Stevens: A Look at the 2013 Men's Mountain West Basketball Race
Jan. 7, 2013
New Mexico Lobos Men's Basketball - A Look at the Mountain West Race
Wednesday: 8:05 p.m. -- UNLV at New Mexico Lobos
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It's like a late Christmas for a wide-eyed child. It's like eyeing that huge package at the far back of the Christmas tree eager to rip into the colorful wrapping to find the wonders inside.
Really, the 2013 Mountain West men's basketball season should have a bow around it. This upcoming race is a special gift to all basketball fans waiting to see what is going to pop out of this mystifying and alluring package.
Who is going to win this thing? Which teams do you eliminate in a league that has a 13-0 team at the top and a solid 6-7 team at the bottom? Are the 13-0 Wyoming Cowboys for real? Can the `Pokes from Laramie play with the three so-called power teams in the MW, who have been dancing in and out of the national polls during the pre-conference season: New Mexico (13-2), San Diego State (12-2) and UNLV (13-2)?
And what about this board-pounding Colorado State team at 13-2? What about a sharp-shooting Boise State team at 12-2? Is there a bad team in this league?
You have to figure that Wyoming, CSU, UNM, UNLV, SDSU and Boise State are not only eying the 2013 Mountain West title, but are figuring they are only a few league wins away from locking down at-large NCAA bids. These teams combine for a ridiculous 76-10 mark.
Then you have Air Force at 8-4 and Nevada at 9-5. Fresno State at 6-7 carries the only losing non-conference record into the MW sprint. Are these teams spoilers or sleeping giants? Boise State is winning games by a plus 17.5 points.
Consider Air Force. The Falcons are No. 18 in the nation in 3-pointers made per game. They are the Mountain's No. 2 team in field goal percentage at 48.1 percent. They are No. 1 in the MW and No. 12 in the nation is assists-to-turnover ratio. They take care of the ball, control the tempo and take good shots.
And are the Falcons still running that precise and patient Princeton offense? They average 74.8 points per game. That's about six points more than the Lobos average.
If you think a win at Air Force is a "guaranteed win" night, you probably need to think again. The waters in this league run deep and nasty. The "trap game" on a team's schedule is the very next game.
The obvious big boys in this race are New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV. The Lobos and the Rebels war Wednesday night in The Pit. It should be a classic. But this will not be a MW race dramatically changed by a single game.
Of course, the race to the top of the Mountain has always been a marathon and not a sprint, but maybe never before have there been so many nasty precipices lingering along the path. Where are the easy games?
The Lobos, San Diego State and the UNLV Rebels are loaded with talent, tradition and 2013 expectations. The Aztecs and the Rebels went into the preseason nationally ranked and were soon joined by Lobos. The Aztecs were picked to win the 2013 race followed by UNLV and then New Mexico. These teams are living up to those expectations.
Wyoming, one of four undefeated teams left in the nation, is receiving votes in the national polls, but there is a wait-and-see attitude about the `Pokes due to a somewhat mushy schedule. The conference wars will answer those questions. Are the NCAA or NIT?
The Cowboys do a lot of things well - things that win basketball games. They are No. 8 in the nation in scoring defense (54.6). SDSU is No. 31 and UNLV is No. 45. Wyoming is No. 32 in the nation in free-throw percentage behind UNM at No. 27. Boise State is No. 34. A win at Laramie will not come easy. The Cowboys try to be precise on offense and fundamental on defense.
Colorado State is listed as a dark horse in 2013, but the Rams are No. 2 in the nation in rebound margin at a plus 13.9. There aren't too many second shots awaiting MW teams in Fort Collins. CSU averages 74.9 points per game. They rebound and run. They are winning games by a plus 15.4 points. UNM (tougher schedule) is at plus 6.6.
The Lobos' immediate concern is the talented and athletic Rebels. The Rebs are No. 23 nationally in rebound margin at a plus 8.9. They are the No. 2 scoring team in the Mountain with their 78.8 points per game. Boise State is No. 1 at 79.1.
The Runnin' Rebels are No. 1 in the MW and No. 24 in the nation in the all-important field-goal percentage defense at 37.6 percent. They are No. 1 in the MW in 3-point defense yielding a .284 percentage.
These stats tell you three important things about the Rebels. They know how to rebound. They know how to score. They play good defense. This combo has UNLV winning games by a plus 15.4 points. SDSU is plus 14.3. If the Rebs and the Aztecs are playing well and shooting well, they can blow by you. Ditto for UNM.
The Rebs also are No. 1 in the Mountain in blocked shots, assists, steals and defensive rebounding.
The Mountain West also is loaded with terrific talent. The Rebs might have the best player in freshman sensation Anthony Bennett. He tops the Mountain in scoring with a 19.9 average. He is No. 3 in the league in board work with a 9.1 average. Bennett is No. 2 in field-goal percentage at 56 percent.
Ya' think this guy is maybe throwing down some dunks? Maybe off feed by teammate Anthony Marshall, who tops the MW in assists with a 5.4 average?
The Lobos' Kendall Williams is a tremendous all-around player and scorer, but he is No. 10 in the MW in points at 14.9. Air Force's Michael Lyons is at 19.6 and SDSU's dynamic Jamaal Franklin scores at a 17.2 clip.
CSU is ruling the boards behind Pierce Horning's 10.2 average. SDSU's Franklin is hauling down rebounds at a 9.9 clip. CSU's Colton Iverson has an 8.9 average and Wyoming's Leonard Washington is at 8.9, just ahead of UNM's Alex Kirk at 7.5.
The Mountain is loaded - from top to bottom. That huge package at the back of the tree needs to be ripped into. The ripping and the opening begins on Wednesday.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.