Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview

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The Mountain West Conference did not get the recognition and press that it did a year ago with two first-round picks in Andrew Bogut and Danny Granger and the success of their respective teams, Utah and New Mexico. However, it had a solid race for the title, and also features three teams with hopes of going dancing in the NCAA Tournament. San Diego State won the championship at 13-3, by one game over Air Force and BYU. UNLV was the only other team to finish above .500.

Favorite: San Diego State was one of the favorites to win the title in the preseason, but they struggled in the non-conference portion of the year. They were 5-5 heading into MWC play, but have now won 13 of their last 15 games and are hot. The Aztecs lead the conference in scoring and are a very good shooting team. Brandon Heath is the best player in the conference, and has carried SDSU for several games this year. Inside, Marcus Slaughter is the best big man in the league, averaging a double-double and basically dominating the interior. Mohamed Akubar is also a very good inside player, and has the potential to take over a game. Kyle Spain and John Sharper are two more solid scorers.

Contenders: Air Force is a difficult team to prepare for on short notice, which is why they could be a problem in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They are not a high-scoring group, but have the most-efficient offense and a collection of very good shooters. Moreover, the Falcons have one of the best defenses in the country. Air Force has won six in a row. Four players average in double-figures. Antoine Hood is a good all-around player on the perimeter who can shoot and drive. Matt McCraw and Dan Nwaelele, both very good long-range shooters, join him on the wing. Jacob Burtschi is the main man up front. He plays good defense and is a solid scorer and rebounder. BYU is the exact opposite of Air Force. They are a high-scoring group that also allows lots of points. However, they have won six in a row and 10 of their last 11. The hot play of late has put the Cougars on the bubble. Trent Plaisted is a very good inside player, while Keena Young combines with him to give BYU a solid frontcourt tandem. In the backcourt, Brock Reichner is an outstanding three-point shooter; Jimmy Balderson is a quality all-around performer; and Rashaun Broadus gives the Cougars a good point guard.

Sleeper: Even after losing do-everything forward Danny Granger, New Mexico has remained competitive--mainly at home, though. The Lobos are 15-2 at home, but only 2-10 away from home. Unfortunately for them, the MWC Tournament is not played in New Mexico. However, they played Air Force and BYU tight on the road and also beat the Falcons at home. Mark Walters is a very good guard that can do nearly everything on the floor, while David Chiotti is a solid inside player. Tony Danridge is a decent guard for the Lobos.

Prediction: There are three teams still fighting for consideration to the NCAA Tournament should they lose in the MWC Tourney. San Diego State won the league, but are no sure bet to get an at-large bid. BYU and Air Force need to get to the finals to have a chance. In the title game, I'm going with San Diego State and Air Force. One will get there using their explosive offense (SDSU), while the other will be carried by their stout defense (AFA). Once there, I think that Air Force's inability to play well on the road will cost them. The Aztecs have one of the top trios in the country in Heath, Slaughter, and Akubar--something that the Falcons can't compete with. They simply don't have the athleticism or the inside play to keep up with SDSU. In the end, San Diego State is going to get the automatic bid, while Air Force will be left sweating until Selection Sunday.

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