The Mountain West has had a legitimate claim on being the top conference out West in recent years. That’s not going to happen this season.
With the Pac-12 making its long-awaited comeback and turnover at key programs in the Mountain West, the MW may have trouble just holding off the West Coast for league bragging rights.
Even so, the two teams at the top of the league are as good as ever. San Diego State and New Mexico have had standout non-conference seasons, fueled by unexpected breakouts by Xavier Thames and Cameron Bairstow. Boise State doesn’t have a marquee win yet, but the Broncos have one of their best rosters in program history.
Other programs have work to do — both in the short term and long term.
Early Season Report Card: Mountain West
NCAA teams as of today: New Mexico, San Diego State
Bubble watch: Boise State
Best win: New Mexico 86, Creighton 80
Worst loss: Cal State Bakersfield 74, Nevada 66
Power rankings so far
1. San Diego State
2. New Mexico
3. Boise State
4. Utah State
6. Colorado State
7. Fresno State
10. San Jose State
11. Air Force
Important non-conference games remaining
New Mexico vs. Marquette (Dec. 21)
San Diego State at Kansas (Jan. 5)
MVP so far: Xavier Thames, San Diego State
A secondary scorer on teams featuring Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, the point guard Thames has come into his own as a senior. His opportunities have increased, but his efficiency numbers explain why Thames has gone from barely averaging double figures to averaging 17.4 points. Thames has gone from shooting 35.1 percent from the field to 44.9 and from 35.6 percent from 3 to 51.4. Thames scored 29 points against Marquette and 26 against Creighton in San Diego State’s breakout performance in the Wooden Legacy tournament.
Top freshmen: Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen, San Diego State
Standout signing classes for San Diego State and UNLV are a year away, so the best candidates are the Aztecs duo off the bench. The forward Shrigley and the guard Allen are averaging a combined 12 points per game.
Top newcomer: J.J. Avila, Colorado State
A transfer from Navy, Avila is a major reason Colorado State may keep its head above water despite an exodus of seniors from last year’s 26-win team. Avila is averaging 19.2 points while shooting 50.7 percent from the field. The 6-7 junior leads his team in assists (3.4) and is second in rebounds (6.1)
Surprise player: Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
New Mexico already has Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk, the foundation of the Lobos’ Mountain West champion team last season. Bairstow has given first-year coach Craig Neal a big three. Bairstow is leading the Lobos in scoring at 20.7 points per game, more than twice his average from a year ago.
Early season flop: UNLV
Few teams can lose a No. 1 overall draft pick without much of a dropoff, but UNLV is flirting with missing the NCAA Tournament. Home losses to UCSB, Arizona State and Illinois are particularly concerning, especially for a team that underachieved a year ago. There’s still talent here, led by Khem Birch, but the Runnin’ Rebels are last in the Mountain West in offensive efficiency on KenPom.com.
Lingering concerns: The depth of the league
The Mountain West produced a league-record five NCAA teams last season but won’t come close to that number this season. San Diego State is a virtual lock for the Tourney, and Boise State a legitimate hopeful. New Mexico looks like a strong contender even if the Lobos lost at home to New Mexico State on Tuesday. After that, the league has few certainties. The bottom half of the league is dead weight. UNLV is 4-4, and Colorado State is rebuilding. Utah State might have the potential to surprise in league play, but the Aggies lost in the non-conference schedule to BYU and Pacific from the West Coast Conference. Three NCAA bids may be the maximum here.
Best NCAA resume: San Diego State
Steve Fisher keeps losing key players (Kawhi Leonard, Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley) and continues to put Mountain West contenders on the court. San Diego State did most of its heavy lifting against Creighton and Marquette in the Wooden Legacy, played in Anaheim, Calif. But don’t forget the Aztecs gave Arizona a game on Nov. 14, a showing that’s more impressive in retrospect. Kansas doesn’t lose in Lawrence often, but San Diego State’s trip there on Jan. 5 is awfully interesting.
Photo courtesy of Ernie Anderson/San Diego State athletics.