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Mountain West’s early tournament exits don’t temper 2012-13 expectations

Early tournament exits don’t temper 2012-13 expectations


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Colorado State mascot Cam the Ram head butts TCU mascot Super Frog during their Mountain West Conference Tournament game Thursday, March 8, 2012. Colorado State won 81-60.

Sat, Mar 17, 2012 (2 a.m.)

The Mountain West Conference scored a resounding victory on Selection Sunday, putting four teams in the NCAA Tournament, with three of them seeded 6 or better.

Less than a week later, the tone is decidedly more somber after three teams — UNLV (6), San Diego State (6) and Colorado State (11) — lost in their opening game. Only 5-seed New Mexico is still alive, playing 4-seed Louisville tonight at 6:40 after surviving against Long Beach State on Thursday.

Early exits are never good for a league, especially one outside the nonpower six, which doesn’t have the same annual battles about national respect. However, this isn’t a doom-and-gloom situation for the league.

First of all, while two of the games were upsets according to the seeds, the Aztecs were actually underdogs against North Carolina State, according to bookmakers.

More importantly, the league’s top teams are almost all poised to be even better next season.

Here’s a quick look at the top Mountain West contenders in 2012-13:


The Rebels were in a transition year, with Dave Rice coming in and bringing with him a fast-paced system. Early success sent expectations skyrocketing, but struggles on the road and an inability to keep certain teams off the glass limited what UNLV was able to accomplish.

In Year Two, the Rebels will have a chance to build off their successes with a revamped lineup that should be better suited for Rice’s system. They lose three starters — Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield and Brice Massamba — but bring in transfers Bryce Jones, a slashing guard, and Khem Birch, a McDonald’s All-American forward who will be eligible in December. High-school recruit Katin Reinhardt may fill that other hole in the lineup, and UNLV has another open scholarship available.

Add that to Anthony Marshall, Mike Moser and Justin Hawkins and you're looking at a top-20 team. Expect a national ranking to keep the Rebels on the national radar for much of the season.


This season was just gravy for The Show.

In what should have been a rebuilding year, coach Steve Fisher got the best out of his players en route to a second-straight league title. The Aztecs lose forwards Garrett Green and Tim Shelton, but conference player of the year Jamaal Franklin is back.

“A lot of guys out there thought that was a rebuilding year, as you all always mention, but I'm glad of what we accomplished,” Franklin said after Friday’s 79-65 loss to NC State. “But I can see us going farther. That's why I'm disappointed.”

The frontline won’t miss a beat with a trio of transfers coming in. Dwayne Polee (6-foot-7 from St. John’s), J.J. O’Brien (6-7 from Utah) and James Johnson (6-9 from Virginia, eligible in December) will likely make the Aztecs a preseason top-15 team.


If any of these teams appear headed for a setback, it’s the Lobos. Their next loss will be the final game for Drew Gordon as well as role player Phillip McDonald.

That kind of loss didn’t sink San Diego State, but Steve Alford may have to come up with the same type of excellent coaching season that Fisher just had.

The Lobos are bringing in two three-star frontcourt players, including 7-footer Obij Aget, but their 2012-13 success may be more reliant on the emergence of a bench player such as Demetrius Walker.

New Mexico certainly has a lot of the pieces, but the Lobos will be on a tier below the Aztecs and Rebels.


The Rams return almost every key player — top four scorers, top three rebounders — and add a pair of transfers in sophomore guard Daniel Bejarano from Arizona and senior forward Colton Iverson from Minnesota.

If those two make significant contributions then coach Tim Miles will feel that much better, but honestly the rotation he has returning would be enough to be a dark horse in the conference next year.

Junior forward Pierce Hornung pulled down 17 rebounds in their loss to Murray State and first-team all-conference pick Wes Eikmeier scored 10 points. Those two will lead the way of underrated inside-out combos on several national lists.

“It didn't turn out like we wanted, but I feel like we accomplished a lot,” Hornung said. “We definitely have goals next year that exceed where this year ended.”


Besides the overall talent, scheduling will be key, as it always is, to getting quality victories and impressing the committee come tournament time. The onus for that is on each school, but the league does catch a break with the inclusion of Nevada next season. It also adds Fresno State, which doesn’t help anybody, but the Wolfpack were a top-70 RPI team and they return their top two scorers.

This Mountain West season was a pleasant surprise that ended, pending a New Mexico run, with a whimper. Next year has the potential to be a great ride from start to finish.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or taylor.bern@lasvegassun.com. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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