With a frantic first half of league play neatly tucked away, and the second half guaranteed to be equally riotous, I offer my midpoint all-Mountain West team. Of course, with the way things have transpired to date, there's little to suggest that a potential Player of the Year even exists among this group. After all, it's the Mountain West, where the unexpected is superseded only by the unexplained.
Statistics are based on the first half of league play only.
Jamaal Franklin, Jr., G, San Diego State:
Franklin, the reigning MW Player of the Year, ranks among the league's top 10 in 10 statistical categories, including scoring (1st, 18.3 ppg), rebounding (t-2nd, 8.5 rpg), steals (t-3rd,1.633) and assists (6th, 3.38). He is the only player in the nation leading his team in scoring average, rebounding average, steals average and assists average.
Anthony Marshall, Sr., G, UNLV: The league leader in minutes played (37.62) and assists per game (7.1), Marshall also leads the Runnin' Rebels in steals (1.0 per game) and three-point shooting percentage (.433). He is second on the team in shooting percentage (.527) and ranks fifth in rebounding with an average of 4.6 per contest. Despite averaging more minutes than any player in the league, Marshall's assist/turnover ratio of 2.28 ranks third in the MW.
Derrick Marks, So., G, Boise State: Marks, identified by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo as a player the Spartans had no answer for, ranks second in the league in scoring (17.3) and shooting percentage (.482). He is also fifth in free-throw percentage (.821), is tied for fifth in steals (1.57) and ranks seventh in assists (3.14).
Pierce Hornung, Sr., F, Colorado State: Hornung, who has gained national acclaim for his rebounding, is now becoming a factor at the offensive end, as well. Prior to missing the majority of Wednesday's win at Nevada due to illness, Hornung posted consecutive double-doubles for the second-place Rams by averaging 17.5 points and 12.0 rebounds in wins over Boise State and Wyoming. He ranks second in league play in offensive rebounds (3.63) and is tied for fifth overall with an average of 8.0 rebounds per contest.
Alex Kirk, So., C, New Mexico: In helping stake the first-place Lobos to a one-game lead through the league's first half, Kirk, who missed all of last season after undergoing back surgery in 2011, ranks first in the league in rebounds (7.1) and ninth in blocks (1.63). He also is second on the team in field-goal percentage (.478), third in scoring (10.9) and minutes played (29.0) and fourth in free-throw percentage (.690).
Lobos Look to Lengthen Lead
While some took exception to my observation last month that New Mexico had the muscle to ultimately reign supreme in this year's Mountain West race, I'm not backing away from that argument.
The Lobos, who play five of their final eight on the road, begin the second half on Saturday at UNLV against a team suddenly struggling to find its feet. New Mexico, which beat the Rebels in its last appearance at the Thomas & Mack Center, has posted a league road record of .500 or better in every season save one since coach Steve Alford's arrival in 2007. That, folks, is no small feat in a league where only two teams --- New Mexico and San Diego State --- had winning road records in league play a year ago and only nine have done so in the last five seasons.
Should the Lobos get past UNLV, they would likely be viewed as the favorite in each of their remaining contests, with the exception of a date with Colorado State in Fort Collins on Feb. 23. Both teams are undefeated at home in league play.
In the event New Mexico and Colorado State split their regular-season series and finish tied for the league title, their records will be compared against the team occupying the next highest spot in the standings, continuing down until one team gains the advantage and thus the higher seed in the MW Championships. If two teams remain tied after all tie breakers have been exhausted, the last tie breaker when determining seeds for the MW Championships is RPI, as determined by the most recent NCAA RPI available on March 9.
Disclaimer: The aforementioned scenario is based on my impression of the first half of the league season, which, this being the MW, will undoubtedly have no bearing whatsoever on what occurs over the course of the next month.
Stat of Note
Of the 36 games played during the first half of the MW season, exactly half were decided by single digits.
Super Bowl time always elicits "best of" lists of all kinds...so let's join the party. After Colin Kaepernick's stellar second half performance in this year's title game, it's time to take a look back at the best players - and their Super performances - from current Mountain West schools.
Head Coach: Joe Gibbs, SDSU/Washington Redskins. Three Super Bowl titles. 'Nuff said. A nod to two other former Aztecs - the bombastic NFL Hall of Famer John Madden and an honorable mention to John Fox, current coach of the Denver Broncos. He's been to one Super Bowl - so far. A cradle of coaches to be sure.
QB - Kaepernick's performance falls just short, since he didn't win the game. So the nod has to go to former Fresno State Bulldog Trent Dilfer, who won his Super Bowl, ironically, with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.
RB (2) - Marshall Faulk, SDSU/St. Louis Rams. Headliner in "the Greatest Show on Turf" and maybe the best dual threat back ever; Jim Kiick, Wyoming/Miami Dolphins key part of unbeaten Super Bowl champs in 1972.
