It is time for conference play for Mountain West men’s basketball team, and also the debut of my weekly power rankings. Look for these rankings on a weekly basis throughout the conference season. RPI numbers are from NCAA.com as of Dec. 26.
1. Nevada (11-3, 23 RPI): A head-scratching loss at San Francisco to end its nonconference season, but the preseason league favorite and defending regular-season and conference tournament champion earns the top spot. The Wolf Pack will be tested in its MW opener at Fresno State Wednesday. Games this week: at Fresno State, 8 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN3); vs. New Mexico, 3 p.m. Saturday (AT&T SportsNet).
2. Boise State (10-2, 29 RPI): The Broncos got smoked at SMU in its final nonconference game, but also racked up some nice wins. Senior Chandler Hutchison is playing like the preseason MW Player of the Year, and the supporting cast around him also has played well. Perhaps the most important statistic is Boise State leads the league in scoring defense at 64.5 points per game. Games this week: vs. Colorado State, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (CBS SportsNetwork); at UNLV, 9 p.m. Saturday (AT&T SportsNet).
3. San Diego State (8-3, 55 RPI): A two-point win at home over then No. 12 Gonzaga Dec. 21 was by far the conference’s best nonconference win. When this team is healthy, it may be the best team in the league. In coach Brian Dutcher’s first season, the Aztecs remain one of the better defensive teams in the country, but are pushing the tempo more offensively and average 78.3 points per game. Games this week: at Wyoming, 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN3); vs. Utah State, 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3).
4. UNLV (11-2, 101 RPI): Has the MW best nonconference record, and longest current winning streak at five. The Rebels lead the league in scoring at 91.2 points per game, and individually, has the conferences’s leading scorer, rebounder and assist guy. Looks like the Rebels are back to being on the MW elite teams, but I need to see more in league play to move them up. Game this week: vs. Boise State, 9 p.m. Saturday (AT&T SportsNet).
5. Fresno State (10-3, 147 RPI): Once again, the Bulldogs are one of the toughest teams, both physically and mentally, in the MW. They are one of two teams (UNLV) to shoot better than 50 percent from the field, and rank in the top three in scoring defense. Sophomore wing Bryson Williams is one of the bright young stars in the league. Games this week: vs. Nevada, 8 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN3); vs. Air Force, 5 p.m. Saturday (MW Network — online).
6. Wyoming (9-4, 112 RPI): A promising start, but a sluggish final month of nonconference play. The Cowboys have to play a lot better on both ends of the floor if it hopes to be a contender for the conference title, let alone an upper half finish. We will learn a lot about Wyoming early in conference play as its first three games are against San Diego State, Nevada and Boise State — two of which are at home. Game this week: vs. San Diego State, 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN3).
7. Utah State (7-6, 215 RPI): The Aggies are getting good production from sophomore guard Sam Merrill (14.5 ppg, 3.5 app), but it needs more from fellow sophomore guard Koby McEwen, the MW Freshman of the Year in 2016-17. McEwen has dealt with an early-season ankle injury, and the Aggies have been hurt (no pun intended) by the injury bug so far this season. Games this week: vs. San Jose State, 7 p.m. Wednesday (MW Network — online); at San Diego State, 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3).
8. Colorado State (6-6, 129 RPI): The Rams have played some quality nonconference foes, but more often than not have come up short. It is odd to see a Larry Eustachy-coached team near the bottom in both scoring offense and defense. But with guards like Prentiss Nixon and J.D. Paige, never count the Rams out of any game. Games this week: at Boise State, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (CBS Sports Network); at San Jose State, 3 p.m. Saturday (MW Network — online).
9. New Mexico (5-8, 219 RPI): First-year coach Paul Weir has his hands full with a depleted roster. Teams better get New Mexico while they can. A start for the Lobos to show improvement? Improve on its scoring defense (76.8 points per game) and field-goal percentage defense (46.6). Games this week: vs. Air Force, 7 p.m. Wednesday (AT&T SportsNet); at Nevada, 3 p.m. Saturday (AT&T SportsNet).
10. Air Force (6-6, 325 RPI): Despite its nonconference struggles, this is one of the more skilled and athletic teams the Falcons have had in a while. This team has a chance to win its share of league games this season. Games this week: at New Mexico, 7 p.m. Wednesday (AT&T SportsNet); at Fresno State, 5 p.m. Saturday (MW Network — online).
11. San Jose State (3-8, 296 RPI): Unless something strange happens, this is where the Spartans will spend the entire season. First-year coach Jean Prioleau was dealt a tough hand taking over in late summer. Keeping his team engaged and competitive will be the biggest challenges. Games this week: at Utah State, 7 p.m. Wednesday (MW Network — online); vs. Colorado State, 3 p.m. Saturday (MW Network — online)
Weekly predictions (winners in bold)
San Diego State at Wyoming
San Jose State at Utah State
Air Force at New Mexico
Colorado State at Boise State
Nevada at Fresno State
Colorado State at San Jose State
New Mexico at Nevada
Air Force at Fresno State
Utah State at San Diego State
Boise State at UNLV