Mountain West tournament brings new challenges in Las Vegas

English: New Mexico Lobos head men's basketbal...

For the past seven seasons, the Las Vegas strip has served as the backdrop of the Mountain West Conference Championships. Teams walk into the Thomas and Mack Center with memories of a conference season that just ended and hopes of leaving with a conference championship.

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In four of those seasons, including this year, the New Mexico Lobos have won at least a share of the regular season title.

During that stretch, the Lobos have won the conference championship once and have proved to be a tough draw in the tournament.

That’s because when the season ends, the Lobos have proven that they know how to win and that success partly comes from not taking any low-seed matchup for granted.

“We’ve got great respect for everybody in our league,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford said.

“With respect goes we know we’ve gotta play well. I don’t think we’re any different than anybody else in the league, if you don’t play well, you’re probably not gonna win, that’s how good our league is.”

The success New Mexico has had in the conference tournament stems from their ability to perform well during the conference season, ensuring itself a high seed.

The Lobos have won 10 or more games in conference play in five of the past six seasons while winning 25 or more games in three of the past six seasons.

This year, New Mexico continued their success, as the Lobos boast a 26-5 record overall and a 13-3 record in the conference despite a loss at Air Force Saturday night.

“They’re the league champs and that’s something that we’ve wanted to be,” CSU senior forward Greg Smith said. “And we’ve gotta go out and prove we’re better than them but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us before we can go and do that.”

The task of winning the conference championship will be a tall one for any of the nine teams in the tournament.

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Three wins in four days doesn’t sound like an astronomical feat, but in the parody-filled Mountain West, accomplishing such a task ensures whoever is holding the trophy Saturday night in Las Vegas will fully deserve it.

“This is the best our league has ever been from top to bottom,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “Hopefully when NCAA tournament time will come will bear fruit along that line. I do believe that this is the best group of teams (we’ve had).”

The MW currently is ranked at the top of the conference RPI rankings and is expected to receive five NCAA tournament bids according to national bracketologists.

The competitiveness of the league makes matchups between two and seven seeds seem like they might not be so easy, a departure from years past.

The No. 2 seed this year, CSU will face off against Fresno State, a team that is budding with confidence after upsetting UNLV on the road last weekend.

And after dropping their season finale, UNLV will now have to face Air Force and senior guard Michael Lyons, who averages over 18 points per game and is always capable of having a big night.

Even the players in the 8-9 game tonight, Nevada and Wyoming have proven that they can compete throughout the conference season.

The Cowboys at one point won 13 games in a row and the Wolfpack upset Boise State and Air Force earlier in the year.

No matter who ends up winning the conference tournament, whether it’s the favorite in New Mexico, a UNLV team that will be playing on its home court or somebody else, the only thing we know for sure right now is, it won’t be easy.

Assistant Sports Editor Andrew Schaller can be reached at sports@collegian.com.