Tom Smart, Deseret News
Which Mountain West team has the biggest motivation to win the league's tournament in Las Vegas this week?
Motivation. As in who is nipping hungrily on meat left on the bone? Who is feeling a little angry and disrespected? Who has attitude and bodies to back it up? Who has their backs to the wall and exemplifies a do-or-die attitude?
These post-season tournaments are interesting events. Teams that have played erratic and have been disappointing can catch fire. And usually do. Teams that can't get into the NCAA tournament any other way and have talent usually get up for these affairs.
Conversely, regular season champions like BYU and San Diego State may have less motivation to skip out and prove it all again. After all, in the Marriott Center and Viejas Arenas last Saturday, both the Cougars and Aztecs cut down the nets, celebrated, hoisted trophies, had their pictures taken and received pats on their collective backs.
Rick Majerus used to play down the importance of this week for champions. After all, busting butts for more than two months in conference battles is what should count, right?
Well, some see it that way.
Still, these post-season conference tournaments are a great stage to see the tail wag the dog.
It has usually been so in these parts. The No. 1 seed in the MWC has won this affair only twice in 11 years. One of those times it was UNLV, playing this event on its home court. Huge advantage.
When asked Monday if UNLV had a home court advantage this week, Rebel coach Lon Kruger said "I have no idea." That is like saying the M1A1 Abrams tank isn't an advantage for the U.S. Army.
The regular season champion — teams that have proven their talent, chemistry, coaching week in and week out — have made it to the finals of the MWC tourney seven times in 11 years.
So, historically there's at least more than a 60 percent chance BYU and SDSU will make it to Saturday. It would be good for Aztec and Cougar seeds if that happened.
But it would be good for the MWC if UNLV got in the NCAA as a third team on its own and New Mexico won the tournament for a fourth team in the Big Dance.
Thus, we have this exercise in the Thomas & Mack.
In general, BYU and SDSU might make the finals, but it would be a challenge to win it, especially if UNLV is in the mix. It is still doable; this pair of MWC powers are that good.
So, who are the mental Rambos this week? Who is most motivated to make lemons into lemonade?
Here's my odds with the most capable Top Five.
1. UNLV: The Rebels started slowly but have gained momentum by hitting outside shots. Some say they are in the NCAA Tournament, but to win this event would make it certain. It is a tremendous advantage to roll out of bed, cross the street and play before your fans.
2. New Mexico: The Lobos are a streaky shooting team. That is why they have lost some inexplicable games and looked average at times while sweeping the Cougars. But Steve Alford is plenty loaded to make a three-game run and dangling an NCAA bid in front of his troops is like pouring blood in a shark tank.
3. San Diego State: Except for BYU, nobody has defeated the Aztecs this season. They have the talent to make a run anywhere the next two weeks and I'd expect Steve Fisher will have his guys in the finals Saturday.
4. BYU: Like the Aztecs, could get clipped by a hot team in Las Vegas if they get caught with a cold shooting hand. But Dave Rose's squad has proven to be capable of winning close games and running away from teams in this league that are not the Lobos. If BYU hits 8 to 12 treys, they can beat anyone this week. I rank them down because UNM is in the heads of Cougars.
5. CSU: I'd put the Rams up higher simply because they are that good. But they are undersized and lost a chance in overtime on a last second shot to SDSU in Fort Collins. Because they could not successfully make a run at the No. 3 spot and they finesse but don't bully defenses around, I wonder if they've got 3-0 in their tank this week.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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