Scaling the Mountain

As UNLV shot out to a 16-2 start this season, the rest of the college basketball world took notice. That world, of course, includes the rest of the Mountain West Conference.

And now, as league play begins on Saturday, the 12th-ranked Rebels enter the second season in a position few figured they’d be in at this point—the team to beat in the Mountain West.

Right now, is UNLV the Mountain West’s best team? Yes. There’s not much argument. UCLA transfer Mike Moser (above) has emerged as the league’s top individual talent, Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield have split point guard duties masterfully, Chace Stanback is shooting the ball better than he has at any point in his life, and Justin Hawkins is easily the conference’s top reserve. Meanwhile, the team has taken to first-year coach Dave Rice’s up-tempo philosophies almost without a hitch.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble down the road during a 14-game league schedule. Games at guard-heavy San Diego State (Jan. 14) and at deep, balanced New Mexico (Feb. 18) will be tougher than ever for the Rebels. With star forward Kawhi Leonard gone to the NBA, junior guard Chase Tapley has become a reliable leader for the No. 22 Aztecs. Meanwhile, New Mexico’s Drew Gordon, the preseason MWC Player of the Year, is averaging a double-double, and the rest of the Lobos have become more cohesive around him.

Also, some of the teams expected to dwell in the league’s cellar this year have been surprisingly formidable—particularly Wyoming, which has blossomed under first-year coach Larry Shyatt and is always tough in Laramie, and Boise State, which is 9-0 at home this season.

So if you want a bold prediction, here it is: If UNLV is going to win an outright Mountain West regular season title for the first time, it needs to go 11-3. That should do the trick. Getting to that number will be far from easy, though.