Some people have mentioned that maybe Tier 1 should be expanded to include the Mountain West. This is certainly a banner year for the newest conference to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. You wouldn’t get much argument from me that the the top half (especially San Diego State and BYU) of the MWC is better than the top teams in the Pac 10 and SEC. However, Tier 1 conferences expect to get multiple teams in the tournament every year. [It should also be noted that BYU, the bellwether of the conference, will leave to the WCC next year.] The Mountain West received invites for four teams last year (the top two, UNLV, and New Mexico) and may get that many this year (with Colorado State, which is right on the bubble, replacing New Mexico). This weekend’s clash between the Aztecs and Cougar in San Diego is must see TV for any college basketball enthusiast and could determine which team gets a one-seed. As such, each team’s best players are smack dab in the middle of the top ten prospects heading to the NCAA tournament.
6. Kawhi Leonard, Forward, San Diego State Aztecs
Leonard is a fun player to watch because he can do so many things. The 6-foot-7, 225 lb sophomore has a great nose for the ball and excellent hands to grab rebounds. He is averaging a double-double (15.2 points, 10.7 rebounds) and has some offensive facilitation skills as well (2.6 assists). Similar to his freshman year (and this could be said for almost every frontcourt player in college), Leonard might be better served not taking quite as many three-pointers. He is converting just 26.6% of his three-pointers and has only converted more than half of his trey attempts once this season (4-for-5 in Nov. 21 win over IUPUI). Nevertheless, it is easy enough to overlook the slight warts of Leonard’s game to see the smoothness. He has five double-doubles in his last six games, and was just one rebound short in the sixth game (a win over New Mexico). The Aztecs should be set up nicely to get to the Sweet 16 and Leonard should be the star to watch.
5. Jimmer Fredette, Guard, BYU Cougars
The Jimmer needs little introduction. “Jimmer-mania” blew up when Fredette scored 43 points in the Cougars’ Jan. 26 win over San Diego State. That game came on the heels of two other 40-point explosions. Fredette has quieted down a little in his last six games. In fact, he has failed to reach 40 points, but has scored at least 23 points in each game over the span. The thing that sets the 6-foot-2 senior apart from other shooters is his ability to take and make shots from well beyond the three-point arc. He is converting 41.1% of his threes. When he decides to take the ball to the basket, he can get easier points at the free throw line (after, of course, he absorbs the foul) and is making 89.5% of his free throws. While some people are expecting a Stephen Curry-like run through the tournament, that might be hoping for too much. The Jimmer did score 37 points in BYU’s first round double-overtime win against Florida in last year’s tournament, but was held to 21 in the second round loss against Kansas State. Hopefully, Fredette can put his stamp on the 2011 tournament and give us a few Moments in Time.