The Mountain West has been rated as one of the best leagues in all of college basketball, and the league is looking to send a record five teams to the NCAA tournament. However, first comes the Mountain West Conference tournament and there are six teams that have a chance to cut down the nets in Las Vegas.
The one issue that always comes up with this tournament is that it is being played at the Thomas & Mack Center, which is the home court of UNLV. Coaches complain, but also say it doesn't really matter. However, it does make a difference in favor of UNLV who has lost just one game all year on their home court.
Road wins are extremely hard to come by, and one can look back to this past weekend where Air Force upset New Mexico at Clune Arena. The Falcons also claimed home victories over San Diego State, UNLV and Boise State.
While home court is huge, UNLV has not been that dominant over the past few years at the conference tournament ever since it moved back to Las Vegas from Denver. The Rebels have not been to a conference final since 2010, and have not won the whole thing since they won back-to-back title in 2007 and 2008.
Picking a favorite out of this group is very tough, but at the top of the list has to be New Mexico, they are ranked in the top-15, and are in contention for a No. 2 seed if they win the tournament. The Lobos finished with a 13-3 conference record and two games ahead of Colorado State. They play a defensive brand of basketball, give up just 61 points per game and hold opponents to just 39.4 percent per game.
As for team leaders, it starts with 2013 Mountain West player of the year Kendall Williams who averages 14.4 ponts per game, five assists and just over a steal a game. He is capable of lighting up the court and shows up big in big games. Williams scored a career-high 46 points in a road win against Colorado State, including making 10 of 13 from beyond the arc. He also has six other games this year where he scored 20 or more points.
The one glaring weakness for the Lobos is their offensive shooting percentage, on the year they are shooting just 42 percent per game. Two games showcased that weakness this year, the first was a 60-46 loss to Saint Louis where the Lobos shot just 31.6 percent, and then a 55-34 loss to San Diego State where New Mexico was held to just 11 of 40 shooting. However, New Mexico can grind out a win, but they need to shoot above at least 42 percent from the field.
Colorado State is the next contender in this group, the Rams are the best rebounding team in the country, and it is not that close. They grab 40.6 boards per game, compared to 28.3 for their opponents. The leader for Colorado State is Colton Iverson who scored 14.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, and was just named the leagues newcomer of the year. Colorado State did not slip up to a vastly inferior teams as some did in the Mountain West, their worse loss was a road game at Boise State, by 13 points. Colorado State just needs to do their thing which is to dominant the boards, get plenty of second chance shots and get everyone involved in scoring.
UNLV is my other team to be considered a favorite to win the tournament (can't pick over half the league as a favorite). The obvious reason is because they are on their home court, but as mentioned they have not been as dominant as some think. In fact, San Diego State has won the exact same titles (three) and appeared in the same amount title games (five) as UNLV when the conference tournament has been held at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Going off of talent alone UNLV would be the favorite to win the conference tournament, and it is not even close. They brought in a top-10 recruiting class this year which includes Anthony Bennett who is projected to be a one-and-done player and a possibly top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Bennett also was named the freshman of the year, but he has been hit and miss at some points and has a bum shoulder which may or may not be completely healed.
UNLV also brought in Pitt transfer Khem Birch, who joined the lineup midseason, and he was named the defensive player of the year. With all of this talent the team could not mesh all that often this year. That is why there are loses to Fresno State (twice), Boise State and Air Force, but the team also defeated Colorado State, San Diego State and New Mexico. Albeit those latter wins were at home, and that is a big deal since this tournament is on their home court.
Air Force is the least likely of these underdogs to win three games in Las Vegas, however if they did not many would bat an eye at the accomplishment. The Falcons go as far as three-time Mountain West all-league selection in guard Michael Lyons takes them. Away from Clune Arena they do struggle quite a lot and went 1-7 on the road, but at home they are a different animal with wins over New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State.
Air Force is a solid shooting team and is shooting 47.7 percent for the year, and if they are to cause an upset in this tournament they need to get hot from the field. They will need Lyons to have a big tournament, and get a few other players to step up with double digits.
San Diego State is a tweener between favorite and underdog. They nearly beat a very good Arizona team, beat New Mexico, yet they have loses to Wyoming and Air Force. Over their last 10 games they are just 5-5, and they also lost six in a row away from home. The talent is there but the consistency is not. They have Jamaal Franklin who nearly averages as double-double with 17 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, Chase Tapley who puts up 13.4 points per game and Xavier Thames who comes in just under 10 points per game. They just need to put together more consistent games.
Boise State is the final underdog team that could make some noise. They have turned it on as of late by winning five of their last six, its only blemish coming on the road against UNLV, and that game included some questionable officiating. Boise State is led by the duo of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks who combine to score 31.6 points per game, however each are very capable of getting close to that number by themselves. Drmic has 14 games where he has scored over 20 points, and a season high of 34 against LSU; while Marks has eight games over 20 points including three games of 30 or more points. If both of those players get hot, then the Broncos could seriously make a run and win this thing.
Here are projections from TeamRankings.com, and they also use home court figured in since it is being played at UNLV.
|4||San Diego St||100.00%||57.92%||30.59%||12.91%|
Picking a winner is very difficult among these teams, but the final will feature the two best teams in Colorado State going up against New Mexico. The winner will be Colorado State since they can matchup with the Lobos front court, and their rebounding edge will be the difference.
Or, craziness will happen due to the depth of this league, and it would not come as a huge shock if Air Force were to run the table and win three games in Las Vegas.