Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, March 10, 2014 | 2 a.m.
No matter what happened in Viejas Arena on Saturday night, there was going to be intrigue at the top of this week’s Mountain West tournament. However, the Aztecs’ dramatic 16-point comeback upped the level of intrigue because the team most people would call the league’s best over the past month was the one blowing that lead and finishing second.
New Mexico is the No. 2 seed after a 51-48 loss at San Diego State, which won the outright league title and clinched the No. 1 seed for the second time in the past three years. Those two teams seem to be on a collision course to Saturday’s championship game because the other teams in the top half of the league are mostly stumbling into the postseason.
No. 5 seed Wyoming has lost four of its past five, No. 4 seed UNLV has lost the past two and 4 of 6, and No. 3 seed UNR lost at home to New Mexico by 14 a week ago. And upsets aren’t too common in the league tournament lately.
The top seed has made the finals each of the past three seasons, and two of those three times it was No. 1 vs. No. 2. No team lower than a No. 4 seed has made the title game since 2006.
If you’re looking for Cinderella, it may be best to hold your breath for the big tournament, though UNLV is hoping to prove that wrong. The Rebels begin their tournament run Thursday afternoon at 2:30 against Wyoming.
Now, since it’s tournament time, that also means it’s awards time. I’m an alternate voter this year, so unless someone didn’t turn in their ballot Sunday morning, my selections won’t count. That’s good news if you happen to disagree with me.
Without further ado, here are my picks with some explanation when warranted:
• Xavier Thames, G, San Diego State
• Deonte Burton, G, UNR
• Kendall Williams, G, New Mexico
• Cameron Bairstow, F, New Mexico
• Khem Birch, F, UNLV
I really wanted to find room for Boise State’s Ryan Watkins on this team. Funny enough, it may have actually been Burton’s posterizing dunk on Watkins in UNR’s double-overtime victory that sealed Burton’s place on the first team. Of course, Watkins had 27 points and 14 rebounds in that game. I don’t feel too bad carving out a place for Burton, though, as he was the single most important player to his team in this conference. UNR doesn’t finish anywhere close to third without the future NBA guard.
Thames and Bairstow were the most improved players in the league, if not the country, and also the two best. Birch affects the game at both ends more than anyone else, and meanwhile, Williams actually had a better season than last year when he was the (probably undeserving) Player of the Year.
• Tyler Johnson, G, Fresno State
• Anthony Drmic, F, Boise State
• J.J. Avila, F, Colorado State
• Larry Nance, F, Wyoming
• Ryan Watkins, F, Boise State
Watkins and Nance are both first-teamers who got edged out for various reasons. Nance’s season-ending injury sent Wyoming into a tailspin, which helped his case as far as importance to the team, but it also robbed us of watching him for the final five games. It’s possible he could have beat out someone on that team with a couple more great games.
• Tre Coggins, G, Air Force
• Daniel Bejarano, G, Colorado State
• Winston Shepard, F, San Diego State
• Roscoe Smith, F, UNLV
• Alex Kirk, C, New Mexico
Kirk was my preseason pick for Player of the Year. He probably deserved at least second-team honors, but I couldn’t find room for him. In retrospect, he should’ve been ahead of Avila.
Shepard didn’t appear in the top 10 of any stat categories. However, I use the bottom of the third team for guys I think deserve recognition, and Shepard took a big step forward this year, with the exception of his 3-point shot. I could, and probably should, have also thrown the Aztecs’ Josh Davis on here. I blame sleep deprivation and the Mountain West’s absurd 9 a.m. deadline the day after late games decided the league crown, and we lost an hour overnight.
All-Defensive Team — Thames; Nance; Watkins; Skylar Spencer, F, San Diego State; Birch
Newcomer of the Year — Avila
The Navy transfer wasn’t even on my radar before the season, but his impact was impossible to ignore. SDSU’s Josh Davis, my preseason pick for this honor, would have also been a good pick here.
Freshman of the Year — Paul Watson, G/F, Fresno State
Sixth Man of the Year — Dwayne Polee, F, San Diego State
With no clear choice here, Polee was as good as anyone else. And while he had plenty of actual highlights this season, I’ll always think of his missed dunk that sailed past half court at UNLV. That’s impressive in its own right.
Coach of the Year — Steve Fisher, San Diego State
Easiest pick on the ballot. New Mexico’s Craig Neal may get some votes for nearly taking the title in his first season as head coach, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Fisher is a unanimous selection.
He took the team picked fourth in the preseason — I had them fifth — and cruised up the national rankings with a suffocating defense. Who said anything about rebuilding?
Defensive Player of the Year — Birch
Second easiest pick on the ballot. Like Fisher, the defending Defensive Player of the Year could be a unanimous pick.
For every block, Birch probably affected two other shots. It was fascinating to watch guards attempt to adjust to his presence in the paint. The best ones — Burton, Thames, Arizona State’s Jahii Carson — did, but it usually took them a long time to figure it out. And Birch got better throughout the year as a one-on-one post defender as he figured out the NCAA’s new rules.
Player of the Year— Bairstow
If New Mexico hadn’t blown that 16-point lead at San Diego State, I’d fully expect Bairstow to win the award. However, the Aztecs’ comeback will probably convince enough people to vote for Thames that the SDSU guard will get the award.
I don’t have a problem with this, other than an annoyance with the logic of voting for whichever guy’s team won that game. They both played great, so whatever you thought of them Saturday afternoon should be the same Saturday night.
Bottom line, there’s no wrong answer between these two. I just think Bairstow is a little more right.