Thursday, March 11
No. 1 New Mexico vs. Wyoming/Air Force winner
No. 4 San Diego State vs. Colorado State
No. 2 BYU vs. No. 7 TCU
No. 3 UNLV vs. No. 6 Utah
The Mountain West Conference Tournament is played in Las Vegas at the Thomas and Mack Center; home court of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. The conference had a banner year with two teams – New Mexico and BYU – ranked among the top-15 in the country. San Diego State and UNLV remain in the running for a NCAA Tournament berth, and those top four seeds are expected to be playing Friday in a much-anticipated semi-final round. The MWC has never had four teams reach the NCAA Tournament in one year, receiving three bids in 2002, 2003 and 2004. The highest NCAA Tournament seed the league has ever received came last year when Utah went to the big dance but lost in opening round action as a No. 5 seed. New Mexico should receive no worse than a No. 4 seed.
After opening the conference season with a pair of losses, New Mexico ran the table the rest of the way with 14-straight victories to win the regular season title and top seed. Historically however, this tournament has been unkind to its top entrant. Only twice in its ten year history has the No. 1 seed won the title. Last year the Lobos finished in a three-way tie for the regular season title only to lose in the opening round as a 10-point favorite to Wyoming. Expect New Mexico to hold nothing back against the Cowboys should they meet in opening round action again.
The most interesting matchup in the quarterfinals is Utah versus UNLV. The Utes beat the Rebels both times this season as underdogs, and the defending MWC Tournament champs will be nearly a double-digit underdog again on Thursday. UNLV led the league in both field goal shooting and field goal defense, and these two teams were the league’s top three-point defenses. UNLV’s Tre’Von Willis finished just ahead of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette for the league scoring title and the Rebels should be determined to upend Utah for another shot at BYU in the semis. Note that the No. 6 seed has beaten the No. 3 seed five straight years.
BYU had the look of the league’s best team until the latter stages of the season when it was upended by New Mexico at home; costing the Cougars a share of the conference title that they won each of the prior three seasons. Still, BYU is really good and led the league in scoring at over 80 ppg with a +15 ppg scoring margin in league play. Jimmer Fredette averaged over 19 ppg in conference play and led the conference in three-point shooting at over 49%. Overall, the team took top honors in three-point FG percentage (41%), free throw shooting (77%), steals and turnover margin. The Cougars were just behind UNLV in field goal defense. BYU has lost to UNLV seven-straight times at the Thomas and Mack with many of those losses by margin, and UNLV will need to beat Utah and likely BYU again if they hope to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
I expect San Diego State to be extremely motivated in its opening round contest against Colorado State – the Aztecs are my first round best bet. MWC Freshman of the Year Kawhi Leonard was the league’s No. 2 rebounder and No. 4 scorer, and the Aztecs feature a stout front line with Billy White, Malcolm Thomas and Leonard. After a solid late season run last year and a two-point loss in the conference championship game, San Diego State was the final cut from the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs finished strong again this season, and after a statement win over Colorado State, I expect them to be rewarded with a NCAA bid regardless of the result against New Mexico in the tournament semifinals.
Tournament Winner: BYU
Darkhorse: San Diego State
Team to Fade: Colorado State
First Round Best Bet: San Diego State