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Previewing The Mountain West Championship Game

The epic match-up of Mountain West titans has reached its third act and on the biggest stage afforded the conference. BYU and San Diego State will duke it out for a conference championship tonight in Las Vegas with a number-one seed in the NCAA Tournament likely on the line for the Aztecs. 

There are more than enough plot lines for even the most casual of fans: Jimmer Fredette's continued dominance, Kawhi Leonard's development as a surefire pro prospect, the Cougars 2-0 mark in the regular season against SDSU, the role that Brandon Davies absence will play tonight and moving forward and of course the simple fact of conference bragging rights being on the line.

Even for those who don't follow the game all that closely they can at least look at the simple fact that it will be a game of two programs ranked in the top ten nationally. So yea, kind of a big deal. Team breakdowns are after the jump.

BYU Cougars, #1 Seed, 30-3 (14-2)

There's almost nothing we don't know about BYU at this point in the season except for how they will handle an elite opponent without the services of Brandon Davies. Last night's semifinal win over New Mexico hardly qualifies given the absurd performance by Jimmer Fredette, but tonight will likely give us a pretty good indication of where the Cougars stand as far as their NCAA Tournament aspirations.

Obviously it's been the offense that has drawn the headlines this season as BYU ranks 5th nationally in scoring and 8th in offensive efficiency according to Synergy Sports Technology. A slightly above average team in transition when looking at efficiency, the Cougars have the 10th best half court offense in the nation, thanks to the deadly nature of their guards in both spot-up and isolation situations. Over 56% of the teams shot attempts are jumpers and they hit an impressive 39% of these shots, which puts BYU in the 90th percentile overall in Division 1. One thing to keep in mind is they were an average low post scoring team to begin with before the loss of Davies, so they are even worse off now that he is gone.

What's been lost amidst the gaudy point totals however, has been the outstanding job BYU does of protecting the basketball. They turned the ball over on just 15.3% of their possessions this season which was the 3rd lowest mark in Division 1. A team that excels at shooting the basketball and turns the ball over at a low percentage (they play at a fast pace so their actual turnover totals bely their low turnover rate). 

Defensively BYU has been almost as good as they have been at the other end of the floor. Using Synergy's points per possession against metric the Cougars rank 44th nationally, giving up just .81 ppp, which their overall defensive efficiency is the 33rd best mark in the country. They are solid across the board in all play types, but have proven the strongest in transition and iso settings, holding opposing teams to just 32% shooting in the latter. They're perimeter defense has been average, but inside the arc teams are shooting just 44% against the Cougars - an excellent overall mark.

Of course there's the little matter of a guy named Jimmer - at this point the likely winner of the National Player of the Year honors, but don't sleep on senior Jackson Emery either. The Utah native as put up some big games this season including 23 points against C-USA runner-up UTEP and a 22-point effort against UNLV in January.

San Diego State Aztecs, #2 Seed, 31-2 (14-2)

What a season it's been for SDSU as they march towards a potential second straight Mountain West Conference championship. Only one team that finished the regular season with at least 30 wins has ever been lower than a number-one seed in the NCAA Tournament, but a loss tonight to BYU could certainly make the Aztecs the second. Regardless, this team will be dancing next week and be a real threat for a deep playoff run.

San Diego State almost matches up with BYU for efficiency and firepower. Kawhi Leonard may be the best pro prospect in the conference (sorry Jimmer) and he leads an offense that ranks in the top 10%  in the country when looking at scoring efficiency. With their athletic core the Aztecs are at their best in transition, connecting on 64% of their shot attempts and averaging nearly 1.2 points per possession - an outstanding mark. The rest of the offense breaks down as excelling in the immediate area around the rim, shooting 44% in the post and nearly 57% on all other attempts in that vicinity. Certainly the presence of Leonard and Malcolm Thomas's 55% field goal mark help out tremendously in this regard.

The true mark of this team however has been their tremendous defense. The Aztecs have the 5th best defensive efficiency in the country according to Ken Pomeroy, and rank in the top 25 in opponent three-point shooting, two-point shooting and effective field goal percentage. To rank that high across the board in that regard is simply astounding and is what truly gives SDSU an opportunity to have a special postseason run. They defend the rim ferociously, holding opponents to 38% shooting on field goal attempts around the basket that aren't traditional post-ups and not surprisingly are 35th in all of Division 1 in block percentage.

Above all else though, the ability for SDSU to limit the number of second chance opportunities for opposing teams has been vital to their success.

Final Prediction

Assuming Jimmer doesn't have another 50-point game in him - and let's be honest you just never know with him - the Aztecs are in line for their first win over BYU this season. With Brandon Davies out there's not question San Diego State has the clear advantage inside and their guards can match up well enough with BYU. Both teams will be playing next week in the NCAA Tournament, but it will be SDSU that does so with a conference championship to it's name.