Last year San Diego State shared the Mountain West title with BYU, got a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champion UConn. After losing almost everyone from that team, it looked like Steve Fisher had a big rebuilding project ahead of him. Instead the Aztecs are off and rolling again. Last night’s win over Wyoming moved them to 4-0 in the conference and they’re ranked #12 nationally.
Last year’s team could muscle you up front, while the 2012 version is more backcourt-oriented. Chase Tapley, the one holdover in the starting lineup, averages 17 ppg and is adept shooting both inside and outside the arc. A pair of sophomores join him, including Xavier Thomas at the point and Jamaal Franklin, a 6’5” guard who’s ability to crash the glass from the wings creates matchup problems for smaller guards.
San Diego State needs consistency up front. Garrett Green, a 6’11” senior, could rebound a little bit more. If that happens Deshawn Stephens and Tim Shelton are fine in a supporting role. But one of this group needs to step up and be tough on the glass if the Aztecs are going to again move past just being a pretty good Mountain West team. Green is the most likely candidate to do that.
The Mountain West has lost BYU to independent status, but there’s still four other teams playing well enough to merit checking in on. That list starts with UNLV.
UNLV is 18-3, their only league loss is by a basket to San Diego State, and they’ve got all the weapons needed to keep a big year going. Forwards Chace Stanback and Mike Moser are the keys. Moser is a beast, averaging a 14/11 line, while Stanback kicks in a 15/5 each night. The backcourt is ably run by senior Oscar Bellfield, while Anthony Marshall is a versatile talent, who scores and rebounds and dishes. The one problem Lon Kruger has is that there’s no true three-point threat, and the depth behind Stanback and Moser is lacking.
Steve Alford’s program at New Mexico is a consistent contender, and while the Lobos are 1-2 in MWC play, both losses were the two teams discussed above, and the overall record is 15-4. New Mexico’s looking to get back into the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus behind the able work of forward Drew Gordon, with his 13/11 per game average. Kendall Williams is a good quarterback running the offense, while 6’7” sophomore Tony Snell shoots the ball well enough to make defenses pay for collapsing around Gordon. The talent level is a little thin to think about winning a conference championship, but Gordon is good enough to push this team back into the Dance.
Wyoming has already beaten New Mexico, along with 13-5 Colorado State. Even with the loss last night, the Cowboys are 16-4 overall and hoping to ride their way into Mach behind a backcourt of Francisco Cruz and Luke Martinez, each of whom average 13 ppg. What concerns me about Wyoming is that this is another team without a real threat from downtown, and while Leonard Washington is a nice player at forward, and Adam Waddell a double-digit scorer on the frontline, the Cowboys aren’t going to win games by outmuscling people. Over the course of the long season, the guess here is that Wyoming slips behind New Mexico in the fight for third, which could be tantamount to a fight for an NCAA bid.
I have my doubts about Colorado State, but they are 2-1 in the league, so we’ll keep them in this conversation. They were beaten decisively by Wyoming and have yet to play UNLV, San Diego State or New Mexico. The Rams are very undersized, with no one running taller than 6’6” in the frontcourt, and the backcourt lacking any athletic board crashers. It’s no knock on guards Wes Eikmeier or Dorian Green, who combine for 30 a night, but they aren’t going to be nearly enough to keep this going as the schedule stiffens.
Overall, I would still consider UNLV to be the best team in the conference. Their loss to San Diego State was on the road and by a 69-67 final, so there’s every reason to think the Rebs can return the favor when the rematch takes place on February 11. Both will get top-6 seeding in the NCAA Tournament and I look for New Mexico to make it as well, barely scraping in and perhaps getting ticketed for the First Four.