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Conference Catch-ups: Could the MWC send four dancing?

Jan 7, 2013, 1:00 PM EDT

Dwayne Polee, Steve Fisher AP

Conference play is upon us, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Mountain West Conference Catch-up:

Favorite: San Diego State
We’ve gotten used to this notion but not with the Aztecs up there by themselves. Jamal Franklin has done exactly what’s expected of him (more on him in a bit) and they’ve gotten great shooting from Chase Tapley (15.8 ppg)and improved play from Xavier Thames (10.5 ppg). Though they’ll need to find a reliable post presence — Franklin leads the team in rebounding at the wing spot, with the next-closest being DeShawn Stephens’ 5.2 per — against teams like New Mexico and UNLV, who already have that.

Contenders: UNLV, New Mexico
A lot of those around the game knew UNLV would be here at this point. Mike Moser being injured, at this point, keeps them as a contender, and not the favorite. They’re still getting great production from Anthony Bennett and Anthony Marshall (10.6 ppg, team-leading 5.5 apg). As well as Katin Reinhardt (10.4 ppg). New Mexico made its statement with a comeback win over Davidson, then a win at then-no. 8 Cincinnati. Losing at St. Louis after a horrid first half didn’t help, but this team has been steady otherwise, with the contributions of Kendall Williams (14.9 ppg, 4.7 apg) and Alex Kirk (11.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) has been improved in the paint.

Biggest Surprise: Wyoming
When a team that was expected to finish in the middle of their conference starts the season 13-0, it’s a surprise. Yes, the schedule has been a variable gigantic cupcake, but the Cowboys did collect a home win over Colorado and went on the road and took down Missouri Valley Conference contender Illinois State, within a four-day span. Now they’ve got to legitimize the hype, with games against San Diego State and UNLV, back-to-back in conference play, twice.

Biggest Disappointment: Fresno State
It’s not so much that they were expected to do great things this season, it’s just that I didn’t see the Bulldogs being this bad. They’re currently 6-7, with three of those wins over non-Division I teams, including the epic failure of a 39-30 victory at UC-Riverside. They also beat San Diego….Community College. They do have victories over UCLA-killer Cal Poly and Long Beach State, but this team is capable of so much more.

Best player: Jamal Franklin, San Diego State (17.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.2 apg)
He’s the best player on, for now, the best team. Franklin’s picked right up where he left off last season, pacing the Aztecs in scoring and rebounding while improving his ability to distribute. There are a few other candidates, like UNLV’s Anthony Bennett (more on him later though), New Mexico’s Kendall Williams and Boise State’s Derrick Marks. But for now, it’s still Franklin.

Best freshman: Anthony Bennett, UNLV (19.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
No brainer, right? If he’s not the best overall player, Bennett is definitely the best freshman in the MWC. He’s stepped right into a spot that the Runnin’ Rebels desperately needed production from, in the post, and has done so as consistently as anyone this season. It’s probably his lone season in college, so Dave Rice better get the most out of him.

Three Predictions
-Four conference teams will be dancing in March
Is this so far-fetched? Nope. Everyone expects San Diego State and UNLV and sees New Mexico as having a better-than-average shot at the NCAA Tournament. But I totally see Wyoming making it. The back-to-back wins over Colorado and Illinois State have me believing, as long as they can stave off the loss of Luke Martinez to a broken hand, at least until he returns, if he does. If not, Colorado State could make it in if they get 2-3 upsets in-conference, which would mean a few wins over SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico.

-Wyoming will finish the season with less than five losses
The Cowboys have already won 12 games, but let’s look at their remaining schedule. They’ve obviously got four games against UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State. I still maintain they’ll take at least three of those six games, probably at home. Then home-and-homes with Boise State and Colorado State, which I believe they’ll sweep. The Cowboys will also sweep the remaining conference games, with or without Martinez. If he comes back early, I fully believe Wyoming will could lose three or less. I believe that much in Larry Shyatt.

-Boise State will spoil someone’s MWC Tournament
Derrick Marks (17.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.4 spg, 88.6-percent free throw shooting) is making a heavy case as the sleeper pick for MWC Player of the Year and should be a first team all-conference member when all is said and done. Anthony Drmic (15.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has complimented Marks well and as a team the Broncos are shooting 39.8-percent from three-point range. They’ve already got home wins over Creighton and LSU and they’ll get plenty of film on UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico, enough to know how to beat them. I could totally see a run to the conference tournament championship game in their future if the cards fall right.

Power Rankings  (*-NCAA Tournament team)
1.) San Diego State *
2.) UNLV *
3.) New Mexico *
4.) Wyoming *
5.) Colorado State
6.) Boise State
7.) Nevada
8.) Air Force
9.) Fresno State

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