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Grammer: Checking in on the Mountain West as league action begins

JaQuan Lyle, right, and the UNM men’s basketball team will play against Boise State in a Mountain West Conference opener on Wednesday at Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Just a month into the college hoops season and the Mountain West is ready to tip off conference games.

Sort of.

Starting Wednesday, the league will sneak in one week of its usual 10-week conference men’s and women’s basketball schedule with the other nine starting in January, as usual.

The reason? The league moved its conference tournament, usually the second weekend in March, up a week to March 4-7 this season (the women’s tournament is March 1-4). The move, for now, is only this season and came about because in 2017, the league realized fans simply weren’t able to compete with the overcrowding and insane price hikes associated with the ConEXPO construction convention that estimated 128,000 attendees in 2017. With that, again in 2020, scheduled for the second week of March.

POWER RANKINGS: So, here we are, and these are my current MWC power rankings, with my preseason media poll vote in parentheses and more context below the list:

1. San Diego State (3)

2. Utah State (1)

3. New Mexico (2)

4. Nevada (5)

5. Boise State (4)

6. Colorado State (9)

7. UNLV (8)

8. Air Force (6)

9. Fresno State (7)

10. Wyoming (10)

11. San Jose State (11)

I wrote in the preseason the top three teams are in a tier of their own and all capable of winning the league. I’ve seen nothing yet to change my mind as SDSU (three), USU (one) and UNM (two) have accounted for six of the MWC’s seven non-conference wins over teams ranked in the KenPom Top 100.

San Diego State (8-0) has impressed, but it isn’t clear they’ve beaten an NCAA Tournament team yet and won’t play another in that conversation outside of league play. They beat BYU on the road without the Cougars’ best player and it’s hard to know yet just how good the neutral court wins over Creighton and Iowa are.

Still, the Aztecs look like the best of the bunch right now.

Utah State (7-1) has one good win, but even in beating LSU on Nov. 22, the Aggies fell behind by 19 in the second half before a monumental Tigers’ collapse, or Aggies’ rally, depending on your perspective. USU is still without its star sophomore center, Neemias Queta, out with an injured knee.

As for UNM (7-2 and 2-1 vs. KenPom Top 100 teams), the Lobos still look like a team of a bunch of pieces trying to figure out how best to play with one another, but that excuse has played out (and hasn’t seemed to slowed all the new pieces at SDSU).

The high-end potential of the Lobos is still evident, which is why I still have them in the top tier, but they are playing with fire if they think Boise State on Wednesday or the Dec. 14 rematch with New Mexico State will be games they can just sort of sleepwalk through.

Most impressive for UNM in my mind is the mental make-up of the team. For their two losses to be followed up on a short turnaround by two huge wins – at rival NMSU and vs. the Big Ten’s Wisconsin – was a good sign for a program that has had a knack of letting one loss turn into two or three in a hurry over the past half decade.

Nipping on the top tier’s heels are three teams – Boise State, Nevada and Colorado State – I think will get wins against the top tier teams at some point this season.

UNLV, Air Force and Fresno State make up my third tier with Wyoming and San Jose State in the fourth tier of the league pecking order at this point.

POLL POSITION: The Utah State Aggies remain in Monday’s AP Top 25 poll at No. 25 after last week’s road loss at Saint Mary’s. USU dropped from No. 16 last week and was left off of 38 of 65 ballots this week with a point total of 118.

I dropped them from my ballot this week, but had them, Colorado, Butler and a couple other teams on the final chopping block.

SDSU is in the “others receiving votes” portion of the poll with 89 points and three spots away from being ranked. I placed them No. 25 on my ballot.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: SDSU’s Malachi Flynn, the Washington State transfer guard, was named Monday the MWC Player of the Week, marking the second straight week an SDSU transfer earned the honor. Forward Yanni Wetzell from Vanderbilt won the award last week.

Flynn was named the Las Vegas Invitational MVP after averaging in three games 20.0 points, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals in wins over Tennessee State, Creighton and Iowa. He scored all 28 of his points in the second half of the Iowa win.

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