You might as well rename the Mountain West the Wild Wild West.
Right now, you've got 5 teams in the Mountain West with records of over .500 in conference play. Of course, if you were a betting man, you would say San Diego State has the definitive edge for a NCAA Tournament bid, and you would be right. At this point, the Aztecs RPI is at .5784, just above Boise State in the Mountain West rankings. What hurt San Diego State were the losses to Kansas, Utah, Arkansas-Little Rock, and Grand Canyon. What helps them is that they are undefeated in Mountain West competition right now. Those wins against Boise State, Utah State, Colorado State and Nevada definitely helped their cause. A big test for them will come tonight in Las Vegas against a much improved UNLV team, who are on fire, winning 4 of their last 5 games since coach Dave Rice was fired. An especially big win for them came against Boise State, who they defeated 87-77 on Wednesday night at Thomas and Mack.
San Diego State are beating teams the old fashioned way, through suffocating defense. Right now, they rank #4 in the Nation in points allowed, with just under 60 points a game. Perhaps their best defensive player is Skylar Spencer, who had 6 rebounds a game and is averaging almost 2 blocks a game. In a January 19th game against Fresno State, Spencer had 11 rebounds and 4 blocks. On Tuesday night, against a much improved Nevada team, Spencer showed again why he is one of the most dominating defensive talents in the conference by grabbing 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in a 57-54 win in Reno.
It's not just that Spencer is the lone reason why the Aztecs are dominating the conference right now.
There are many variables which makes this team click. Their offense do makes plays as well. Jeremy Hemsley is one guy that can makes things happen. His game is a mix of unbelievable scoring prowess, but also makes his other teammates better. Like one night, he'll score between 18-20 points a game, then the next night let his scoring average go down just to make sure his other guys get the ball, which makes guys like Trey Kell, Winston Shepherd and Zylan Cheatham have really productive games.
CBS Sports Jerry Palm, who has followed the Mountain West quite closely, told "Idaho Sports Talk" with Jeff Caves and Mike Prater on Thursday why he thinks this conference will pretty much get one bid.
"It's pretty much has to do with non-conference performance throughout the league. Nobody really got the big wins," Palm said. I mean, Boise State beat Oregon, which is a really big win, San Diego state beat Cal, which a pretty good win. Really other than that, well, UNLV actually had some pretty decent non conference wins, but they haven't been able to string together a good season yet, but there's plenty of time left. The problem is, there's not enough resume building wins. Unless you haven't beaten Boise State or San Diego State you haven't really done much."
Another team in the mix for a tournament bid is the Boise State Broncos. Many expected this team to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but they have struggled against ranked teams, including two losses against the Arizona Wildcats. It also didn't help that they lost to Michigan State, and a really bad loss to Montana to start the year. However, they have so much talent on their team that it could carry them to a possible at-large bid. With guys like James Webb, Mikey Thompson, Nick Duncan, Chandler Hutchison, Anthony Drmic and Paris Austin have been able to do is spread the offense out. Plus the way they have been able to use their bench has been nothing short of genius.
Their big win against Oregon in December was a huge morale boost for the team, and when they went on a 11 game winning streak, people started to wonder, "Is this the real power in the Mountain West?" However, losses to San Diego State and UNLV have really hurt the Broncos chances at grabbing an NCAA Tournament bid. Their best chance at making a run to the dance is to win out, and winning the Mountain West Tournament.
Perhaps the most intriguing team in this conference is UNLV. Just a few weeks ago, this team was pretty much left for dead. The team was not responding to the way Coach Dave Rice was running this basketball team. Howoever, after Rice was fired on January 10th, this team has pretty much morphed into a brand new basketball team. Since that point, the Rebels have won 4 of 5, and are right back into the thick of things in Mountain West competition. They have a dominant defensive center in Stephen Zimmerman, who is avergaing 10.5 points a game, 9.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per contest. On Wednesday night against Boise State, Zimmerman had 18 points and 8 rebounds against the Broncos. Mixed in with the unselfish play of Patrick McCaw, UNLV is not the team they were just 2 short weeks ago.
So, who ultimately gets into the NCAA Tournament?
You would think, that if a team like San Diego State wins the Mountain West tourney, then it's a one bid league. But if say, a UNLV or Boise State wins it, then ultimately they become the bid team, and San Diego State becomes an at large team. As Palm stated on the Caves and Prater show, there's 6 weeks of basketball to be played, and so many angles and storylines could be created between now and conference tournaments.
In the words of Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber, "So you're telling me there's a chance?"
Absolutely there is.