Conference Reset: Why the Mountain West is so darn good this season

San Diego State is again on track for the NCAA tournament. The MWC as a whole is extremely good. (US Presswire)

The Mountain West is an elite league this season, deserving of a spot above a couple of the so-called Power Six conferences. UNLV is a Final Four contender in terms of pure talent. San Diego State and New Mexico have spent much of the season in the Top 25, but the difference with the Mountain West is that the middle-tier teams have made progress. Wyoming could be for real, Boise State got a road win against a Top 25 club -- and Colorado State could make a return trip to the Big Dance. 

I love this league this season -- and, frankly, that's why I wanted to write the Mountain West Reset: 

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TEAMS ON TRACK TO MAKE THE FIELD OF 68: San Diego State, UNLV, New Mexico, Wyoming

TEAMS WITH SOME WORK TO DO: Colorado State, Boise State

TEAMS ALREADY OUT OF IT BARRING A MIRACLE: Air Force, Nevada, Fresno State

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT TO DATE: New Mexico's road win over a then-undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats team. UNLV and San Diego State had already established credibility, but this one could go a long way for the Lobos in terms of NCAA tournament inclusion and seeding. It was also important for Steve Alford's team because it was coming off a home setback to South Dakota State. 

STORYLINE YOU WERE TOO BUSY TO NOTICE: Wyoming has run through the first 13 games of the season without a blemish. The Cowboys are one of the final four undefeated teams in the nation -- with Duke, Michigan and Arizona. The cool storyline is that this improbable run has been orchestrated by two guys who have been given another chance: Coach Larry Shyatt and star player Leonard Washington. 

COACH FEELING THE HEAT: There's no one truly on the hot seat in the league right now. David Carter is the only one whose seat is even luke-warm. Most of the guys in the Mountain West are either relative newcomers to the conference (Dave Rice, Larry Eustachy, Rodney Terry, Dave Pilipovich, Leon Rice) or guys excelling (Steve Fisher, Steve Alford).

TEAM BETTER THAN ITS RECORD: Nevada already has a handful of losses: to UC Irvine, Marshall, Drake, Pacific and Oregon. The Wolf Pack still have two talented guards in Malik Story and Deonte Burton, and David Carter's team will claim its share of league wins, even in a loaded Mountain West. 

TEAM NOT AS GOOD AS ITS RECORD: Shyatt's Wyoming Cowboys remain undefeated and obviously won't remain that way for long, but the jury is still out on this team -- even after wins over Colorado and at Illinois State. Can Leonard Washington lead this team to a top three or four finish in the league?  That's a major question for the Cowboys. 

PLAYER WHO NEEDS TO STEP UP: It's time for Tony Snell to be a star. New Mexico's talented wing is a junior, and he's just too passive, too inconsistent. Snell was 8-for-28 in the recent three-game stretch that included losses to South Dakota State and Saint Louis. 

THREE MUST-SEE GAMES: 

1) UNLV at San Diego State (Jan. 16)

2) San Diego State at New Mexico (Feb. 21)

3) New Mexico at UNLV (Feb. 9)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR FAVORITE: This is a tough call between UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett, San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin and Wyoming's Leonard Washington. I'm going with Bennett here. Honestly, all three guys are deserving. Bennett has wasted no time establishing himself as one of the top players in the nation, regardless of class. The Canadian frosh, who has been compared to former UNLV star Larry Johnson, is averaging 19 points and nine boards. He's a matchup nightmare, plays hard the majority of the time and blends the combination of potential and production. That's enough to edge Franklin and Washington. 

FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: If Bennett wins the Player of the Year, that obviously means he takes home this award as well -- but this one is a complete runaway. 

PROBABLE ALL-LEAGUE TEAM: Anthony Bennett (UNLV); Leonard Washington (Wyoming); Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State);Kendall Williams (New Mexico); Colton Iverson (Colorado State)

Ranking the teams from first to worst

1. UNLV: The Runnin' Rebels have underachieved a bit but for good reason. This is a team with plenty of new faces, from freshmen Anthony Bennett and Katin Reinhardt to transfers Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones. Dave Rice's team also had to deal with the loss of Mike Moser for a couple of weeks, but the losses to Oregon in Vegas and to a struggling North Carolina team have been somewhat head-scratching. 

2. San Diego State: The Aztecs' two losses are of the quality variety, against Syracuse in the season-opener on an aircraft carrier and to a top-five Arizona team over in Hawaii. The Aztecs are improved up front, but Steve Fisher could still use more scoring punch in the paint. 

3. New Mexico: The Lobos jumped out to a 12-0 start before losing to South Dakota State at home and then getting smacked at Saint Louis. Steve Alford's team has still put itself in a nice spot with wins at Cincinnati, at home against Davidson and on a neutral court over UConn. The key here is whether UNM can start to shoot the ball and score with more consistency. 

4. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy has done a nice job with a team that Tim Miles took to the NCAA tourney last season. The Rams returned just about everyone -- and added Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson (14.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg). Thus far, it has been just one bad loss - at UIC. 

5. Wyoming: Maligned senior forward Leonard Washington has matured and is playing the best basketball of his career -- and that has been the key reason why the Cowboys will be in the mix for the NCAA tourney. Larry Shyatt deserves National Coach of the Year consideration at this point, blending in a bunch of new faces with Washington, Luke Martinez andLarry Nance Jr.  

6. Boise State: Leon Rice and the Broncos put themselves on the radar with the win over Doug McDermott and Creighton on Nov. 28. There has only been one more loss since then, at Utah, as Boise will enter league play as a team that has enough talent to win some games it shouldn't -- and not quite enough talent to lose a few it should win. 

7. Nevada: The key for David Carter is on the defensive end, where the Wolf Pack are allowing more than 70 points per game. Again, the backcourt is solid. It's defense and post play that needs to improve for Nevada to be a factor. 

8. Air Force: Rookie head coach Dave Pilipovich has done a nice job getting eight wins, but two are of the non-Division I variety. As senior guard Michael Lyons goes, so do the Falcons. 

9. Fresno State: Rodney Terry's team needs to figure out a way to put more points on the board. Well, and bring in more talent.


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