Dick Harmon: MWC basketball schedule features some early drama

Published: Monday, Jan. 3 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

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So, what do we know about Mountain West basketball?

League play kicks off this week and drama comes early. UNLV hosts BYU in a marquee out-of-the-chute affair in the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday. It should be a donnybrook.

San Diego State is the first team in league history to enter MWC play with an undefeated record at 15-0.

"We are looking forward to a very difficult 16-game league schedule," said SDSU coach Steve Fisher. "Last year this league was very good; this year, it could be even better."

SDSU climbed to No. 6 with BYU No. 14 in the latest ESPN/USA Today rankings released on Monday. Media that cover the MWC voted the Aztecs as the favorite back in October. So far, they've lived up to the billing.

"It takes a lot of hard work, you hopefully play injury free and you have to get lucky," said Fisher of the lofty 15-0 mark.

This league is very good at the top. It has explosive firepower in BYU's Jimmer Fredette and CSU's Travis Franklin and athletic rebounders in Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State. The best defenders are BYU's Jackson Emery and UNLV's Tre'von Willis and the Ute's Will Clyburn is positioned as the league's second-leading scorer.

The guard play in the MWC is the strength of the conference. That position is the league's calling card. From UNM's Dairese Gary to BYU's Fredette and UNLV's Willis — the league has a lot of backcourt studs.

UNLV also jumped into the Associated Press rankings at No. 25 and may have the league's best victories in wins over Kansas State and Wisconsin who are both ranked this week. The Rebels did lose to Cal-Santa Barbara in mid-December. Lon Kruger is 2-1 against ranked teams and the MWC has won 3-of-6 against ranked foes so far.

The MWC is 4-2 against the Pac-10.

"Everybody in the league has improved but us," according to New Mexico coach Steve Alford, who has his Lobos 11-3 but posts the 210th-ranked non-conference strength of schedule, according to ESPN.

At the bottom, you have Wyoming, TCU, Utah and Air Force. They all struggle and are fighting to avoid becoming road win bait for the top teams when they visit their respective home arenas.

The dark horse may be Colorado State, a 10-4 team that had a great tournament victory run in Cancun, Mexico, in December, but just lost to the Hampton Pirates on New Year's Day.

Here is what the geeks say:

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi's latest projections for the NCAA tournament has SDSU a No. 3 seed with BYU a No. 4 and UNLV slated for a No. 6 spot in the bracket.

The latest RPI rankings, a formula used as a reference tool by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, have BYU rated No. 5 with SDSU No. 13 and UNLV at No. 25.

BYU's RPI is impressive because coach Dave Rose has scheduled the toughest non-conference schedule with plenty of those games outside the Marriott Center.

Here is how the league's strength of non-conference schedules are ranked so far by ESPN: 1. BYU (39th) 2. UNLV (85th), 3. Utah (120th) 4. CSU (122nd) 5. TCU (206th). The easiest schedule to date is that of Wyoming, ranked 334th out of 346, and the Cowboys are 7-7 heading into the opener at Colorado State.

Here are the league's best accomplishments to date in pre-conference play:

The Aztecs posted a 79-76 win over 10-5 Gonzaga in Spokane very early in the season and then whipped a very good Saint Mary's team 69-55 at home. Steve Fisher registered a 75-57 win over California at Berkeley and hatched a nice victory over Wichita. The Aztecs have had five sellouts in Cox Arena, which tickles Fisher.

UNLV lost 77-67 to 11-2 Louisville but got a 68-65 victory over No. 25 Wisconsin (11-3), albeit in the warm confines of Las Vegas. The Rebels got the league's best victory, a 63-59 win over current No. 11 Kansas State (11-3) in Kansas City, and the 82-70 win over the WAC's Nevada in Reno was also impressive — as was a victory over Virginia Tech. Of note, KSU suspended star players Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelley for the UNLV game.

BYU's best wins were over the Pac-10's second-best team, Arizona, a 87-65 blowout in EnergySolutions Arena. BYU outlasted 12-2 Saint Mary's 74-73 at South Padre Island, and the hard-fought 78-72 win over Utah State at home was solid. The Cougars' extensive experience on the road may help, starting Wednesday.

All these things are measurables — but just theory — this week as actual MWC play kicks off and prowess is proved against the same competition.

"We're smart enough to know nobody cares now," said Fisher of the preseason and his 15-0 mark. Same with the rest, from Heath Schroyer in Laramie to Steve Alford in the newly outfitted Pit in Albuquerque, it is a brand new season.

"There are very few secrets now," said Fisher.

"We now have last year's game plans and prep to lean on with each other. Things may change in terms of what you are able to do, but hopefully we'll do some bottom-line things that allow us to win."

Sounds like a plan.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

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