Commentary

A MWC primer for conference season

Originally Published: January 4, 2011
By Diamond Leung | ESPN.com

The Mountain West Conference is looking strong once again. Undefeated San Diego State and one-loss BYU have been ranked all season, while UNLV has impressed in its nonconference slate.

Those three teams are expected to earn NCAA tournament berths, but the conference season will determine which of them has the best chance to make a deep run.

Before league play begins on Wednesday, here's a rundown:

[+] EnlargeKawhi Leonard
Derrick Tuskan/Icon SMIKawhi Leonard has led SDSU to its best start in school history.

Team to beat: San Diego State

The Aztecs not only lived up to the preseason hype, but they're off to the best start in school history, after finishing nonconference play 15-0 and earning a top-10 national ranking. Five starters returned from a year ago, and they're playing like veterans who continue to improve. Star sophomore Kawhi Leonard is averaging a near double-double per game once again, point guard D.J. Gay's senior leadership has steadied the team and 3-point specialist James Rahon is providing a much-needed shooting threat after becoming eligible following a transfer.

The Aztecs made a statement early by scoring a program-changing win at Gonzaga and have continued to build on that. They played their first five games away from home, while notching solid double-digit victory margins against Saint Mary's, Wichita State and Cal. The success is unprecedented for a program that has never won a NCAA tournament game, and if the Aztecs can win a conference title they'll be in position to end that drought and possibly more.

Player of the year: Jimmer Fredette, BYU

Fredette's senior year has already been memorable, and there's plenty of season left to add to his legacy. He's again one of the most dominating scorers in the nation, averaging 24.1 points per game. He hit the game-winning 3-pointer against Saint Mary's to help the Cougars capture the South Padre Island Invitational Championship, scored 26 points playing in his hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., against Vermont and burned Arizona again this season with a 33-point performance. The 6-foot-2 guard is expected to lead the Cougars back into the NCAA tournament in search of at least a Sweet 16 appearance. Last March, his heroics led to the program to its first tournament win in 17 years.

Early surprise: Colorado State

The Rams are fighting to get into the top half of the league and have surprised with a 10-4 start, which includes wins over Ole Miss and Southern Miss on their way to winning the Cancun Governor's Cup championship. Coach Tim Miles has two scorers who average more than 15 points per game in Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin. The recent loss to Hampton was mystifying, but the Rams still look like a dangerous team and going .500 in the league would guarantee them their most wins in a season since 2003.

[+] EnlargeAndy Ogide
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesAndy Ogide and Colorado State are off to a surprisingly fast start.

The big unknown: New Mexico

The defending regular-season champions should improve over the course of the league schedule. How much they do will decide whether or not the Lobos get back to the NCAA tournament. Drew Gordon's workload and production is expected to increase as he gets acclimated to the team after becoming eligible in December. Five games into his Lobos career, he's already averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench. Kendall Williams averages 12.2 ppg, while emerging as the team's best 3-point shooter and steals leader, and fellow freshman starter Alex Kirk has plenty of room to grow. The Lobos will need Gordon and Kirk to produce with reserve forward Emmanuel Negedu out indefinitely.

Early dud: Utah

Coach Jim Boylen overhauled his roster and came up with productive junior college transfers in Will Clyburn (19.1 ppg) and Josh Watkins (14.6 ppg). But the results have been mixed, and the Utes are entering league play on a four-game losing streak, after going winless at the Diamond Head Classic. With center David Foster limited by his knee, the team is in search for more regular contributors.

Scrappiest teams: BYU, UNLV

The Rebels under coach Lon Kruger can defend and rebound as well as any team. The emergence of swingman Chace Stanback as a difference-maker to go alongside explosive scorer and hard-nosed defender Tre'Von Willis is a crucial development. With Derrick Jasper healthy and Quintrell Thomas eligible this season after a transfer, the Rebels can now beat teams in a variety of ways. They've already earned a national ranking after winning the 76 Classic title and have beaten ranked teams Kansas State and Wisconsin.

BYU, meanwhile, has a three nice wins against Utah State, Saint Mary's and Arizona. Fredette provides the scoring and Jackson Emery, Noah Hartsock and Chris Collinsworth are offering the grittiness, after playing through various injuries. The Cougars want to go out strong in their final year in the MWC before leaving for the WCC.

The rest: TCU, Wyoming

TCU has a nice backcourt, with leading scorer Ronnie Moss (15.3 ppg) and conference assists leader Hank Thorns (5.5 apg), but it needs to find some consistency.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Moss
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenRonnie Moss and TCU hope to find some consistency as the MWC season gets ready to tip off.

Wyoming hopes that by getting healthy, it improves. Afam Muojeke (knee) and Adam Waddell (Achilles) have already missed multiple games.

Air Force will struggle while short-handed in the post, but it has guard Evan Washington doing a little bit of everything, and fellow senior Tom Fow is playing well.

Grading the preseason picks (based on official media poll)

1. San Diego State: Until the Aztecs lose, there's little reason to believe they still aren't the class of the conference.
2. BYU: Picking the Cougars second was about right, and the perennial conference title contenders are certainly capable of winning it again.
3. New Mexico: The defending regular-season champion Lobos are looking like a middle-of-the-road team now, but they should improve and continue to play well in the Pit.
4. UNLV: The Rebels have played like a contender for the conference title, and their defense is tough enough to get them there.
5. Colorado State: The Rams remain in this spot and are trying to break into the upper tier, but the gap is closing.
6. Utah: If the Diamond Head Classic results were any indication, this could be too high.
7. TCU: Some positive signs, including a win against USC, show the Horned Frogs could finish better than seventh.
8. Wyoming: If the Cowboys can get healthy, they could do better than eighth.
9. Air Force: The Falcons have nine wins and have bounced back after an embarrassing loss to a Division III school (Colorado College). Will it translate into a trip out of the cellar?

Best place to watch a game this season: Viejas Arena (San Diego State)

Coach Steve Fisher wasn't able to say this when he first got to San Diego State, but the Aztecs are now a hot ticket. The 12,414-seat arena has sold out numerous times this season. Fans are treated to forward Tim Shelton's rap song on the team's pregame intro video, and the students have been energized by SDSU's success.

Worst venue: Clune Arena (Air Force)

The Falcons have won one conference game over the past two seasons, and a record like that doesn't exactly do much to energize a fan base. The top home attendance figure this season has been 1,249.

Must-see games

1. BYU at San Diego State, Feb. 26
2. UNLV at San Diego State, Jan. 12
3. BYU at UNLV, Jan. 5
4. San Diego State at New Mexico, Jan. 15
5. Colorado State at New Mexico, Jan. 12

Predictions

NCAA-bound (4): BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV
Sweet 16 teams: BYU, San Diego State
NIT: Colorado State

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.