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Tom Smart, Deseret News
BYU coach Dave Rose stands with Jackson Emery, left, Tyler Haws and Jimmer Fredette during a win over Utah.

With two teams ranked among the top 15 in the country — New Mexico and BYU — the Mountain West Conference is enjoying a banner basketball year.

In all, four MWC teams are ranked among the top 50 in the NCAA's RPI. Some bracketologists project the MWC earning as many as four bids to the NCAA Tournament.

But before that, the MWC Tournament opens this week in Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center.

What follows are five intriguing story lines to follow heading into the MWC Tournament.

1. MWC regular-season champions usually don't win the tournament crown. Can New Mexico buck that trend?

Last October, the Lobos were picked to finish fifth in the preseason MWC basketball poll. Who would have guessed that by the second week of March, the Lobos would find themselves ranked in the nation's top 10?

UNM (28-3, 14-2) clinched its first outright regular season MWC championship and enters this week's tourney as the No. 1 seed.

But that honor rarely translates into tournament success — the top seed has won the tournament title just twice in the past decade. That happened in 2000 (UNLV) and 2006 (San Diego State).

SDSU is the only team to claim an outright regular-season title and the tourney championship the same year.

2. Which star will lead his team to a tournament championship?

College basketball is a team game, but it's common during a tournament for a star player to put his teammates on his back and carry them to the promised land.

In recent years, former players like Utah's Luke Nevill; UNLV's Wink Adams and Kevin Kruger; San Diego State's Marcus Slaughter; and New Mexico's Danny Granger are among those who did just that in the MWC Tournament.

The likely tournament MVP candidates for this year include BYU's Jimmer Fredette, who leads the MWC in scoring; New Mexico's Darington Hobson and Dairese Gary, who guided the Lobos to the regular-season championship; San Diego State's Billy White and Kawhi Leonard; and UNLV's Tre'Von Willis.

Or will a darkhorse team, and star, emerge? Could players like Colorado State's Andy Ogide, or Utah's Marshall Henderson, get red hot and help their teams make a Cinderella run through the tournament?

3. Beware the sixth seed.

Here's a possible good omen for the Utes (14-16, 7-9), who are seeded No. 6 in the tournament.

The past five consecutive seasons, the No. 6 seed has upset the No. 3 seed.

In 2009, No. 6 Wyoming beat No. 3 New Mexico. In 2008, No. 6 Utah defeated No. 3 New Mexico. In 2007, No. 6 Colorado State knocked off No. 3 San Diego State. In 2006, No. 6 Utah edged No. 3 BYU. In 2005, No. 6 SDSU downed No. 3 Air Force.

Utah is hoping history repeats itself this week.

4. Is this the year the NCAA selection committee invites four MWC teams?

In 2002, 2003 and 2004, the MWC received three NCAA Tournament bids. But the league has never had four NCAA berths in one year.

New Mexico and regular-season runner-up BYU (28-4, 13-3) are mortal locks for the Big Dance, regardless of what happens this week, and are playing to enhance their seeding. UNM has been projected to be as high as a No. 2 seed, while the Cougars could receive a No. 4 seed. Meanwhile, UNLV (23-7, 11-5) and San Diego State (22-8, 11-5) are looking to polish their respective resumes.

To get four teams in, either UNLV or San Diego State may need to win the tournament title and garner the automatic berth. On the other hand, if UNM wins the tournament, it likely will be bestowed the highest seed in league history. The highest seed an MWC team has ever received came last year, when Utah was a No. 5 seed.

5. UNLV's home, sweet home court.

In the early days of the MWC Tournament, which began in 2000, UNLV enjoyed its homecourt advantage at the Thomas & Mack, advancing to the championship game in three of the first four years.

So the league moved the tournament to Denver, where fan support was lacking.

In 2007, the tournament returned to Las Vegas and the Runnin' Rebels promptly claimed the tournament championships in '07 and '08. There was a melee between fans after the '08 game against BYU, prompting the league to beef up its security measures and policies.

That ignited more debate about moving the tourney away from the Thomas & Mack. A year ago, UNLV's advantage wasn't an issue because of a quarterfinal loss.

But should UNLV reach the finals this year, that debate could rage once again.