WR (3) - James Jones, San Jose State/Green Bay Packers. In Super Bowl XLV against Pittsburgh, Jones caught 5 passes for 50 yards in Green Bay's 31-25 triumph. Golden Richards, Hawai'i/Dallas Cowboys. Super Bowl champ known for his long blonde hair and acrobatic catches. Az-Zahir Hakim, a former SDSU Aztec, was also part of the Greatest Show on Turf for the St. Louis Rams Super Bowl champs. SDSU Alums Isaac Curtis and Haven Moses both had great careers, but were not on Super Bowl winning teams.
TE - Jay Novacek, Wyoming & Dallas Cowboy won three Super Bowl rings.
OL (5) - Jesse Sapolu, Hawai'i/SF 49'ers FOUR time Super Bowl champ; Mark Tuinei, Hawai'i/Dallas Cowboys. Two Super Bowl rings; Adrian Klemm, Hawai'i/New England Patriots. Three-time Super Bowl champ, Barry Sims, Utah State/Oakland played in the 2003 Super Bowl and Logan Mankins, Fresno State/New England. Five time Pro Bowler has played in a pair of Super Bowls, so far...
K - Jason Elam, Hawai'i/Denver Broncos. Two-time Super Bowl champ and record holder for longest FG in NFL history (tied with Tom Dempsey and Sebastian Janikowski at 63 yards.)
P - Mike Saxon, SDSU/Dallas Cowboys was part of the Cowboys dynasty in the early 1990's. He punted for the 1993 champs.
DE (3) - Fred Dwyer, San Diego State/Los Angeles Rams had a great football AND TV career, playing in the 1979 Super Bowl; Clark Haggans, CSU/Pittsburgh and Arizona. He and Rams alum Joey Porter teamed up again to win a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh, and he played in another with Cardinals. Don't forget Utah State product Lionel Aldridge, a Utah State grad and member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. He played for two Super Bowl winning Packers teams.
DT (2) - Kimo von Oelhoffen, Boise State/Pittsburgh. He won a Super Bowl ring in 2005 in his final season as a member of the Steelers. A special nod to Chad Hennings, AFA/Dallas Cowboys. Not many Academy players are even allowed to play pro football, much less get the chance to play in THREE Super Bowl victories.
LB (3) - Brian Urlacher, New Mexico/Chicago Bears. Also a standout in SB XLI, but on the losing side; Robin Cole, New Mexico/Pittsburgh Steelers. Pro Bowler and twice Super Bowl champion with the Steel Curtain D. He was a stand up end/LB, and Joey Porter, Colorado State/Pittsburgh Steelers, went to multiple Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl title.
CB (2) - Cornell Green played basketball, not football at Utah State, but went on to play in a pair of Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys and was named to their 25th Anniversary team in 1985. Better known for coaching and TV work, SDSU's Herm Edwards was a great corner as well, playing in the 1981 Super Bowl for Philadelphia.
S (2) - Brock Marion, Nevada/Dallas Cowboys was a two-time Super Bowl champ; John Howell, Colorado State/Tampa Bay & Seattle. Super Bowl winner played in two.
Not a bad team to take into battle, huh? Kaepernick is likely to supplant Dilfer before his career is done, and you never know what the future could hold for guys like Ronnie Hillman, D.J. Harper, Ryan Clady or Kellen Moore. Still more reason to stay tuned.
There were the glory years. The undersized but doggedly determined Air Force Falcons men's basketball teams of the mid 2000's was the epitome of overachievers. From 2004 to 2007, Air Force was one of the top teams in the Mountain West, advancing to the NCAA tournament twice and making it all the way to the semifinals of the NIT tournament in 2007. They used a methodical half court "Princeton-style" offense to outwit their foes and sharpshooters from the perimeter to take them down. Head coaches Joe Scott - and later Jeff Bzdelik - had AFA hoops humming along with some military-style precision.
When Bzdelik left for Colorado (and later Wake Forest) the Falcons' hoops fortunes sagged. In recent years it's been more of a struggle on the hard court, and this year's Falcons were not expected to change much of that. Head Coach Jeff Reynolds was let go late last season and AFA finished 13-16 overall, just 3-11 in MW play and tied for last place. Air Force was picked ninth out of nine teams in this year's preseason poll. Yet someone forgot to tell the players and new head Coach Dave Pilipovich they were supposed to be a non-factor in the conference race...because as we near the end of January, here they are.
