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Deep Mountain West race may take shape Saturday

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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Steve Alford (AP)

With eight members this season instead of nine, the Mountain West Conference's hoops schedule dropped from 16 games to 14.

That makes for less room for error if teams in the title hunt give up ground early.

And that makes Saturday crucial for a handful of teams in the league's upper crust.

The league's most intriguing story so far is, without question, San Diego State.

After escaping a scare at home last Saturday against UNLV thanks to a Jamaal Franklin buzzer-beater, almost no one gave the Aztecs a chance heading on the road to face red-hot New Mexico — the league's preseason favorite.

Despite falling behind 10-0 to start the game, SDSU responded with a monster second-half run and escaped with a 75-70 win. But Steve Fisher's club left Albuquerque left town with more than a win.

Through one week, SDSU and surging Colorado State are tied atop the Mountain West standings, both at 2-0.

The Aztecs get a nice landing spot after their two-game grinder to start conference play, hosting banged-up Air Force at home on Saturday.

Keeping pace will be tougher for Colorado State, who travels to face a very improved Wyoming team that was going toe-to-toe with New Mexico last Saturday before the Lobos' late surge led to a 10-point win.

Maybe even more interesting is what's brewing directly below the league's two undefeated teams, as UNLV and New Mexico are both at 1-1. The two will meet on Saturday night in Las Vegas, with the loser potentially falling two games out of first place right out of the gates.

"There's no doubt that New Mexico's going to come in as a desperate team," UNLV coach Dave Rice said following his team's 101-78 thumping of TCU Wednesday night. "And we certainly are a very desperate team as well. Not because we lost a game, but that's the attitude we need to take."

A loss for UNLV would do damage to its hopes for its first ever Mountain West regular season title, but New Mexico might suffer even more with a defeat.

While the Rebels have one of the nation's most sparkling NCAA tournament résumés to this point, New Mexico's could use some help.

After suffering two unsightly losses to New Mexico State and Santa Clara on what was far from a loaded non-conference schedule, the Lobos could use their first win over a ranked team — especially on the road — and also their first over an RPI top 50 opponent. It could also help solidify the Mountain West's standing as a potential four-bid league, which would be quite the accomplishment considering BYU's absence from the conference.

As for the league title, it won't be decided in late January, but this weekend's outcomes could make grabbing the top spot in March much tougher for a couple of the predicted contenders.

Follow Ryan Greene on Twitter: @ryanmgreene

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