Analysis:

For the Mountain West, just getting into the tournament not good enough

The conference has a record five teams in the NCAA Tournament, but another rash of early exits on the big stage could hurt league’s image

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guards Katin Reinhardt and Bryce Dejean-Jones celebrate Dejean-Jones’ two consecutive three-point baskets against New Mexico during their Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game Saturday, March 16, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. New Mexico won 63-56.

The Rebel Room

Rebels get a rematch in NCAA Tournament

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The brackets are out and the Las Vegas Sun sports team is here to discuss UNLV's draw as the 5-seed in San Jose, Calif., and a rematch with Cal.

The Mountain West has been in the national conversation the entire college basketball season. Now it has a good chance to stay there for the next couple of weeks.

“I think it’s a great day for the Mountain West,” UNLV Athletics Director Jim Livengood said Sunday after the league got a record five teams into the NCAA Tournament.

The Mountain West had a breakout of sorts this time last year when four teams made the field of 68. Now all four of those teams are back, and Boise State joins the party in the First Four on Wednesday night.

“We felt as coaches it was a conference that was worthy (of this),” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.

The only way the teams can prove that this year is by doing what they failed to do last year: win more than one game.

In the 2012 NCAA Tournament, UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State lost in their first games and New Mexico was one and done. With five teams in the field this time, one or two victories won't cut it. As of Monday evening, four of the teams are favored, and the fifth is in a matchup between an 8 seed and a 9 seed.

“I think we have a chance to do something the Mountain West hasn’t done for a long, long time,” Livengood said, “and that’s to win some games. We need to do that.”

Here’s a look at each of the five games, including some predictions:

Note: The teams are listed in order of seed, and the over/under is based on their seed expectation win total.

    • 3 New Mexico vs. 14 Harvard

      West Region • Salt Lake City • Friday, about 7 p.m. • TNT

      New Mexico won the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles and had great computer numbers, yet that wasn’t enough for the selection committee to grant it a top 2 seed.

      Overall, though, the conference was treated well, with UNLV and San Diego State getting higher seeds than most projections (more on that later).

      What that means for the Lobos (29-5) is they’ll get the Ivy League champs Harvard (19-9) and then a possible West Coast showdown with Arizona. New Mexico has underperformed as a 3 seed recently, and as the league’s highest seed the pressure is on to deliver.

      A closer look at the Lobos

      NCAA Tournament appearances… 14th overall, third in the past four years

      Best seed since… 2010, when 3 New Mexico lost to 11 Washington in the Round of 32. The Lobos also got a 3 seed in 1997, when they lost to 6 seed Louisville in the Round of 32.

      Record against 2013 tournament field… 13-4

      Series history… none, although New Mexico is 13-0 all-time against teams from the Ivy League.

      Winner faces the winner of… 6 Arizona (25-7) vs. 11 Belmont (27-6). The Wildcats definitely have more talent, but Belmont is a trendy upset pick.

      Key matchup: Tony Snell vs. Wesley Saunders

      Snell caught fire in the Mountain West tournament, taking MVP honors. He should see a lot of Saunders, a first-team all-Ivy pick who averaged 16.5 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting.

      Vegas line: New Mexico -11

      Kenpom line: New Mexico -10

      Over/under 1.5 wins

      Over. It won’t be easy, but I like New Mexico to get to the Sweet Sixteen. Lobos coach Steve Alford loves to create an underdog narrative even when there isn’t one, so actually having a little ammo by getting denied a top 2 seed should give his team some extra motivation.

    • 5 UNLV vs. 12 California

      East Region • San Jose, Calif. • Thursday, 4:27 p.m. • truTV

      I’ve started breaking down this game more thoroughly elsewhere on the site, so I don’t want to rehash too much. Just know that Cal (20-11) doesn’t have the interior presence to do anything against UNLV (25-9) if the Rebels’ bigs come to play the whole game.