The Falcons won AT Wyoming last Saturday (57-48) and defeated Fresno State last night (62-50). Air Force is now on a four-game win streak and tied for second with a 4-2 mark in Conference play. A break or two, and they might be tied at 5-1, considering AFA lost in overtime AT nationally-ranked UNLV on January 12th. The win in Laramie was their second straight road win over the Cowboys. True to form, they did it with a scrambling, hustling effort on defense.
"Sometimes we don't even know what we're playing," Pilipovich told the media afterwards. "How's the other team know?"
Air Force has already beaten Boise State as well as the Cowboys this season, meaning that the two teams most observers have pegged as having the best shot at giving the Mountain West a fifth team in this year's NCAA tournament have each already fallen to the Falcons.
Maybe the most impressive thing about AFA's current four-game win streak is that it began right after a 39-point beat-down at the hands of Colorado State in Fort Collins. It was after a similar loss at Moby Arena last season that Reynolds was let go, and the team did not respond immediately. This year, it's been a different story. As bounce-backs go, you'd be hard pressed to do better.
The best news for Air Force fans? They won at Wyoming while not playing their best game. Coming in as the 11th-best three-point shooting team in the nation, the Falcons hit only 5-of-15 from long range against the Pokes, but scored an uncharacteristic 24 points in the paint. They also held the Cowboys to just 33 percent shooting and a meager 18 percent from behind the arc. That's what contenders do.
Can Air Force stay in the race? We'll find out as the calendar turns to February. After Wednesday's visit from Fresno State to end this month, Air Force hosts preseason favorite San Diego State and then visits Conference leader New Mexico, both of whom are currently ranked, in a four-day span. Win one of those two, and Air Force could stay in the race right up until the finish line.
The race is (back) on.
As we head into the final week of the first round of league play in the Mountain West, one loss separates first-place New Mexico from four others (San Diego State, Colorado State, UNLV and Air Force). Had the Lobos won at SDSU on Saturday, I was relatively convinced they had the muscle to go the distance, despite facing a daunting second half in which they play five of their final eight on the road.
Of course, that was before New Mexico was limited to 34 points, the second-lowest total in league history, and went 11-of-44 from the floor (25.0 percent) against the Aztecs, thus reducing to rubble my faulty, if not foolish forecast, forgetting that this is, after all, the Mountain West. The Lobos (17-3, 4-1) still hold a spot in both polls (No. 20 AP, No. 22 USA Today/Coaches), though there are likely easier ways to sharpen your shooting skills than facing Wyoming's dogged defense, which the Lobos must do Wednesday night in Laramie.
Game of the week: No. 22/20 San Diego State at Air Force, Saturday. Lest one forget (and rest assured the Aztecs have not), the Falcons, who sported a league record of 2-7 at the time, won 58-56 against a then-No. 13/15 SDSU squad that was without the services of its leading scorer/rebounder in Jamaal Franklin, who was nursing a sprained ankle. Air Force, which is 8-1 at home this season, has discovered that daring to be different can pay dividends. Contrary to customary form, the Falcons have turned up the tempo, pushing rather than patiently probing. Air Force has scored 90 or more points in two of its last three games and pulled off a rare double-double when it beat Wyoming in Laramie on Saturday for the second straight year. The Aztecs (16-4, 4-2) have had more than their share of struggles at Clune Arena in recent seasons, going 3-6 since 2004.
Individual matchup to watch: While Wyoming has battled shooting woes of late, 6-7 senior forward Leonard Washington is averaging team highs of 14.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks to rank among the top nine in the MW in each category. Washington, who is tied for second in the league this season with eight double-doubles, will square off against the current leader in that category on Saturday when the Cowboys face Colorado State in Fort Collins. Rams center Colton Iverson, who ranks 10th in the league in scoring (14.3 ppg) and second in rebounding (9.5 rpg), has posted nine double-doubles thus far. Washington ranks ninth in the MW in scoring and fourth in rebounding.
Must win: With three consecutive road games looming (Colorado State, Cal State Bakersfield, Boise State), Wyoming can ill afford a third straight loss when it hosts New Mexico on Wednesday. The Cowboys, who rank eighth in the MW in scoring offense (63.3 ppg), shot just 33 percent (17-of-51) from the field and 17 percent (5-of-28) beyond the arc in Saturday's loss to Air Force. This after shooting 41 percent (20-of-48) from the field and 3-of-18 (16.7 percent) from three-point range in a 62-50 loss at UNLV last Thursday. Wyoming has scored 50 or fewer points in three league games.
Big week: After suffering its second-worst loss of the season (75-59) at Nevada on Saturday, Boise State has the opportunity to show why it's one of just three teams in the nation (Kansas, Oregon) with multiple road wins over ranked opponents or face a serious uphill climb in the second half of the league schedule. It will be far from easy for the Broncos (14-5, 2-3), who must first deal with a Colorado State team on Wednesday that has won 24 straight home games before returning Taco Bell Arena on Saturday to face UNLV. Boise State split its season series with the Rams and Rebels last year, with both victories coming at home.
