The Mountain West Conference had one of the more exciting championship races this season, with three of the league’s eight teams staying in it to the bitter end. They have one of the more exciting tournaments ahead, as a fourth team has a shot at making it to the NCAA Tournament. Whether this is excitement based on shared mediocrity or that there’s a lot of darkhorses in this field won’t be known until late next Friday night when the NCAA’s first round wraps up. TheSportsNotebook looks back and looks ahead in the Mountain West…
Is it possible for New Mexico to be the most pleasant surprise and the biggest disappointment all in one fell swoop? The Lobos weren’t expected to compete for the conference championship this year, yet ended the season at 10-4 with a share of the title in hand. But they had the outright crown in their grasp, up two games with four to go. An understandable loss at Colorado State was followed by an inexcusable defeat to Air Force and Steve Alford’s team fell back into a tie with San Diego State. The Lobos run an effective two-man game with Kendall Williams being a great floor leader at the point, and Drew Gordon being an excellent post player with a 13 point/11 rebounds per game average. The players are good enough that I have to catch myself from mistaking them with Kendall Marshall at North Carolina and Drew Gooden of the Milwaukee Bucks.
San Diego State lost a ton of talent from last year’s team that got a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, made the Sweet 16 and only lost to eventual national champion UConn in a competitive game. One of the returnees was Chase Tapley, a guard who averaged 15 ppg, but no star shone brighter than Jamaal Franklin, the 6’4” guard who led the league in scoring with 17 a night. Fabulous job by Steve Fischer in getting a piece of another conference title with the Aztecs.
I like Lon Kruger, who coaches at UNLV, but at least so far, this team won’t go down as one of his masterpieces. UNLV has the best balanced team in the league, with Mike Moser down low, Chase Stanback a solid forward who can play inside and out, and a good backcourt with Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall. They’re projected as a #5 seed by ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi (compared to #7 for both New Mexico and San Diego State), but blew the conference title with some underachieving performances in league play.
One team that didn’t underachieve was Colorado State, who put together a solid backcourt led by the prolific Wes Eikmeier and solid supporting piece in Dorian Green, and coupled them with forwards Greg Smith and Pierce Hornung, but neither of the latter stand taller than 6’6”. Nonetheless, the Rams are playing the best basketball in this league right now and have moved up to a projected #12 seed in the NCAA by Lunardi.
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS
Las Vegas is the site of the conference tournament and the way this conference has gone, we have to expect a little bit of chaos. The biggest game of Thursday’s quarterfinals will clearly be Colorado State-TCU. If the Rams lose, they probably play their way out of the tournament. If they win, I won’t go so far as to say they’re in, but they’ll at least have a shot, regardless of what happens against San Diego State. And the way Colorado State is playing, I like them to reach the final. On the opposite side of the bracket, UNLV needs redemption and moves past New Mexico to create a title game between the #3 and #4 seeds. On yesterday’s podcast at Prime Sports Network with Greg DePalma, I picked Colorado State to win this tournament, but after further reflection and thinking about the importance of homecourt advantage, I’m picking Kruger’s Rebels to get it done.
Coach of the Year goes to Fischer. While Tim Miles did a great job at Colorado State, for Fischer to win a championship with losing all the players he did…well, I have to go with him in spite of how much I used to loathe the man when he coached the Fab Five at Michigan in the early 1990s.
Drew Gordon is the Player of the Year. While Franklin was more explosive, he also had a little more help, with Tapley. Gordon was easily the alpha dog on a team that picked up an unexpected piece of the league title.