team’s two matchups.
Nevertheless, expecting the home standing Rebels to bow out in the tournament’s opening round is frankly expecting too much. Look for Stanback to bounce back, and for UNLV to march on.
PREDICTION: UNLV- 74 Wyoming- 60