Stat of note: Six MW teams are undefeated this season when holding a halftime lead (San Diego State 16-0; UNLV 15-0; Colorado State 13-0; New Mexico 12-0; Wyoming 10-0; Air Force 8-0).
We know two things: the Mountain West should send at least four teams to the 2013 NCAA men's basketball tournament - which is the same number as last season. There's a decent chance that the league will get five-six bids. The second thing we know is that there's a lot of season remaining, and whichever team wins the regular season is going to have completed a gauntlet and will have earned the top seed in the conference tourney.
After two weeks, we have the expected threesome plus some party crashers bunched near the top of the standings. There's one unbeaten team in conference play (New Mexico at 3-0), one team with a single loss (Colorado State at 2-1) and SIX teams with a pair of losses. Only Fresno State at 1-3 appears in trouble.
The 15th-ranked Lobos have already picked up home wins over UNLV and Fresno State, plus a an overtime road win over upstart Boise State (no small accomplishment - just ask Creighton.) So Steve Alford's bunch is off to a great start, but has plenty of work left to do. Colorado State has a pair of home wins over Air Force and #25 UNLV, and a road loss at #15 San Diego State, so the Rams have basically held serve thus far.
Who has done BETTER than holding serve so far - that is, picked up a key road win AND protected their home court? New Mexico can stake that claim, as can UNLV, with an overtime home win over Air Force and road win at #15 SDSU. The Rebels have only played one conference home game so far.
That's about it for the moment. The Broncos have a key road win over Wyoming, but dropped one they needed to win against AFA...Wyoming has a big home win over the #15 Aztecs, but dropped a home game to Boise State. So who sits in the best position...and what will be the formula that teams need to follow to stay at the top?
The formula will be pretty cut and dry from here on out: Win all or most of your home games, and do better than .500 on the road. The conference regular season champ will have to go at least 6-2 at home and at least 5-3 on the road. Something like an 11-5 conference record in the third-ranked (RPI) league in the nation will be a major accomplishment - and could earn a team that regular season title and top MW tournament seed.
While a .500 overall conference record could conceivably still get a team like Colorado State or Wyoming an NCAA bid (coming on the heels of an impressive non-conference records) it might not be enough to get that team into the upper half of the final league standings. That's how good this conference is.
There are plenty of critical league games coming up before the end of January: CSU at New Mexico, Wyoming at UNLV, New Mexico at San Diego State and the Lobos' trip to Wyoming. If New Mexico wins two of those three, the Lobos will be sitting pretty at 5-1. There's a pretty good chance UNLV and CSU will both be 4-2 at that point. The UNM-SDSU game is the biggest contest of the rest of this month, but every single league game carries great significance the rest of the season.
We're a quarter of the way through league play in Mountain West men's basketball, which can mean only one thing: If you're .500, consider yourself fortunate.
In a league where successes are short-lived and shortcomings come with the territory, there is another slate of high-impact games ahead this week, where No. 15/17 New Mexico, unbeaten in league play, could ever so steadily begin to distance itself from its pursuers. While the Lobos are the only team in the league holding down a spot in both the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches polls this week (San Diego State remains ranked in the Coaches' poll), sitting upon one's laurels in the MW this season is akin to seeking shelter in a straw hut in a firestorm. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Game of the week: Colorado State at New Mexico, Wednesday. The Lobos (16-2, 3-0), who are 9-1 at home this season, own a mark of 41-5 against CSU in games played at The Pit. The teams split the series last year, with UNM winning, 85-52, in Albuquerque and CSU prevailing, 71-63, in Fort Collins. The senior-laden Rams, who were a study in true grit in Saturday's home win over UNLV and are receiving votes in both polls, must now prove their mettle on the road. CSU (15-3, 2-1), which was 1-6 in league games away from Moby Arena last season, has never posted a winning road record in MW play.
Individual matchup to watch: The return of center Alex Kirk has bolstered the Lobos immensely. The 7-foot Kirk, who missed last season after undergoing back surgery in the summer of 2011, has already more than tripled the number of double-figure scoring games in his career. After posting four such games as a freshman, he has scored in double figures 14 times in 18 games this season. Considering the teams are relatively evenly matched on the perimeter --- the Lobos are shooting 32.7 percent beyond the arc in league play, while CSU is at 31.5 --- the matchup of Kirk and Ram 6-10, 260-pound center Colton Iverson should prove interesting. In MW games, Kirk is averaging 17.3 points and 10.0 rebounds, while Iverson enters the game with averages of 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per MW contest.
