The Mountain West is lurking in the national rankings, with three teams that have a recent history of NCAA Tournament presence, all sitting in the Top 20. Today let’s take a closer look at UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico and see what we might expect between now and March.
UNLV (#20): The Runnin’ Rebels are keyed by junior guard Anthony Marshall. He scores, to the tune of 11 ppg, he rebounds and he passes, averaging five per game in both categories. And he does it with efficiency, hitting nearly 50 percent from the floor and behind the arc. He’s got a great frontcourt partner, in 6’8” freshman Anthony Bennett, who’s knocking down 20 points/8 rebounds a night. But can the Rebs fill in the pieces around them?
If Mike Moser is healthy, the answer is yes. The junior forward is averaging an 11/8, but he’s also got dislocated elbow that will keep him out at least a month, and if the worst-case reports have any validity, he could miss the entire season. Without Moser, UNLV is a borderline team for the NCAA Tournament, whereas if they get him back by the end of January, they can compete with the best teams in this conference and have hope of making noise in March.
Noise in March is something UNLV hasn’t made in a while, with three straight first-round exits on their resume. Two other possible players who could make a difference in that regard are freshman Katin Reinhardt and sophomore Byrce Dejean on the perimeter. Unless at least one of them steps up, I don’t see the Rebs climbing any higher than their current national standing.
San Diego State (#18): No player in this league is better than swingman Jamaal Franklin, who’s scoring 19 ppg, while averaging 10 rebounds and three assists. No team in this league has better three-point shooting, with both Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames hitting better than 40 percent from trey range. This trio alone makes San Diego State a lock for a fourth straight NCAA appearance.
It’s the frontcourt that decides whether they can be more and its two seniors who carry the load in James Rahon and DeShawn Stephens. The problem is that Rahon only goes 6’5”, so unless sophomore J.J. O’Brien is ready to step it up, Stephens will have to carry the rebound load. Right now he’s only averaging five per night and that won’t cut it over the long haul. I like this team a lot and the Franklin/Tapley/Thames package makes them a threat to win a one-game shot against most anyone, but the Aztecs need more contributions in the post if they want to be a true national threat.
New Mexico (#17): Steve Alford’s program has been kind of tip-toeing around national prominence, but hasn’t dipped its toe in the water. They’ve made two NCAAs in the last three years, making them the only program in this group we’re looking at today to have missed one. They had a nice win over Long Beach State a year ago, breaking the hearts of the midmajor team I had pegged for the Final Four, but then the Lobos came up just short against Louisville. A couple years ago they had thirty wins, but said goodbye early in the Dance.
This year’s team can be different. The backcourt is exceptionally well-balanced, with Kendall Marshall able to both run the show and score. Tony Snell is a respectable scorer, and at 6’7” offers matchup problems for smaller guards. Demetrius Walker and Chad Adams are lights out behind the arc. But what makes this team stand apart if Alex Kirk, the seven-foot center, who’s averaging a 12/8 per game and gives New Mexico the true post player that their conference rivals lack.
I like all three of these teams, and I think they’ll make the tournament. UNLV looks like another early exit, San Diego State’s got intriguing possibilities, but no one in the Mountain West looks more complete right now than New Mexico and this has a chance to be a Top 16 team by year’s end.