USA TODAY Sports
The Mountain West Conference finished the regular season rated as the second best conference in the country and with a record five NCAA bids. Now the league needs to prove that those picks were justified and get at least one team into the Sweet Sixteen. MW Connection looks at each MWC team's chances.
The Mountain West Conference was given a terrific opportunity to prove itself by the NCAA Selection Committee to prove that the league's No. 2 Conference RPI ranking was not a fluke when five MWC teams - the New Mexico Lobos, UNLV Runnin' Rebels, San Diego St. Aztecs, Colorado St. Rams and Boise St. Broncos were invited to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which starts this week.
So what are the chances that the MWC can get one or more teams past the first weekend? Let's take a look.
New Mexico (29-5) 3-seed West Region
The Lobos' are either a Final Four sleeper pick or a pretender waiting to be exposed, depending on which talking head or so-called expert you listen to. What confounds a lot of people is UNM scoring inconsistency and their lack of a "go-to" player. Guard Tony Snell had a dominant weekend at the MWC Tournament but he's been streaky. MWC Player of the Year Kendall Williams disappeared on the stat sheet, but was one of the guys feeding Snell,Alex Kirk and All-MWC Tournament Team pick Cameron Bairstow. What gives the Lobos two edges is their tremendous defense and ability to close games out. Those two factors, as well as great play inside from Kirk and Cameron, give UNM a stellar chance to advance all the way to the West Regional final. Prediction: Elite 8.
UNLV (25-8) 5-seed East Region
The Rebels are set up for an upset in the second round with a virtual home game against a Califrornia Bers team they best in Berkeley by one point, so they're flying under a lot of people's radar. Despite their crash-and-burn against UNM in the MWC title game, UNLV is an athletic team with plenty of firepower and defense to make a run. Anthony Bennett is regarded as some one who can take this team on his back, but Bryce- DeJean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt are capable shooters who could give the Rebels an edge over the teams in their draw. UNLV showed plenty of defense and shooting ability until it ran into New Mexico. Count on the Runnin' Rebels to find those two factors starting this week. Prediction: Sweet 16.
Boise St. (21-10) 12-seed West Region
The Broncos could be a problem for one reason - shooting. As they demonstrated against San Diego St. in the MWC Tournament, they can get on a roll if you don't defend the 3-point line with shooters like Anthony Drmic and Jeff Elloriaga. And don't forget their leader Derrick Marks. So expect Boise St. to make it past it's First Four game against the LaSalle Explorers. But a follow up against the Kansas St. Wildcats in Kansas City presents a problem - that's a severe home court advantage. The advantage is that the Broncos will have a warm-up game. Prediction: Round of 32.
San Diego St. (22-10) 7-seed South Region
The Aztecs were bested by UNM in the MWC Semifinals and were not good down the stretch, largely due to lack of defensive intensity and some lack of chemistry. But SDSU has a very winnable game against an over-seeded Oklahoma Sooners team team to start off with. Jamaal Franklin showed some flashes of brilliance but needs to get in gear this week. Guards Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames could also be potent weapons. But it's the Aztecs inside game, a liability as of late, that is the wildcard. Because of that, the Aztecs will have a hard time against a team like the Georgetown Hoyas. Prediction: Round of 32
Colorado St. (25-8) 8-seed Midwest Region
The Rams were in a solid position to make the MWC championship but could not overcome UNLV. They do not have a great draw as an 8-seed in Rupp Arena (Kentucky fans will disdain top-seed Louisville Cardinals but you can bet the Cards will have still have lots of support). The Rams' Colton Iverson and Pierce Hurnung give them a great chance of topping a suspect Missouri Tigers. But CSU needs good guard play to get past a team like Louisville and Dorian Green's ankle injury could make that a problem. The Cardinals are a lot of people's picks to win the NCAA title. Colorado St. will give them a game, but an 8 over 1 upset is probably not in the... cards. Prediction: Round of 32
Final MWC record in the Big Dance: 9-5.