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Mountain West Notebook

March 13, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



Mountain West Notebook

by Bob Thurman

A Tie At The Top

Congrats to both Utah and BYU for capturing the conference title with an 11-3 record, three games ahead of their closest competitor. Of course, the Utes can crow a little more about it since they swept the Cougars this season and received the number one seed in the conference tournament, which starts on Thursday in Las Vegas.

When conference play began, there were a number of teams that were playing well and had aspirations of taking the conference title. However, as the season went on, it became clear that Utah and BYU were the class of the league this year. Both Rick Majerus and Steve Cleveland deserve high praise for bringing their teams together so quickly. Both will be playing in the NCAA Tournament, and neither of them will bow out quietly. If they are seeded correctly, I see at least one of them reaching the Sweet Sixteen.

The Heat Will Be On

Despite their fine seasons, both will have to claw their way through three difficult games if they want to capture the tournament championship. The rest of the league will be hungry to capture a third NCAA tournament bid for the MWC, just as San Diego State did a year ago. Let’s take a look at each of the first round games.

Game 1: BYU versus New Mexico

As long as Ruben Douglas suits up, the Lobos have a chance to pull the upset. He’s had an incredible season, but may be starting to run out of gas. This is his last hurrah as a Lobo, so look for him to try to carry his team to victory. However, that will probably wear him down defensively, and the Cougars have a pair of deadly wings that could take the game over. Even if they’re not hitting from outside, BYU’s big frontline should be able to clean up underneath against New Mexico’s weak frontcourt. This may be the biggest mismatch in the first round.

Game 2: Wyoming versus Colorado State

On the other hand, this may be the best first round matchup. Wyoming beat Colorado State by just two points in both of their previous meetings. However, the Pokes have struggled lately, losing three of their last four. They are also tired and a little banged up, with Donta Richardson bruising his knee in their last game against Utah. He should be good to go, but may not be 100 percent. The Rams have surprisingly righted a wayward ship in the last week of the season and won two of three, including a big upset of Utah in Salt Lake City. That may give them enough confidence to pull the upset and advance to the next round.

Game 3: Utah versus Air Force

This is not going to be a pretty game. In fact, that is what scares the Utes the most. The Falcons defense always plays the Utes tough, and if they can’t hit their three pointers, it will be a long afternoon. However, look for Utah to try to go inside more and draw more fouls. This will put them at the free throw line, where the Utes are deadly. On the other hand, Air Force lives and dies from the three point line, so if they can’t hit theirs either, they are done. If both teams combine for 100 points, I will be pleasantly surprised!

Game 4: UNLV versus San Diego State

This should be the most entertaining game to watch, but that doesn’t mean it won’t get sloppy at times. UNLV definitely has the edge on this one. They beat the Aztecs twice pretty handily, and the game’s on their home court. On the other hand, if they play like they usually do in big games, and make terrible decisions down the stretch, the Aztecs could make a run at another tournament championship.

Predictions

This tournament is crucial for Wyoming and UNLV, both of whom are on the NCAA bubble. Personally, I believe both teams need to reach the finals if they want any shot of making the NCAA Tournament. Of course, winning the tournament would be better but there are six other teams just as hungry in their way. UNLV has a slight advantage by playing on their home court and a slightly easier road. On the other hand, Wyoming has swept the Rebels this season, so that gives them an edge in the selection committee’s minds. However, the Cowboys have some heavy challenges ahead of them, something this team has become accustomed to during the season.

That’s enough rambling. It’s time to make my predictions for the tournament. Here I go! I look for BYU, Colorado State, Utah and UNLV to advance to the semifinals. There, BYU should be able to handle Colorado State, while UNLV will finally pull one out against the Utes. In the conference final, the Rebels will play BYU tough all game long, but the Cougars will win it at the free throw line. The good news for UNLV: a selection to the Big Dance as a 12 seed. The MWC will get its third team after all!

This Week’s Heat-Miser Award

Matt Nelson, Colorado State

30 points, 8-8 shooting, 14-19 FT, 7 rebounds versus San Diego State

The Rams big man has been consistently good all season long, but really turned it on in their win against the Aztecs. The seven-foot sophomore has a great touch, good range and decent footwork. He could be the league’s top center a year from now.

This Week’s Snow-Miser Award

Britton Johnsen, Utah

6 points, 1-6 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 turnovers versus Colorado State

Last season’s MVP suffered through one of his worst games of the season in the Utes one point loss to the Rams. Had Johnson hit just one more of those bricks, the Utes would not have had to share the conference title with BYU.

     

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