Mountain West Tournament Diary: Championship SaturdayPosted by AMurawa on March 10th, 2012
Saturday night’s Mountain West Championship game between San Diego State and New Mexico provided plenty of great storylines: the two regular season co-champions meeting in a rubber match; the two-time defending tournament champion Aztecs against a Lobo team that hadn’t won this tournament since 2005, when Ritchie McKay was still the head coach; and the battle between the top two candidates for the conference Player of the Year, the winner, Jamaal Franklin and the jilted, Drew Gordon.
Gordon had made no bones about the fact all week that he felt he deserved the individual honor and that other awards, such as Defensive Player of the Year and Sixth-Man of the Year, should have wound up in Lobo hands, and he played with a chip on his shoulder all weekend, averaging 15.3 points and 10.7 boards in the tournament on his way to the Most Outstanding Player award. But the win on Saturday night was a total team affair. Tony Snell got things off on the right track, scoring the first five points of the game and turning in his third straight double-digit scoring game after slumping through February. Freshman point guard Hugh Greenwood continued his do-whatever-it-takes style and contributed ten boards and a couple threes. And bench players Phillip McDonald, Demetrius Walker, and Cameron Bairstow all made major contributions. McDonald, who has lost minutes this season as Snell and Walker have stepped up, came off the pine and had a three, an assist, a rebound and drew a charge, all in his first couple minutes of action. Bairstow battled on the boards and at one point scored six straight points for the Lobos. And Walker, despite not making a field goal, provided energy and hit clutch free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory.
But more than anything else, this win was about the New Mexico defense. They held San Diego State to 0.86 points per possession (the number was quite a bit lower than that until Chase Tapley went nuts late) and at times in the second half just completely froze the Aztecs out in the paint. Kendall Williams took San Diego State point Xavier Thames completely out of rhythm and Snell helped frustrate James Rahon into an 0-for-8 shooting night. Franklin, meanwhile, was hounded into six-of-14 shooting and six turnovers. And, despite wrapping up their semifinal game late in the evening on Friday night, the Lobos never showed fatigue and kept competing (and hard) right to the final whistle. They were consistently first to loose balls and always scrapping and making multiple attempts at rebounds.
Heading into Selection Sunday, while New Mexico doesn’t have the gaudy signature win that UNLV has, they’ve been consistently the best team in the Mountain West, and they deserve the conference’s highest seed. A five-seed would not be too high for this team (and really, anything less would be too low), especially considering the fact that they are going to have to be shipped somewhere out of the southwest, since the only regional in their neck of the woods is in The Pit, making them ineligible to be slotted there. As for the rest of the league, San Diego State and UNLV are in the mix at the six and seven line, while Colorado State is likely headed for a seed in the 11 range.
My All-Mountain West Tournament Team:
- G: Chase Tapley, Junior, San Diego State (20.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.3 APG)
- G: Tony Snell, Sophomore, New Mexico (13 PPG, 3 RPG, 2 APG)
- G: Jesse Carr, Junior, Colorado State (13.5 PPG, 6 RPG, 5.5 APG)
- F: Jamaal Franklin, Sophomore, San Diego State (18 PPG, 7 RPG)
- C: Drew Gordon, Senior, New Mexico (15.3 PPG, 10.7 RPG)
The official tournament team had UNLV’s Mike Moser (16.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG) in place of Carr, but while Moser is certainly a more dynamic player than Carr, and his game on Thursday against Wyoming may have been the most outstanding single performance of the week, he disappeared for long stretches in the semifinal against New Mexico when his team needed him the most.
Lastly, the Mountain West Tournament is always a good time in a great atmosphere, but I have to admit that the fan bases of BYU and Utah are missed, at least a little. The last couple years, the semifinal night was sold out, but this year there were patches of empty seats way up at the top of the arena behind each basket. It was still a very good crowd (and wow, do the New Mexico fans travel in packs), but maybe just a handful of decibels quieter than in previous years. And, of course, with the conference in flux, on the way towards losing some member institutions and joining up with others from Conference USA, things are changing in the Mountain West. Hopefully this annually great atmosphere doesn’t go the way of other traditions in college athletics, like Kansas-Missouri, Georgetown-Syracuse, and Pitt-West Virginia.