Mountain West Tournament Preview: New Mexico Reigns
It won’t be easy, but the Lobos will repeat in Vegas.
by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam
All season, the Mountain West has not only been the one of the most competitive leagues in the country, but one of the most talented. Teams like New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV have cultivated strong roots on the West Coast recruiting trail, and with excellent coaching across the conference, the results have been impressive. Early in the season, the conference regularly had three teams in the AP Top 25. But because those teams inevitably beat up on each other, some of them fell out of the polls. And because the conference’s games are broadcasted on CBS Sports Network and not ESPN, a lot of fans aren’t familiar with the caliber of play.
The Mountain West? Well, yeah. For this writer, the MWC is easily the most enjoyable league in the country (sorry, Big 12—you’re a close second). I’ve seen every team in the conference play multiple games, and I’ll be in Las Vegas for the semifinals and championship. When viewed as a collective entity, the play is tough and gritty. But when each team is viewed individually, they all have a different playing style and unique personnel. New Mexico executes with precision, while UNLV loves to get out and run. Colorado State feeds the paint, while Boise State loves to shoot from outdoors. The bottom line is the Mountain West has some legitimate ball players and teams. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Mountain West team makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament; I’m thinking Elite Eight, or maybe even further.
When: March 12-16
Where: Thomas and Mack Center (Las Vegas, NV)
New Mexico (26-5, 13-3) — The Lobos do an excellent job of: (A) Freeing their shooters with constant off-ball screens, and (B) Getting to the free-throw line, where they average 24.1 attempts per game, good for 16th in the nation. On defense, they dictate how the game will be played; with unusually long wing players (Kendall Williams and Tony Snell), a 7-foot center (Alex Kirk) and a 6-10 power forward (Cameron Bairstow), entry passes into the paint are no easy task. On offense, New Mexico takes its time and is more precise than flamboyant. They won’t overpower you, but their coaches can out-gameplan most teams.
The Lobos’ leader is the Conference Player of the Year, point guard Kendall Williams. On the road vs Colorado State earlier this season—a team that previously had a 28-game home winning streak—the California native was absolutely unconscious, scoring 46 points (including a record 10 three-pointers) and single-handedly willing New Mexico to a victory. Seven-foot center Alex Kirk is tough to matchup against; he can play both inside and out, and is the closest thing to a stretch-5 as there is in college basketball. Junior swingman Tony Snell, as I’ve said many times before, is probably the best catch-and-shoot swingman in the country. The Lobos use Snell in a Rip Hamilton kind of way—they tirelessly run him off screens until he’s free, or until an opposing big man gets caught switching on a cross-screen. New Mexico’s not the best offensive team (they rank 58th in the country in offensive efficiency), but if you let them get into their sets and send them to the foul line, it’s tough to beat this group.
Colorado State (24-7, 11-5) — Larry Eustachy’s team is tough, experienced, careful with the basketball, and most of all relentless on the glass. As a team, the Rams average 40.6 rebounds per game, good for fourth in the country. CSU starts five seniors, and are led by Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson, a traditional back-to-the-basket center who averages 14.6 points and 9.7 boards per game. The Rams aren’t an explosive team, but they limit second chance points and don’t beat themselves.
UNLV (23-8, 10-6) — UNLV could be argued as the best team in the Mountain West…on paper. Between freshman man-child Anthony Bennett, rugged power forward Mike Moser, the freakishly athletic Khem Birch and the slick Anthony Marshall, the Rebels would be my favorite in the 2K version of the Mountain West Tournament (although Snell, Williams and Kirk would make things interesting). But in the real life version, UNLV is still trying to put the pieces in place. They just had an inexplicable loss at Fresno State, and it’ll get no easier against first-round opponent Air Force, a team that has a dynamic scorer in Michael Lyons and is coming off a huge win against New Mexico.
Furthermore, Bennett has been sidelined recently due to a shoulder injury, and Moser is still adjusting back from a pretty gruesome elbow injury. This is a team that’s beaten Cal, North Carolina and New Mexico, but also lost to Fresno State. Which team will show up this week?
San Diego State (21-9, 10-6) — After they took Arizona to the final seconds of the Diamond Head Classic in December, the Aztecs were an early season favorite for “sleeper team of the year.” But ever since the last-second heartbreaker, they just haven’t been the same. Sure, they held New Mexico to 34 points, but that was a freak game, and it had to do more with the Lobos’ ineptitude than SDSU’s defense. The thing with the Aztecs is that they have legitimate NBA talent on their roster, so if the team is playing in any sort of cohesive fashion, they have a chance. Jamaal Franklin (17 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 3 apg) can score with any guard in the country, but after Franklin, the Aztecs need someone to step up. It could be senior Chase Tapley, it could be freshman Winston Shepard, but they need somebody to take some pressure off Jamaal and let him work in single-coverage situations.
Boise State (21-9, 9-7) — I’m not as high on Boise as some other people are, but there’s no doubt the Broncos can—and if they make the NCAA Tournament, probably will—catch a team by surprise. Sophomore guard Derrick Marks is one of my favorite players in the country; he’s a crafty, undersized scorer with a ton of moxie. I don’t think Leon Rice’s group will catch anyone in the Mountain West by surprise, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they proved me wrong.
Players To Watch
Kendall Williams (New Mexico): Williams is the engine that makes the Lobos go. Stop him and you’ll most likely beat UNM. The problem for opponents is that very few teams have been able to do that. Williams can score, pass and defend for 94 feet, and he excels under pressure. Get to know him.
Alex Kirk (New Mexico): Kirk stands at a legitimate 7-feet, and has an unorthodox skill set. He can sink three-pointers and also block shots. Going into the season, the main knock on UNM was their lack of post production. That is not the case anymore.
Anthony Bennett (UNLV): Because he has a big frame and is also quick on his feet, Bennett is a tough matchup and a future lottery pick. For the rest of this season, though, he’ll have to get healthy and be more assertive. If the Rebels want to achieve some of their pre-season goals, they’ll need AB to unleash the beast he displayed earlier this season.
Michael Lyons (Air Force): The senior guard has been a dynamic playmaker for the Falcons, averaging 18 points, 4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. You may not recognize him name, but Lyons is one of the best scorers in the country. This year alone, he’s scored 27 vs UNLV, 37 vs Boise State, 45 vs Colorado State and 30 vs New Mexico. Respect.
Colton Iverson (CSU): Iverson is the anchor on a Colorado State team that was nationally ranked for the first time in over 50 years. He shot a mind-boggling 60 percent from the field this season, including going 12-12 vs Nevada last week (his 12 shots were the most any player’s made without a miss over the last 12 years). If he performs well in the postseason—and if the Rams can get some wins as a result—Iverson will not only put CSU on the map, but also work his way into NBA Draft consideration.
New Mexico — The Lobos feel like they have the most to play for—a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament—and will bring a sense of urgency to Vegas. On top of that, they are playing the best ball of any team in the conference. They’ve led the Mountain West for the entire season, and I don’t think things will stray from the norm. I think UNLV has a chance to emerge from the opposite side of the bracket, but when it’s all said and done, the Lobos will complete the conference sweep and win the championship for the second consecutive season.