The conference push in Mountain West basketball started tonight and though the eight-team league is small by today’s standards, the Mountain West has legitimate Top 16 teams nationally at the top, and quality depth in the middle. Here’s an overview of how the landscape looks.
THE BIG THREE
San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico are the teams with recent track records of going to the NCAA Tournament and showing flashes of being more. They sit again as the favorites in the race.
San Diego State: You have to love the Aztecs’ backcourt with Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. They give you a combined 34 points as game, Franklin crashes the glass and Tapley hits the three. Xavier Thames provides more long-range shooting. This alone will make San Diego State a player, but ultimate success rests with senior DeSahwn Stephens and whether he becomes a consistent rebounder up front.
New Mexico: A loss to South Dakota State was disappointing, and the Lobos also fell at St. Louis. But Steve Alford’s team got a win at Cincinnati and in Kendall Williams has a top playmaker to run the show. Williams can also score and 6’7” guard Tony Snell is a big matchup problem. Seven-foot center Alex Kirk is the potential difference maker and if he keeps getting eight or more boards a night, he’ll be tough for someone like San Diego State to match up with.
UNLV: The Rebs are getting forward Mike Moser back from an elbow injury, so whatever we’ve seen them do in December, assume it will get better. And we’ve seen them compete effectively in losses to Oregon and North Carolina and win at Cal. Anthony Marshall is the playmaker, senior leader and best three-point shooter, while freshman sensation Anthony Bennett dominates at the forward spot, with 20 points/9 rebounds per game. Put Moser into this group, and if two-guard Katin Reinhart continues to develop, the Rebels could have something special.
THE BEST CHALLENGERS
Wyoming is undefeated, Colorado State’s enjoyed some recent success and is playing well and Boise State can’t be overlooked, even if they don’t have a blue basketball court to match their football field.
Wyoming: The 13-0 record is still tough to read, because Colorado is the best win. The forward spot is the strength, with Leonard Washington and Larry Nance Jr, the latter being the namesake of a former NBA player who won the first All-Star Weekend slam dunk contest. Derroius Gilmore is a little 5’10 guard that knocks down 12 a game. But he, or someone, needs to distribute more and there’s also more scoring help needed in the backcourt. It’s tough to see the Cowboys being as complete as their three rivals.
Colorado State: A loss to UI-Chicago is a sore spot, but they did blow out Virginia Tech. Pierce Hornung is an excellent player, a 6’5” forward who plays big, at ten rebounds a game. And he can roam the perimeter, knocking down 44 percent from trey range. Dorian Green is a quality senior guard who keeps the offense flowing, and 6’10” senior Colton Iverson scores and rebounds in the low post. Colorado State doesn’t have the reputation of the Big Three, but they have a good shot to break into that group.
Boise State: The mere fact the Broncos beat Creighton is enough to make you take them seriously. They have a trio of guards who can all hit the three-ball in Jeff Eliorriaga, Derrick Marks and Mikey Thompson, and that alone will make them a threat to beat anyone on any given night. Ryan Watkins has to carry the load down low and will determine if they can make an NCAA Tournament run.
BRINGING UP THE REAR
Air Force: None of the losses are bad, in Colorado, Florida, Richmond and Wichita, but they fact the Falcons were blown out by Richmond, who’s in a rebuilding year is a bigger concern. As is the lack of depth. Air Force can run an inside-out game with Michael Lyons, who knocks down 20 a night on the perimeter and Taylor Borkehuis, a 6’10” presence in the low post. But there’s no one else and Borkehuis’ rebounding is questionable.
Nevada: There are losses to Pacific, UC-Davis and UC-Irvine. Let’s just stop there.