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Mountain West Quarterfinals Preview

March 11, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Mountain West Conference Quarterfinals Preview

Preview by Keith Irizarry

The Mountain West Championships tip off on Thursday and runs through Saturday at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. All four opening games, all on the first day of the tournament: this should make for one exciting day of ball. The MWC is a very competitive conference with 3 legit possibilities for the NCAA tournament but have 2 “locks.” The locks are first-seeded Air Force (22-5, 12-2) and second-seeded BYU (20-7, 10-4). Utah (21-8, 9-5) could utilize a nice run through the three days of playoff basketball to get themselves into March Madness as well.

No. 3 Utah vs. No. 6 San Diego
This game is a stepping stone for the Utes. At 21-8, they are very much on the bubble. Utah swept the season series with San Diego State. The Utes have battled with team issues (Head Coach Rick Majerus leaving the team due to illness), yet have found ways to win games. Freshman Andrew Bogut (Freshman of the Year) has been as good as advertised. He is second on the team in scoring (12.4ppg) and leads the team with just under 10 rebounds per game. Paving the way to victory for the Utes is senior guard, Nick Jacobson (1st Team All-MWC), dropping 16.3 ppg. Nick is a great leader on the floor and is prone to taking and hitting the “big” shots (44 % from three point land).

The Aztecs have a trio of scorers: Aerick Sanders (16ppg, 10rpg), Brandon Heath (13.8ppg), and Wesley Stokes (12.3ppg, 5.8apg). Defensively, Sanders (6-8, senior forward) is a beast on the boards (second in the conference). The offense goes as Stokes goes, though. His nearly six assists per game are third in the conference.

I don’t see San Diego State being able to stick with the Utes. The size and depth of Utah should overpower the weaker Aztecs.

Prediction: Utah 68 – San Diego State 56

No. 2 BYU vs. No. 7 Wyoming
The Cougars are the hottest team in the MWC, winners of their final eight conference games. BYU has not only beat Air Force during that streak, but earlier in the season they knocked off top-ten team, Oklahoma State. These feats, alone, will put them into this year’s NCAA tournament (although a few wins in the conference tourney would never hurt). When you talk about BYU, you immediately discuss senior Co-player of the Year, Rafael Araujo. Raf is a double-double man (18.4ppg, 10rpg), not to mention his league leading 1.93 steals per game. Araujo had 4 double-doubles in conference play and 14 for the season. Mark Bigelow (2nd Team All-MWC), Mike Hall (3rd Team All-MWC), and Luiz Lemes are great compliments and fill their roles tremendously. As a team, the Cougars average almost 74 points per game and are shooting 49 percent from the field.

Wyoming, a team that is usually at the top of the MWC, has struggled throughout the season. They have lost both meetings with BYU this season, and are limping into the tournament, going 2-7 in their last 9 conference games. Jay Straight (2nd Team All-MWC) has been consistent for the Cowboys, with almost 16 points per game. Otherwise, no one is in double digits for scoring. This game could get ugly, and could get ugly very quickly.

Prediction: BYU 72 – Wyoming 58

No. 1 Air Force vs. No. 8 Colorado State
The Air Force Falcons grabbed the second outright regular-season title in the five-year history of the Mountain West Conference with a league record 12 victories in league play. It is safe to say that they have been the toast of the MWC for season’s length. Air Force has, in fact, been so good, that they are threatening to join our top 25. The Falcons are the definition of team ball. Instead of one superstar, they have numerous threats to beat you with. Junior Tim Kelly and Sophomore Nick Welch average over 11 points a piece and three more players average at least 8 points per game. Welch became the first Falcon to be named player of the year in school history. Balance is the best word used for Nick, as he is among the top 10 in eight categories in conference play, including third in three-point percentage (46 %), field-goal percentage (56 %) and, steals (1.43 spg), as well as ninth in scoring (13.6 ppg), and fifth in assists (3.57 apg). Air Force’s strength lies in their defense, holding 21 teams to 50 points or less this season.

The Rams of Colorado State have been a major disappointment this season, after winning last year’s MWC tournament. Matt Nelson (3rd Team-All-MWC) always proposes a mismatch down-low, as he stands 7 feet tall. The knock on Matt is that dismal rebounding average (just 5.7rpg, is pretty weak for a man of his stature).

Colorado State was swept by Air Force this season, and Air Force has never won an MWC tournament game: something has got to give.

Prediction: Air Force 49 – Colorado State 41

No. 4 UNLV vs. No. 5 New Mexico
The Runnin’ Rebels have dominated the conference over the past three years, appearing in the championship game each year and winning the title in 2000. They also swept the season series with New Mexico. What should you pay attention to on this evening? Check out 2 of the best players the MWC has to offer; two First Team All-Conference players.

Junior Forward, Odartey Blankson is not just the best Rebel; he may be the best MWC player. You want numbers: 6-7, 220lb, to go along with 17ppg and 10.4rpg. Blankson has 18 double-doubles this season (second in the country behind Connecticut’s Emeka Okafor). The match up between him and Lobo star, Danny Granger should make for an exciting nightcap. Granger leads the conference in scoring (19.8ppg) and pulls down 9 rebounds per game as well. Danny is a solid 6-8, 225 pound forward. The winner of this battle will win this war.

This game should prove to be a run and gun, high scoring event. UNLV averages just less than 75 points per game, and New Mexico puts in 70. It’s fitting that the last game of the evening will be indicative of the gun-slinging ways of the wild, wild west.

Prediction: UNLV 82 – New Mexico 79

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