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Wide-open Mountain West race tips off with Rebels under radar

On the eve of a new year and the next phase of the season, Dave Rice was in a hotel in Fresno, Calif., more intent to watch film than fireworks. He was game planning, not partying.

At noon Wednesday, when UNLV and Fresno State tip off the Mountain West basketball schedule, Rice begins chasing his resolution of winning a conference title for the first time in his three years as coach.

Rice and the Rebels are not rolling in as the favorites, either. That label is sticking to No. 21 San Diego State, the league’s only ranked team.

“Certainly, the Aztecs have played extremely well, but there are a lot of good teams in our league,” Rice said. “Obviously, as a coach, I’m going to say it’s wide open. I’m not a prognosticator.”

If the race is wide open, the lead lap figures to include only four teams. Boise State and New Mexico should set the pace with the Aztecs and Rebels.

“Everything is ratcheted up another level, especially early when everyone feels that they’re going to win the league,” said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, whose team opens at Colorado State today before a nonconference game Sunday at Kansas.

“That will be a good test for us, but the most important game is Colorado State. The most important games are the league games.”

A year ago, the Mountain West was rated college basketball’s No. 3 conference. This time around, it’s not nearly as strong, and it can’t count on sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament again.

The Aztecs claim the highest-profile nonconference victories, over Creighton and Marquette. San Diego State and UNLV, which is 99th in the Ratings Percentage Index, each lost to No. 1 Arizona.

“I think there’s still a lot of respect for our league,” Rice said. “San Diego State certainly would be one of the favorites, without question, but a lot of teams will have a hand in who wins the league.”

From the beach to the desert to the mountains, the conference road always is treacherous and full of potential pitfalls. It’s tough to navigate and prognosticate, but here’s the predicted order of finish:

1. San Diego State (10-1)

Senior point guard Xavier Thames, averaging 15.6 points and shooting 47 percent from 3-point range, runs the show. Winston Shepard, a 6-foot-8-inch sophomore forward from Findlay Prep, has matured into the team’s No. 2 scorer. Josh Davis, a 6-8 senior forward and Tulane transfer, is the league’s second-leading rebounder. The Aztecs have held three consecutive opponents to fewer than 40 points and rank No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (52.6).

2. New Mexico (9-3)

Steve Alford conquered the Mountain West and bolted Albuquerque for UCLA, but four starters returned for first-year coach Craig Neal. Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood are experienced in the backcourt, and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow and 7-foot Alex Kirk pose matchup problems. Bairstow, averaging 20.1 points, might be the league’s most improved player. The Lobos were preseason favorites before losing to Kansas, Massachusetts and New Mexico State.

3. Boise State (10-3)

The Broncos lead the league in scoring offense (82.5). They are loaded with shooters — Anthony Drmic, Derrick Marks, Jeff Elorriaga and Mikey Thompson — but 6-9 Ryan Watkins is their lone post threat. Drmic has developed into an elite player in the league. Boise’s resume is thin because it has bullied bad teams and lost to the three best opponents (Iowa State, Kentucky, Saint Mary’s) on its schedule.

4. UNLV (9-4)

Without a quality win to this point, the Rebels likely need to win the regular season or tournament title to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Junior forwards Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch can dominate in the paint. Smith leads the team in scoring (13.1) and the nation in rebounding (13.2). Improved point guard production has triggered the team’s six-game win streak, and if that trend continues, a move up is possible.

5. Utah State (10-2)

The Aggies, one of two conference newcomers, rarely lose at home under veteran coach Stew Morrill. But the loss of 6-10 senior Jarred Shaw could prove huge. Shaw, suspended while facing drug charges, was leading the team in scoring and rebounding through eight games. Now, Morrill is banking on senior guards Spencer Butterfield and Preston Medlin.

6. Colorado State (9-4)

In his first year as Rams coach, Larry Eustachy won 26 games and then lost his five starters. J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano lead a team scoring 80.1 points, the second-highest average in the league. On its home court, Colorado State is capable of knocking off any of the league’s top teams.

7. Wyoming (8-4)

The Cowboys are no one-man show, but junior forward Larry Nance Jr. is the man. Nance, averaging 16.9 points and 9.9 rebounds, had 38 points and 12 rebounds in a loss at Denver. Larry Shyatt is the conference’s best defensive coach, ensuring his team will compete.

8. Fresno State (7-6)

After upsetting the Rebels twice last season, the Bulldogs lost four key players, including guard Kevin Olekaibe, who transferred to UNLV for his senior year. But five players are scoring in double figures, led by guards Marvelle Harris and Cezar Guerrero, a transfer from Oklahoma State.

9. San Jose State (6-6)

Rashad Muhammad, a 6-6 freshman from Bishop Gorman High, has made a major impact. Muhammad is sixth in the league in scoring (17.3) and second in 3-pointers made (38). The Spartans, who won three games in the Western Athletic Conference last season, are young but talented.

10. UNR (5-8)

Senior guard Deonte Burton, the league’s top scorer at 22.5 points per game, is an NBA prospect. The Wolf Pack could finish as high as eighth if coach David Carter develops his new-look roster.

11. Air Force (6-5)

The Falcons are rebuilding after an 18-14 season. Dave Pilipovich has proven he can coach, but even Gregg Popovich would struggle to win with this young Air Force team.

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

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