Mar 092004
 
Authors: Vince Blaser

The usual bottom-feeders are now on top, but not much has

changed in the overall landscape of the Mountain West Conference

for men’s basketball since the conference started play in 1999.

When the eight teams that make up the Mountain West broke away

from the Western Athletic Conference, optimism was the new league

could potentially join the elite in college basketball.

Utah and UNLV had both made Final Four appearances in the 1990s,

New Mexico had been a frequent visitor to the Top 25 and Brigham

Young had great financial support.

However, while the Mountain West has fielded two or three teams

in the NCAA Tournament every year, no team from the Mountain West

has ever made it past the second round in the Big Dance and Top 25

rankings have been extremely rare. Favorites to win the conference

tournament have not won in the past, and every team has enjoyed a

little success in the conference.

This season has been no different. While a few teams are

expected to get in, no team is expected to make a big run in the

NCAA Tournament. The conference tournament this year will be played

at Pepsi Center in Denver for the first time, moving from Las

Vegas.

The games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday will answer many

lingering questions in the jumbled mess that is the Mountain

West.

Who’s dancing?

The MWC likely will field two or three teams in the Big Dance.

Many college basketball experts say that Air Force and BYU are in

the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in Denver.

However, the Falcons will put themselves in jeopardy if they

lose to CSU in the first round, and BYU will do the same if it

loses in the second round to Utah and the Utes win the conference

tournament.

Utah also has an outside shot of an at-large bid, but the Utes

would have to reach the finals to get any chance.

Southern Illinois’ loss to Southwest Missouri State in the

semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, won

Tuesday night by Northern Iowa, means one fewer at-large spot is

available in the field of 65.

Is Air Force for real?

The Falcons have always been the perennial whipping boys of both

the Western Athletic and the Mountain West conferences, going

70-296 since joining the WAC in 1979.

But head coach Joe Scott will get national coach of the year

consideration after the complete turnaround this season. The

Falcons had a conference-record five road wins and believe in

Scott’s Princeton-style system.

However, they have no history of doing well in the conference

tournament and their size may become a factor in postseason

play.

Can CSU pull off another miracle run?

If the Rams had been told before the season started that they

would be playing Air Force in the first round of the MWC

Tournament, they likely would have been happy.

However, the Rams finished in the basement of the MWC at 4-10

after losing seven straight games before beating New Mexico

Saturday.

The team faced a myriad of problems this season, including

injuries to top players, inconsistent play and fundamental

mistakes. However, CSU made the run to win last year’s conference

tournament after losing seven straight conference games, and are

hoping history will repeat. Center Matt Nelson and shooting guard

Micheal Morris are still hurting, but the Rams are the healthiest

they have been since conference play began.

“We know what we’re capable of,” Morris said.

Thursday’s matchup against the Falcons at 7 p.m. on ESPN-Plus

will be the first time CSU has faced Air Force with Nelson this

season. Air Force won the previous meetings 65-57 and 52-44.

Tickets

Single-session tickets for students at the Mountain West

Tournament are $10 per session. Buying tickets for Session II on

Thursday will be good for the CSU vs. Air Force game and the UNLV

vs. New Mexico game at 10 p.m. Call 491-7267 for more ticket

information.

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