College Basketball Handicapping: MWC Could Get Three Bids
by Robert Ferringo - 01/21/2009
While everyone is busy piddling about whether the ACC or the Big East is the best conference in the country people are missing out one of the most competitive, unpredictable, and potentially profitable conference races in the nation. And that would be taking place in the Mountain West.
But this year The Mountain has been quietly putting together it's best season since 2004. That year the MWC actually finished as the No. 6 conference in the country - three spots ahead of the Pac-10. This season the MWC is ranked as the No. 7 conference in the country, ahead of respected mid-major leagues the Atlantic 10 and the Missouri Valley.
The Mountain currently has six teams - out of nine total - ranked in the Top 90 in the country and three teams in the Top 40. Conference USA also has six Top 90 programs, but they also have 14 teams in their league. The Valley has just four (of 10) and the A-10 has just five (of 12) teams in the Top 90. The top three teams in the MWC are currently BYU (No. 21), Utah (26) and San Diego State (40).
From a betting perspective, the MWC has followed form with most of the major conferences in that it has been a pretty chalk, square league. Since league play began in earnest on Saturday, Jan. 3 the favorites have gone 11-6 against the spread in conference play. Following form, home teams have been solid at 10-7 ATS. But if you disregard Air Force's pathetic showing in conference home teams are a superb 10-4 ATS.
While favorites have been dominating, the surprise is the pure parity that's existed and the number of teams that have been favored. Normally there is one or two Big Dogs in any mid-major conference and the rest of the clubs are fighting for scraps and upsets. Not the case here. Right now the five top teams in the league each have just one loss. And in sixth place at 2-2 is UNLV - a 14-4 team with road wins over Louisville, UTEP and Nevada and a victory over Arizona on its resume.
Betting these leagues can always be tricky precisely because there is not one heavy favorite to lean on. Utah is the most balanced and cohesive unit in the league. San Diego State has the best athletes. BYU shoots like the team from "Pleasantville". New Mexico has the best home court edge and TCU, at 3-1, is the sleeper. And there are the veteran Rebels, and Colorado State and Wyoming teams that can knock off anyone on a given night. So the key to continuing our success in this league is all about being able to understand who is overvalued, who is undervalued, and who is ready to separate themselves over the next seven weeks.
Here is a thumbnail look at each team and their prospects moving forward:
Utah - The Utes are the most balanced team and may have the most overall experience. They brought back all five starters from last year's team and lean on dominating post man Luke Nevill. San Diego State lit up Utah, but they get a rematch on their home turf, where the Utes are nearly impossible to beat. After a tricky game at UNLV on Saturday they have a key home game against BYU.
BYU - These crazed Mormons shoot and shoot and shoot some more. They had No. 1 Wake Forest on the ropes and are also seemingly invincible at home. However, I think this team has already peaked and that they are going to sag a bit in the second half of the year. Call it a hunch. (And it's predicated on them not remaining the No. 6 shooting team in the country.)
San Diego State - I love this team, and if they make the NCAA Tournament they will beat whomever they play in Round 1. That's a promise. But the problem is that they are going to be shaky on the road (they already lost at Wyoming) and I don't think they will be consistent enough to win the league. That said, they have not been able to stay healthy, as Lorrenzo Wade is back on the shelf with a bum shoulder. If they ever get their full squad playing together for an extended period, watch out.
TCU - The Horned Frogs have come out of nowhere to be a real factor. They have covered five straight games and have taken care of business against the bottom three teams. Foreign players Zvonko Buljan and Ed Ruzgas have been stroking it and really have made Jim Christian (formerly of Kent State) a real Coach of the Year candidate. However, while I do think they will continue to earn as a sizeable underdog I don't know how much I trust this team as a favorite. And if they keep winning that's what they'll be.
New Mexico - This team is SDSU Lite. They have athletes and experience at all five positions and are capable of not just winning, but destroying the top tier MWC teams. Just ask BYU, whom they rocked by 19 last Saturday. They are No. 1 in total defense and No. 3 in total offense and are near automatic at home.
UNLV - The Rebels have gotten off to a slow start in league play and are scrambling a bit. I still think they will be a good "play against" team because their name recognition will get them points on the line. But since this is Vegas' team they won't have much value for long. This team isn't getting anything out of its bench and putting too much pressure on the starters. However, they always have the ace in the hole of having the conference tournament on their home court.
Colorado State - Some academic and injury issues have sidelined their leading scorer, Marcus Walker, and two other key contributors. But when this team gets healthy they will be dangerous. The key is that the top teams are going to be so overvalued by the books that they will all end up laying too many points to this club. However, without a full deck they can't compete.
Wyoming - The Cowboys have one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league and they have really been playing solid basketball. They have played a bunch of cupcakes in the nonconference, so their record is a bit inflated. But because they are getting solid guards and because they are tough at home this is a team that will jump up and bite some unsuspecting visitors. Just ask SDSU.
Air Force - This team stinks. They can't score and they are completely outclassed. Remember, this is their third coach in the past several years and is simply not the same program. But be wary: they are 0-5 ATS in league play. That won't continue for long. They shoot too many three-pointers to be consistent, but they also make enough of them to be a thorn in the side of chalk bettors.
I think that the Mountain West Conference deserves to be a three-bid league, assuming that neither Utah, San Diego State nor BYU goes into a tailspin. And even if another team wins the conference tourney I still think two of those clubs should get in. But as more and more attention and praise gets laid upon the bloated Big East and the ostentatious ACC these teams might get squeezed out.
For more information on Ferringo's college basketball picks, check out his Insider's Page here.