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Lobos could be in tight MW title race

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By Richard Stevens

The vision of prognosticators looking in at the upcoming Mountain West race probably has changed, but only a bit.
There is still the “Big Four,” beginning with the University of New Mexico followed by Boise State, San Diego State and UNLV.  But has the order changed from the preseason musings tossed out in October?
And is 10-2 Utah State good enough to change it to a “Big Five?”
And could it be that the rest of the MW teams are fired up to prove everyone wrong?
UNM was the almost-unanimous preseason pick to protect its MW title and return to the throne. Right now, there really is no reason to question that October pick.
But are the No. 20-ranked San Diego State Aztecs now the favorites heading into January?
For sure, this is going to be a dog-eat-dog race and there doesn’t look to be too many conference cupcakes, especially for teams playing on the road.
UNM is 9-3 with all three losses coming against quality teams.
Anytime you head into a conference race with maybe the best one-two inside game — Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow — and probably the best all-around guard — Kendall Williams — you know you are going to be a threat for that title.
But a few challengers for that throne have stepped up, starting with San Diego State’s Aztecs.
The Aztecs lost three starters from its 23-win team of 2012-13 and were expected to take a little slide without Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley on the edge.
However, the Aztecs have been beaten only once – by No. 1 Arizona 69-60. The Aztecs are the only MW team in the Top 25  heading into conference play.  
The Lobos open Saturday, playing host to Colorado State at 4 p.m. in The Pit.
The Aztecs are a surprise only in the fact that they lost so much and have played with chemistry so early.  They average 77.2 points on offense and have a MW-leading defense allowing 52.6 points. For perspective: UNM allows 70.9 points.
The Aztecs also are in the Top 50 in RPI rankings, according to the coaches’ poll, getting muscle points from their record and wins over Creighton and Marquette.
They play at Kansas on Jan. 5.
The Aztecs have tossed out a mean defense, but an obvious key for them was to replace some scoring. 
San Diego State gets 15.6 points a game from returning starter Xavier Thames and 12.9 points from Winston Shepard. It has five players scoring between 7.6 and 9.6 points.
Another key for the Aztecs was to get defense and rebounding out of 6-8 Tulane transfer Josh Davis.  He is No. 2 in the MW with a 10.7 average.
The Aztecs’ key when they look ahead to the Lobos is whether or not they can contain UNM’s Twin Towers.  That question will be first answered Feb. 22 in The Pit.
Maybe a few other things will have changed by then.
The Aztecs and UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels were somewhat of a mystery heading into the season simply because they had to once again reload. Boise State was no surprise.
The Broncos were named by a few prognosticators to climb to the top of the Mountain West ahead of UNM because Boise State returns five starters.
It’s easy to get high on the Broncos when you look at their guard combo of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks. Drmic is scoring at a 19.5 clip and Marks has a 16.3 average, the top scoring guard combo in the league
The Broncos were expected to be strong on the perimeter, but need to produce – and defend – inside in order to challenge for the 2014 MW title. Boise went 2-6 on the MW road last year and a lot of that had to do with modest inside play. 
UNLV probably had the most raw talent in the MW a year ago, but never found enough team chemistry to challenge for the title. The Rebels (9-4) battled to find that chemistry earlier this season, but ride a six-game win streak into MW play.
UNLV has four players averaging double figures: Roscoe Smith (13.1), Bryce Dejean-Jones (12.5), Khem Birch (11.8) and Kevin Olekaibe (10.6).
The 6-8 Smith gives UNLV an inside presence and is the top MW board man with his 13.2 average. He has nine double-doubles and gets inside help from the 6-9 Birch.  
The Rebels needed a scoring fix as they lost Katin Reinhardt, Anthony Marshall, Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser. That’s a foursome that could win a lot of games without a fifth starter.
Another key for UNLV will be the play of Deville Smith, Kendall Smith and Jelan Kendrick. Vegas should be a good rebounding team and a good defensive team. They’ll need improved decision making and improved shot selection in their up-tempo game in order to charge to the MW throne.
If the so-called experts of college hoops are right, the 2014 MW title will go to one of the “Big Four.”  Utah State’s 10-2 record makes the Aggies the unofficial dark horse. Wyoming is 8-4 and trying to replace its top three scorers from last year but is getting 16.9 points from Larry Nance Jr., plus 9.9 rebounds a game.
Colorado State is 9-4 and has a tough MW opening with SDSU followed by New Mexico. The Rams, who lost all five starters from 2012-13, beat the NMSU Aggies by two points in Fort Collins.  CSU’s J.J. Avila is averaging 19.5 points and Daniel Bejarano averages 9.6 boards.
Nevada (5-8), Fresno State (7-6), Air Force (6-5) and San Jose State (6-6) have enough talent to make some noise, pull some upsets and maybe make a run at contention. Nevada, which went 3-13 in the MW last year, has the league’s top scorer in Deonte Burton with a 22.5 average, just ahead of UNM’s Cameron Bairstow at 20.1.