As the only coach whose team has faced Mountain West favorites San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico already this season, USC's Kevin O'Neill is uniquely qualified to lend his thoughts on the 2011-12 conference race.
Unfortunately O'Neill was reticent to divulge which of those three teams he thought was best in an interview earlier this week.
"All three of them are very capable of winning the Mountain West," O'Neill said. "If there's a three-way tie between them, it wouldn't surprise me a bit. I think they're all very, very good teams."
What O'Neill did say is he came away convinced San Diego State (9-2), UNLV (9-2) and New Mexico (7-2) are each "top 25 caliber teams" after all three outlasted USC (4-6) in similar low-scoring, closely contested games.
The Aztecs defeated the Trojans 56-54 on Nov. 17 thanks to a Xavier Thames basket with 1.8 seconds to go. The Rebels pulled away late for a 66-55 victory on Nov. 25 after USC's two top big men fouled out with four minutes remaining. And the Lobos survived a 14-minute field goal drought on Saturday to eke out a 44-41 victory at the Galen Center.
"The one common thread they have is they're all very, very well coached and they all have depth," O'Neill said. "In particular, New Mexico and Vegas have a ton of experienced players back, but I think all three of those teams are potential Sweet 16-type teams. They're very good and very talented."
Most prognosticators projected either UNLV or New Mexico to win the Mountain West entering the season, but San Diego State has overcome the loss of four starters from last year's 34-win team to establish itself as a threat. Not only have the Aztecs have defeated Pac-12 contenders Cal and Arizona and Big West favorites Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara, their only losses also came by two to Creighton and by 10 at undefeated Baylor.
"I'm not surprised at all. I thought they were very good from the get-go," O'Neill said. "When you win 30 games like they did, guys learn how to win. The guys they have on their team that are playing for the most part were around that kind of winning last year, whether they were sitting out or playing. Once you get it going like that, it's going to continue itself."