It doesn't have the name recognition of conferences like the Big Ten or Big East, and it doesn't have recent deep tourney runs like some mid-majors have. But the Mountain West is going to have five teams in the NCAA Tournament - maybe more, if someone unexpected here makes a run - and was the third-best conference in the country per Ken Pomeroy's numbers. There's some quality squads playing in Las Vegas this week, with a Kendal Williams-led New Mexico squad and an elite rebounding team in Colorado State. Here's a look at what will quietly be one of the best conference tourneys Champ Week has to offer.
What, who, when
The Mountain West Tourney, March 12-16, Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas.
It's pretty straightforward for a league with nine teams: there's an 8-9 play-in game, and then a standard quarters-semis-final setup. Here's how play unfolds:
Tuesday, March 12
5 p.m.: No. 8 Wyoming vs. No. 9 Nevada
Wednesday, March 13 (all games on CBS Sports Network)
12 p.m.: No. 3 UNLV vs. No. 6 Air Force
2:30 p.m.: No. 2 Colorado State vs. No. 7 Fresno State
6:30 p.m.: No. 1 New Mexico vs. Wyoming/Nevada
9 p.m.: No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 5 Boise State
Friday, March 15 (all games on CBS Sports Network)
Semifinals, 6 p.m., 8:30 p.m.,
Saturday, March 16 (on CBS)
3 p.m.: Finals
New Mexico: They're ranked No. 15 in the country, and they won the conference by a couple of games, going 13-3 in Mountain West play. Kendall Williams leads the way offensively, scoring 14.0 points per game and 5.0 assists, but it's the Lobos' defense -- 88.8 points per 100 possessions, the No. 19 figure in the country -- that makes New Mexico elite. That's thanks to the inside presence of big men Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow.
Colorado State: It's pretty hard to argue there's a team in the country better at rebounding than the Rams. They grab 42 percent of their misses, the second-best figure in the country, and 86.9 percent of the opposing team's misses, good for best in the country. Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson averages 9.7 boards per game, while Pierce Hornung -- just 6'5 -- is huge on the offensive glass, grabbing an unbelievable 4.4 offensive rebounds per game. They're not the most efficient shooting team in the world, but they get a crazy amount of of second chances, and that wins games.
UNLV: The Rebels entered the year ranked in the top 20 with UCLA transfer Mike Moser the presumptive featured guy. He got injured in December and has seen his role drop off, while freshman big man Anthony Bennett averages 15.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game with the ability to step back and nail a three, shooting 37 percent from deep. These aren't the Runnin' Rebels that dominated offensively. Their strength is on the defensive side of the ball, where they're 11th in the nation at recording blocks, thanks to Bennet and backup Khem Birch. They beat Colorado State and New Mexico at Thomas & Mack Center, which is hosting this tournament.
Air Force: Led by the league's top scorer in Michael Lyons (18.3 points per game), the sixth-seeded Falcons have knocked off UNLV once and took them to overtime the other, beaten San Diego State and ended their season with a 89-88 win over New Mexico. Maybe they're a top team, or maybe it's just tough to win in Colorado Springs, where the Falcons have the added benefit of an arena more than 1 mile above sea level. They won't have that benefit at Las Vegas, which is not just a more down-to-earth setting, but also home for their first-round opponent.
Who will probably be dancing anyway
Before bid thieves, most analysts feature five teams from the MWC making the tournament -- third-most in the country, behind the Big Ten and Big East. We can look at those teams in two categories: teams that would likely make the NCAA Tournament even if they won, and those that need some help.
In regardless: New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State
Need some help: San Diego State, Boise State
The Aztecs find themselves likely on the right side of the bubble, but Boise State finds itself in the "First Four" portion of many bracketologists' projections. That makes the first-round matchup between the two the closest thing to a win-and-in scenario we're likely to see in Las Vegas. It could amount to a de facto play-in game for the tournament if there are a lot of bid thieves in other tournaments.
Players to watch
Kendall Williams, New Mexico: The 6'4 point guard triggers the Lobos' offense, averaging 5.0 assists per game, but he can also score a little bit, dropping 46 points (!!) in a 91-82 win at Colorado State that went a long way toward sealing up the No. 1 seed in the conference for New Mexico.
Colton Iverson, Colorado State: Iverson's rebounding numbers speak for themselves, but the former Minnesota player also scored 14.6 points per game on nearly 60 percent shooting. Having played three years for the Gophers, this is his only chance to make an impact in Fort Collins.
Derrick Marks, Boise State: The Broncos live and die by the three and, although the 6'3 Chicago native isn't the shooter -- hat's Anthony Drmic -- he does shoot 42.6 percent from three, averaging 16.4 points per game and 3.9 assists.