The Mountain West Conference tournament gets underway this week, and it promises to be memorable. Talent, intrigue, momentum, hatred, redemption, pride; it will all be on display and on the line.
It will be awesome. I guarantee it.
The following are a few key storylines to keep in mind to maximize viewing enjoyment.
Alford’s Personal Mascot
New Mexico has had a brilliant season. After being picked to finish fifth in the MWC, head coach Steve Alford has led the Lobos to their first outright regular season conference championship since 1994.
Alford deserves nothing but praise for his team’s achievements this year.
This week, however, Alford will lead his squad into the tournament with a good sized monkey clinging to his back.
Tattooed on the monkey’s forehead: Postseason Flop
Alford coached at Southwest Missouri State in the late 90s, made one NCAA tournament appearance, and coached his team to a Cinderella Sweet 16 run.
It’s been all downhill from there.
In his eight years as a head coach at Iowa, Alford’s teams had many successful runs through the Big Ten tournament and many quick exits from the NCAA tournament.
Iowa won just one NCAA tournament game in his eight years with the Hawkeyes. In 2006, Iowa earned a No. 3 seed, but was bounced from the first round by Northwestern State, a No. 14 seed.
Since arriving at New Mexico, Alford has averaged nearly 25 wins a season and has earned MWC Coach of the Year in two of the last three seasons.
Unfortunately, the Lobos have lost in the first round of the MWC tournament in each of his first two years.
Alford needs to lead New Mexico to a string of postseason victories to shake the stigma of past letdowns.
Speaking of Alford, most are well aware of his involvement in the post-game festivities following the Lobos’ win over BYU in Provo.
Alford was reprimanded for his failure to conduct himself as a professional and his use of inappropriate language toward Jonathan Tavernari and those fans of the Cougars lucky enough to be within earshot.
The venom has subsided as both teams have moved on with their schedules, but it certainly isn’t gone for good.
The Lobos and Cougars could potentially collide in the championship game. With the conference title on the line and thousands of ravenous fans from both schools sure to be in attendance, the intensity would be harrowing.
Of course, to reach the title game New Mexico would have to get past either Wyoming or Air Force and then defeat San Diego State or Colorado State.
The Aztecs have given the Lobos fits this year, earning a 10 point home victory in San Diego and playing neck-and-neck before falling in overtime in Albuquerque.
BYU faces an even more daunting challenge in their path to the final, as hometown UNLV could be lurking in the semifinals. The Rebels and Cougars also have a checkered recent history.
BYU and UNLV met in the conference championship game in 2007 and 2008. The Rebels won both times.
The postgame celebration turned ugly in 2008 as a number of altercations broke out between fans of the rival schools.
One can only hope the mutual dislike is kept under control this weekend.
The Toughness of Jimmer
BYU guard Jimmer Fredette has had his share of struggles this year with his health. An early bout with mononucleosis forced Fredette into limited action early in conference play.
Late in the season, Fredette couldn’t get his insides to cooperate once again and was relegated to the role of spectator for much of the Cougars’ loss to New Mexico.
Some have called Fredette’s toughness into question.
Only Jimmer Fredette knows exactly what he was going through physically. Strange as it seemed for Fredette to be present on the sidelines but unable to play, any conclusions drawn are nothing more than speculation.
That being said, speculation is rampant that Fredette lacks grit.
Some have even thrown around the "S" word:
The MWC tournament and the ensuing NCAA tournament will provide Jimmer Fredette an opportunity to silence the critics.
If he steps up and leads his team to a conference title, his naysayers will have nothing to do but whine stupidly about officiating.
If he struggles at all, and the Cougars fall short, it will only add fuel to a fire of reasonable doubt and increasingly legitimate speculation.
BYU and UNLV are each one game away from what would be an epic showdown in the MWC tournament semifinals. The Cougars are nationally ranked, a lock to make the NCAA tournament, and would enter with a record of 29-4.
The Rebels are licking their chops.
For whatever reason, BYU hasn’t been able to achieve any measure of success against the Rebels in Las Vegas. The last time the Cougars defeated UNLV in Las Vegas was Feb. 5, 2005.
Seven consecutive losses followed.
BYU appeared poised to end that streak earlier this year. They had been playing very well and entered the Thomas and Mack Center supremely confident.
The Rebels jumped out to a 47-18 lead and cruised to an easy victory over a dumbfounded Cougar squad.
BYU has the talent to exercise their Vegas demons this weekend, but history is most definitely against them.
The Cougars might not need to worry about facing the Rebels in the semifinals.
UNLV has some history of its own to worry about.
The Rebels will take on the Utah Utes in the first round. The Utes enter with a losing record, both in conference and overall.
UNLV still can’t feel too comfortable.
The Rebels struggled this year to matchup with Utah, leading to a pair of losses for UNLV when the two teams squared off. The Utes’ size bothered the Rebels all game, specifically shot-blocking gigantosaur (and MWC Defensive Player of the Year) David Foster.
Foster suffered a recent ankle injury and will be a game time decision. Without him, Utah’s chances at a third victory over UNLV shrink.
For the second consecutive year, San Diego State enters the MWC tournament hovering right around the at-large cut line for the NCAA tournament.
As of right now, most experts have the Aztecs in the field, but among the last few to make the list. With all the bid-stealing and bubble-bursting sure to take place all over the country this week, San Diego State needs to improve their position or likely suffer the same fate they were dealt a season ago.
San Diego State must get by Colorado State in the opening round to earn a likely date with New Mexico in the semifinals.
A win there would put the Aztecs in decent shape heading into Selection Sunday.
A loss would probably spell N-I-T.
The MWC has never placed more than three teams in the NCAA tournament.
San Diego State could change that this year with a deep run in Las Vegas.
The Finish Line
It has been a banner year for the MWC, but it means very little in the long run if the conference cannot punctuate a memorable season with postseason success.
The MWC tournament serves as a tune-up for the big dance, the NCAA Tournament.
As a whole, the MWC has experienced only moderate success on the biggest stage amidst the madness of March.
This year, that has to change.
Fair or not, the conference is ultimately regarded on the national level according to its performance in the big dance. A run to the Elite Eight would do wonders for the credibility of the entire MWC.
A two team scamper to the Sweet Sixteen would go a long way toward further establishing the reputation of the conference.
What the Mountain West cannot afford is another season ending in the disappointment of postseason under-performance.
The table is set. The opportunity is there. A little momentum never hurts.
This weekend, they’ll try to get the ball rolling.
Las Vegas is the place to be.