Tournament Implications Will Barely Register When San Diego State and New Mexico Fight For MW TitlePosted by Bennet Hayes on March 7th, 2014
With Selection Sunday a mere nine days away, analysts across the country will spend the next week-and-a-half weighing in on the relative merits of a slew of bubble teams that, if we are being honest, could pass for mediocre far more capably than they could elite. Someone out there will be outraged at the thought of an 11-loss team with defeats to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Portland and Pacific being excluded from the Big Dance (BYU). Another pundit will fail to comprehend an NCAA Tournament that doesn’t include a team that spent much of February in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and still possesses a losing conference record (Oklahoma State). And Dick Vitale, quite surely, will find no possible scenario in which Florida State could miss the Tournament – after all, they had to play Duke in Cameron! Bubble opinions are already flying left and right, and hey, why not – they are an unequivocally fun element of this whole March Madness thing college basketball has going on. But beyond the microscope that discerns who is and isn’t in that upper echelon of average, there is still meaningful basketball being played that has absolutely nothing to do with an invite to March Madness. Regular season conference titles count, folks, and on Saturday night, New Mexico and San Diego State, both 15-2 in the Mountain West, will compete for one of those championships.
Wednesday night, San Diego State put the final touches on the setup for this de facto Mountain West championship game by pulling away late from UNLV in a 73-64 win at the Thomas & Mack Center. The tie score with five minutes to play meant there was no extension of the Aztecs’ mind-bending winning streak when leading with five to play (115 wins and counting…), but the Mountain West’s premier closers once again dominated the waning moments of a tight contest. Completing the season sweep of the Rebels now leaves Steve Fisher’s club one redemptive win away from earning its third regular season title in the last four years, but unlike the 2011 and 2012 crowns, they would be sharing this one with no one else.
Unlike the Aztecs, which were picked to finished fourth in the league in the preseason, New Mexico was supposed to be in this spot all along. The Lobos received all but one first-place vote in the preseason poll and returned the conference player of the year in Kendall Williams, so despite trailing the Aztecs in the standings for much of 2014, Craig Neal’s team may well feel like this crown was theirs to lose all along. The Lobos had no trouble dispatching Air Force on Wednesday to hold up their end of the bargain, but if they hope to realize dreams of a third consecutive Mountain West title, a conquest of frenzied Viejas Arena is necessary – a feat that only #3 Arizona has accomplished this season.
College basketball is a sport defined by its postseason. It is a reality that dictates that the ultimate determination of any team will inevitably originate from the number of games they wind up winning in the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t sizable accomplishments to be earned along the way. Casual college basketball fan Joe may know that New Mexico was upset in the first round (I refuse to acknowledge the First Four!) by Harvard a year ago and be ignorant to the Lobos sweep of conference titles, but that doesn’t mean the fans down in Albuquerque don’t cherish the new banners hanging in The Pit. Back in early February, when a Lobos’ Tournament bid was far from sealed, one of the first things Neal did after a win over Wyoming was inquire about the results of other action around the Mountain West. A coach doing a bit of scoreboard-watching (even postgame) might register as bizarre and unproductive to myopic bubble watchers, but first and foremost, Neal has his team playing for a MW title. On that evening, a late collapse by the home team in Boise kept SDSU perfect and the Lobos a game back in the loss column. There’s no separation on the standings page anymore, however, as Neal’s team has earned the right to play for the title they have so desperately sought.
On Saturday night, the marathon will be reduced to a sprint. All that remains from a grueling, 18-game stretch of basketball will be 40 minutes. And while this prize fight will take place more than a week into March and just eight days from the unveiling of the NCAA Tournament field, bracket implications will be quite far from the minds at Viejas this weekend. Why, you ask? Because on Saturday, a Mountain West Championship is up for grabs between the conference’s two greatest powers.