Tumultuous would have to be the best word to describe Mountain West basketball this season. The Mountain West has been the best mid-major conference in the country the past 15 years, at times rating even better than some of the "Big Six" leagues. But this season the MWC endured a bizarre campaign that featured mid-season coaching firings and star players quitting, major officiating screw-ups with significant ramifications, and a ton of injuries and suspensions. Pretty much the only thing missing was locusts.
As a result, the Mountain West is in danger of sending just one team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in its history. San Diego State won the regular-season title and seems secure in its berth into The Big Dance. But if a second bid is going to emerge it will have to come from a field that has been nothing but erratic all season.
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The Mountain West Conference Tournament tips off on Wednesday, March 9, and will conclude on Saturday, March 12. The tournament will take place at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Here is Doc's Sports Mountain West Conference Tournament preview and predictions:
The Favorite: San Diego State (+150)
Steve Fisher might be the most underrated coach in all of college basketball. He has built an absolute powerhouse in the Mountain West, and the Aztecs won the outright regular-season title again this year. That is now six of seven seasons that SDSU has won at least a piece of the regular-season crown. However, the Aztecs haven't won the conference tournament since 2011 and have just two titles in the last nine attempts. The Aztecs overwhelm opponents with their length and defensive ferocity. They are No. 1 in the country in field goal defense, No. 7 in 3-point defense, and No. 5 in all of college basketball in points allowed. SDSU has five guys standing 6-8 or taller, and they use a 10-man rotation. The key, as always, is finding scoring punch. And Fisher will be relying on a young crop of starters (two freshmen and a sophomore) to make clutch plays late in games.
The Contender: Fresno State (+300)
I have been smoking the sportsbooks this year betting on Fresno State. They were one of the most undervalued and underrated teams on the West Coast coming into the season and surprised a lot of people with their second-place league finish. Not me. I have called Fresno the most talented team in the Mountain West, and I truly believe they are. The Bulldogs went 13-5 in league play and have won six straight games. They've done so despite a slew of injury issues. And they still aren't fully healthy without leading rebounder Torren Jones and with swingman Paul Watson still recovering from a concussion. But Fresno is peaking at the right time, and guys like Cullen Russo have stepped up in a big way. Fresno's three excellent senior guards, Marvelle Harris, Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis, want nothing more than to play their way into the NCAA Tournament, and they just might have the goods to do so.
The Sleeper: Boise State (+300)
The Broncos have been somewhat of an enigma this season. This team brought back three starters from the group that made the NCAA Tournament last year and added standout senior guard Anthony Drmic back from injury. They entered the year as the clear favorites to win the regular-season title. And things were looking god in mid-January when they were 4-0 in league play and 13-4 overall. But then the wheels kind of came off and Boise stumbled through a 7-7 finish, including an eye-opening loss at San Jose State in the season finale. A deeper look, though, shows that five of their seven league losses were by five points or less or in overtime. So has this team been playing possum, waiting to make their move in this tournament? Or is Boise just not as good as everyone expected?
The Spoiler: UNLV (+850)
The Rebels are always a major X-factor in the Mountain West Tournament because it is played on their home court. Yet despite that edge they haven't won this tournament since 2008 and have made the finals just once in the last five years. It's been an awful season for UNLV, which fired coach Dave Rice midseason and then watched the team struggle through injuries, suspensions and all manner of plague. This is a team that was good enough to beat Indiana (Big Ten champions) and Oregon (Pac-12 champions) early in the season. So there is some talent to work with, especially now that stud freshman Stephen Zimmerman is back. But who is going to be on the court on Wednesday when the tournament starts? And how motivated is this team, really? They have a chance to bust the bottom of the bracket, though, as they have gone 1-3 against Fresno and Boise, with two of the losses in nail-biters.
Early Round Matchup To Watch:
No. 4 New Mexico (-3) vs. No. 5 Nevada (11 p.m., Thursday, March 12)
New Mexico is another Mountain West stalwart that's really endured a miserable season. They have one of the best backcourts in the league with sophomores Elijah Brown and Cullen Neal. But the Lobos are short on experience and depth, and they enter the tournament as losers of four of their last five games. The one win, however, came at the expense of Nevada, yet another team that's suffered at the hands of The Fates this year. Their best player, center A.J. West, quit just eight games into the season. They recovered well. But then leading scorer Marqueze Coleman went down with a severe ankle injury, and Wolfpack coaches have said that there is "zero hope" that he plays this week. Nevada still has four other guys averaging at least 9.8 points per game, and they beat Colorado State without him. But they are kind of rudderless without Coleman and don't know that they'll have enough to win here.
Mountain West Conference Tournament Predictions: The Aztecs are attempting to become just the second Mountain West team in the past decade to sweep both the regular season and conference tournament championship. I think it will be either them or Fresno State this week, and I am actually going to stick with my boys the Bulldogs. Fresno hasn't played its best basketball yet. They have shown that they can win both at home and on the road (they beat UNLV here to start league play) and they've gone toe-to-toe with SDSU in both meetings, winning at home and losing in overtime on the road. After the season the Mountain West has had, nothing would shock me. But I still think that one of these two teams will rise above the fray and take the title.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and he is on an unbelievable run right now, more than doubling his clients' bankrolls in the last six weeks while earning $11,800 in profit! Robert has banked 10 straight winning college basketball regular seasons and his $100-per-Unit bettors have taken home over $40,000 in winnings so far this decade. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing March Madness. Click here to get two days of college basketball picks for free - no hassle and no credit card needed.
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