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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, February 14, 2012 at 10:52 PM

When we last checked in on the Mountain West conference, it was positioned to get as many as FOUR teams in the Big Dance this year. Two of those teams are New Mexico and San Diego State, who square off Wednesday Night on the CBS Sports cable channel. That makes this a great time to check in on a league many believe will provide this year’s version of either Butler or VCU as a mid-major Cinderella.

First, let’s check in on Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology at ESPN. Does the Mountain West still have a chance to get as many as four teams in the Dance?

UNLV: projected #3 seed

San Diego State: projected #5 seed

New Mexico: projected #8 seed

Wyoming: last eight out

Colorado State: last eight out

Depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. We have three teams who are LOCKS right now barring sudden collapses…and then two teams who are positioned on the bubble to make a late charge. Unfortunately, Wyoming and CSU are at the back of the bubble…and they’re from a conference that isn’t known for getting much depth in the Dance. Five is probably an extreme longshot right now, and somebody’s going to have to close strong to make it four in our view.

Still, those are GREAT seeds for UNLV, SDSU, and New Mexico in terms of respect for the conference. Clearly the world is paying attention to the Mountain West. That’s long overdue.

We hope you were paying attention to SDSU-UNLV last Saturday. That was a thriller that Vegas ultimately won by a bucket. Tonight’s New Mexico-SDSU game on TV could be the same. Stay up late and check it out! Note that Saturday brings UNLV at New Mexico in a game that will get regional coverage by CBS, as well as Wyoming at Colorado State in a virtual bubble elimination game in the evening.

Given the good matchups coming up, and the race for seeding position and Dance invitations, let’s take a look at how the contenders rate in respected national computer ratings. If you’ve been a regular with us this year, you know we’re using the rankings of Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin of USA Today for context and guidance. NETWORK’S in-house ratings are proprietary, and must be kept under wraps because they play such a big role in our selection process.

MOUNTAIN WEST CONTENDERS

New Mexico: 12th in Pomeroy, 17th in Sagarin

UNLV: 22nd in Pomeroy, 15th in Sagarin

San Diego State: 55th in Pomeroy, 46th in Sagarin

Wyoming: 50th in Pomeroy, 57th in Sagarin

Colorado State: 108th in Pomeroy, 93rd in Sagarin

Wow…we bet you weren’t expecting that! New Mexico grades out much better than UNLV and SDSU in the respected computer ratings…particularly when you compare those numbers to Lunardi’s assessments in Bracketology. The computers would have New Mexico up around a #4 seed rather than a #8. And San Diego State would barely qualify as an at-large with the computers…rather than enjoy a lofty #5 seed.

Didn’t tonight’s New Mexico-San Diego Stage game just get a bit more interesting?! The market will get its vote based on afternoon betting action in the matchup. Definitely something you should be monitoring given the wide range of opinions.

Can the Mountain West get four or five teams into the Dance based on the computer assessments? That looks like even more of a longshot now. The computers think Lunardi must be smoking some crazy stuff to get CSU on the bubble. The Rams are about 50 spots away from the bubble according to the software assessments. They don’t even like San Diego State that much at the moment.

You may be intrigued enough about this race now to handicap the big matchups. Let’s dig a little deeper with Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings so you know who’s capable of doing what:

MOUNTAIN WEST EFFICIENCY RANKINGS

New Mexico: 45th on offense, 7th on defense

UNLV: 23rd on offense, 37th on defense

San Diego State: 112th on offense, 29th on defense

Wyoming: 129th on offense, 21st on defense

Colorado State: 43rd on offense, 205th on defense

If you’re new to these stats, they represent national rankings amidst well over 300 teams for points scored and allowed per possession…adjusted for caliber of opposition.

The top four Mountain West contenders sure emphasize defense…which is always a huge key in the Big Dance. Sorry Joe Lunardi, but you’re going to try and make a case that a team with the 205th ranked defense belongs in the Big Dance?! Please!

This is one reason you can expect close games when the contenders play each other. The coaches get conservative with so much on the line…and the defenses are good enough to keep things under control in a conservative game. Isn’t it interesting how SDSU and Wyoming are virtual clones in how they grade out? They played a real 52-42 yawner in their first meeting. The rematch comes in a week. Of course, New Mexico just beat Wyoming 48-38 (Ivy League circa 1955!).

Let’s take a second to run through what’s left on the schedule in terms of head-to-head games for today’s focus teams:

Tonight: New Mexico at San Diego State

Saturday: UNLV at New Mexico and Wyoming at Colorado State

February 21: New Mexico at Colorado State

February 22: Wyoming at San Diego State

February 25: Colorado State at San Diego State

February 29: UNLV at Colorado State

March 3: Wyoming at UNLV

Wyoming’s three appearances are all on the ROAD, which makes it even tougher to use the bubble as a trampoline into the Big Dance. Maybe Colorado State can impress the computers with some strong head-to-head showings within the group. New Mexico’s next three games are all big, before a relative rest break before the conference tournament. SDSU and UNLV are finished with each other unless the play again in the conference tournament, which they’re both probably happy about.

We may or may not have a major release tonight in the New Mexico-San Diego State game. The Wednesday schedule is huge…and JIM HURLEY is very picky about the games he releases to clients. NETWORK is also considering games like North Carolina-Miami, Rutgers-Notre Dame, and Purdue-Illinois from the colleges…and marquee matchups from the lucky 13-game slate in the NBA like Philadephia-Orlando, Oklahoma City-Houston, and Denver-Dallas.

But, we can assure you that the Mountain West is going to be an important part of our program over the next six weeks. We believe we have a great feel for this league at the moment. We have a strong history in their postseason tournament. And, we fully expect at least one dramatic storyline to unfold in the Big Dance involving one of the three teams locked into invitations. Stay tuned!

If you have any questions about our basketball service, please call the handicapping office at 1-800-323-4453. If you want to try things out to test the waters, BIG JUICY WINNERS are always just a few clicks away right here at the website. Tonight’s the perfect time to check things out because of the huge schedule!

Back with you Thursday here in the NOTEBOOK to check in on pro basketball. We studied the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference back on Sunday…and promised you a look at the West in short order. We’ll take care of that Thursday to get you ready for the LA Clippers-Portland Trailblazers game that wraps up TNT’s Thursday Night twinbill.

Friday we’ll outline expectations in the most important Bracket Buster games of the weekend. Saturday we’re planning to preview the prime time basketball showdown Ohio State at Michigan since that’s the ESPN GameDay showcase. Sunday should give us a chance to check in on “Linsanity” as the New York Knicks host the Dallas Mavericks in a national TV game on ABC.

Make sure you’re with us EVERY DAY so you know what’s REALLY happening in the world of sports!

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