Conference play has barely begun, but it's never too early to look ahead to March.
Collectively, Mountain West Conference teams played a tough preseason schedule, though they didn't register any landmark victories. As a league, the MWC ranks No. 10 in this week's Sagarin conference ratings, behind the Missouri Valley Conference, Conference USA and the West Coast Conference.
Question is, will that negatively affect the number of MWC teams that will get into the NCAA Tournament?
Commissioner Craig Thompson isn't concerned. In four of the five years of the league's existence, he points out, the MWC has received two at-large bids.
"I don't think (the preseason) has shown much different than the four seasons we've had two at-large teams," Thompson said. "We've played an inordinate amount of road games, and we've played really good people on the road — more than a dozen games against Top 40 teams and only two of those games were at home (Wake Forest and Oklahoma State). The coaches deserve credit for stepping up the non-conference schedule. That only prepares you for those arduous Saturday-Monday road swings when we get into conference play."
Thompson, who used to serve on the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee, knows all about the factors involved in selecting at-large teams for the Big Dance. He feels the MWC is in a good position to get more than one team into the tournament.
"We've got enough ammunition there. We have three teams in the Top 60 (in the Sagarin ratings)," Thompson said. "(The NCAA selection committee is) giving more credit for playing on the road, particularly for winning on the road. That's going to help us when they look at who we've played and where we've played them. With three teams, UNLV, Utah and New Mexico, all in the top 60, that puts you right in the hunt. Air Force is in the periphery. I don't think there's any reason for concern at this point based on who we've played. If all eight teams go 7-7 (in conference play), that's going to be problematic. But historically, the conference champion or co-champ has gotten 10 or 11 wins. If any of those teams win 10 or 11 games in the conference, I think they'll be in solid shape for the postseason."
GRANGER OUT: New Mexico star Danny Granger, who is No. 2 in the conference in scoring, averaging 19.1 points per game, could miss two weeks after undergoing minor surgery Monday to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee.
He sustained the injury in the Lobos' 89-75 victory over Wyoming last Saturday at The Pit. Granger is expected to be out for Saturday's contest at Air Force.
"We're not the same team without him in there," coach Ritchie McKay told the Albuquerque Tribune. "We lose a great defender. It will put more pressure on our defense as a team. Offensively, we don't have a 19-point scorer out there, a guy capable of getting 30 points."
The Lobos have the best overall record in the conference at 14-2.
Granger leads his team in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, 3-point percentage and steals. He could return to action when New Mexico visits the Beehive State to face Utah (Jan. 22) and BYU (Jan. 24).
WALTON UPDATE: Chris Walton, the youngest of Bill Walton's four sons, hit the game-winning shot as time expired against BYU last Saturday. It was only the fifth game he had played all season long due to a strain in the groin/hip area.
After the game in Provo, Walton traveled to Philadelphia, where he met with a renowned abdominal specialist at Drexel University, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The doctor checked the senior forward and cleared him to continue playing this season.
Meanwhile, Aztec guard John Sharper will also be able to play despite injuring his ankle during the postgame celebration at the Marriott Center.
BOATNER TRANSFERS: Colorado State's starting point guard, Dwight Boatner, left the program this week to transfer to McNeese State. He cited a desire to be closer to his family in Lake Charles, La.
Boatner scored 14 points and had one assist in the Rams' conference-opening defeat at Air Force.
"It has nothing to do with the coaches," Boatner told the Denver Post. "I'm not mad at them. I have no grudges. We weren't on the same page in a lot of situations."
Boatner was averaging 8.1 points this season.
In Boatner's absence, CSU coach Dale Layer will look to shooting guards Michael Morris and Andrew Patterson, as well as freshman Sean Morris, to step in as the Rams' new point guard. CSU hosts BYU on Saturday.
NOTES: Air Force has won 20 consecutive home games, the fourth-longest active home winning streak in the country . . . Utah's Andrew Bogut has recorded 11 double-doubles this season, which is tops in the nation . . . Wyoming's Alex Dunn has had double-doubles in three of his last four games.