RIDING THE PINE: Mountain West must come to play in NCAA Tournament

Steve Puterski

Steve Puterski

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It is time for the Mountain West Conference to step up.

The annual “March Madness” begins tomorrow in the NCAA Tournament with second-round action.

The MW, though, is coming off its best season as it landed five bids led by No. 3 New Mexico in the West Region. UNLV snatched a five seed in the East Region, San Diego State is a seventh seed in the South, Colorado State is slotted No. 8 in the Midwest and Boise State locked up a 13 seed in the West and played La Salle in Tuesday’s first round.

The conference, which has been ranked first or second in RPI throughout most of the season, has a lackluster history in the tournament. The conference’s most recent run came in 2011 when San Diego State, a two seed, lost to eventual champ Connecticut in the Sweet 16.

Other than the mini-run by the Aztecs, the conference is usually resting at home after being bounced from the Big Dance.

This year’s golden child, though, resides in Alberquerque, N.M. and the Lobos are capable of a Final Four run. With MW Player of the Year Kendall Williams, sharpshooter Tony Snell, glue man Hugh Greenwood to go along with 7-footer Alex Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico has the tools to legitimize the conference’s horrid history.

UNLV, meanwhile, has been an enigma wrapped in a riddle this season. An early-season injury to forward Mike Moser put the Rebels in a funk. As Moser has slowly worked back into the lineup, UNLV has become more consistent, although the Rebels tend to rely too much on the outside shot.

UNLV must work its offense through freshman sensation Anthony Bennett and Moser, then kick the ball out to Anthony Marshall, Kaitin Reinhart and Bryce DeJean-Jones.

One of the more puzzling matchups in the tournament is UNLV slated with No. 12 Cal, a rematch of an early season game that the Rebels won at the buzzer and lost Moser to an injured shoulder.

Cal, though, received a gift from the NCAA selection committee and will take on UNLV in San Jose, Calif. Nevertheless, the Rebels — at full strength — should take down the Golden Bears.

Colorado State, who finished second in the conference, somehow, earned a lower seed than San Diego State, who placed fourth. The Rams have the toughest slate in front of them with a matchup with No. 9 Missouri, then a possible tilt with overall No. 1 seed Louisville.

CSU, though, starts five seniors and much of its postseason success lays on the ankle of starting point guard Dorian Green. He injured the ankle against Nevada in the regular-season finale, and was hobbled throughout last week’s MW tournament.

The Rams, though, can rebound with anyone in the country, as CSU is No. 1 in the country in rebound margain (12.1) per game. Missouri, though, is No. 3 at 9.6.

The Aztecs have been inconsistent the past few weeks, but have a winnable game against No. 10 Oklahoma. Should Steve Fisher’s club advance, No. 2 Georgetown would likely be next.

SDSU, a four-guard club, lacks the size of the Hoyas, and guards Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames must be near perfect to pull off the upset.

Rounding out the MW selections are the Broncos, who earned an at-large bid, their first NCAA bid since 2008.

Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks are as a dangerous a backcourt in the MW and should get past La Salle. A matchup with No. 4 Kansas State awaits, which is a game the Broncos could win.

Guard play is a must in the tournament, and Boise State has a trio of perimeter shooters.

In fact, fabulous guard play as been a common theme in the MW all season. Each conference representative has at least two guards who can control or take over at any time.

If the Mountain West is to be taken seriously as a power conference, this weekend must net at least five wins. The feather in the cap would be upsets by CSU, SDSU or Boise State in the second and third rounds.

Should the conference flame out after this weekend, the league’s national credibility will take a big hit. On the flip side, if these teams play the way they have during conference action, MW fans will have a weekend to remember.

Steve Puterski is the sports editor for the Lahontan Valley News and can be contacted at sputerski@lahontanvalleynews.com.


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