Four Questions Previewing the Mountain West TournamentPosted by Andrew Murawa & Bennet Hayes on March 12th, 2014
RTC Mountain West correspondent Andrew Murawa and national columnist Bennet Hayes will both be in Las Vegas this week for coverage of the Mountain West Tournament. San Diego State and New Mexico appear to be on a crash course for a third and final meeting in the tournament final, but there are plenty of questions worth asking before play kicks off on Wednesday afternoon. Murawa and Hayes weigh in below on four of the most pressing.
Which is the most dangerous team outside of New Mexico and San Diego State?
AM: UNLV. Well, I jumped the gun and got my answers in first, so while Bennet gets stuck having to make a case for someone besides UNLV, I get to tell you why the Runnin’ Rebels – you know, the team playing the Mountain West tournament on its own home floor – has the best chance to win this thing. And honestly, even if they weren’t playing at the Thomas & Mack, the Rebels would still be my pick, even if they’re still something of a longshot compared to the two favorites. They’ve been inconsistent all year, and that isn’t going to change, but in Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith, they’ve got offensive firepower, and in Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, they’ve got the hard-working defensive grinders in place. This team should have been better than it was this year and the conference tournament would be a good place for Dave Rice’s crew to turn things around. For what it’s worth, UNLV has won the MW tournament three times at the Thomas & Mack, but the most recent is six years ago; maybe they’re due?
BH: Boise State. In all likelihood, to win the Mountain West title this week, you will have to beat both New Mexico and San Diego State. No team was able to accomplish that feat in the regular season, but if there’s a team in Vegas capable of doing it, it’s the Broncos. They split with New Mexico in the regular season (winning in Boise) and lost two games to the Aztecs by a total of five points, so don’t let their 9-9 conference record fool you – this team can compete with anyone in the MW. Of course, they’ve proven capable of losing to almost anyone in the conference as well (see: Saturday against Air Force), but Las Vegas offers Boise a chance at a clean slate. Four wins in Vegas would go a long ways towards erasing the disappointment of a season that began with high hopes.
What team has the most to gain in Vegas this week?
BH: Nevada. While Boise State and UNLV could both offer their fan bases apologies for disappointing seasons with a redemptive MW Tournament title, I think Nevada has the most to gain this week. In the eyes of many, they are a #3 seed in name only. That’s just what happens when you go 5-8 in the non-conference with losses to Morehead State, Nebraska-Omaha and Cal-State Bakersfield (and it could have been worse: four of those five wins came either in overtime or by two or fewer points). Can the Pack validate their winning conference season with at least a win or two in Vegas? Boise State will likely be up first for Nevada (beware Ryan Watkins), and then a semifinal matchup with New Mexico becomes a likely proposition. Winning the entire Tournament feels like a reach for the Wolfpack, but a nice showing in Vegas would set David Carter up well for life without Deonte Burton next season.
AM: Fresno State. San Diego State and New Mexico are going to be in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens here. Everybody else needs to win or else miss the NCAA Tournament. So, I’m going off the radar a bit and calling out Fresno State here for a different reason. The Bulldogs presently sit at 16-15 on the season. The last time the Bulldogs finished the season at .500 or better was 2006-07 with Steve Cleveland in his second year as the head coach. A .500 record is very much within reach and it would be an important stepping stone for this program. The road to that milestone begins today with an opening round matchup with Air Force. Win that game and they’re two games above .500 with at most two potential losses waiting down the road (a loss in the MW Tournament if that comes and a loss in whichever postseason tournament they’re invited to), guaranteeing themselves a .500 record. It may not seem like much, but for a program in transition, it can be a confidence-booster.
Who is the player to watch?
AM: Deonte Burton, Nevada. Guys like Cameron Bairstow and Xavier Thames register more heavily on the national radar, but Deonte Burton is likely the hands-down choice as the most exciting player in the conference. Things like this vicious facial on Boise State’s Ryan Watkins. Or this ridiculously athletic alley-oop finish on the fast break against UNLV. Or this packing of Kendall Williams last season. Or this alley-oop finish off an inbounds pass last year against UNLV. Or any of problem a dozen or more insane plays over the past four seasons in Reno. Hopefully, we’re in for at least one of those in Burton’s final weekend of Mountain West Conference play.
BH: Deville Smith, UNLV. After being slighted for MW POY, Cameron Bairstow pops to mind here, but I think the New Mexico big man delivers effort on too consistent a basis already to produce one of those “f-you” three-game tour-de-forces. I’ll go instead with UNLV’s Deville Smith. Smith is nowhere near the best player in this Tournament, but he may be the most important. Dave Rice has said all year that UNLV goes as Smith does, and the oft-erratic Mississippi State transfer must provide steady minutes at the point if UNLV is to make a run this week. Even in the wake of a disappointing season, Rebel fans have come to trust in the production supplied by Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, but the backcourt has been far less dependable in Vegas. Signs of life from Bryce Dejean-Jones would also be a significant boon to Rebel chances, but Smith is the guy. If he can put together an All-Tournament Team kind of week, don’t sleep on the Rebels to find the back-door into the Big Dance.
Aside from a SDSU/UNM rematch, what matchup is most worth looking forward to?
BH: Fresno State-New Mexico. Boise State-New Mexico is an intriguing one for the semis on the bottom half of the bracket, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Fresno State has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the last half of the season, going 8-2 in their last ten games. The backcourt of Cezar Guerrero and Tyler Johnson is quick and explosive, and league FOY Paul Watson evokes memories of another recent Fresno wing that shares the same forename. The Bulldog’s only meeting with New Mexico came on January 18th (UNM won by 11), but this is a different, more confident Fresno team. If they were to beat Air Force and get a crack at New Mexico, the Bulldogs should be pretty loose from playing the day before. Beating the Lobos would definitely qualify as a stunning upset, but if New Mexico sleepwalks into their first game in Vegas, Fresno State has the offensive firepower to make their MW Tournament stay a brief one.
AM: San Diego State-UNLV. Sure, everyone is looking forward to the potential rubber match between the Lobos and the Aztecs, but there are plenty of other matchups to look forward to prior to that game. But for me, the renewal of the San Diego State/UNLV rivalry takes the cake. Yeah, the Rebels haven’t been all that competitive with the Aztecs this season, but there is always some extra heat when those two get together. And with the Rebels having their backs against the wall and with the Rebels having lost their last four matchups with the Aztecs in this conference tournament, maybe this is the time that UNLV rises up and gives their best effort of the season. As New Mexico showed last week, the Aztecs may be a little soft in the middle, so if Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith can get their guards to cooperate, maybe they can take advantage of the Aztecs in the paint en route to a surprise semifinal win.