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Mountain West tournament: Preview, prediction, TV info

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Latest in hoops: Top 25 (and one) | Bracketology | Bubble Watch

What: Mountain West championship.

When: March 12-15.

Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas.

Bracket: View tournament field here.

TV: Championship game on CBS (March 15, 3 p.m. ET).

Last year's champ: New Mexico (29-5, No. 3 seed)

C (USATSI)
Xavier Thames and Steve Fisher have SDSU set up for a No. 2 seed. (USATSI)

What matters: The Mountain West is having a solid year but is nowhere as good this season as it was in 2012-13, when the conference sent a league-record five teams dancing. This season, San Diego State is the best the league has to offer -- and it's a very nice, really dangerous, will-guard-you-everywhere team. The Aztecs, who earned a No. 2 seed in 2011, should match that this season if they can reach the league title game. Steve Fisher's squad has a win at Kansas on its resume in addition neutral-court wins over Marquette (when Marquette was ranked) and Creighton. New Mexico is the only surefire NCAA Tournament team, and right now our Jerry Palm predicts the Lobos as a seven seed.

Beyond that, UNLV is a 19-12 team that should have three or four more wins. It's a talented group and will have its home court to fight for the automatic bid. Things could get interesting. Boise State has been a letdown this season but is capable of catching fire on offense.

Who matters: Undeniable star power in this conference starts with Xavier Thames, the league's Player of the Year. He's SDSU's relentless guard who has a knack for the big moment. Josh Davis is the critical piece in the middle for the Aztecs, and Winston Shepard is the tweener forward that's tough to match up with. New Mexico has the best 4 in the league in Cameron Bairtsow and another legit big man in Alex Kirk. It's easy -- somehow -- to forget about Kendall Williams, senior Lobos guard who, after all, was the MW Player of the year in 2013.

UNLV has a terrific combo in Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, two players who combine for 21 rebounds and nearly five blocks per game. Fresno State will find it tough to even reach the semis, but freshman Paul Watson will be a star in the league next season.

And of course there's Deonte Burton. DEONTE BURTON, EVERYBODY.

Fun fact: The Mountain West has sent 38 teams to the NCAA Tournament since the league was formed in 2000. Only four of those 38 have reached the Sweet 16, none since 2011 and half of them belonging to programs no longer in the conference (Utah and BYU). No MW team has reached the Elite Eight. This could be the year, if San Diego State plays its best.

Prediction: I'll go with San Diego State, a team that's undervalued in a lot of respects. The Aztecs play terrific defense and don't lack at any position. Steady group that won't have a mountain to climb in the league bracket. UNLV and New Mexico are capable, but give me the team that just went 16-2 in the league.

 
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