      A closer look at the Rebels

      NCAA Tournament appearances… 20th overall, fourth in a row and sixth in the past seven years; UNLV is 33-18 in NCAA Tournament games.

      Best seed since… 1991, when 1 UNLV lost to 2 Duke in the Final Four.

      Record against 2013 tournament field… 8-6

      Series history… 5-1. UNLV won earlier this season and last year. The series dates to 1989, and the Rebels’ lone loss came in 2008.

      Winner faces the winner of… 4 Syracuse (26-9) vs. 13 Montana (25-6). If both of the top seeds advance, it will be very interesting to see how many 3-pointers the Rebels attempt against the Orange’s zone defense.

      Key matchup: Bryce Dejean-Jones vs. Allen Crabbe

      Rice said the Rebels wouldn’t rely on just one guy to try to slow down Cal’s leading scorer, but the bulk of the task likely rests on Dejean-Jones. Something to keep an eye on is how much UNLV is able to make Crabbe run around on defense, where the Golden Bears will likely run a lot of zone. If he’s able to camp out and rest on defense, he might be more potent on offense.

      Vegas line: UNLV -2.5

      Kenpom line: UNLV -3

      Over/under 0.5 wins

      Over, but I’m not exactly confident about it. UNLV’s additions since Dec. 9 — Khem Birch and a healthier Mike Moser — are bigger differences than Cal’s improvement since the first meeting, but tournament history isn’t on the Rebels’ side.

    • 7 San Diego State vs. 10 Oklahoma

      South Region • Philadelphia • Friday, about 6:30 p.m. • TBS

      The Pac-12 has more of an argument in regard to its bizarre seeding (see: Oregon as a 12) but San Diego State (22-10) getting a better seed than Colorado State (25-8) despite finishing two spots lower in the conference standings isn’t right.

      Yes, the Aztecs have to fly across the country for a late game Friday, but they would take that over a tough 8/9 game against Missouri and then a potential date with overall No. 1 seed Louisville waiting.

      What I’m saying, Aztecs, is don’t waste your good fortune against Oklahoma (20-11). Former UNLV coach Lon Kruger has accomplished more than anyone expected with this Sooners roster, but the line moved up in SDSU’s favor almost immediately. After losing a winnable Round of 64 game last year, the Aztecs could use a good showing here.

      A closer look at the Aztecs

      NCAA Tournament appearances… ninth overall, fourth in a row

      Best seed since… 2012, when 6 SDSU lost to 11 NC State in the Round of 64. The Aztecs were a 2 seed in 2011 when they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

      Record against 2013 tournament field… 5-8

      Series history… 0-3. All three games took place from 1973-75.

      Winner faces the winner of… 2 Georgetown (25-6) vs. 15 Florida Gulf Coast (24-10). The odds say either SDSU coach Steve Fisher or Kruger will have to game plan for Georgetown’s Otto Porter, who’s in the discussion for national player of the year.

      Key matchup: JJ O’Brien vs. Romero Osby

      The Aztecs’ O’Brien had a difficult Mountain West tournament after a great second half in conference play. His defense may be more important than anything else he does, as he’ll likely draw Oklahoma leading scorer Osby (15.8 points, 7 rebounds per game), who will need to play well to give the Sooners a chance.

      Vegas line: SDSU -2.5

      Kenpom line: SDSU -3

      Over/under 0.5 wins

      Under. San Diego State has been heading downhill for a couple of weeks, and I didn’t see anything at the conference tournament to convince me of its validity.

    • 8 Colorado State vs. 9 Missouri

      Midwest Region • Lexington, Ky. • Thursday, about 6:30 p.m. • TBS

      I already discussed the Rams’ strange seeding in San Diego State’s slide, so let’s use this space in praise of Colton Iverson.

      The CSU big man was one of three players I considered for Mountain West Player of the Year, and after seeing him in person again at the Mountain West tournament I wish I had pulled the trigger. The other two played for New Mexico — Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk — and my preferred pick, Kirk, wasn’t even an option because Alford didn’t want to split the votes.

