Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview

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The Mountain West had an excellent season. They finished ranked #8 in the RPI, and have four teams in the Top 54 of the RPI. The MWC is in line to get at least three bids to the NCAA Tournament. BYU won ten of their last eleven games to win the league by one game over UNLV, who finished 12-4. Air Force lost their final three games, allowing San Diego State to sneak in and grab the #3 seed for the conference tournament. The semi-finals should be very entertaining to watch.

Favorites: BYU won the regular-season title, despite starting the season 5-4 overall, and going 3-2 through the first five games of league play. The Cougars are the best shooting and passing team in the conference, and are also very efficient on the offensive end. Forward Keena Young has developed into a terrific player at the forward position, and had a four-game stretch late in the season when he averaged over 25 points per game. Trent Plaisted is one of the best post players in the league. Jimmy Balderson and Lee Cummard are both good shooters on the wing, and Austin Ainge can distribute the ball very well. UNLV is the host for the conference tournament, and the Runnin’ Rebels have four in a row and 11 of their last 13. They have the best perimeter group in the conference, led by the athletic Wendell White. He can score in a variety of ways, but tailed off towards the end of the year. Wink Adams can really fill it up on the wing, and Kevin Kruger is a very good shooter and passer. Big man Joel Anthony is a shot-blocker extraordinaire down low.

Contenders: Air Force was looking like a legit Top-4 seed candidate in January. However, they are only 6-6 since starting the Mountain West campaign 4-0. The Falcons, as mentioned before, have lost three in a row heading into the league tournament. They are not a deep team, with only six guys averaging double-figure minutes, but they have four seniors in the starting lineup and are experienced. Dan Nwaelele is a terrific long-range shooter, and he has the ability to create match-up problems Jacob Burtschi is a very good all-around player, and Matt McCraw can light it up from the perimeter. If AFA is hitting their shots, they are tough to beat. San Diego State came on strong towards the end of the season, winning eight of their last ten to get the #3 seed. Brandon Heath is arguably the best player in the conference. He has the ability to do everything on the court, from scoring to hitting free throws and everything in between. Up front, former Florida transfer Mohamed Abukar and Jerome Habel form a very good duo. Abukar can create mismatches with his size and athleticism. Louisville transfer Lorrenzo Wade provides athleticism and scoring on the wing. Richie Williams is an excellent long-range shooter.

Sleeper: Wyoming could be a potential sleeper in the MWC Tournament. Their first-round opponent, Air Force, has never won a conference tourney game, and the Cowboys lost by only two earlier in the season. Moreover, Wyoming swept San Diego State and owns a victory over UNLV. The Cowboys have one of the most underrated backcourt duos in the country in Brad Jones and Brandon Ewing, who combine for 37.4 points per game. Ewing can get points in a variety of ways, while Jones is a great rebounder for his size as well as one of the best passers in the conference. James Spencer is a good long-range shooter. Utah and their inside-outside combo of guard Johnnie Bryant and 7-1 center Luke Nevill could mean trouble for a higher-seed, as well.

Prediction: This has the potential to be one of the most wide-open conference tournaments in the country. Four teams are capable of winning it all, and there are a few other teams that have shown the ability to knock off the top teams on a given night. On one side of the bracket, I see BYU getting to the finals because Air Force is simply not playing very good right now. The other side features SDSU and UNLV. The Rebels, because they are playing at home, get the nod. In the finals, UNLV has better guards than BYU, but the Cougars have the size advantage. I think that Joel Anthony will be able to neutralize Trent Plaisted, and the home-court edge will give UNLV the automatic bid.

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