This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
BYU or Saint Mary's? The Gaels or the Cougars?
Go ahead. Pick one. It appears the NCAA Tournament is on track to do the same. The West Coast Conference is projected to have two teams qualify for the Big Dance. Gonzaga is the given, while BYU and Saint Mary's are fighting it out. Currently, according to Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology, the Gaels are among the final four teams in, while the Cougars are in the first four out.
That makes Saint Mary's vs. BYU later this month the most important game of the regular season for both teams. And depending on the result, it makes a potential rematch in the West Coast Conference tournament equally as important.
Here's the rub, though. Saint Mary's drew a bracketbuster home game against top-25 Creighton in a few weeks. A win over the Blue Jays and another win over BYU would put the Gaels in much stronger position. So the Cougars have to win the rematch on the road Saint Mary's has already won in the Marriott Center.
With five weeks left in the regular-season, much of the data is in and a judgement can be made. It appears that the Pac-12 Conference is indeed back, and indeed much better and stronger than it was a year ago.
One can realistically expect five teams to make it to the NCAA Tournament, with a team like Stanford making a strong case for itself thanks to improved play. And the bottom of the league has proven to be an addition, rather than a huge liability. Utah and Oregon State have both beaten Washington. The Utes upset Colorado last Saturday. Washington State has proven to be difficult to beat, and California just beat Oregon.
"The way this league is, anyone can beat anyone," Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said. "It's truly so much better from top to bottom and the league has had a great infusion of talent this year."
What's happened to San Diego State and UNLV?
To be sure, both should gain at-large berths to the NCAA Tournament. SDSU is still ranked in most polls. But the two, however, were expected to dominate the Mountain West Conference. It hasn't happened.
They have combined for six losses and are sitting in fourth and fifth place respectively behind teams like Air Force and Colorado State. San Diego State has particularly struggled with its offense and scoring.
There is still time for the two. SDSU has Jamal Franklin and he's arguably the best player in the league. But injuries and a lack of a dominate inside game have hurt Steve Fisher's team. The Rebels have maybe the most talented bunch in the league, led by freshman forward Anthony Bennett. But Dave Rice's squad has sometimes been sidetracked by a lack of chemistry. It has hindered UNLV from reaching its full potential at times.
Both teams, though, are dangerous and a big reason the MWC is considered a league on par with the Pac-12.