Eight games. Four days. One champion. It's tourney time again in the Mountain West Conference.
With the regular season all wrapped up, the seedings are set in stone:
1. New Mexico
4. San Diego State
5. Colorado State
9. Air Force
With considerable separation between the top and bottom of the MWC this season, the possibility for upsets appears low. The most intriguing questions revolve around the NCAA Tournament seedings for the Lobos, Cougars, and Rebels, in addition to whether or not San Diego State will secure a bid.
From Wednesday's play-in game through Saturday's championship matchup, here's how I think the 2010 MWC tournament will shake out.
No. 8 Wyoming vs. No. 9 Air Force
Season Series: Tied, 1-1
Air Force 70, Wyoming 63 at Colorado Springs (Jan. 30)
Wyoming 58, Air Force 49 at Laramie (Mar. 2)
Last season, Air Force's only win against an MWC opponent came in this game with a 71-67 upset of Colorado State. The Falcons managed to get a win before this year's tournament against these very Cowboys.
After an injury took down Wyoming star Afam Muojeke, the Cowboys have been in a tailspin, losing nine of their last 11 by an average of 18 points per game.
However, the Pokes avenged their January loss to Air Force earlier this month, and will do so again in Las Vegas.
Wyoming 63, Air Force 59
No. 1 New Mexico vs. No. 8 Wyoming
Season Series: New Mexico, 2-0
New Mexico 70, Wyoming 68 at Laramie (Jan. 16)
New Mexico 83, Wyoming 61 at Albuquerque (Feb. 17)
Wyoming pulled the shocker of the tournament last year by beating the third-seeded Lobos 75-67 in the first round. The loss sent the Lobos to the NIT despite earning a share of the MWC regular season crown.
This year, the names will be the same, but the teams are in much different places. New Mexico has soared to win the outright MWC title, while Wyoming is still caught in the aforementioned tailspin. This should be a laugher.
New Mexico 80, Wyoming 57
No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 5 Colorado State
Season Series: SDSU, 2-0
SDSU 64, CSU 52 at Fort Collins (Jan. 30)
SDSU 68, CSU 55 at San Diego (Mar. 3)
If any game in the first round has upset potential, it's this one. Colorado State's rise to fifth place would be the surprise of the year if not for New Mexico's phenomenal season. Tim Miles is shaping a future contender, to be sure.
Even so, the Rams' talent can't yet match that of the Aztecs. Kawhi Leonard has the ability to take over and win this game by himself if needed. The only way SDSU loses this game is if the worry over a trip to the Big Dance makes them play tight.
It will be closer than the experts think, but the Aztecs will ultimately do just enough to win.
SDSU 67, CSU 61
No. 2 BYU vs. No. 7 TCU
Season Series: BYU, 2-0
BYU 76, TCU 56 at Provo (Feb. 2)
BYU 107, TCU 77 at Fort Worth (Mar. 6)
TCU's early 18-4 lead over BYU on Saturday nearly caused bedlam along the Wasatch Front. In the end, the Cougar bench eventually carried the day.
BYU is clearly disappointed by falling short of their fourth consecutive MWC regular season title, but saw the adverse effects of playing bummed rather quickly against the Frogs.
The Cougars' depth will again be key, but the bench will likely not be as urgently needed this time.
BYU 88, TCU 62
No. 3 UNLV vs. No. 6 Utah
Season Series: Utah, 2-0
Utah 73, UNLV 69 at Las Vegas (Jan. 16)
Utah 66, UNLV 61 at Salt Lake City (Feb. 17)
No one is exactly sure how the Utes managed to beat the Rebels twice this season, but facts are facts.
Utah should be plenty confident seeing UNLV again, but a two-game losing streak, plus the injury to big man David Foster, appear to have broken the defending tournament champions' collective back.
On their home floor in this tournament, the Rebels always step their game up. The added element of revenge should make this a breeze for UNLV.
