This week, the Thomas & Mack Center will play host to what is likely the most anticipated Mountain West Conference tournament in recent memory.
Three of the league’s eight current members are mortal locks for the NCAA tournament field of 68, another — Colorado State — could use another win or two to lock itself in as a fourth and there are arguably five or six teams that could legitimately make a run to the finish line in Las Vegas.
It all gets going on Thursday with the quarterfinals beginning at 12 p.m. Here’s a close look at each of Thursday’s four games …
12 p.m. — No. 1 San Diego State (24-6 overall, 10-4 MWC) vs. No. 8 Boise State (13-16 overall, 3-11 MWC)
The first time these two met, Boise State had a last-second 3-point try go half-way down the net before popping out, allowing the Aztecs to escape with a narrow 58-56 home win. Last Wednesday, they met with San Diego State having a ton on the line, needing a road win to stay in the driver’s seat for the tournament’s top overall seed. They locked in and cruised to a 66-53 victory. When the Aztecs are locked in mentally like that, there’s no tougher team to beat in the Mountain West, plain and simple. Expect a similar effort here. A young Boise State team has come together as the year’s progressed and continued to play hard, but the Broncos could be out of gas after a brutal finish to the league schedule that saw them lose four straight, and all by double-digits. In that run came games against each of the league’s top three teams. Freshman guards Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks will try their best to keep pace with the Aztecs’ deep backcourt, but Boise State right now simply doesn’t have an answer for SDSU sophomore wing Jamaal Franklin, who is one of the hottest players not only in the league, but in the country. In the Aztecs’ final three games of the season, he averaged 28 points and 13.7 rebounds a contest. He likely carries them again here, as San Diego State appears to have completely rebounded from a three-game losing streak a few weeks back and has a very strong shot at its third straight MWC tournament title. Prediction: San Diego State 72, Boise State 60
2:30 p.m. — No. 4 Colorado State (19-10 overall, 8-6 MWC) vs. No. 5 TCU (17-13 overall, 7-7 MWC)
This will likely be the day’s best game for a couple of reasons. The most notable is that Colorado State has more to play for than anyone in the league entering this tournament. While UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico are playing to improve their NCAA tournament seeding, the Rams are playing to simply get into the tournament for the first time since 2003. Their RPI (29) is strong, and signature wins over each of the league’s top three power programs solidify a very respectable résumé. The one knock down the stretch in the eyes of bracketologists was the fact that the Rams hadn’t won a significant road game, and until Saturday, were winless on the road in league play. Saturday’s 10-point romp of Air Force in Colorado Springs might not be enough to turn everyone on the selection committee in their favor. Plain and simple, Colorado State needs this one. Juniors Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green form one of the toughest, hottest backcourts in the league, while undersized big man Pierce Hornung is coming up with endless hustle plays on a nightly basis that help Tim Miles’ club consistently overcome a lack of frontcourt brawn and depth. On the other side, TCU can score with the best of them, was much tougher to put away this season compared to recent disappointing campaigns and has one of the MWC’s most potent scorers in senior guard Hank Thorns. The Las Vegas native loves playing in his hometown, and will be tough to quiet in this one. Add in the fact that these two teams already played a pair of high-scoring thrillers this year, and this has all the makings of a must-see matinee. Prediction: Colorado State 84, TCU 83
6 p.m. — No. 2 New Mexico (24-6 overall, 10-4 MWC) vs. No. 7 Air Force (13-15 overall, 3-11 MWC)
While Colorado State and TCU promise to produce a thriller, this one might land on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Why? It’s just a bad matchup for Air Force. New Mexico, led by star senior forward Drew Gordon, boasts the league’s best frontcourt. On the other side, Air Force is young and thin across the board. That combination led to a pair of Lobo blowouts of the Falcons in the regular season by a total margin of 69 points. There’s really no reason to believe that this one will be any different. Outside of junior guard Michael Lyons, several pieces on Air Force’s limited roster appear to be a year away from being legitimate producers. Expect the Falcons to arrive in Las Vegas in good spirits, as the interim tag was removed from coach Dave Pilipovich’s title on Friday, and they played very hard as a result in Saturday’s home loss to Colorado State. It’s a smart full-time hire for the program, and the future looks promising. But, again, they’re going to be out of their league for a third time against New Mexico come Thursday evening. Prediction: New Mexico 73, Air Force 48
8:30 p.m. — No. 3 UNLV (25-7 overall, 9-5 MWC) vs. No. 6 Wyoming (20-10 overall, 6-8 MWC)
This should provide a nice, physical clash to finish off the tournament’s first day. The two met in Saturday’s regular season finale, with UNLV prevailing, 74-63. The game involved a good deal of chatter going back and forth between the two sides, a number of hard fouls and 46 total infractions called by the officials. The gritty effort from UNLV stemmed from wanting to avenge a stunning loss to the Cowboys earlier in the season up in Laramie. There’s no reason to expect this game to be any less intense, which might put the winner at a bit of a disadvantage when it has to likely face New Mexico 24 hours later. The key in this one might be which team’s big men can produce more on both ends of the floor. In the first meeting, both frontcourts were strong and the game came down to the wire. On Saturday, Mike Moser snapped a four-game rough spell by notching 17 points and 12 rebounds, while Brice Massamba scored a career-high 15 points in his final home game at UNLV. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s duo of Leonard Washington and Adam Waddell couldn’t get much of a rhythm established, and both battled foul trouble the entire night. It won’t technically be a home game for UNLV, but it needs to be noted that the Rebels went an entire season without losing a game at the Mack for the first time since the 1991-92 campaign. Prediction: UNLV 68, Wyoming 60