Handicapping the Mountain West - UNLV is a Good Bet

The Mountain West Conference does not always get the utmost consideration from the NCAA selection committee, so the post-season tournament often takes on added importance. BYU and Utah are probably going to get into the NCAA field no matter how they do in this contest, but for the others it's either win or stay home (or get an invite to the NIT or the CBI, I guess). The tournament starts with a play-in game on Tuesday and continues through Saturday.

Here are the numbers as they are posted at BetUS Sportsbook:

To Win Mountain West Tournament

BYU +175

New Mexico +300

San Diego State +650

UNLV +300

Utah +200

Field +2500

"Field" teams include Wyoming, TCU, Colorado State and Air Force. Every team is eligible to play in the post-season tournament. All games are being played at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, which of course is home to UNLV.

Here were the final standings in the conference, which determined seedings:

Mountain West Conf Record Complete Record
BYU 12-4 24-6
Utah 12-4 21-9
New Mexico 12-4 21-10
San Diego St. 11-5 21-8
UNLV 9-7 21-9
Wyoming 7-9 18-12
TCU 5-11 14-16
Colorado St. 4-12 9-12

The bottom two teams - Colorado State and Air Force, both part of the FIELD bet here (+2500 at BetUS) have a play-in game and are not really a factor in this thing.

The one advantage a team like UNLV (+300 at BetUS) has is that they are in such an attractive location that they usually get a chance to play the conference tournament at home. Last year they had to win the MWC tourney to get into the Big Dance, and did so the year before as well. This year it's the same story. The Rebels finished with a 21-9 overall record (9-7 in the conference) and their fifth-place finish is not enough to impress anyone on the NCAA selection committee.

They don't shoot well (42.5% overall), and their last two games have been awful from an offensive standpoint, as they have scored 46 points in each of them. To extend that even further, in the last three games UNLV has shot 34.5%, 30% and 33.3%, and against Wyoming on February 18 they were just 35.5% from the field.

UNLV may not get past its opening round game, which happens against SAN DIEGO STATE (+650 at BetUS) on Thursday. The Aztecs swept the season series against UNLV, effectively finishing off Lon Kruger's at-large hopes on Saturday with a 57-46 win back in San Diego, where neither team looked like they could hit the side of a barn (SDSU shot 35.7%), but Wink Adams, the Rebs' leader who does not shoot well to begin with, hit just one of nine from the field.

It is true that UNLV is very active on the defensive end, and forces a lot of turnovers. But San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who has won the whole thing before while with Michigan, has his team playing pressure basketball as well (8.2 steals per contest).

After a long conference winning streak (27 games, in fact), UNLV lost at the Thomas and Mack Center to San Diego State back on February 3. They have dropped five straight against the number. They are in horrible offensive form. The question is whether SDSU can beat them twice at a venue in which the Rebels have been almost invincible over the last couple of seasons. Like it or not, UNLV looms as a darkhorse, but they'll have to be nearly impossible to score on to overcome their own lack of potency.

If San Diego State gets by that first-round game, they are unquestionably the value play in this tournament. In fact, they may be the value play right now. They have four seniors playing key roles (Ryan Amoroso, Kyle Spain, Lorrenzo Wade, Richie Williams), so they have the experience and composure. They are aggressive on the defensive end and would have a lot of confidence coming out of that UNLV game with a victory. Fisher is a resourceful coach who has dealt with a lot of players being in and out of the lineup. Billy White, a sophomore forward who was providing a spark before going out with a knee injury (shooting 66% from the field), is back and should be ready to contribute again.

Don't get me wrong; I respect BYU (+175) and their big guns, Lee Cummard (17.1 ppg), Jonathan Tavernari (16.1 ppg), and Jimmer Fredette (16 ppg) and recognize that the Cougars traveled to San Diego to take a ten-point win back on February 24. UTAH (+200) is certainly going to be a threat, with its suddenly dominant big man Luke Nevill (16.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.7 blocks) and two players who average double digits off the bench (Tyler Kepkay, Shaun Green).

However, you have to understand that UNLV has now won 31 of their last 32 games at home, holding teams to under 63 ppg. No one in this field has beaten them at the Thomas & Mack except for San Diego State. There is also the element of a little desperation for both of those sides. So for the money, I see a play on either team, or both, to be worth it, because I think the conference winner is coming out of that game between the fourth and fifth seeds.