Steve C. Wilson, Associated Press
New Mexico Lobos coach Steve Alford

When the Mountain West Conference announced that its annual basketball tournament would be returning to Las Vegas in 2007 after a three-year hiatus in Denver, almost everyone around the league rejoiced.

But now after UNLV, capitalizing on its homecourt advantage, won the tournament last year, criticism is gradually surfacing again. And if the Runnin' Rebels win it again, that criticism is certain to increase.

One of the reasons the tournament moved to the Mile High City in the first place was to avoid playing it on the homecourt of one of the MWC schools. But poor attendance doomed the Denver experiment and MWC administrators jumped at the chance to return to Las Vegas.

The most outspoken coach on this issue recently is New Mexico's Steve Alford, who said he's a big proponent of holding conference tournaments at a neutral site — especially when the tournament champion receives the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

"With that being true, then the league tournament needs to be a neutral site so it's fair for everybody," said Alford, who's in his first season at New Mexico. "In my opinion, there's not a lot of fairness right now for the other eight league schools, knowing that one of the league schools gets to play home games and the other eight have to play neutral games and, if you're playing UNLV, play a road game. To me, there's not a lot of balance to that."

Utah coach Jim Boylen does not share that sentiment, however.

"It's not an issue with me. It's what's best for the league to have it in Vegas for now. It's where our league is at," Boylen said. "I'm not going to make a big deal about it. I've gotten 40 or 50 requests from people I know around the country who want to come watch us play in the tournament, and I think a big reason for that is because it's in Vegas. Is it the ideal situation for everybody? Maybe not. Is it the ideal situation for the league? I think maybe it is."

Predictably, UNLV coach Lon Kruger said keeping the tournament in Las Vegas makes sense.

"I think people recognize Las Vegas is a place people want to go to and watch games. In the other coaches' minds, if there was another place to play other than the Thomas & Mack, that would probably be the ideal scenario. It may work out that way in the long run. It's a moot point. The tournament's going to be here for a couple of more years."

According to MWC commissioner Craig Thompson, the MWC is under contract to play the tournament in Las Vegas through 2010.

"It comes right down to that is where the fans want to attend," Thompson said. "Now, possibly if Las Vegas city builds a new facility and tries to attract other events, it's still going to be in Las Vegas, but it may not be UNLV's home court. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

Player of the year

The MWC will announce its annual awards next Monday. While several of the league's coaches have said BYU's Lee Cummard should be the player of the year, Alford is campaigning for his senior guard, J.R. Giddens. Giddens is No. 2 in the league in scoring (18.8 ppg) and No. 1 in rebounding (8.3 rpg).

"I just don't think anyone has done more in this league, as far as being an MVP candidate, than what J.R. Giddens has done for us," Alford said. "This same team with Tony Dandridge was in last place last year. Now all we've done is substitute Dairese Gary, a freshman, for Tony Dandridge and basically, the rest of the team is the same. He's taken this team to a potential third-place finish, double-digit wins in the league, 22-plus wins overall. He's in the top five of several statistical categories, leading in several of them. I just don't know of a more valuable player to his team than J.R. has been to us."

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