It's been a banner season for the Mountain West Conference, which figures to see half of its eight teams appear participate in the NCAA Tournament next week. With that being the case, it's only fitting that the two teams that tied for the regular season crown will get the chance to play the final league game of the year.
San Diego State and New Mexico finished tied atop the MWC standings at the end of the regular season with matching 10-4 records. The pair split their regular season meetings, but the Mountain West tiebreaker rules - which compares the two teams' records against those below them in the standings until an advantage is gained - gave the top seed to the Aztecs.
That result almost turned out to be a curse in disguise, as SDSU needed a Jamaal Franklin three-pointer at the buzzer to get buy No. 8 seed Boise State in their tournament opener. The Aztecs had a slightly easier go of it in the semifinals, where they put away a pesky Colorado State squad by a final of 79-69.
New Mexico has looked as formidable as it has at any point the season, rolling past Air Force (79-64) and then erasing an early 17-4 deficit to come back and top third-seeded UNLV 72-67 on the Runnin' Rebels home floor. The win was especially sweet considering the Lobos had lost to Vegas the last seven times the two had met in conference tournament play.
At the center of everything good for New Mexico has been Drew Gordon, who is playing like a man who believes he was snubbed by the folks who voted for the MWC Player of the Year. The senior forward who transferred from UCLA after his sophomore season has averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds in the tournament. He averaged 13.4 and 10.9 during the regular season.
The man who did win the award, San Diego State's Franklin, has been equally impressive, scoring 19 points in back-to-back games while going a combined 5-of-7 from beyond the arc. He's been helped significantly by backcourt mate Chase Tapley, who is averging 18.5 points and five assists during the postseason.
On paper, this is your basic battle of solid backcourt against solid frontcourt, but the strength of both teams in each area is what provides the excitement. Franklin and Tapley are better than any of the guards for New Mexico, but the Aztecs also don't have an answer for Gordon in the paint. Both teams should be able to follow their offensive gameplans and assert their will on that end of the floor, which means the team that cuts down the nets at the end of the night will likely be whichever one hits more open shots. It sounds so simple, but that doesn't change the fact that it's the case.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER WATCH
Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State
The league's regular season Player of the Year is averaging a team-high 19 points in the postseason, and also provided the moment of the tournament with a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer against Boise State in the quarterfinals.
Chase Tapley, San Diego State
Tapley has been at least as brilliant as Franklin through two rounds, averaging 18.5 points and five assists.
Drew Gordon, New Mexico
The unquestioned Lobos star is averaging 17 and 10 and seemed to will his team to victory against UNLV in the semifinals.
Demetrius Walker, New Mexico
The sophomore guard is averaging 15.5 points in the tournament, more than twice his regular season scoring average of 7.3
1) San Diego Aztecs (26-6) vs. 2) New Mexico Lobos (26-6)
Game Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Location: Thomas & Mack Center: Las Vegas, NV
Television: NBC Sports Network
Favorite: New Mexico by 4.5
Previous Meetings: San Diego State won 75-70 at New Mexico on Jan. 18; New Mexico won 77-67 at San Diego State on Feb. 15
How They Got Here:
SAN DIEGO STATE
Quarterfinals: Beat 8) Boise State (65-62)
Semifinals: Beat 4) Colorado State (79-69)
Quarterfinals: Beat 7) Air Force (79-64)
Semifinals: Beat 3) UNLV (72-67)
New Mexico 77, San Diego State 75
This is about as close to a toss-up as you'll see this weekend, but I'll go with the grittier, more physical Lobos to make the big plays in crunch time,