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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Mountain West reset: Depth behind UNLV and San Diego State makes this league formidable

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Jamaal Franklin and San Diego State enter the season as co-favorites with UNLV (Getty Images)

With conference play fast approaching, we'll reassess our preseason projections. Here's a look back at the Mountain West Preview and some updated predictions for the league season:

Conference RPI: 2

Record against Top 25 teams: 2-5

Preseason predictions I'd like to have back: Projecting Nevada to finish ahead of Wyoming and Boise State and  leaving Anthony Bennett and Leonard Washington off the first team all-league team. The Wolf Pack were the league's lone disappointment in non-league play, while Bennett and Washington are front runners for Mountain West player of the year honors at this point along with reigning player of the year Jamaal Franklin of San Diego State.

Preseason predictions I still feel good about: My preseason top four of UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico and Colorado State still seems reasonable. I'm more confident in San Diego State than UNLV right now, but the Rebels still have the most talent in the conference. You can also argue unbeaten Wyoming could crack the top four, but I need to see more from the Cowboys before I'm ready to buy into them finishing ahead of a New Mexico or Colorado State.

Conference favorite: San Diego State and UNLV began the season as co-favorites, and there's no reason to alter that now with the Aztecs boasting a 12-2 record and the Rebels off to a 13-2 start. The reason I'd lean San Diego State over UNLV right now is because the Rebels have some issues that concern me even if their ceiling is the highest among Mountain West teams. They don't have a true point guard, the shot selection of their wings has been reckless and all the new faces haven't meshed well enough yet for the team to reach its potential. There's still time for UNLV to jell, but it will be worrisome if the Rebels aren't playing better in a month.

Who else could win it: While I'm still of the belief San Diego State and UNLV are the league's best two teams, what makes the Mountain West special this season is its depth. Road wins will be like gold this season because five or six teams have shown the ability to beat elite opponents. New Mexico boasts a deep, talented backcourt and wins over UConn and Cincinnati, but the Lobos need more consistency out of wing Tony Snell. Colorado State (13-2) has met expectations after adding former Minnesota big man Colton Iverson to its guard-heavy core from last year's NCAA tournament team. Wyoming and Boise State have also been impressive, but let's get into league play before labeling either a contender.

Biggest surprise: It's surprising Boise State upset Creighton on the road and pushed Michigan State at Breslin Center, but the bigger shock is that Wyoming still doesn't have a loss. Though the Cowboys' schedule hasn't exactly been treacherous, they boast solid wins over Colorado and Illinois State. Wyoming's defense again has been stingy and oft-criticized Leonard Washington has carried the offense, but exactly how good the Cowboys are remains a mystery. Can they weather the loss of Luke Martinez (broken finger) for a few weeks and prove they can win on the road? We'll find out this month.

Biggest disappointment: In a thriving league in which virtually every other team has met or exceeded expectations, the lone exception is Nevada. The backcourt duo of Deonte Burton and Malik Story was supposed to carry the Wolfpack into NCAA tournament contention in their first season in the Mountain West, but that appears unlikely now. Interior scoring has been a problem for Nevada, as oddly has perimeter shooting. As a result, the Wolf Pack (9-5) have losses to Pacific, UC Irvine, Drake and Marshall on their resume.

Player of the Year: Although UNLV's Anthony Bennett is clearly the league's top NBA prospect, it's neck and neck between him, Franklin and Washington for the title of the Mountain West's premier player this season. Unless one of them separates from each other in conference play, don't be surprised if the nod merely goes to the best player on the best team. Bennett would be my choice if the season ended today because he's not only averaging 19.9 points and 9.1 rebounds but doing it while shooting 56.5 percent from the field. Franklin has sparked San Diego State with 17.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists, but he needs to cut down his turnovers and stop trying to prove to pro scouts he can sink 3-pointers.

Best freshman: At the moment, it's Bennett in a landslide. The UNLV freshman is not only the best freshman in the Mountain West but he's in the running for best freshman in the nation. In UNLV's last five games alone, Bennett is averaging 21.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. The more he touches the ball, the better off the Rebels are.

Three fearless predictions:

• Wyoming's first loss will come Saturday at Nevada. With Luke Martinez likely still out and the Cowboys on the road in a hostile environment, they won't have quite enough to get past Deonte Burton, Malik Story and the Wolfpack.

• It's hard for a league with only nine teams to get five in the NCAA tournament because they beat each-other up in league play, but the Mountain West has a great chance with six teams in the RPI top 50. If the top teams can achieve some separation by avoiding suffering too many road losses to the bottom three in the league, five is a very realistic possibility.

• The Mountain West champion will have at least four losses. The road venues are too tough, the teams are too good and the trips are too grueling for UNLV, San Diego State or any other Mountain West team to blow through the rest of the league this season.

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