(SportsNetwork.com) - There is a mix of old and new when it comes to teams that have the inside track to the championship in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, but it will all take a few days to sort it out as 10 league members get together at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas starting on Wednesday.
As for the team that has made it a habit of being in the mix when the title game rolls around, the San Diego State Aztecs are the second seed this season after matching Boise State for the top overall record in the conference with a 14-4 mark. San Diego State (24-7, 14-4) is tied with New Mexico (15-15, 7-11) for the most tournament crowns with four, with those two programs competing for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three years.
The Aztecs figure to be a contender once more, not because they can score a lot of points and blow out opponents, but because they play a ruthless defense that suffocates and tires foes as they extend from one end of the floor to the other, relentless in their pursuit of controlling the tempo and the clock. Skylar Spencer may not be a household name with his 3.7 ppg, but thanks to 5.1 rpg and 78 blocked shots, he was named the MWC Defensive Player of the Year along with Wyoming's Larry Nance, Jr.
A First-Team All-MWC selection, JJ O'Brien (9.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg) brings a tenacity to the floor that translates to other SDSU members Winston Shepard (11.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Aqeel Quinn (11.0 ppg) and should be a driving force in keeping SDSU in the running for another championship.
As for the Broncos (24-7, 14-4), one of the many teams that is relatively new to the MWC after defecting from the Western Athletic Conference, they lost one of their top players in Anthony Drmic to an injury after just seven games and still they were able to mount a charge during conference play, winning six straight to close out the regular season and 14 of the last 15 on the schedule overall.
Picking up the pieces after Drmic went down, Derrick Marks led the attack for Boise State with his 19.6 ppg overall, a number that swelled to 21.3 ppg in league action. A 46.0 percent shooter behind the 3-point line who also led the Broncos with 88 assists and 54 steals, it was rather easy choosing Marks as the MWC Player of the Year. But Marks didn't do it all alone, in fact he had an unlikely accomplice in James Webb III who came out of nowhere to average 12.9 ppg and 9.0 rpg in league play, en route to being named the MWC Newcomer of the Year. Big man Nick Duncan (9.2 ppg) proved to be a tough matchup for defenders because he's capable of slipping out to the perimeter and hitting triples at a rate of 42.2 percent versus the rest of the MWC.
The third seed this time around, Colorado State (26-5, 13-5) might be able to shake things up for either Boise State or San Diego State, but there is much that has to fall perfectly into place for the Rams to make a serious push toward their first MWC title since 2003. The program was on fire coming out of the gate this season, going undefeated in non-conference play (13-0) and winning the first 14 games on the schedule, but everyone knows that conference play is a completely different beast.
However, J.J. Avila (16.9 ppg) and Daniel Bejarano (11.1 ppg), both of whom were named to all-conference teams on Tuesday, were significant parts of a squad that managed to outscore league foes by an impressive 8.4 ppg, not an easy trick given how tough some of those programs were to battle on their home floors.
Like Boise State, another new face in the chase for the championship is fourth-seeded Wyoming (22-9, 11-7), a team which enters this event with an all-time record of only 7-15, having played in only one title game back in 2006, an overtime loss to San Diego State. There was one stretch during which the Pokes had some issues late in the season, but that was due to Nance being on the sidelines due to illness. An All-MWC First Team pick and Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Nance Jr. has since returned to provide the program some much-needed momentum by averaging 17.6 ppg and 8.6 rpg in league play. Add in Josh Adams (12.5 ppg) and a spunky Riley Grabau (9.0 ppg) and it is difficult to count out Wyoming.
Then there are the other six teams taking part in the tournament this year, but really only a couple of them have the potential to make something significant happen. Host UNLV (17-14, 8-10) has one of the top youngsters in Christian Wood (15.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 87 blocks), but losing Rashad Vaughn (17.8 ppg) to injury will be too much for the seventh seed to overcome. Eighth- seeded New Mexico, the three-time defending champion, doesn't have nearly enough fire power on offense to make enough of a difference, while Utah State (18-12, 11-7) is running on emotion these days as the fifth-seeded Aggies would love nothing more than to send off retiring head coach Stew Morrill with one last statement win.
In all honesty, the MWC is a league that, while being made up of 11 total members, perhaps only four teams have a realistic shot at winning the tournament and earning that automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Could there be an upset or two somewhere along the way? By all means. But the experience and defensive prowess of a team like San Diego State will probably factor in the most when it's all said and done.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: San Diego State