Don't sleep on the Mountain West tournament.
Not that you would, of course. You're hip. You're with it. You're not living in the past, man. You know that if you're looking for the West Coast's -- or at least the western half of the country's -- best college hoops, one must look to the Mountain West.
This week, that means focusing squarely on the MWC tournament in Las Vegas, where this conference's eight teams can be divided up among three categories:
Tourney-Bound Contenders: UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico
Miracle Auto-Bid Underdogs: Wyoming, Boise State, Air Force, TCU
Bubble Hopefuls: Colorado State
The bracket is here. The scoreboard schedule is here. Here's a quick and hopefully handy set of questions about what to look for after tipoff in the Thomas and Mack Center at 3 p.m. ET Thursday afternoon:
Will Colorado State get it done? As you no doubt know, there is but one team with bubble drama in the Mountain West. UNLV, SDSU and UNM have all long since firmed up their at-large bids, while Wyoming, Boise State, Air Force and TCU are all in need of respective miracle runs to the MWC title (not impossible, but unlikely) to get in the Big Dance. The Rams are the only team that could go either way. So, given their position as the No. 4 seed in this week's conference tournament, what are their odds of making the NCAA tournament field? The chances are good, actually, but for now they rest on one thing: Colorado State can't afford to lose to TCU.
It's not that a loss would necessarily put Colorado State out of the tournament. As of now, our Joe Lunardi has the Rams in the field, and clearly so, above bubble teams like Seton Hall, Drexel, Xavier and Northwestern, not to mention the likes of Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, NC State and the rest of the squads that need runs of various deepness in their league tournaments to make a positive move along the bubble line. CSU, as it is, is a No. 12 seed. But if they dip out of the tournament too early, and do so in rather ugly fashion, it could contribute to an impression that the Rams (who won just one road game in Mountain West regular-season play, and not until last Saturday's game at Air Force) were great at home this season but not-so-great away from Ft. Collins, and the loss would surely ding an otherwise solid (especially RPI and SOS-wise) profile. If CSU wins and makes it to the semifinals to (most likely) face San Diego State, then it could probably begin to feel pretty safe about its chances. But nothing is guaranteed going in.
Is UNLV the favorite? You would think so. After all, the Rebels were 16-0 in the Thomas and Mack Center this season, and this tournament is being played in, you guessed it, the Thomas and Mack. (Actually, you didn't guess it; I told you as much above. But if you weren't paying attention, maybe you guessed it? Moving on ...) That will no doubt translate into a huge home-court advantage, and not just from the hometown fans, but also from the sheer familiarity and comfort that comes with playing on the same floor where the Rebels spend so much of their basketball-related time.
Then again, for all the talk of home court, Dave Rice's team is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the bracket. The Rebels are the No. 3 seed, which means that if they handle business against Wyoming, they're likely to meet No. 2-seed New Mexico in the semifinal, which promises to be a much more difficult game than San Diego State is likely to face in the other semi, even if Colorado State does make it through as planned.
In one sense, you have to like the Rebels to win this thing. They haven't lost on their home floor, and it's on their home floor. But with the way final MWC standings and seeding shook out, UNLV's road to the title is hardly going to be a stroll.
Who's the most likely sleeper? I'll go with TCU. The Horned Frogs have played -- in spurts, admittedly -- some very solid basketball down the stretch. In February alone, Jim Christian's team took down Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico on its own floor, and got a win at Air Force (not as easy a feat as you'd think) to boot. The Horned Frogs shot the 3 better than any team in conference play, and their offense tied for the league's second-best in conference play at 1.05 points per trip. The problem? Defense. If the Horned Frogs get hot, they could certainly pose a threat to a very bubble Colorado State team in the first round. But if the shots don't fall, the lackluster defense that plagued Christian's team all season won't serve it well in what should be a raucous and rowdy environment. We'll see.
What else should I read about the MWC tournament? I'm glad you asked. In some order, you should check out:
John Gasaway's final edition of Tuesday Truths, which proves some handy final per-possession stats for MWC play. (The general gist: New Mexico was good, but not quite as good as its efficiency margin makes it seem, mostly because it destroyed Air Force twice.)
The Las Vegas Sun's preview of how UNLV is approaching this tournament, not to mention its constantly shifting NCAA seed possibilities.
Another LV Sun story, this one about how the conference tournament (and the coming wave of NCAA games) will affect local business (read: casinos).
This brilliant flowchart designed to help you figure out exactly who to root for in the MWC tournament. (Sample eliminator question: "Do Cowboy butts drive you nuts?")