LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 11: Fans hold up a poster of Mike Moser #43 of the UNLV Rebels during the team's game against the San Diego State Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center Feb.11, 2012, in Las Vegas, Nev. UNLV won 65-63. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Mountain West Tournament tips off in Las Vegas on Thursday. The conference may be top-heavy, but its four best teams give it "best in the West" status.
What, Who, When
The best conference in the West (of that there is little doubt, right?) will determine its conference tournament champion at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, from March 8-10.
The eight-team conference follows a standard eight-team bracket, with all eight teams playing quarterfinal matchups on Thursday, followed by the semifinals on Friday and the finals, on NBC Sports, on Saturday afternoon.
Thursday: No. 1 San Diego State vs. No. 8 Boise State, No. 4 Colorado State vs. No. 5 TCU, No. 3 UNLV vs. No. 6 Wyoming, No. 2 New Mexico vs. No. 7 Air Force.
Who The Numbers Like
New Mexico. Ken Pomeroy's projections give them a 38.7 percent chance of winning the tournament ($), slightly better than UNLV (33.2 percent). The No. 1 seed Aztecs, however, get just an 11.2 percent chance. Steve Alford's 24-6 Lobos rank 14th in the country, ahead of likely high NCAA tournament seeds like Baylor, Duke, Marquette and Michigan. They turn the ball over too much at times, but they shoot well, and they prevent you from doing the same. They avenged a five-point home loss to San Diego State by winning by 10 on the road, and they split with UNLV as well. Their biggest problem seems to be random glitches. Of their six losses, four came against New Mexico State, dreadful Santa Clara, Colorado State and TCU. Still, they are 8-4 versus the Pomeroy Top 100 and are the potential favorites heading into the weekend.
Who The Eyeballs Like
New Mexico. Neither of the other primary favorites -- San Diego State or UNLV -- have played remarkably well in recent weeks. The Aztecs lost three in a row to UNLV (forgivable), New Mexico (forgivable) and Air Force (not at all) in mid-February and needed overtime to get past both Wyoming and TCU since then. Meanwhile, UNLV has lost four of their last eight. The Rebels have been simply dreadful away from home (they have lost four in a row and needed overtime to take out Boise State and Air Force before that) … though it obviously bears mentioning that the MWC Tournament is played at their home arena. Still, give me the Lobos, winners of 22 of their last 26. Granted, they lost to UNLV by 17 at Thomas & Mack in January, and granted, they have ALSO lost their last two road games. You're not betting any money on these picks, right?
Colorado State. When the bottom half of your conference is this week, you are pretty much forced to pick a team in the upper half … and the other three are in no way dark horses. The Rams have managed to hover around the NCAA Tournament bubble despite just an 8-6 conference record, primarily on the strength of a strangely high RPI (21st). They have followed the "win what you're supposed to win, pull a couple of upsets, and don't lose any stupid games" formula to near-perfection, with only a loss at RPI lightweight Boise State spoiling the resume. (That loss at TCU doesn't look very good, either.) Their defense is simply dreadful, but they have one thing going for them: momentum. They have won four of five, taking out Wyoming, New Mexico and UNLV in the last two and a half weeks. They hit 3-pointers better than almost anybody in the country, and while it is difficult to win three games in three days relying on your jumper, it isn't impossible.
Best Possible Title Game
San Diego State vs. UNLV. These two teams played two exciting, two-point games in the regular season, with UNLV winning, 65-63, in Las Vegas and San Diego State winning, 69-67, in San Diego. New Mexico might -- might -- be the best overall team in the conference, but these two teams might create the best game.
Who Might/Will Get In Anyway
UNLV. The 25-7 Rebels are one of three MWC teams safely in the Field of 68. If they can take advantage of their home court and win three games this weekend, they could squeeze out a four-seed. Their non-conference win over North Carolina was the definition of a "marquee win," and most of their losses (at Wichita State, at Wisconsin, at San Diego State, at New Mexico) are excusable, even if they are a little shakier on the road than I would prefer.