Must win: With New Mexico coming to town on Saturday, San Diego State, which is coming off consecutive losses to UNLV and Wyoming, can ill afford a third straight setback at Nevada on Wednesday. Yet this will be no small challenge for the Aztecs, who have sorely missed the presence of point guard Xavier Thames (back strain). Despite its 1-2 start in league play, Nevada offers one of the most potent backcourts in the MW in Deonte Burton, who ranks No. 1 in scoring in league games (22.0), and Malik Story. SDSU also must find a way to address its rebounding woes. In league play, the Aztecs rank seventh in rebounding margin at minus -5.0. Nevada, meanwhile, enters the contest with a margin of +4.0 on the glass. SDSU has lost three straight only once since 2008.
Big week: Wyoming, which has proven to be an absolute thorn defensively (see San Diego State's nine first-half points on Saturday), will be tested when it faces UNLV in Las Vegas on Thursday before playing again just two days later at home against Air Force. The Falcons, who scored 91 points in Saturday's win against Boise State, were one of just three teams to beat Wyoming in Laramie last season. The Cowboys, who rank No. 5 in the nation in scoring defense (53.8 ppg), are yielding a league-low 51.2 points in MW games.
Stat of note: Colorado State's average of 42.6 rebounds per game ranks No. 3 in the nation. The Rams enter the week leading the NCAA in rebounding margin with an average of +13.8 boards per game. CSU has not been outrebounded in a game this season.
This is the kind of situation everyone always hopes for. Multiple winners. More than a "win-win" situation. It's a "win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win" situation (that's an even dozen wins if you're counting along...)
The obvious winners in the decisions by Boise State and San Diego State to remain in the (1) Mountain West are the schools themselves. Yet the conference benefits as well from having the Broncos powerhouse football program remain in the league. The Aztecs football program is not yet where Boise State's is, but as defending conference tri-champs, they're certainly an important component to the quest for "elite" conference status. With these "non-subtractions" the league can now potentially hold a conference championship game.
This is a win for conference newcomer (3) Nevada - which can now continue its heated rivalry with the Broncos AND grow its annual battle with UNLV. Part of the reason (4) Fresno State, (5) Utah State and (6) Hawai‘i agreed to move to the MW was a chance to test themselves against the powerhouse program Boise State has become. Now they get to do just that.
There are big winners away from the football field as well. Start with (7) Steve Fisher and his SDSU basketball program - one of the best in the nation. It would have been a major step backward for Fisher's program to be left to compete in the not-all-that-Big West Conference. The path to March Madness is much smoother when you compete in a power conference like the MW. Add in (8) Dave Rice and UNLV and (9) Steve Alford and New Mexico. That threesome represents one of the very best groupings in college basketball. Thankfully, it won't be broken up.
Non-revenue sports also reap a benefit. For instance, SDSU with (10) Tony Gwynn at the helm is working to become one of the Conference's best baseball programs. It already plays a stout California-based non-conference schedule, so staying in a better league is a benefit to its postseason goals as well. And after having lost his nemesis in TCU to the Big 12, New Mexico baseball coach (11) Ray Birmingham certainly didn't want to see Gwynn's Aztecs leave the league too. Ray wants to play the best and SDSU represents that. Plus, no Lobo baseball season would be the same without that loooooong bus ride to The Mesa every spring.
Finally, (12) fans in the region will get to continue to see a geographically-based, super competitive conference that has nothing but upside moving forward. Better bowl game partnerships, the potential for a conference football title game, more and more teams in March Madness - and it won't be long until an MW school is back in the College World Series. It's all good.
Like I said a "win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win" situation for everyone.
In a Mountain West men's basketball race where six teams are currently being eyed as potential NCAA tournament participants, the slightest edge might also prove the biggest.
In more ways than one.
Though the majority of MW teams are bolstered by waves of wings and girded by guard play, one offers an additional dimension. And the New Mexico Lobos won't be reluctant to use it to their advantage.
Heading into Wednesday night's contest at Boise State, the No. 19/21 Lobos not only possess accomplished perimeter players in the likes of Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, Hugh Greenwood, Chad Adams and Demetrius Walker, they also offer something others don't --- a pair of big men who pose a threat both inside and out.
Off to a 2-0 start in league play for just the second time in program history, New Mexico (15-2) has shown signs of profiting handsomely from the pairing of 7-foot, 250-pound sophomore center Alex Kirk and 6-9, 250-pound junior forward Cameron Bairstow. In Saturday's 72-45 win over Fresno State, Kirk and Bairstow combined for 35 points and 19 rebounds, with Kirk posting his fourth double-double of the season (19 points, career-high 14 rebounds) and Bairstow tying a career high with 16 points.
