The 2012 Mountain West Championship Tournament hasn't lacked for excitement. The San Diego State Aztecs defeated the Boise State Broncos with a thrilling buzzer-beater in the first round, and the New Mexico Lobos upset the hometown UNLV Rebels in the semifinals to advance to the championship.
Should we have always expected the title game to come down to the Aztecs (26-6) and Lobos (26-6)? They were, after all, the 1st and 2nd seeds in the tournament. Logically, it makes sense that both would advance this far. But to sell that story, we'd have to pretend that UNLV and CSU weren't tough competition. And they certainly were, making the Aztecs and Lobos journey to this game all the more special.
Tonight's game will be the rubber match between SDSU and UNM. The Aztecs defeated the Lobos in New Mexico 75-70 in January, and the Lobos defeated the Aztecs in San Diego 77-67 in February. What better way to settle their season series than at the neutral Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas?
For all the talk about UNLV having an unfair home-court advantage in the conference tournament, they failed to capitalize for a fourth year in a row. SDSU squaring off against UNM in the conference title match therefore is truly sweet. These are two teams who share the MWC regular season title, have the exact same season record, and should share similar seeds in the NCAA Tournament. It's a fair environment, setting up an even game. No excuses, just a true conference winner.
The Aztecs will look to Jamaal Franklin, MWC Player of the Year, to continue his excellent play. Despite getting into foul trouble early yesterday, Franklin made his presence known on the court with 19 points. He's shooting with the kind of confidence that carries teams to wins. He's also making less mistakes, which was a key knock on Franklin earlier in the season.
The Lobos will be led by the equally game-breaking Drew Gordon. In the Lobos previous two games against the Aztecs, Gordon was sensational, combining for 32 points and 25 rebounds. He was a top contender (and subsequently runner-up) for MWC Player of the Year, and has been open about his disappointment in not winning the honor. He'll no doubt look to prove that the conference made a mistake through his play.
A couple of keys to this game will be controlling the boards and bench depth. The Lobos, for the majority of this season, have been far better than the Aztecs in both areas. The Lobos are ranked 29th in the nation in rebounds per game, and they're known to have the deepest bench in the Mountain West. The Aztecs, meanwhile, have struggled in rebounding all season due to a loss in size from last year's team. The Aztecs tend to play more guards, and they suffer a bit for it. And outside of Garrett Green, Deshawn Stephens, and LaBradford Franklin, they lack any substance on their bench.
Fortunately for the Aztecs, Garrett Green and Deshawn Stephens have stepped up their games considerably in recent weeks, giving the Aztecs plenty of size inside the paint. The proof is in the pudding, the Aztecs have increased their rebounds per game when Green and Stephens receive significant playing time.
Tip-off is set for 5:00 PM MT. Both teams are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, making this a game built around pride. The winner can make a true claim to being the class of not only the Mountain West, but the west as a whole. It should be a great game.