UNLV 75, Utah 57
No. 1 New Mexico vs. No. 4 San Diego State
Season Series: Tied, 1-1
SDSU 74, New Mexico 64 at San Diego (Jan. 5)
New Mexico 88, San Diego State 86 (OT) at Albuquerque (Feb. 6)
With a 14-game winning streak (15 after the predicted first-round victory), New Mexico is arguably the nation's hottest team, though it hasn't happened without a pinch of drama.
The Lobos ended the regular season with four taxing victories: a three-point nail-biter over Air Force, a six-point slugfest against Colorado State, the two-point classic over BYU, and a come-from-behind, seven-point win over TCU.
Many would say the Lobos are lucky, but the three-headed monster of Darington Hobson, Dairese Gary, and Roman Martinez would beg to differ. Each has scored in double figures in both meeting between New Mexico and SDSU this season.
The key for the Aztecs is Kawhi Leonard. He only scored five points on 1-of-7 shooting in SDSU's January win over the Lobos, and only managed 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting when the Aztecs came up short in Albuquerque.
If Leonard has a career day, the Aztecs will pull off the upset. If someone else has to take the lead for SDSU, it likely won't be enough to cool off New Mexico. My gut tells me it should be an epic game, but Leonard won't quite have the seasoning to make the difference.
New Mexico 83, SDSU 80
No. 2 BYU vs. No. 3 UNLV
Season Series: Tied, 1-1
BYU 77, UNLV 73 at Provo (Jan. 6)
UNLV 88, BYU 74 at Las Vegas (Feb. 6)
Here are the facts:
*BYU is 0-3 against UNLV all-time in the MWC tournament, losing by eight points or more each time.
*The only time BYU won the MWC tournament (2001), the Cougars were a No. 2 seed. UNLV did not play in that tournament due to a postseason ban.
*The last two times BYU has been a No. 2 seed, the Cougars have lost in the semifinals (2003 vs. Colorado State, 2004 vs. Utah).
Here are the talking points:
*Is BYU's Jimmer Fredette back? He saw 22 minutes of action against TCU, scoring 18 points, both signaling his highest output since Feb. 24. Will Fredette make it back to full strength in time for this game? Will BYU have a chance if he isn't?
*UNLV has owned BYU in Sin City, regardless of the time of year in which the game is played. Will the losing streak plague the Cougars, or will it cause the Rebels to be overconfident?
Here is the prediction:
Even though the Cougars are assured an NCAA bid, they will almost certainly play a bit tight in this one. A win and the subsequent title game trip likely locks up a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. A loss could drop BYU to a No. 6 seed or worse, and hurt the chances for the elusive Big Dance win.
Meanwhile, UNLV should have plenty of momentum after finally beating Utah and locking up a spot in the NCAA tournament. The Rebels will have nothing to play for except the chance to again embarrass BYU and improve their NCAA seed. It should be enough.
UNLV 77, BYU 69
No. 1 New Mexico vs. No. 3 UNLV
Season Series: Tied, 1-1
UNLV 74, New Mexico 62 at Albuquerque (Jan. 9)
New Mexico 76, UNLV 66 at Las Vegas (Feb. 10)
Despite their less-than-enthralling regular season meetings, a UNM-UNLV title game has the potential to be one of the greatest games in MWC history. UNM is perhaps the best team the league has ever seen, and they're going up against the nearly-invincible tournament hosts.
Of course, these dream matchups rarely turn out the way we all want them to. Somehow, the basketball gods will conspire to make this game a blowout.
Regardless, the edge goes to the Lobos for their depth and the drive to a seed higher than any MWC team has even sniffed in the league's history.
UNLV has been bitten by the lack of motivation bug more than once this season, and I don't see enough reasons for them to give a maximum effort, even with the tournament title on the line.
New Mexico 79, UNLV 69
Thanks to the inevitable jostling of Championship Week, I see New Mexico earning No. 2 seed in the Big Dance, BYU falling to a No. 6 seed, and UNLV rising to a No. 7 seed.
San Diego State's close predicted loss will again, not be enough as the Aztecs will be shut out of the NCAA tournament and earn a top seed in the NIT for the second straight year.