DENVER — Like its counterpart on the men's side, the UNLV women's basketball team is picked to finish atop the Mountain West Conference.
Utah and New Mexico, which tied for second in the pre-season coaches poll released Sunday, should pose a threat to the Lady Rebels' quest for a league championship. In fact, the Utes and Lobos received more first-place votes than the Rebels but earned slightly fewer total points.
BYU, meanwhile, is projected to finish fifth.
UNLV coach Regina Miller embraces the role of favorite. "We don't feel pressure from it because we've been preparing for this time," she said. "Hopefully we've put ourselves in a position to meet the challenge. Who knows? This could be our year. The team feels extra inspired this season. We want to be in the NCAA Tournament."
The Rebels return four starters from a team that advanced to the WNIT championship game last season.
"It's always good to get recognition," said forward RanDee Henry, who won the MWC scoring title in 2004. "It comes from what we did last year. This year, we want to take it further. We want to get to NCAA Tournament and do as well as we did in the WNIT."
The bad news for the Lady Rebels is they will have to play the first couple of months without all-MWC forward Sherry McCracklin, who is sidelined with an foot injury.
Utah coach Elaine Elliott, who celebrated her birthday Sunday, said UNLV and New Mexico deserve the pre-season attention. Her team has won back-to-back conference titles but it has only two starters back. Nine players on the roster are underclassmen.
"I think Vegas and New Mexico had to be the two favorites. Everyone has great respect for the talent of Vegas and I'm assuming that's where that vote came from," Elliott said. "Really, the league has a lot of primo players back. We lost the most players. We get to sit back a little bit. We don't have to start with the high expectations. That should rest with a few other teams this year."
"UNLV and New Mexico are great teams. They're strong and didn't graduate a lot of players. They should be the top teams again this year," said Utah junior Kim Smith, the MWC's reigning player of the year. "We're young, so it will be interesting. It will be a fun year. Who knows what's going to happen?"
BYU returns four starters. One of them, forward Danielle Cheesman, isn't fazed by where her team sits in the poll. "Our conference is so close anyway. The competition's really good in every game," she said. "I don't mind being ranked fifth right now in the preseason because I like the element of surprise. No one's really expecting much from us because of how we did last year. This year, we have a whole new outlook on things and we're going to surprise some people."
BYU coach Jeff Judkins isn't worried that his team was picked to finish in the middle of the MWC pack. He said he will use that to his advantage.
"It will be a great motivating tool for me, to tell my team we were picked fifth," Judkins said. "It doesn't make a difference to us. We can beat any team on any night if we execute. We're going to have a good year and surprise a lot of people. We lost a lot of close games last year. We didn't get blown out one time last year. I know we're a better team now than we were last year."
All-Mountain West Conference
Kim Smith, Jr., F, Utah
RanDee Henry, Sr., F/C, UNLV
Sherry McCracklin, Sr., F/C, UNLV
Mandi Moore, Sr., G, New Mexico
Ashley Elliott, Sr., G, Wyoming
Top Returning Player
Kim Smith, Jr., F, Utah
Mary Martha Abell, Fr., F, BYU