According to the projections of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the conference stands to receive three bids to the NCAA Tournament, a figure that's disappointing for a league that opened the year with a legitimate shot at five. But there's still time to pick up one more. Here are the contenders...
*BYU (26-2, #2 seed): Jimmer Fredette has been the best player in the nation this season, virtually carrying a mostly average supporting cast into the national elite. Because of that I have a tough time seeing the Cougars make a big run in the NCAA Tournament, but they've certainly got their best shot since the days of Danny Ainge going coast-to-coast to beat Notre Dame at the buzzer in the 1981 Sweet 16.
*San Diego State (28-1, #2 seed): Their only loss was a visit to BYU and they have a strong frontline that can compete with anybody. The guards are the key for the Aztecs. If D.J. Gay is on, this team can certainly make the Final Four. But he has a tendency to disappear and if that happens we could be saying goodbye on the first weekend.
*UNLV (21-7, #8 seed): The Rebels got a huge win over New Mexico this week, so that seed projection is in position to rise. More importantly, Lon Kruger's team has surely punched its ticket to the Dance.
The wild-card in this scenario is Colorado State. In Monday's projections, Lunardi had the Rams listed as one of his first four teams to miss the bracket. That's close enough that, as accurate as Lunardi's math is, can be seen within the margin of error for CSU to make it anyway. Colorado State missed a chance for a big win on Wednesday when they lost at BYU, but given that computer ratings tend to reward playing big-time competition, there's a good chance the Rams won't be hurt by that and might even nudge closer to the bracket. They still have a road date at San Diego State in the season finale, plus opportunities in the conference tournament so all eyes are on Fort Collins right now if the league is to get a fourth bid.
New Mexico wasn't on the Lunardi radar (i.e., within at least eight spots of the bracket) and the loss to UNLV dropped them to a pedestrian 17-11. I would assume Steve Alford's team is toast unless they can first win out in the regular season, then make at least the final game of the MWC tourney. Obviously if they win the tournament, they're in automatically, but a five-game run to the championship game might be enough. Regardless, the Lobos just haven't gotten consistent play from Dairese Gray in the backcourt and are unlikely to make such a run.
That brings us to the race for the conference championship. The final nine days of the regular season are starting to revolve around three big games--Arizona-UCLA with the Bruins only one game back of the Wildcats. Next Saturday's Duke-North Carolina showdown for the ACC. And tomorrow's battle in San Diego, where BYU takes on San Diego State. I don't ever recall the Mountain West having this kind of heavyweight fight for its regular season championship and it will be a fitting wrap to what's been an outstanding season. The Notebook will look at the specifics of the matchup in tomorrow's game previews.
Image from zimbio.com
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily coverage of college basketball.