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The Mountain West Conference came into the season as something of a forgotten conference: no team seemed overly impressive, preseason favorite BYU had lost a lot from last season, and not many people expected much from the MWC. However, that turned out to be false, as three teams are in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid, including BYU, who bounced back from some mid-season struggles to win 13 of its last 14 games and the regular-season title. UNLV was two games back at 12-4, with New Mexico right behind the Rebels at 11-5.
Favorite: The hottest team in the league, BYU is playing its best basketball of the season and has plenty of momentum heading into the conference tournament. As mentioned above, the Cougars are 13-1 since a 29-point loss at UNLV in late January. Trent Plaisted dominates on the inside; he is one of the best post players in the conference. Lee Cummard is one of the better all-around players you’ve never heard of – he can do-it-all. Jonathan Tavernari is a very solid scorer and rebounder, while Sam Burgess can really shoot it from deep.
Contenders: UNLV looked like it would be the favorite in the conference after dominating BYU and New Mexico back in the early part of the conference, but the Rebels lost three of their final nine games, finishing in second. Wink Adams and Curtis Terry are experienced players on the perimeter. Both can do a variety of things and are the catalysts. Joe Darger and Rene Rougeau are solid forwards, while Corey Bailey rounds out the lineup. New Mexico came on strong towards the end of the season to make a run at an at-large bid, as the Lobos won eight of their final nine games, with the lone loss coming to BYU in overtime. J.R. Giddens is one of the best players in the conference. The former Kansas transfer can shoot and is extremely athletic. Chad Toppert is very effective from behind the arc, while Daniel Faris anchors the frontcourt. Jamaal Smith is instant offense.
Sleeper: Although the top three in the league are obvious, they all have flaws and are vulnerable – Utah can exploit that. The Utes have lost five of six, but they have a lot of close losses and have the talent to beat anybody in the conference. Luke Nevill is one of the better big men in the country, while Johnnie Bryant is a very solid scorer in the backcourt. Tyler Kepkay is a decent point guard who can distribute. They are an outstanding rebounding team and are efficient from the field.
Prediction: The Mountain West Conference tournament should be an exciting one. BYU is obviously the favorite, but the Cougars can be had, especially since the tourney is taking place in Las Vegas. That immediately gives the edge to a UNLV team that is anxious to get back to the NCAA Tournament and repeat its Sweet Sixteen appearance from last season. The Rebels have lost just two games at home all season – to Louisville and Arizona. They won’t lose again. The Rebels have the perimeter gunners and experience to get the auto-bid.
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