Mountain West really peaking

New Mexico, BYU, UNLV give league high-profile trio

February 09, 2010|By Shannon Ryan On college basketball

The Mountain West Conference has been the baby of Division I basketball, in existence for only a little more than a decade.

No. 15 New Mexico, No. 17 BYU and No. 23 UNLV proved this week how much the conference is growing up.

Those teams are in a three-way tie for first place in the conference and represent the first time the league has placed three teams in the Associated Press Top 25.

"The exposure for the league is great," UNLV's Lon Kruger said on a Monday teleconference. "Any time there's that national attention ... it's really good for everyone. The crowds across the league have been improved and more into it, and perhaps that is because of the rankings."

The atmosphere should be intense Wednesday when UNLV plays host to New Mexico.

The Rebels just registered their best victory of the season by knocking off BYU, which had been the league favorite.

"They're playing at a really high level," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said of the Runnin' Rebels.

But New Mexico isn't going to play timidly in Las Vegas, hoping for payback after a loss in Albuquerque earlier this season.

The Lobos seem to be a different team now. After starting the conference season 0-2, they've won seven straight.

"We've done a lot of positive things since starting 0-2," said Alford, who takes the Lobos to Utah on Saturday. "We know we have our most difficult week of the season. It's going to be very challenging."

And very interesting.

In the running: In a media poll conducted by AnnArbor.com, Kentucky freshman John Wall has a solid lead in player of the year voting, but Ohio State's Evan Turner is gaining on him.

The panel made up of 48 journalists placed Wall in first with 106 points and Turner second with 86. Syracuse forward Wesley Johnson finished third, followed by Villanova's Scottie Reynolds and Texas' Damion James.

Lucas' ankle saga: Wondering how the Big Ten race suddenly became so much tighter? Look no further than Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas' sprained ankle.

Lucas told coach Tom Izzo he's going to attempt to play in Tuesday night's pivotal game against Purdue. He sat out Saturday's loss to Illinois after injuring his ankle in a loss last week at Wisconsin.

He participated in a walk-through and layup drill Sunday but was limited enough that Izzo considers him questionable.

It's clear the Spartans need Lucas back quickly. A week ago, they had a three-game lead in the conference. Now Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State and Purdue are right on Michigan State's heels.

Swish of the week: West Virginia's team. Da'Sean Butler went 7-for-7 on 3-pointers in a comeback victory against St. John's. He also contributed 18 points in a victory against Pittsburgh.

Brick of the week: West Virginia's fans. When Bob Huggins is the one telling you to behave, you know you have problems. Cheers and jeers are all part of the game, but Mountaineers fans crossed a line and worsened their reputation by throwing objects onto the court against Pittsburgh. Someone struck Pitt assistant coach Tom Herrion in the face with a coin. Let's see if Pitt can set a better example for keeping it classy in Friday's rematch in Pennsylvania.

Game of the week: Tennessee at Kentucky, Saturday. Two big personalities - Kentucky coach John Calipari and Tennessee's Bruce Pearl - are just one reason this game will be entertaining. The Volunteers overcame a shortened roster due to player suspensions, and beating Kentucky would add to their list of big wins, including knocking off Kansas. Kentucky has won three straight since losing to South Carolina.

sryan@tribune.com

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