      Iverson is such a dominant force inside that I think he can single-handedly carry the Rams to victory if the guards aren’t playing well. If Iverson’s off his game, though, CSU could be in for another short trip.

      A closer look at the Rams

      NCAA Tournament appearances… 10th overall, second in a row

      Best seed since… the NCAA began seeding the field in 1979. The Rams’ next-best seed was a 10, which they had in 1989 and 1990.

      Record against 2013 tournament field… 4-7

      Series history… 1-1. CSU won in 1967 and lost in 1969.

      Winner faces the winner of… 1 Louisville vs. 16 North Carolina A&T/Liberty. So in other words, the winner faces Louisville.

      Key matchup: Dorian Green vs. Phil Pressey

      Pressey makes some of the best and worst plays you’ll ever see from a point guard. The interesting thing is, unlike a lot of players who are either hot or cold, he often does both in the same game. If Green hasn’t recovered from the ankle injury he aggravated in the semifinal loss to UNLV then the Rams could be in for a full Pressey highlight reel and a quick exit.

      Vegas line: Missouri -3

      Kenpom line: Missouri -1

      Over/under 0.5 wins

      Under. I said on our Lasvegassun.com Sports Talk radio show a few weeks ago that the Rams were going to the Sweet Sixteen. Well, it’s not happening.

    • 13 Boise State vs. 13 La Salle

      West Region • Dayton, Ohio • Wednesday, about 6:10 p.m. • truTV

      Still searching for its first NCAA Tournament victory, Boise State (21-10) will have a great chance to check that off the list when it plays La Salle (21-9).

      It should probably go down with an asterisk since it would come in the First Four, but let’s not rain on their parade. The league is happy to get its record fifth team into the field, and it’s conceivable for the Broncos to take this one and then challenge or even upset Kansas State in Friday’s Round of 64 game in Kansas City, Mo.

      A closer look at the Broncos

      NCAA Tournament appearances… sixth overall, first since 2008 and first as an at-large selection.

      Best seed since… the NCAA began seeding the field in 1979. The Broncos were a 14 in their previous four appearances and lost to UNLV as an unseeded team in 1976.

      Record against 2013 tournament field… 4-7

      Series history… none

      Winner faces… 4 Kansas State in Kansas City, Mo., where there will be plenty of Wildcat fans in attendance. The travel figures to wear on either 13 seed that advances, but K-State could be primed for an upset.

      Key matchup: Derrick Marks vs. Ramon Galloway

      This game should be a fun watch as both teams use mostly a four-guard lineup with one big in the middle. La Salle’s best of those guards is Galloway, a South Carolina transfer who made first-team all-A-10 this year. While Boise State’s Anthony Drmic may be able to exploit some matchups for the Broncos on offense, they need Marks to do his best to keep Galloway in check.

      Vegas line: Boise State -1.5

      Kenpom line: Boise State -1

      Over/under 0.5 wins

      Over. This is the most evenly matched game the Mountain West is involved in, so no outcome would be surprising. I probably just lean toward the Broncos because I’ve seen them more.

    Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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    1. We need to win at least five games in the tournament as a conference.

    2. To be frank, I could care less about the conference only the Scarlet & Grey. I hope every team loses by 20 & New Mexico by 50. You expect me to root for SDSU? After listening to this UNM loudmouth on Saturday for the entire game say, "I HATE UNLV!!!" & "!@#$% THE REBELS", we're supposed to be all "KUMBAYA" now??

    3. Basir- when the league does well it helps ALL teams in recruiting. Your view is a little shortsighted- I hate Alford too, but I hope NM does well.

    4. I was told that Boise State lost tonight.

      But that has to be a lie, right, since the Mountain West deserved 5 spots because of their #1 RPI which implied even their lowest-seeded team could get a victory over a team from a conference with a much lower RPI.

      Or some weird train of thought like that. Did I miss something?