Can BYU basketball fulfill its role as the favorite to win and successfully defend its Mountain West Conference basketball title?

Yes, if the Cougars can find a way to get road wins in a much tougher conference than a year ago.

While Air Force is not the team of a year ago, New Mexico and Utah are clearly improved, and UNLV is more than capable of taking advantage of its league-best NCAA foray from a year ago. San Diego is sneaky good, although will likely be inconsistent again. New Mexico could be the dark horse. Steve Alford is the real deal in Albuquerque as evidenced by his win over his former boss Bobby Knight and Texas Tech.

Outsiders may not agree.

In fact, ESPN "bracketologist" Joe Lunardi, at this early stage of league races, places UNLV and San Diego State as double-digit seeds in the 2008 NCAA Tournament — and New Mexico and BYU both as on-the-bubble teams looking in from the outside come March.

Lunardi has the Rebels taking the automatic bid, winning the MWC tournament on its home floor and ending up with a No. 11 seeding. San Diego State, he predicts, will be a No. 12.

BYU had been a single-digit seed hovering around Nos. 6 through 9 after strong nonconference showings against then-No. 6 Louisville, top-ranked North Carolina and then-No. 11 Michigan State.

Jeff Sagarin, USA Today's computer geek power ratings has the Lobos No. 31, BYU 43, UNLV 46, SDSU 56 and the Utes 57.

Here's my take:

The best three teams in the league are first, BYU; second, New Mexico; and third, Utah, with UNLV capable of breaking into the trio.

The key to the title will be winning on the road while protecting the home court.

I disagree with the national folks on the Cougar and Utes because of BYU's firepower and Utah's improvement at coaching. Plus, this is a league whose leaders and winners generally have power post players who can produce. The Cougars and Utes have both.

Utah moves up on my list because I think Jim Boylen is a better coach than SDSU's Steve Fisher. As inexperienced as Boylen might be as a head coach in Division I compared to Fisher, I believe Boylen will get his players to play harder over the course of a season.

If you look at the MWC stats — and I realize at this stage they mean little because of the differing schedules and strength of opponents — they do still represent trends. And BYU, New Mexico and Utah are Nos. 1 through 3 in rebounding — the sign of tough play.

I think BYU should be the favorite because of firepower. The Cougars have six players capable of scoring 15 to 20 points on any given night, plus, the league's best big man in Trent Plaisted.

Getting easy inside shots? BYU has the best chance of producing with Plaisted. The best outside shooting on a consistent basis? BYU has three shooters in Jonathan Tavernari, Lee Cummard and Sam Burgess, who rank among the most accurate archers in the league.

In plain shooting percentage, Cummard leads the league with a .609 average from the field as Cougar head coach Dave Rose has three players in the league's top nine in field goal percentage, including Plaisted at .572.

Plaisted is the workhorse. His 17 and 8 against Michigan State and 24 and 17 boards against No. 1 North Carolina and Tar Heel counterpart Tyler Hansbrough proved the junior can get right down nasty with the best in the country.

But BYU's chances may come down to Cummard, the most consistent defender and scorer on the Cougar squad. Cummard does all BYU's dirty work on defense, taking on the opponent's top offensive threat. He is a solid passer in setting up Plaisted inside.

If Cummard can keep out of foul trouble and stay in games (he managed only 20 minutes against Michigan State), BYU will certainly be the odds-on favorite to repeat for a title.

If Cummard gets hurt or starts fouling out, the Cougars will be in big trouble.

Utah deserves more respect than it is getting in January because of the win over Cal on the road. The Bears have dispatched USC and San Diego State and have an impressive 10-3 overall and 1-1 mark in the Pac-10 to date. It was simply one of the better nonconference victories so far.

Except for a slide at Gonzaga, Boylen would have had another big win, and this "tougher" schedule will pay dividends in weeks to come.

The Cougars start conference play Saturday at home against Colorado State. In their big "conference"-type road trip at Boise State last month, they failed. And that kind of slippage should be of great concern to Rose.

Still, numbers do some barking for Rose.

To date, the Cougars lead the league in eight of the 19 statistical team categories kept by the conference. They include scoring offense (79.9 ppg), scoring margin (16.4 ppg), rebounding offense (41.3), field goal percentage (.379), rebounding margin (+7.3), assists (18.43), 3-point field goals made (8.57) and defensive rebounds (29.29).

BYU is second in two of the other 19 categories — field goal percentage (.481) behind Utah (.498) and 3-point field goal defense (.379).

Those statistics, early as posted, do show a consistency from Rose's troops.

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