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The Mountain West Conference had a great campaign this season, finishing No. 7 in the RPI and putting two teams in the mix for top-four seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Moreover, it had a fantastic race for first-place, as New Mexico had to go into BYU and knock off the Cougars in the next-to-last game of the season in order to win the MWC outright. The Lobos finished 14-2, with BYU going 13-3. UNLV and San Diego State each went 11-5, with no one else finishing above .500 in the league.
Favorites: Although New Mexico finished in first and beat BYU twice, both the Lobos and Cougars will be considered the front-runners heading into the conference tournament. New Mexico bounced back from a 0-2 start in MWC play to win its last 14 games and win the league. The Lobos are an efficient offensive team, taking care of the ball and getting to the free-throw line. They are also a very good three-point shooting team. Defensively, they dominate the boards and guard the perimeter. Darington Hobson is one of the top all-around players in the country; he is capable of carrying the Lobos in the postseason. Roman Martinez and Philip McDonald are excellent shooter, while Martinez is also a very good rebounder. Dairese Gary is a quick distributor who doesn’t turn it over. BYU looked primed to win the conference, but a nine-game stretch in which the Cougars lost three games eventually did them in. They are one of the most efficient teams in the nation, scoring from both inside and outside the arc and also taking care of the ball. They are an up-tempo group but they dominate the defensive boards and force turnovers. Jimmer Fredette is a legit All-American candidate; he has put up some of the best individual performances in the country this season. Jackson Emery and Tyler Haws are solid scorers who can also do a little of everything else – Emery is a dead-eye shooter who racks up steals. Jonathan Tavernari has slipped this season, but he is still capable. Keep an eye on guard Michael Loyd.
Contenders: UNLV was headed for a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament after beating BYU by 14 on February 6. However, the Runnin’ Rebels then lost three in a row before rebounding to win their last four games. UNLV is solid on both sides of the ball, taking care of the ball and hitting its two-pointers on offense and forcing turnovers and guarding the paint on defense. Guard Tre’Von Willis is a good offensive player who flat-out makes plays. Oscar Bellfield is a very solid distributor, while Chace Stanback is an inside-outside threat. San Diego State needs to make a run in order to get an at-large bid, but the Aztecs do have the personnel to do just that. They have won six of their last seven games heading into the conference tournament, with the lone loss coming at BYU. The Aztecs are primarily a half-court team that crashes the offensive glass and gets the most of its second chances. Defensively, they guard the rim and block shots. They are a balanced offensive group, with forwards Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White all anchoring the offense. Leonard is a double-double threat every night. D.J. Gay is the main option on the perimeter.
Sleeper: With the top four teams in the league in the NCAA hunt, it could be tough for a second tier team to break through and steal the automatic bid. However, don’t count out Colorado State potentially ruining San Diego State’s NCAA Tournament hopes and then pulling another upset. All of their league losses were to the top four teams in the conference, and their trio of guard Dorian Green and forwards Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin is solid.
Prediction: The Mountain West tournament is going to be a fantastic few days in Las Vegas. New Mexico is fighting for a No. 2 seed, while BYU is in the mix for a top-four seed. UNLV wants to solidify a bid, and San Diego State just wants to remain in the hunt for an at-large bid. As much as SDSU needs a semifinal win over New Mexico, it won’t get it. On the other side, UNLV will have the homecourt advantage against BYU, and I think the Runnin’ Rebels will pull the upset over the Cougars. In the title game, New Mexico will be too much with Hobson and his host of comrades. The Lobos win the auto bid.