This year has been the best for the Mountain West conference in their short 11 year existence. The league is pretty much guaranteed three spots to the Big Dance, but a fourth is not out of the question. The top teams this year were BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State, and UNLV with everyone else far behind. BYU, New Mexico, and UNLV have all spent time in the top 25 with San Diego State occasionally receiving votes.
New Mexico and BYU have been the most consistent out of the contenders with each boasting two separate ten game winning streaks this season. UNLV and San Diego State have been no slouches but have lost a few head scratches. Such as UNLV getting sweep by Utah -- who just happen to be their first found opponent -- and San Diego State losing to Wyoming.
The tournament is in Las Vegas and played on the home court of UNLV and that automatically makes them top contender. The Rebels have been the best tournament team in MWC history with six finals appearances and three titles. It just so happens that all three of their titles and five of six finals appearances have been on their home court.
For the first time ever the Mountain West has the opportunity to land four teams in the Big Dance. A statement that the conference has not just arrived as a football conference, but also as a top notch basketball conference. New Mexico, BYU and UNLV are locks to get in, with San Diego State in on most tournament projections, but are still in that bubble territory. If a team other than BYU, New Mexico or UNLV wins the tournament, there is a strong chance that the MWC will have four teams in the NCAA tournament.
Names You Should Know
Jimmer Fredette, BYU: The hot shooting guard can take over any game by taking opponents of the dribble with his quickness or using his deep range shoot where he happens to shoot 47 percent from behind the arc. He has made coaches all year pick their poison on defense with a zone or man to man. The only thing to slow down Fredette this year was illness, he has suffered mono and most recently recovered from a stomach virus.
Jonathan Tavernari, BYU: The Brazilian power forward is their sixth man that can provide a big spark for the Cougars. Tavernari is a good player but is hit or miss player all season where he has split the amount of double digit scoring games as single scoring games. His biggest asset is his energy that he brings to the team, but while he is the sixth man he plays starter minutes with no little or no let down when he is in the game.
Darington Hobson, New Mexico: An all around stud who scores 16 a game, averages nearly ten boards a game, and just under five assists. Hobson is the man for the Lobos and shows up every game and even more so for the big games. His rebounding asset to the team is just as big as his scoring and leads the Lobos who are a top 40 rebounding team. Hobson also was named conference player of the year.
Roman Martinez, New Mexico: The loan senior on the team plays step for step with is teammate Hobson as he is second behind him in scoring and rebounding. Martinez is a key deep threat for the Lobos and shoots 42 percent from three point range. Martinez is a defensive presence as well with almost two steals per game and typically defends the opposing teams best player.
Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State: He leads the entire Mountain West Conference in rebounding at as a freshman at 9.6 boards per and is especially good at offensive boards, which gives the Aztecs extra shots. Leonard also leads the team in scoring at 12.6 points, and should be up for Freshman of the year.
DJ Gay, San Diego State: The Aztecs lack a true threat from beyond the arc, but if DJ can turn it on and knock down some threes, SDSU will be hard to beat. He also needs to dish out the ball to get others involved and limit the turnovers.
Oscar Bellfield, UNLV: The easy way out is to point out guard Tre'Von Willis and forward Chace Stanback, the two leaders of the team. However, lets dig a little deeper and point to two players that could truly dictate how far this team advances in March. Oscar Bellfied is a sophomore point guard led the Mountain West in assist/turnover ratio, while putting up just under 10 points a game. UNLV has struggled when they've allowed other teams to get overly physical with them, thus disrupting their offense. If the Rebels are going to stay in their normal rhythm, Bellfield will need to keep the offense flowing.
Derrick Jasper, UNLV: The Rebels were rolling along fairly smoothly when Derrick Jasper inuried his MCL on a knee that already had micro-fracture surgery. The junior guard hasn't played since January and the Rebels will need to work him back into a rotation that has played fairly well over the last two weeks. Jasper doesn't lead the team in any particular category, but he is a do-everything guy who handles much of the grunt-work. If he can bounce back from the knee injury, the Rebels could go far.
