Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview

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The Mountain West Conference was one of the most competitive and exciting in the country. It ended in a three-way tie for the regular-season title, with BYU, Utah and New Mexico all going 12-4 in conference play. San Diego State finished one game back at 11-5, with UNLV going 9-7 and finishing in fifth. Wyoming also had a solid season, going 18-12 and placing sixth in the standings. It is going to be a wide-open tournament with plenty of eyes from around the nation watching.

Favorites: Utah could have wrapped up an outright regular-season title, but the Utes lost two of their final three games after winning their previous eight games. The Utes are a very balanced and efficient offensive team, and a phenomenal defensive rebounding squad. Luke Nevill leads the way down low. He is an NBA prospect at center and can carry Utah. Shaun Green flanks him up front. Shooter Lawrence Borha and double-figure scorer Tyler Kepkay are solid in the backcourt, with Kepkay the team’s sixth man. Carlon Brown can do a little of everything. BYU has been receiving plenty of praise of lovers of tempo-free stats all season long, as the Cougars are one of just a few teams to rank in the top-25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy. They have won nine of their last 10 games heading into the tournament. They have one of the most impressive trios in the country, led by Lee Cummard, who was named an All-American by Jonathan Tavernari is a versatile and multi-dimensional player, while Jimmer Fredette can score and also contribute in a variety of ways.

Contenders: New Mexico turned its season around and won eight of its last nine to forge a tie for the league crown. The Lobos have four double-figure scorers, including all-around stud Tony Dandridge on the wing and three-point shooter extraordinaire Chad Toppert coming off the bench. Daniel Faris is the team’s anchor inside, while Roman Martinez is an inside-outside option. San Diego State lost three of four in early February to fall out of the conference race, but bounced back to win three in a row and finish in second. The forward duo of Kyle Spain and Lorrenzo Wade is one of the best in the conference; they can do a lot of things at both ends. Richie Williams is an underrated point guard. UNLV, the tournament’s host team, has lost five of nine and needs to get a win or two to feel comfortable about an NCAA berth. Wink Adams is one of the conference’s best players and former Memphis transfer Tre’Von Willis can do a variety of things. Rene Rougeau is one of the nation’s best all-around players and a standout defensive player.

Sleeper: Despite a stronghold at the top of the conference, it’s tough to ignore Wyoming – mainly because of its scoring prowess. Four players average at least 14 points per game, led by guard Brandon Ewing, one of the best non-BCS players in the country. Former Wichita State transfer Sean Ogirri can really shoot it, and Afam Muojeke is tough to guard. Tyson Johnson provides good production down low. The Cowboys have won four of their last six games entering the conference tournament.

Prediction: This is going to be one of the most exciting conference tournaments in the country, and also one of the most important for NCAA Tournament purposes. To start with, the quarterfinal match-up between San Diego State and UNLV is basically an at-large elimination game; the Runnin’ Rebels have the edge, though, because they have the homecourt advantage. If New Mexico gets by Wyoming and plays Utah tough, the Lobos could get in as well. The title game will likely be between Utah and BYU, and I think the Cougars have the offensive balance to win the automatic bid.

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