Kirk, who earned co-MW Player of the Week honors after also scoring a season-high 23 points in the Lobos' 65-60 win over UNLV in last week's league opener, has amassed 70 points and 38 rebounds (17.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg) over the course of his last four games.
Meanwhile, Bairstow, who started in place of Adams after the latter hyperextended his right knee against UNLV, scored 15 of his 16 points against Fresno State in just 16 minutes of the first half, connecting on 6-of-6 attempts from the field while making all three of his free-throw attempts.
"They're one of the (few) teams in this league that can go big and use it to their advantage," said UNLV coach Dave Rice. "The thing that makes them even more dangerous is that they can go big and yet Alex Kirk can step out and make three-point shots. He can play off of Bairstow in the post. So they become a tremendous mismatch for certain schemes just because of the versatility of Kirk. He can score in the post, but he can also score from the perimeter. What makes that so difficult is that it's hard to spend as much of your defensive effort as you need to because Williams and Snell are so dangerous from the perimeter."
What has made Kirk's performance all the more impressive is that he missed the entire 2011-12 season after undergoing back surgery for a herniated disc two years ago. Averaging 12.5 points and 7.9 rebounds, Kirk has already more than tripled the number of career games in which he's scored in double figures. After recording four such games as a freshman, he has scored in double figures in 13 of 17 games this season.
"(Alex) has obviously been tremendous," said Lobos coach Steve Alford. "You see him on tape and then you see him in person and he just continues to get better and better. Both he and Cam give us legitimate threats in that 4-5 position. Their development has been essential and it's a big part of the reason why we're 15-2."
And an even bigger part of the reason why New Mexico has the wherewithal to force MW opponents to pick their poison. Only one other team in the league --- Colorado State --- arguably offers a starting player (6-10, 260-pound center Colton Iverson) with the size to square off against Kirk, the league's lone 7-footer.
Yet Kirk and Bairstow provide far more than simply serving as pillars in the paint. Both also provide a threat on the perimeter, with Kirk having connected on four three-pointers in the Lobos' last three games. Bairstow's field-goal percentage of 44.9 ranks second-best on the squad.
"There are differences between them, but there are also a lot of similarities," Alford said. "They're both big and strong and they're both more athletic than what you might think. Cam has really good strength, Alex has really good length. Defensively, they complement each other very well. Cam can definitely go out on the floor and guard against teams that want to run four-guard lineups. Both of them have a very good post game and both of them can step out to the three-point line. They play well together and they play well when they're rotating as our centers."
Pick your poison. In a league almost exclusively populated by perimeter players, it's plainly double trouble.
"It can be an advantage, but it can also be an advantage for the team that's smaller and quicker and plays four guards," said Alford, whose team also has the ability to match up against any opponent in the league opting to play four guards. "That's the chess match; that's what makes this game so fun. You play your game, whether you go big-big up front or you play four guards. It's always fun to see which one of those styles is going to win out."
Where Mountain West men's basketball is concerned, not only has the bar been raised, it's been hoisted to dizzying heights.
With league play set to tip-off Wednesday night, six of nine MW teams are ranked in the top 40 of the Jan. 7 NCAA RPI report, the highest percentage of teams among any of the nation's 32 conferences. New Mexico heads the list at No. 11 while Colorado State (20) is second, followed by UNLV (23), Wyoming (24), Boise State (33) and San Diego State (40).
In addition, the MW is one of three conferences (Big East, Big Ten) to have at least three teams ranked in both the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches' polls, marking the first time in the league's 14-year history that four teams have been ranked in at least one of the national Top 25 polls.
But now comes the hard part, where winning on the road in some of the country's most daunting venues will rudely separate fact from fiction, exposing vulnerabilities while steeling the strong for the postseason.
Here, then, is a quick look at the league season ahead, a season that could ultimately prove the best in MW history.
1. San Diego State Aztecs (12-2)
Coach: Steve Fisher (14th season)
2011-12 record: 26-8 overall, 10-4 MW (tied first)
Current ranking: No. 16 AP, No. 15 Coaches
Outlook: Defense has become a hallmark for the Aztecs, who have not allowed a team to shoot better than 48 percent from the field this season. In a league where the road is rife with ruin, SDSU has not had a losing record away from home in MW play since 2007-08. The Aztecs also go 11 deep, an enormous asset in a conference where nights off have become non-existent. Junior guard Jamaal Franklin, last season's MW Player of the Year, enters league play averaging 17.2 points and 9.9 rebounds. Senior guard Chase Tapley (15.7 ppg) and junior guard Xavier Thames (10.2 ppg) are also averaging double figures.
