Better Know a Conference: Mountain West Conference

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

The Mountain West Conference is often one of the best non-Power Six conferences in the country.

A year ago, the Mountain West Conference had one of its best seasons. The conference sent five schools to the 2013 NCAA Tournament (four as a No. 8 seed or better), had the No. 1 overall pick in Anthony Bennett and also had the nation's best conference RPI.

This season, there has been a bit of a drop off, but not by too much. Steve Fisher has turned San Diego State into one of the best teams on the West Coast. New Mexico looks poised for another tournament appearance. UNLV played Arizona harder than anyone was able to in the beginning of the season. Either way, the MWC has started to establish itself as one of the better smaller conferences in the country.

The Best Team: This one is the San Diego State Aztecs, and it isn't even close. San Diego State has just two losses, most recently Tuesday night against Wyoming, and before that in its second game of the season against Arizona. In between, the Aztecs won 20 straight games and peaked at No. 5 in the polls. They are stifling opponents with one of the best defenses in the nation. They allow 56.6 points per game, good for third in the nation. They have the ninth most efficient defense according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings. Senior guard Xavier Thames is one of the best players on both sides of the ball, averaging 18.1 points, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game.

The Contenders: New Mexico sits just a half-game behind San Diego State in the conference standings, and there still is time to jump past the Aztecs in the standings. The Lobos haven't played SDSU yet, but it will be a tough draw. They close out conference play on the road against the Aztecs. New Mexico didn't miss a beat after coach Steve Alford departed for UCLA -- it has one of the best frontcourts in the conference between senior forward Cameron Bairstow and junior center Alex Kirk.

UNLV has been a bit up-and-down in conference play and will need a lot of help to catch up to the top. The Runnin' Rebels suffered four losses in league games so far, including a close defeat to Nevada and an 11-point loss to San Diego State. Then there is the bad loss to Air Force and the recent drubbing by Colorado State. The Runnin' Rebels don't wow anyone offensively, but they have one of the better perimeter defenses in the conference. Opponents shoot 27.6 percent from beyond the arc against UNLV, good for the fourth-best mark in the nation.

The Best Players: It is easy to argue either Thames or Bairstow for bragging rights in the conference. Thames is one of the best all around players in the league and is ninth in the nation in win shares at 4.9. He shoots the ball well from all over the court and is the undisputed leader on the Aztecs.

Bairstow has absolutely exploded this season. As a junior he averaged 9.7 points in 24.1 minutes. This season, he is hitting 56.1 percent of his shots to the tune of 20.2 points while grabbing 7.1 rebounds per game. He leads the conference in field goal percentage and is second in total points scored.

The Best Upcoming Games:

Feb. 12: New Mexico at Boise State
Feb. 22: San Diego State at New Mexico
March 8: New Mexico at San Diego State
March 8: UNLV at Nevada

The Mascots:

Air Force Falcons: A falcon is definitely a cool bird, but considering this is the Air Force Academy they should've gone a bit more grandiose. They don't have to be the bald eagles or anything, but something like a peregrine falcon would be better. Peregrine falcons dive at speeds up to 200 mph, making them the fastest-moving creatures on the planet. Now that is a cool mascot.

Boise State Broncos: People forget that Boise State actually has a mascot that isn't a big clump of blue turf. The Bronco is a great ode to Idaho, which has a large population of wild horses in the southwest portion of the state.

Colorado State Rams: If there was ever a place that should have a bighorn sheep as its mascot, it is fitting it's a school nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Although, with Fort Collins' emergence in the craft beer scene, the Colorado State Cans would be a good fit as well.

Fresno State Bulldogs: The bulldog is a pretty standard mascot. Best part about your school having a bulldog as the mascot: the forever cute photos tweeted out.

Nevada Wolf Pack: Nevada got it right. They aren't just the Nevada Wolves. They are a big mess of wolves. They were the Wolf Pack before Zach Galifianakis expanded his one-man wolf pack in that other gambling town in Nevada.

UNLV Runnin' Rebels: The Rebels' mascot is one of the better in all of college. He is a crazed gun-toting, high-fiving, crowd-surfing son of a gun that goes by the name of Hey Reb. In this day and age of hip mustache competitions, no one beats out Hey Reb.

New Mexico Lobos: Lobo is Spanish for wolf, and New Mexico's mascot entry in Wikipedia is one of the more entertaining ones possible. Specifically, the section on how often the university tried to put a live wolf into the mix is rather entertaining.

For a brief period in the 1920s, a live wolf pup appeared at every football game, but UNM administrators were forced to cease the practice when a child teased the wolf and was subsequently bitten. A live wolf was present on the sidelines of UNM's October 28, 1989 home loss to Wyoming, and reportedly nipped a player who rolled out of bounds.

Nobody tames the wolf.

San Diego State Aztecs: San Diego is close to the border, so having the Aztecs is a fitting name. The school fell under fire in the early 2000s for racial insensitivity over Monty Montezuma, and the students ended up voting on a more historically accurate mascot.

San Jose State Spartans: The Spartans have absolutely nothing to do with anything around San Jose, California or the United States. This is one of the more mundane and boring choices in the Mountain West Conference.

Utah State Aggies: Aggie is a common nickname for many of the agriculture-based schools in states. "Wild Bill," an unofficial mascot that gained fame for his excellent free throw distracting dances, however, should be this school's mascot.

Wyoming Cowboys: If any school should be the cowboys, it is the University of Wyoming. Any other mascot here would just be a travesty.

How have MWC teams fared in the NCAA Tournament?

In recent times, not well at all. But who cares about recent times when you have the 1990 UNLV Runnin' Rebels winning the entire thing?

But really, the MWC hasn't done too well in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, the MWC sent five teams to the NCAAs and not a single one made it past the third round. Only Colorado State and San Diego State even made it to the third round.

Current NBA players from the MWC:

The Mountain West Conference has pretty decent success in the NBA. For as many minor role players that have graduated to the professional ranks, there are some big names in there as well. Here are some of the household names.

- Paul George, Indiana Pacers

George spent two seasons at Fresno State before making the jump into the NBA in 2010. He burst onto the national scene in the 2013 NBA playoffs with a huge series against the Miami Heat.

- Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio

Leonard had the good fortune to be drafted by Gregg Popovich, and as such was able to find his spot in the lineup with the Spurs. The defensive intensity he displayed at San Diego State fit right in with the Spurs' brand of basketball and he has had a consistent role with the team for three years.

- Shawn Marion, Dallas Mavericks

The Matrix got his start at a junior college in Indiana before transferring to UNLV for his final two seasons. Out of all of the MWC players in the NBA, Marion has had the best career so far. He won a NBA Championship in 2011 and is a four-time All-Star.

- JaVale McGee, Denver Nuggets

The old Wolf Pack player is one of the more entertaining players to follow in the NBA, and usually not for the most flattering reasons.

- Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers

Bennett was a surprise No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft after leaving UNLV after his freshman year. Bennett was great in college. Too bad college doesn't translate to the NBA, however, because Bennett is working his way to becoming one of the worst No. 1 picks in history.

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