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Rebels tip off prime opportunity in flailing Mountain West

When in doubt — and doubt surrounds most of the basketball teams in the Mountain West at the moment — it would be easy to side with Steve Fisher. He gets the job done at San Diego State year after year.

So why would this conference season be any different?

It could be different because the Aztecs, although loaded with talent, enter league play with a 7-6 record that includes eye-popping losses to Grand Canyon and San Diego. Two months ago, when San Diego State was voted the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West, this was not the vision in anyone’s crystal ball.

So, after all 11 teams have been exposed to different degrees in non-conference play, who’s the favorite?

“It’s a great question,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, whose Rebels host Fresno State Wednesday night at 8 to open conference season. “I’m not a good prognosticator.”

Rice is not about to proclaim the Rebels as the favorites, but that’s the label they deserve, and it’s not hometown newspaper bias. By beating Indiana and Oregon, teams ranked in the top 15 at the time, UNLV (9-4) put two significant lines on its NCAA Tournament resume. It also figures to be favored in its first nine league games.

Still, the Rebels have flaws, and history is not working in their favor. UNLV has not won a regular-season title in the past 15 years, finished seventh last season, and last won the conference tournament in 2008. Rice’s first four teams deserved the underachiever label.

Since the 2010-11 season, Fisher has coached San Diego State to a league-best 73-23 record and four regular-season championships. History is on his side. The suspicion is if the switch is there to be flipped, Fisher will probably find it.

“I think everyone is going to play even better than they played in the non-conference,” Rice said. “Certainly, there were some disappointing losses for all of us. But I think this league will be very competitive. I like our chances to be successful in the league.”

It could be a bunch of teams competing for only one NCAA Tournament spot. With a pile of ugly nonconference losses in the rearview mirror, the Mountain West is rated the nation’s 10th-best conference by Ken Pomeroy (Kenpom.com). As of today, it’s not a multiple-bid league.

Pomeroy’s ratings have overtaken the Ratings Percentage Index as the most referenced system for comparing college basketball teams from coast to coast. UNLV is the top Mountain West team, according to Pomeroy, at 71st in the nation. Boise State rates 75th, followed by San Diego State (80), Fresno State (107) and New Mexico (121).

“This is the most important time of the year because this can make or break your season,” Rebels senior guard Ike Nwamu said.

The curtain is set to be raised on the 18-game conference schedule. UNLV hosts Fresno State (9-4) at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center, the setting for the likely make-or-break league tournament in March.

From the mountains to the desert to the beach, the Mountain West is always a treacherous road, even in a down year. 

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247

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