2. UNLV Runnin' Rebels (13-2)
Coach: Dave Rice (2nd season)
2011-12 record: 26-9, 9-5 (third)
Current ranking: No. 24 AP, No. 19 Coaches
Outlook: If there's a better freshman in the country than forward Anthony Bennett, the proof has yet to surface. Bennett heads into Wednesday night's showdown at New Mexico averaging 19.2 points (tops in MW overall and among all freshmen nationally) and 9.1 rebounds. Unlike the rest of the guard-heavy MW, the Runnin' Rebels have the option of loading up across the front line with the likes of Bennett (6-8), Pitt transfer Khem Birch (6-9) and the multi-talented Mike Moser (6-8), who despite suffering a dislocated elbow last month, is expected to play in the league opener. How UNLV performs away from the Thomas & Mack Center is a question not without merit. The Rebels were 2-5 in league road games last season, with both wins coming in overtime.
3. New Mexico Lobos (13-2)
Coach: Steve Alford (6th season)
2011-12 record: 28-7, 10-4 (tied first)
Current ranking: No. 25 AP
Outlook: Unlike last season when the Lobos boasted a rugged front court featuring Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman, New Mexico is largely guard-oriented, not a bad position to find oneself in when those guards include the likes of standout juniors Kendall Williams (14.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Tony Snell (11.1 ppg). Yet the Lobos have also greatly benefitted from the return of center Alex Kirk, who missed the 2011-12 season after undergoing back surgery. One of the league's few true big men, Kirk is averaging 11.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. New Mexico was the only team in the league other than San Diego State to post a winning record on the road in league games last season (8-3).
4. Colorado State Rams (13-2)
Coach: Larry Eustachy (1st season)
2011-12 record: 20-12, 8-6 (fourth)
Outlook: There's no more experience in the league than in Fort Collins, where the Rams boast five senior starters following last year's NCAA tournament appearance. The key addition is center Colton Iverson (14.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg), a 6-10 transfer from Minnesota who gives CSU a sorely-needed presence inside. As for the importance of protecting one's home court in the MW? The Rams, who open Saturday at San Diego State, have won 22 straight at Moby Arena.
5. Boise State Broncos (12-2)
Coach: Leon Rice (3rd season)
2011-12 record: 13-17, 3-11 (tied seventh)
Outlook: The kids are coming of age in Boise, where a team that lists a combined 10 sophomores and freshmen has, thus far, played well beyond its years. Paced by the tandem of sophomore guard Derrick Marks (16.3 ppg), who finished with 35 in a win at then-No. 11 Creighton earlier this season, and sophomore wing Anthony Drmic (15.4 ppg), the Broncos are off to their best start in 25 years. The 12 nonconference wins are a school record for a team that came within an eyelash of ousting San Diego State in the first round of last season's MW tournament.
6. Wyoming Cowboys (13-0)
Coach: Larry Shyatt (2nd season)
2011-12 record: 21-12, 6-8 (sixth)
Current ranking: No. 25 Coaches
Outlook: The looming question concerning the Cowboys at the moment is how they'll fare without senior guard Luke Martinez, who is out indefinitely after suffering a broken finger on his shooting hand. Martinez, one of the league's top shooters, was averaging 14.5 points before being sidelined. Wyoming, which offers one of the strongest players in the league in senior forward Leonard Washington (15.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg), must also prove that its accomplishments in nonconference play were no fluke. The Cowboys went 13-2 during the nonconference portion of the schedule a year ago, only to drop seven of their first 11 MW games.
7. Nevada Wolf Pack (9-5)
Coach: David Carter (4th season)
2011-12 record: 28-7, 13-1 (first in WAC)
Outlook: After dropping four of its first seven, Nevada, as with many other MW teams, has opted to employ a four-guard offense. The results have proven beneficial for the Wolf Pack, who has won five of six. Nevada offers one of the top backcourt tandems in the league in senior Malik Story (16.8 ppg) and junior Deonte Burton (15.7 ppg), but has struggled on the boards. No player on the roster is currently averaging more than five rebounds per game.
8. Air Force Falcons (8-4)
Coach: Dave Pilipovich (1st season)
2011-12 record: 13-16, 3-11 (tied seventh)
Outlook: As is the case at Colorado State, Air Force has a wealth of senior experience in standout guard Michael Lyons (19.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), center Taylor Broekhuis (10.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and guard Todd Fletcher (9.3 ppg, 4.1 apg). The key for the Falcons figures to be on the defensive end. In a league boasting some of the top offensive talent in the country, Air Force enters its MW opener against Nevada allowing an average of 66.4 points per outing, the second-highest total in the conference.