San Diego State. Pomeroy's numbers don't like them, and they have certainly not played their best ball of late, but Steve Fischer's 24-6 Aztecs still have a very good chance at a 5-seed when the brackets are announced on Selection Sunday.
New Mexico. For all the reasons I stated above. They are not without their flaws (those November losses to New Mexico State and Santa Clara may be ancient history, but they are going to hurt the Lobos' seed), and their non-conference slate left something to be desired (two best non-conference wins: St. Louis and … a rematch win at New Mexico State) but they are well-rounded and, with just six losses, safe.
Colorado State. Chris Dobbertean gave them a 12-seed earlier this week, and while I personally do not understand the CSU love -- their strong RPI comes mostly from the fact that they did not play many truly awful non-conference cupcakes, settling instead for lowfat cupcakes like UT-San Antonio and SMU -- but if they knock off San Diego State in the semifinals (assuming they get past a TCU team in the quarterfinals that gave them some serious grief this season), they are probably in.
Players To Watch
Mike Moser, UNLV. The 6-foot-8 UCLA transfer is important for two different reasons: he's been the Rebels best overall player in 2011-12, and he was half-terrible over the past few weeks. For the season, Moser was both a lovely inside-outside scoring threat and a ferocious rebounder (sixth in the country in Defensive Rebound Rate) and dunk artist, averaging a double-double with 14.0 points and 10.7 rebounds. But in four games from Feb. 18-29, Moser averaged just 6.5 points (on 24 percent shooting) and 6.5 rebounds, with 12 turnovers thrown in. Against Colorado State on Feb. 29, he fouled out with five points on 1-for-10 shooting. In the regular season finale against Wyoming, however, he began to right the ship: 17 points on 5-for-5 shooting (and 5-for-7 from the line) with 12 rebounds, three assists and just two turnovers. If that Moser shows up, UNLV is probably the overall tournament favorite.
Chase Tapley, San Diego State. The Aztecs somehow rank 249th in the country in 3-point percentage despite the fact that Tapley is deadly from long range; he has made 64 3-balls on the year at a 42-percent clip, and when he is on, SDSU has no real weaknesses (other than the fact that they don't force many turnovers). There will be pressure on him to make those bombs, however, because if he doesn't, nobody will. (Okay, that isn't entirely true -- Jamaal Franklin is a streak shooter as well, but he probably takes a few too many 3-pointers, having made only 30 percent of them this year.)
Drew Gordon, New Mexico. Gordon was the Lobos' own double-double guy, averaging 13.2 points and 11 boards per contest. Unlike the 210-pound Moser, however, the 242-pound Gordon is more of an inside-inside guy. He ranks fourth in the country in defensive rebound rate and attempted just one 3-pointer all season. New Mexico has three primary scorers -- Gordon and guards Kendall Williams and Tony Snell (you could also throw in backup guard Demetrius Walker, who averages seven points in just 17 minutes per game) -- and shares the wealth beautifully, but Gordon is by far the primary inside presence. He will need to come up big against Moser in the potential semifinal battle with the Rebels.
Dorian Green, Colorado State. The best player in CSU's two big recent wins over UNLV and New Mexico, Green is both streaky and sturdy. He hit 43 percent of his 109 3-pointers in the regular season, he rarely turns the ball over, and he both gets to the line and makes his free throws. He is also hot. Teammate (and leading scorer) Wes Eikmeier cooled off in recent weeks (he has shot just 34 percent since scoring a combined 56 points against TCU and Boise State three weeks ago), but Green has averaged 15.2 points on 51 percent shooting in the Rams' five-game hot streak.
Hank Thorns, TCU. The Horned Frogs gave quarterfinal opponent Colorado State all it could handle in the regular season, falling in double overtime in Fort Collins and winning by four in Fort Worth, and Thorns, one of only two Division I basketball players named Hank (along with SE Missouri State's Hank Harris), was TCU's best player in both games. In 75 combined minutes, he scored 36 points on 11-for-24 shooting and dished 11 assists. The Virginia Tech transfer from, of all places, Las Vegas, could lead TCU to an upset that finishes Colorado State's tourney hopes.