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February 24, 2011
Around the Rim
Mountain West Showdown

by John Perrotto

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The biggest game in Mountain West Conference history was played on Jan. 26 when Brigham Young beat visiting San Diego State 71-58, the first time two MWC teams ranked in the top 10 had ever faced each other.

However, that distinction isn't going to last long. That's because the biggest game in MWC will be played Saturday afternoon when Brigham Young hosts San Diego State in a rematch.

Both team s are ranked as San Diego State (27-1, 12-1) is No. 6 and Brigham Young (26-2, 12-1) is No. 7. Furthermore, first place will be on the line and the MWC will get a rare shot of network exposure as CBS will televise the game nationally.

"It should be a wonderful event," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "The nation will be watching and we're very excited to be a part of it. It is going to be a big day for our conference."

A conference that seemingly isn't getting much respect on the national level. When the top four teams in the Associated Press poll lost last week, San Diego State and Brigham Young didn't move up. Furthermore, none of the bracketologists are projecting either the Aztecs or Cougars as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

However, Fisher is not playing the overlooked card. When asked if he thought his team should be considered for a No. 1 seed, he said, "That is something I have no clue on. That's something for others to decide. I think there's a case that we could be bantered about in the mix and hopefully be in the talk for a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed but I just don't know."

While the MWC might not be a BCS conference, Fisher says it does not have to apologize for its brand of basketball. It is ranked sixth among conferences in the RPI, ahead of the SEC.

"BYU and us aren't the lone rangers," Fisher said. "You've got a lot of other programs in our conference that play good basketball like (Nevada-Las) Vegas, Utah, New Mexico and now Colorado State. It's a terrific basketball league."

One advantage teams in the MWC have is they rarely land some of the nation's top recruits, the one-and-dones who play their one college season then move on to the NBA. Thus, Fisher believes MWC schools are able to field more cohesive teams with good chemistry.

"If you get a group to stay through their senior years and they've got talent then you can be very successful playing anybody at anyplace because you have that experience to draw on," Fisher said. "Our team is like that. BYU is like that, too. We're very proud of that. We might not have the type of players who have the great raw ability that the bigger conferences do but we have guys who know how to play the game."

San Diego State and Brigham Young certainly know how to play the game as their combined 53-3 record this season indicates. Their first meeting this season was a good one as the Cougars won 71-58 on their home floor but did not pull away until late.

Senior guard Jimmer Fredette led the way with an incredible 43-point performance in which he was 14-for-24 from the field, including 5-for-8 on three-pointers. Sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, who could be the exception to the MWC rule and apply for the NBA Draft in the summer, had 22 points and 15 points for the Aztecs.

"It wasn't a slipup," Fisher said of the loss. "We just got beat by a team that played hard and played better than we did. BYU has a terrific team and we feel like we're pretty good, too. We're looking forward to the rematch."

Gators Coming On in SEC Play

Looking for a team that could be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament? Florida might fit that description.

Since an ugly home loss to Jacksonville five days before Christmas, Florida has won 13 of 15 games to improve to 21-5 overall, 10-2 in the SEC. The Gators take a five-game winning streak into Thursday night's home game against Georgia. They also have 10 wins in the SEC for the first time since winning the second of back-to-back national titles in 2007.

"We're definitely proud of that, but we know we still have a lot more to do," junior point guard Erving Walker said. "We know there's a lot in front of us."

Coach Billy Donovan is pleased with the way his team has improved over the last two months.

"A lot of times you talk about who was the leading scorer in the game, who was the leading rebounder, who made the game-winning shot, and you fail to see a lot of times the growth that some guys have made in terms of their approach," Donovan said. "I'm really proud of those guys for the jump that they've made. For me as a coach, it's rewarding because you feel like, as a coach, maybe you've gotten to them a little bit to help them see what it's all about. To see this group of kids two years ago, and to see their growth that they've made, not just their individual play, but just their approach of what it's about, has been rewarding. I think we dealt with two or three years ago a very immature group.

Florida, though, has a tough finishing stretch in the regular season. It has a quick turnaround after the Georgia game by visiting Kentucky on Saturday afternoon then hosts Alabama and travels to Vanderbilt. Florida holds a 2.5 games lead over Vanderbilt (8-5) in the SEC West but trails Alabama (11-2) by one-half game in the overall conference standings.

"For us going forward, I still think (the SEC race) is wide open," Donovan said. "Alabama is in a great place. Vanderbilt is playing terrific basketball. Georgia gets a great win (at Tennessee). We've to go on the road at Kentucky, so our last four games are difficult. It's always been set up like that."

Marquette on the Bubble

This is the time for talk of bubble teams for the NCAA Tournament with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season. One of these teams firmly on the bubble and need of a win on Thursday night is Marquette, which visits Connecticut.

Marquette is 16-11 and 68th in the RPI. While the Golden Eagles haven't had any bad losses, they are also just 3-10 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. None of those three victories have come on the road.

After the game at Connecticut, Marquette has three winnable games to finish the regular season as it hosts Providence and Cincinnati, then visits Seton Hall. If the Golden Eagles beat Connecticut, they could conceivable enter the Big East tournament with 20 wins and a five-game winning streak That seemingly would be enough to get Marquette into the NCAAs, barring an ugly opening-round loss at Madison Square Garden.

"We need to win," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "All those games that we lost, you could argue that we should have, could have or needed to win but we didn't make enough winning plays to win. Therefore, we need to win games now."

MVC Has its Own Showdown

The top seed in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament will be on the line Saturday afternoon when Wichita State (23-6, 14-3) visits Missouri State (22-7, 14-3) in the regular-season finale.

How important is the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament? In the 20 years since the tourney moved to St. Louis, the top seed has won 18 times. With the MVC looking like a one-bid league, winning the tournament seems essential to getting to the NCAA Tournament this year.

Missouri State posted a 59-56 road win over Wichita State on Jan. 9 as senior guard Jermaine Mallet had 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists. The Shockers would seem to be in trouble considering they already lost at home to the Bears. However, Wichita State is 8-0 on the road in conference games with seven wins by at least 10 points but just 6-3 in MVC home games.

"You have to be mature enough to bring it every night," Wichita State Gregg Marshall said about his team's odd home/road split. "We're not."

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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