Saturday Night In San Diego: Winner-Take-All For The Mountain West

It’s the final week of the college basketball regular season for the power conferences, and the last call for the championship push in three significant leagues. Nowhere is it more dramatic than the Mountain West, where a winner-take-all battle highlights the weekend sports docket.

New Mexico and San Diego State are each 15-2 in conference play and meet head-to-head in San Diego on Saturday night (10 PM ET, CBS Sports Network) for an outright championship. The Lobos are coming on strong with six straight wins, including a 58-44 win over the Aztecs on their home floor to turn the Mountain West into a real race.

With an inside-out combo of Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Bairstow, New Mexico is going to be tough to handle as they look for a second straight MWC title. San Diego State counters with homecourt advantage, a season-long buildup as the best team on the Pacific Coast and the quality of Xavier Thames. It’s close, but I lean to the homecourt in a game this big and look forward to a potential third game next week in the league tournament.

New Mexico-San Diego State is the highlight of daily sports this weekend. TheSportsNotebook will be upping its college basketball coverage next week as we celebrate conference champions and look at league tournament action. MLB coverage has also started up this week with individual team previews.

In the meantime, here’s nine other quick thoughts, our Notebook Nine, on the weekend ahead…

*Villanova and Michigan have joined the ranks of regular season conference champions, clinching outright in the Big East and Big Ten respectively. Villanova got a clutch win at Xavier, a team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life, while Creighton fell at Georgetown. In the Midwest, Michigan beat Illinois to lock up an outright title for the first time since 1986.

*We’ll talk more about the NCAA Tournament bubble here next week when looking at conference tournaments, but if that’s where your focus is right now, check out the Pac-12 and SEC. The Pac-12 has three teams (Stanford, Oregon, Colorado) projected as 10-seeds by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. That’s probably in safe territory, but if any of them lose this weekend and again in the first game of the conference tourney, they could be in trouble. The SEC has three teams of its own (Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri) squarely on the bubble.

*The NASCAR circuit goes to Las Vegas on Sunday for the Kobalt Tools 400 (3 PM ET, Fox). This is a fairly straightforward track, with no unique twists. As such, it’s not surprising that Jimmie Johnson has won here four times since 2005 and Matt Kenseth taken home the checkered flag three times, including last year. The betting odds have JJ going off at 5-1 and Kenseth at 7-1.

*A more important focus in NASCAR is the drivers who have started slow. There’s certainly a lot of racing between now and September 14 to catch up and get in the Top 16, qualifying for the Chase. But we have seen how bad starts can be a harbinger of a bad year. Three notable drivers who need to run their first strong race are Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex.

*The Kentucky Derby Championship Series has two races where horses can get qualifying points for Churchill Downs. The San Felipe Stakes runs out west at 5 PM ET and the Tampa Bay Derby goes at 5:25 PM ET. The morning line isn’t posted yet for the San Felipe, but at Tampa, heavyweight trainer Todd Pletcher has two of the three favorites in Surfing USA and Vinceremos.

*It’s a big day at Tampa Downs generally and the horse I like the most is running in the Florida Oaks, a $200,000 purse for the fillies. The horse’s name is Annulment and the odds are 20-1. Since a troubled four-year period of my life came to an end in the last couple weeks with a decree of annulment on a marriage, I have to think this means this horse is for me. And as we all know this form of handicapping tends to work better than actual analysis.

*Is it time to be concerned about the Indiana Pacers? They’re still holding the top seed in the East and the Miami Heat lost last night in San Antonio. But the Pacers lead over the Heat in the loss column is down to one game. Indiana hasn’t looked sharp generally, as they try and integrate Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum into the roster. Their offensive efficiency, never great, is down to 20th in the league. I picked the Pacers to win the NBA title and am standing by that. But I’m also getting a little nervous.

*The race for the 1-seed in the East should be heightened by the fact the Brooklyn Nets continue to quietly build steam. The Nets are now up to #6 in the East, meaning they can avoid Miami or Indiana in the first round. And if they sit in the 6-spot, a team with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson would be favored in the first round, and be poised to make life for the 2-seed very uncomfortable in the second round.

*Martin St. Louis was a hero for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, winning the MVP award and leading the franchise to its only Stanley Cup title. St. Louis forced a trade out of town, being dealt to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan and draft picks. The reason St. Louis was unhappy? General manager Steve Yzerman didn’t choose him for Team Canada in the Olympics. St. Louis is being a baby and even though the trade was not a bad one for Tampa, the Lightning fans should feel insulted that a key player could be so petty in a year where they have a legitimate chance at a deep playoff run.