Commentary

MWC could snag up to four NCAA bids

Originally Published: December 23, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Tre'Von WillisAP Photo/Ron LewisTre'Von Willis is one of the leaders of a balanced UNLV team that has lost just once this season.

Favorite: BYU
This was a tough decision between BYU and UNLV, but I stick with my preseason prediction that the Cougars will win the league title. Granted, they haven't had the tougher nonconference slate -- the Runnin' Rebels have. But the Cougs are two-time defending MWC champs. If the title is on the line late in the season, I'd rather have the ball in the hands of Jimmer Fredette, who has been there before and can handle the pressure. The Cougars' only loss through Tuesday is at Utah State -- a rivalry loss on the Aggies' home court. I'm not sweating that one bit.

[+] EnlargeDarington Hobson
Robert Benson/US PresswireDarington Hobson has averaged 16.9 points and 8.1 rebounds for the surprising Lobos.

Most surprising team: New Mexico
Notice that I don't have the Lobos as the favorite to win the league title. UNM is not only the surprise team in the MWC but also easily one of the top two surprise teams in the country behind only Syracuse. No one expected the Lobos to be ranked, much less to skyrocket to No. 12 in the Associated Press poll and be undefeated through Dec. 22. But this team is still young overall and hasn't experienced the difficulties of winning conference road games. I still see the Lobos competing with BYU and UNLV for the league title but either tying or falling short. New Mexico has scorers in Darington Hobson, Roman Martinez and Phillip McDonald, has defended well in late-game situations and has handled adversity. We'll see whether that happens during league play.

Most disappointing team: Utah
The Utes were expected to be a team in transition, but they've struggled more in nonconference play than I expected (5-6 as of Dec. 22). Losing to Oklahoma in overtime at home is no problem. But Utah has been hard to figure. The 5-seed in last season's NCAA tournament beat a pair of disappointing teams from the Big Ten (Illinois and Michigan) but also has dropped home games to Idaho, Seattle and Illinois State.

Mystery team: San Diego State
The Aztecs have the talent and pieces to win the league. They don't necessarily have a bad loss yet, losing at Saint Mary's, at Pacific and at Arizona State. Although the Aztecs may not have the best at-large profile, they are the type of team that easily could make this a four-team race and push the selection committee to difficult decisions.

Best player: Roman Martinez, New Mexico
The senior forward has been one of the main reasons the Lobos are undefeated and ranked so high. Martinez has come up big in significant games. He scored 26 points and made 8 of 9 shots (all 3s) in the road win at San Diego. Martinez scored 22 and made 4 of 7 treys in the win over Texas A&M in Houston. He had a double-double in the comeback win over Creighton. Teammate Hobson has been great as well, but Martinez is my early pick for MWC player of the year.

Top performance: Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State
The freshman forward had quite a night against Cal State Fullerton. Leonard had 18 boards (10 on the offensive glass), scored 23 points and was 9-of-17 from the field. He also had five assists and two steals in the 82-68 victory over the Titans. Leonard should win rookie of the year honors in the MWC.

Strangest score: Wyoming losing at home to South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits have turned out to be a better team than projected, but the 16-point home-opening loss to South Dakota State was still a bit jarring for those who follow the MWC. The league is extremely balanced from top to bottom but can't afford bad losses at home for the overall power rating of the league.

What you might not have realized: The Mountain West has wins over Texas A&M, Louisville, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona (twice) and Cal. On this list, all but Arizona were projected in the preseason to be in the NCAA tournament.

Reason to brag: UNLV finished a sweep of a home-and-home series with Louisville. I'm not sure that was the plan when Louisville's Rick Pitino signed up for that series.

Reason to worry: The league is so strong, and its teams could beat each other up because of how competitive it is from top to bottom. The best way for the league to get three or four NCAA tournament bids is to create some separation from the top four and the bottom five.

Who's going dancing: BYU, UNLV and New Mexico all have the profiles, the look and the talent to make the NCAA tournament. San Diego State is the X factor here. The Aztecs still could win the league outright and certainly have the moxie to win the MWC tournament. So a four-bid league isn't out of the question, but three seems more realistic.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com