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Top seed could be decided on final day

SHARE Top seed could be decided on final day

The race for the Mountain West Conference regular-season championship could come down to the final day.

Going into the last week of action, BYU (11-3 in the MWC) and UNLV (10-4) are battling for the league title — as well as the top seed in next week's MWC tournament in Las Vegas. Air Force and San Diego State are clinging to an outside shot of grabbing a piece of the crown.

The Cougars visit Air Force (10-5) tonight, then close out the regular season by hosting arch-rival Utah on Saturday. A victory over the Falcons would guarantee the Cougars at least a share of the title. If BYU wins both games, it would claim the championship outright.

The Rebels travel to New Mexico on Wednesday and entertain Colorado State on Saturday, with their sights on winning both and hoping that the Cougars stumble this week.

Air Force and San Diego State (9-5) remain in contention for a share of the championship, though they would need help from other teams.

"It's a great conference race," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "It should be an exciting finish."

SINGIN' THE BLUES: Both BYU and Air Force saw their national profiles damaged somewhat last Saturday. The Cougars fell behind early at San Diego State before losing, 86-74, while the Falcons suffered a surprising 71-66 setback to last-place TCU.

On Monday, Air Force dropped from No. 11 to No. 18 in the NCAA's RPI, while BYU fell from No. 20 to No. 23. UNLV is No. 12 in the RPI while San Diego State is No. 46.

Falcon coach Jeff Bzdelik discounted talk that his team, which is 3-3 in its last six games, is fading down the stretch. "This isn't doom and gloom," he said. "We're 23-6 and we have a lot of basketball to be played."

Said New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay of the Falcons' loss to TCU: "I don't think Air Force is fading. It speaks to how good this league is."

NCAA TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS: MWC commissioner Craig Thompson still believes BYU, Air Force and UNLV are strong candidates to get into the NCAA tournament based on what they've accomplished during the regular season.

But, he added, the regular season isn't over yet and those squads need to avoid finishing the season with prolonged losing streaks.

"I think it was a tough week for some people but those teams still have very strong credentials," Thompson said. "Air Force is still in good shape, but you never want to back your way into the tournament."

Wyoming coach Steve McClain said San Diego State, which has won seven of its last eight games, shouldn't be overlooked for NCAA consideration. "You've gotta throw San Diego State into that mix. They're sitting in as good a position as anybody," he said. "They're making a strong push to deserve to be talked about for the NCAA tournament. That's why the conference tournament is going to be so interesting."

DEFENDING MCKAY: San Diego State coach Steve Fisher opened Monday's weekly coaches teleconference with an unsolicited, five-minute monologue on McKay's in-season firing. The veteran coach defended McKay and lamented the circumstances surrounding his dismissal.

"Most of you don't know Ritchie. I do. He's an exceptional basketball coach. He's done an outstanding job," Fisher said, noting that McKay guided the Lobos to an NCAA tournament berth two years ago. "I'm disappointed and I feel badly. But Ritchie will move on and life will go on."

New Mexico, which is struggling with a 4-10 league record and a 15-14 mark overall, announced last week that McKay would be fired after the season. McKay and his staff will continue to coach the Lobos until then, while the school administration is conducting a search for McKay's replacement.

Colorado State coach Dale Layer, whose own job status is tenuous, is close friends with McKay. "I talk to Ritchie four or five times a week. I know what he's going through through the eyes of his wife, his kids, his assistant coaches," Layer said. "It's nothing anybody wants to go through. It rocks a lot of people's worlds."

TCU UPRISING: The Horned Frogs snapped an 11-game losing streak when they upset Air Force. They shot 75 percent from the floor in the second half, and coach Neil Dougherty is hoping his team can take away some confidence and momentum from that unlikely performance.

"We've been going through such a tough stretch," he said. "We just needed to win a game — it didn't matter who it was against. I think the kids feel the burden of a long losing streak off their backs."

E-MAIL: jeffc@desnews.com