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2014 Mountain West Tournament Preview: San Diego State, New Mexico clear favorites in Las Vegas

Mar 12, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT

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After enjoying a very good season in which five teams reached the NCAA tournament, the Mountain West took a step back in 2013-14. Only two teams enter this week as locks to reach the field of 68, with regular season champion San Diego State and runner-up New Mexico being those squads. The Aztecs and Lobos have been the conference’s best all season long, with Steve Fisher’s team also picking up wins over Creighton and Kansas in non-conference play. With high-level stars and role players who understand what’s required of them, these are the two favorites in Las Vegas.

However there are teams capable of springing an upset along the way. Three-seed Nevada is led by explosive senior guard Deonte Burton, and the midseason addition of forward A.J. West made the Wolf Pack more formidable that some expected back in October. UNLV may get to play this event on its home floor but while talented the Runnin’ Rebels are no guarantee to take advantage of the familiar surroundings.

The plight of UNLV and six-seed Boise State is part of the appeal of conference tournaments, with teams who’ve failed to meet preseason expectations having one last chance to “catch lightning in a bottle” and make good on the early hype. Wyoming, Colorado State, Fresno State, Utah State and Air Force all have the ability to at the very least scare someone (if not win), and San Jose State is more than likely 40 minutes away from the end of a tough debut season in the conference.

There may not be the same number of tournament locks as there have been in prior editions of this event, but the combination of fan support (New Mexico and SDSU travel very well to this event), talented players and Las Vegas should make for an interesting Mountain West tournament.

The Bracket

When: March 12-15

Where: Las Vegas, Nev. (Thomas & Mack Center)

Final: March 15, 6:00 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: San Diego State

The Aztecs aren’t a great offensive team by most measurements, as they ranked last in the Mountain West in both three-point and free throw percentage during conference play. But this is a group that knows where its bread is buttered on that end of the floor. Good luck keeping SDSU out of the lane because they simply refuse to settle for too many perimeter shots, instead using dribble penetration (Thames, J.J. O’Brien and Winston Shepard II lead the way here) to get into the lane. And when shots are missed, SDSU is capable of making teams play via the second shot as they led the Mountain West in offensive rebounding percentage.

As for the defense, San Diego State’s length is one reason why this group led the conference in efficiency (94.5), turnover percentage (20.6%) and three-point percentage defense (30.6%). They challenge shots and get out in passing lanes, with the latter spurring fast break opportunities for some very good athletes capable of finishing above the rim. And an important developments of late has been the improved play of their role players, with Dwayne Polee II, Aqeel Quinn and Matt Shrigley all earning more minutes. The offense won’t set the world ablaze, but San Diego State’s good enough defensively to more than make up for that.

And if they lose? New Mexico

Led by the experienced triumvirate of Bairstow (20.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Williams (16.4, 5.0 apg) and Kirk (13.7, 8.7 rpg), UNM was the Mountain West’s most efficient offense in conference play. They take good care of the basketball, and with Bairstow and Kirk getting most of the shots inside the Lobos made 52.5% of their two-pointers in league play. And it also helps to have role players who understand what’s needed from them, with Hugh Greenwood doing what ever needs to be done on the floor and Deshawn Delaney, Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas and Cullen Neal also being valuable contributors. The combination of experience and skill makes this group 1A to SDSU’s 1 in regards to who the favorites are this week.

Other Contenders:

  • UNLV: There’s no denying that Dave Rice’s team has plenty of individual talent, with Birch winning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season and Smith being one of the league’s best rebounders. But the lack of a steady hand at the point has been one reason for UNLV’s maddening inconsistency, and there are times where the basketball IQ displayed leaves viewers scratching their heads. That talent is tough to overlook, and if the proverbial light bulb turns on (and just as importantly, stays on) the Runnin’ Rebels may have a run left in them.
  • Nevada: Simply put, Deonte Burton is one of the most electrifying players in college basketball. Period. Averaging 20.0 points and 4.5 assists per game, Burton’s led the way for a team that has four players averaging double digits. Fellow guards Jerry Evans Jr. and Michael Perez can also score, with forward Cole Huff averaging 12.3 points per game. If Nevada can hold its own on the glass, they’re capable of making a run.

Sleeper: Fresno State

Rodney Terry’s Bulldogs have won eight of their last ten games, and with Tyler Johnson and Marvelle Harris leading the way for a team with multiple scoring options the Bulldogs are a team to watch in Vegas. If this group, which also includes Mountain West Freshman of the Year Paul Watson and entertaining guard Cezar Guerrero, defends they can pull off a stunner.

Deeper Sleeper: Boise State

The problem for the Broncos is a simple one: they arrive in Vegas having lost three of their last four games, the most recent being a two-point loss at Air Force on Saturday. Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks are the leading offensive options, and forward Ryan Watkins has been one of the league’s best big men. They’ll beat San Jose State, which would set up a winnable quarterfinal meeting with Nevada.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Tyler Johnson, Fresno State: Averaging 16.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, Johnson leads the Bulldogs in both scoring and rebounding.
  • Tre’ Coggins, Air Force: After averaging 2.4 points per game as a freshman, Coggins is up to 15.9 points per game as a sophomore.
  • Daniel Bejarano, Colorado State: The league’s best sixth man a season ago, Bejarano’s averaging 16.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.

CBT Prediction: Look for New Mexico to handle San Diego State’s 1-3-1 zone better than they did at Viejas Arena on Saturday night, winning what should be a classic title game.

Best Mountain West Tournament Memory: Nick Jacobson wins the 2004 title for Utah (apologies for the quality of the video)