New Mexico: Steve Alford has done a great job to guide the Lobos to a top ten regular season finish with a 28-3 record. The Lobos have played a very tough schedule and are 7-0 against teams that were ranked in the top 25 as well going 6-2 against the RPI top 50. Their three losses came during the only rough stretch for the Lobos which came against Oral Roberts, San Diego State, and UNLV. The Lobos have been good but they do tend to play to the level of competition and there have been many times they have been struggling against really bad teams for at least a half. Advantages that the Lobos have are their rebounding which allows them second and third chance shots plus they have the ability to score a lot of points with an uptempo style of play. If a team is able to limit the possessions and keep the score to a lower pace then the Lobos could be in trouble.
BYU: The Cougars arguably have the best player in the league with Jimmer Fredette who is a scoring beast, and had he been healthy for the most recent game against New Mexico they would have been conference champs. BYU is a deep team that has multiple secondary scorers to assist Fredette. Role players that should step up for BYU are Jonathan Tavernari, freshman Tyler Haws, and Jackson Emery. Emery second on the team in scoring and a lock down defensive specialist. One other thing that could propel them to the title is the emergence of Michael Lloyd Jr. who stepped up in scoring when Jimmer Fredette was out with his stomach virus.
San Diego State: The Aztecs can win the tournament because of their three very athletic forwards in Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, and Kawhi Leonard. Those three make San Diego State the best rebounding team in the Mountain West plus they can rack up a lot of blocks. They can get the ball inside and score in the paint at will which is an advantage the Aztecs must use. DJ Gay has come on strong down the stretch with the three ball and the team has improved from the charity stripe down the stretch. The Aztecs have beaten Colorado State six straight times and match-up well with likely semi-final opponent New Mexico having beaten them once already this season by double digits, giving them the needed confidence to reach the finals.
UNLV: The Rebels have to be one of the favorites to win the Mountain West tournament for two reasons: they're a solid basketball team, and the game is being played on their home court. They split against the other top three teams in the conference, with all three wins coming by double digits. UNLV has a lot of depth on their roster, rolling 11 deep when healthy. If they can avoid getting bullied around, UNLV has as good a chance as anybody to win this tournament, but they have struggled when the other team gets physical inside and forces the Rebels out of their normal rhythm. If they can turn the game into a track meet they'll likely win the whole tourney. Coincidentally enough, the Rebels get to face the one conference opponent they didn't beat this year, the six seed Runnin' Utes of Utah, in the first round of the tournament.
Expect the favorites to advance to the semis which is where there will be some good hoops action taking place. There have been only two teams fifth or below to beat a top four team, so do not expect any lower seed to advance. The expected matchup of BYU vs. UNLV in round two will be intense since neither school likes each other and there is a history between the teams when they play in the conference tournament. Also, UNLV has all ready beaten the Cougars in Vegas once this season. The Rebels should be cautious since they do play the Utes who swept the Rebels, but do not expect a third loss to the Utes by UNLV.
If New Mexico gets to go against San Diego State in the semis that game will be intense. The last time the two played it went in overtime with the Lobos pulling it out by two. The Aztecs go a bit deeper in their rotation, but lack the player who can really take over a game, where as the Lobos have that type of player in Darrington Hobson
Predicting who will win or even advance to the finals is very difficult since each of the top four have a legit shot to win this thing. San Diego State is the weakest of the three, because they have had some questionable losses. UNLV has the home court and has a 13-3 record, BYU has beaten the other three favorites, and New Mexico is riding a 13 game winning streak.
The outcome of the tournament will come between UNLV against New Mexico with the Lobos taking the regular and post season crown. The home court will be huge for the Rebels, but New Mexico has been the most consistent team and they play well in big games.
Opening Round Wednesday March 10th
Quarterfinals Thursday Thursday March 11th
Semifinals Friday March 12th
Championship Saturday March 13th
#4 San Diego State vs. #3 UNLV 7PM ET (Versus)
For more about the MWC check out Mountain West Connection