9. Fresno State Bulldogs (6-7)
Coach: Rodney Terry (2nd season)
2011-12 record: 13-20, 3-11 (7th in WAC)
Outlook: The Bulldogs are largely in a rebuilding phase, which may not be the optimal time to be climbing into the hornets' nest that has become the MW. Nonetheless, Terry, a former assistant at Texas, has his team defending, with Fresno State allowing just 59.2 points per game and losing four games by seven or fewer points. He has also successfully recruited building blocks for the future in 7-foot, 260-pound freshman center Robert Upshaw and freshman point guard Aaron Anderson. The question is whether the Bulldogs can score enough, with junior guard Tyler Johnson currently leading the team at 10.8 points per game.
Larry Eustachy's no dummy. He knew what he was stepping into when he agreed to replace Tim Miles as the head basketball coach at Colorado State. This was no rebuilding job. This was an opportunity to win right away. How many teams were coming off an NCAA tournament appearance and would be returning every key piece of the lineup and then some? How many teams anywhere would be able to boast a starting lineup with five top-flight seniors?
While the veteran CSU roster had plenty of returning talent on hand for 2012-13, Eustachy had slightly different plans for how he would best use that talent during his first season in Fort Collins.
So far, so good.
After recording their 13th non-conference win (a new school record) with a blowout victory over 2012 NCAA tourney participant St. Bonaventure, Eustachy's Rams appear to be hitting their stride, just in time for the rugged conference schedule that awaits them...starting next Saturday when they travel to Mountain West preseason favorite San Diego State. Down the line of course, there are multiple encounters with not just the Aztecs, but nationally-ranked New Mexico, UNLV and Wyoming as well.
It's very rare these days to see a college basketball team in a power conference - and yes, with four teams in the Top 25 and six in the top 41 of the RPI rankings, the Mountain West is most certainly a "power" conference -- send out a starting lineup that consists of five seniors. Eustachy was asked about the advantage after his troops routed the Bonnies.
"Well, I think that freshman over at UNLV is pretty good," Eustachy replied, referring to Anthony Bennett of the Runnin' Rebels. "But yes, without a doubt. Having this much experience is a huge advantage. Huge."
But that doesn't mean there haven't been growing pains of sorts. Eustachy's style is very different from Miles, and he has asked his players to buy into a system that is unlike anything they've played before. Colorado State has been among the nation's best defensive teams this season, and has spent much of the non-conference season leading the country in rebounding margin. The defense-first mentality was the major "culture" change Eustachy brought with him to CSU.
"It's difficult," said senior guard Dorian Green. "It's a hard way to play but when we play it right, it's been proven to work."
"They totally believe in it now...it's just hard to do," Eustachy continued. "To move the ball around and cut hard and get the ball reversed and take good shots and then sprint back and defend every inch of the court is very difficult. But it's the way to play. It gives us the best chance to win."
CSU - along with upstarts Wyoming and Boise State - is trying to break through the three-team stranglehold that the Aztecs, Rebels and Lobos have had on the MW for the past few seasons. Sitting at 13-2 heading into conference play, the veteran Rams have now won a school-record-tying 22 straight games at Moby Arena. The last visiting coach to taste victory in Fort Collins? None other than Larry Eustachy, coaching Southern Miss last season.
It was the road that was the Rams' major pitfall during their run to the NCAA tournament last year. Now, with the addition of senior transfer Colton Iverson (who's already been the MW player of the week twice this season) in the middle, and the returning talents of four other seasoned seniors, these Rams have the look of a contender. Can they do better than two conference road wins this season, while continuing to protect their home floor?
Green believes they're ready for the test.
"We've been itching to get to conference play," he smiled. "Now is where we make our move."
Eustachy is eager to find out as well.
"Boys can win at home. Men win on the road."
Mick McGrane has covered the Mountain West since the league's inception in 1999. He spent 12 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where he served as the beat writer for San Diego State football and men's basketball. He currently represents the MW as a member of the Football Writers Association of America All-America Committee and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. McGrane serves as senior writer to the Mountain West, providing readers with exclusive, in-depth information about the Conference by highlighting its 10 member institutions and contributing feature stories on student-athletes that participate in the league's 18 sponsored sports.
Have a question for Mick? E-mail him at mick@TheMWC.com or check him out on Twitter @MWCMick.
Mark Knudson is a Colorado State journalism school graduate and a 12-year veteran of professional baseball. During his playing career, Mark pitched for three major league teams, including the Colorado Rockies, where he was the first Colorado native to play for the hometown team. He recorded wins over three of the four legendary pitchers who make up the 4,000 strikeout club: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. His win over Ryan came for the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day in 1991.
Since his retirement, Mark has been a feature writer and columnist for Mile High Sports, a radio talk show host and TV analyst for numerous sports media outlets. For the past six years, he was a columnist and baseball analyst for The Mtn., along with being one of Colorado's six Heisman Trophy voters.
Have a question for Mark? Visit him at ElevationSportsNetwork.com or check him out on Twitter @MarkKnudson41.