Mountain West Conference - Top 4 Teams Critiqued
by Trevor Whenham - 01/18/2008
You probably didn't notice unless you were playing pretty close attention last year, but the Mountain West Conference played some pretty solid basketball. Leading the way were the Running Rebels of UNLV who returned to part of their past glory as they won two games in the tournament. BYU joined them in the dance, and covered and nearly won against a tough Xavier team that almost beat Ohio State. Air Force missed the NCAA Tournament due to a late season collapse, but made up for it by making a run to the semifinals of the NIT. San Diego State was good enough to make the NIT and win a game as well. That's not bad for a conference that gets little attention and even less respect.
If you're surprised by the strength of the conference last year then you are really going to be shocked by what they are doing while flying under the radar this year. Seven of the nine teams in the conference have a record of .625 or better. That's a better ratio than the Big East, the Big Ten and the SEC from among the major conferences. The same teams are basically strong from last season, but they are joined so far by improved TCU and Utah squads and first-year coach Steve Alford had led a remarkable turnaround at New Mexico. The teams have a respectable combined non-conference record of 73-40. At this point it certainly seems likely that the conference will be able to match its two tournament berths from last year, and three is a huge longshot, but it isn't totally out of the question if everything falls into place perfectly down the stretch.
If you aren't familiar with the conference it is definitely worth a look. Here's a quick primer on the top four teams to get you started. Chances are very good that the conference champion will come from among this group.
New Mexico (14-4, 12-4-1 ATS) - The ATS record makes it clear that this team is much better than the public expected based on the 15-17 record they limped to last year. They haven't played a particularly tough schedule, but one win stands out as defining of their character. They hosted Bobby Knight and Texas Tech, and the pressure of hosting the high-profile coach was amplified by the fact that Knight is coach Alford's long time mentor. The Lobos weren't bothered. They were favored by five, but they rolled to an incredibly easy and dominant 15 point win. They have struggled at the start of conference play, dropping two of three, and they will likely fall much closer to earth as the season goes on and the opponents get tougher in conference, but this is a very solid team that will only get better as Alford implements his system and recruits his own players. The future is bright in the Pit.
UNLV (13-4, 9-4-1 ATS) - My editor is a die-hard UNLV alum, so if I said something mean you would never know because it would disappear. Luckily, I have very little bad to say about this team. Their three non-conference losses were all acceptable in that they came against superior teams and, with the exception of Louisville, they were all close. They stumbled in their second conference game, losing at Air Force when they should have won fairly easily. While that concerns me a bit, what I love about this team is how they responded. Instead of getting down about the lackluster performance, they came out three days later and absolutely crushed BYU, 70-41, when only favored by two. They have bounced back well from each of their losses. Their biggest asset is coach Lon Kruger. He's a spectacular coach, and he has shown just how good he is by getting off to this start after losing his son Kevin, the incredible leader of last year's team.
San Diego St. (13-4, 8-6 ATS) - The Aztecs challenged themselves with a tough non-conference schedule. Though they lost their three toughest games - Arizona, St. Mary's and California - they prepared themselves well to finish strong down the stretch. The best part of watching this team has been seeing the emergence of Lorenzo Wade. He was a transfer from Louisville who played well last year, but has really grown into the role of offensive leader for the team in his junior season. A six-point loss to Northern Colorado when they were favored by 16.5 earlier this month was scary, but they bounced back in fine form by going into the Pit and stealing one from New Mexico. They aren't a consistent shooting team, and at times this year their field goal shooting has been pitiful. If they can get more consistent from the field, and they have shown signs of doing just that, then they could be a force come conference tournament time.
BYU (12-5, 5-7-1 ATS) - Though the Cougars have a decent record, their ATS mark shows that they have been somewhat disappointing compared to public expectations. The highlight of the year was a win over Louisville in Las Vegas. That's tempered by some big missed opportunities - they faltered late to blow a cover against North Carolina, gave away a late lead against Michigan State, had a disastrous trip to Wake Forest, and suffered the blowout at the hands of UNLV that we discussed earlier. Senior center Trent Plaisted is extremely good, but the team relies on him heavily, and they struggle when opponents can contain him. Developing more depth will be the key to success as the season goes on.