Mountain West tournament preview: Expect a Aztecs-Lobos rubber match

The Dagger will be previewing this week's marquee conference tournaments. Here's our look at the Mountain West Conference

Mountain West Conference Tournament
Dates: March 12-15
Site: Las Vegas (Thomas & Mack Center)
Top four seeds: 1. San Diego State 2. New Mexico 3. Nevada 4. UNLV
Draw: Click here

Best draw: New Mexico's late collapse at San Diego State last Saturday cost it the Mountain West title, but the Lobos did receive a consolation prize. Their draw as a No. 2 seed is far more favorable than that of the top-seeded Aztecs. Though seventh-seeded Fresno State has surged over the last month of the season, New Mexico handled the Bulldogs by 11 in Fresno. Also the Lobos landed on the opposite side of the draw from host UNLV, which handed them one of their three league losses this season. They'll likely get either third-seeded Nevada or slumping sixth-seeded Boise State.   

Worst draw: San Diego State. Conversely San Diego State's draw is less favorable than New Mexico's if only because of their potential semifinal opponents. One is a Wyoming team that is the only team to beat the Aztecs this season besides Arizona and New Mexico. The other is host UNLV, which has twice lost to San Diego State but led well into the second half in Las Vegas and will be highly motivated to avoid a third loss. San Diego State certainly should still reach the final, but it's path is slightly more treacherous.  

Three players to watch:

• Cameron Bairstow, F, New Mexico — Nobody has improved more over the past two seasons than Bairstow, who averaged 3.7 points per game as a sophomore. The 6-foot-9 Aussie native has averaged 20.3 points per game this season and shot 56.5 percent from the field. 

• Xavier Thames, G, San Diego State — Slowed by a back injury as a junior, Thames has shown his full range of talent as a senior. The MVP of the Mountain West champion Aztecs has averaged 16.9 points per game and is deadly in the pick and roll.  

• Deonte Burton, G, Nevada — The best NBA prospect in the Mountain West? It might be Burton, an explosive 6-foot-1 point guard who is dynamic attacking the rim and creating for himself of his teammates. 

Bubble implications: None, really. San Diego State and New Mexico are playing to improve their seeding, with the Aztecs looking to climb to the No. 2 or 3 line and the Lobos taking aim at perhaps a No. 5 or 6. The rest of the league needs to win the tournament to land an NCAA bid, a disappointment for a league that has secured as many as five bids as recently as last year. Preseason contender Boise State has been especially disappointing.

Projected champ: New Mexico. The Lobos have a more favorable draw than San Diego State, more offensive weapons and a larger turnout of fans in Las Vegas if past years are an indication. New Mexico routed San Diego State in Albuquerque and led the Aztecs by 16 in the second half at Viejas Arena before Steve Fisher made a brilliant move to experiment with a 1-3-1 zone. New Mexico won't be caught off guard if the Aztecs mix in some zone this time around.  

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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