Aztecs no longer control own destiny in MW regular season race

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

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Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

With Tuesday night’s loss to Utah State, the Aztecs (9-5) no longer control their own destiny to win a Mountain West regular season title. The Aggies (10-4) sit atop the standings alone, with Boise State (9-4) right behind them after their defeat of San Jose State on Tuesday night. 

The Broncos have five games remaining, while the Aggies have four. If both teams win out their remaining games, they will share the regular season championship. If only one team slips up, the 14-4 record holder would hold the title outright. 

The Aggies finish out the regular season against:

2/27: @ Fresno State (4-9)

3/1: Air Force (1-11)

3/6: @ San Jose State (2-12)

3/9: New Mexico (8-5)

The Broncos finish out the regular season against:

2/24: @ Wyoming (6-7)

2/27: @ Air Force (1-11)

3/2: New Mexico (8-5)

3/5: Nevada (8-5)

3/8: @ San Diego State (9-5)

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Based on the strength of the remaining schedule, the Aggies appear to have the upper hand in staying atop the conference standings. 

Lurking below them are five teams currently with five losses, one game behind the Aggies and Broncos in the loss column. The winner of Wednesday night’s Colorado State (8-5) vs New Mexico (8-5) matchup in The Pit will join the Aztecs, Wolf Pack (8-5), and Rebels (8-5 if they defeat Air Force in Colorado Springs on Wednesday night) with hopes of making it to the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to play for the regular season title.

The Aztecs will face Fresno State and San Jose State in Q3 and Q4 matchups, respectively, before closing out the season at UNLV and the aforementioned Boise State game. If the Aztecs win out, their victory over the Broncos on March 8 would at least drop them to five losses (if they remained at four losses before the final matchup), and then they might have to sit in front of the TV on March 9 and hope the Lobos can knock off the Aggies in order to share the title (assuming the Aggies do not lose any of their next three games). 

Given the Mountain West allows any team that is tied for first in the conference standings to take a share of the regular season championship, there are very plausible scenarios that result in a three or four team share of the title in 2024. 

Tiebreaker rules will eventually determine the seeding for the conference tournament in the event that two or more teams have identical records after the 18-game schedule. In order for the Aztecs to receive a first-round bye and not play an opening-round game on Wednesday, they will need to finish fifth or better. 

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NCAA Tournament Potential Seeding

Last Saturday, exactly one month before the official NCAA Tournament Bracket reveal, the 12-member NCAA Men’s Basketball Selection Committee released their preliminary top-16 seeds if the season ended on Friday night. San Diego State was seeded 14th and a 4-seed in the Midwest Region. 

In this hypothetical scenario, the Aztecs would play their first and second round games at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena in Spokane, WA, on March 22 and 24 and Sweet 16 and Elite 8 matchups at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, MI, on March 29 and 31. The Final Four takes place at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, AZ, on April 6. 

Since the in-season reveal began in 2017, the most changes among the teams in the preliminary and official brackets is five, both in 2019 and 2021. But since then, only one team has dropped out of the top 16 in each of the past two years. 

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

According to NCAA tournament selection rules, a team ranked in the top 16 of the bracket is given geographical preference for the site of their first weekend games. Typically, there are two first-weekend sites in the western part of the United States each year. This year, they are Spokane, WA (March 22 and 24) and Salt Lake City, UT (March 21 and 23). 

If the Aztecs keep their top 4 seeding when the official bracket is released on March 17, they will be ensured to play in one of those locations. Spokane is roughly 1,500 miles from San Diego at an elevation of 1,840 ft, while Salt Lake City is only 750 miles at an elevation of about 4,265 ft. 

In 2023, the Aztecs reached the National Championship Game as a 5-seed in the South Regional despite not playing any games west of Houston, TX. Their march began with two games in Orlando, FL, followed by two games in Louisville, KY, before the Final Four in Houston, TX.  

Only twice have the Aztecs received a 4-seed or higher in program history in the NCAA Tournament. Both times, they were placed in the West Region and reached the Sweet 16 before losing. In 2014, the 4-seed Aztecs won two games in Spokane before losing to 1-seed Arizona in Anaheim. In 2011, the 2-seed Aztecs won two games in Tucson before losing to 3-seed and eventual champion UConn in Anaheim.

This year’s West Regional will be played in nearby Los Angeles at Crypto.Com Arena on March 28 and 30 and would give the Aztecs a favorable home-court advantage. The only other team in the top-16 reveal west of Texas geographically was Arizona, ranked 4th overall and 1st in the West. The Wildcats have a well-traveled and rabid fanbase and would help fill up Crypto.Com Arena as equally as the Aztecs fans would. 

Before the committee revealed its rankings, the Aztecs were not ranked in the top 25 in either the AP or Coaches Poll. After two home Q1 wins against Colorado State and New Mexico last week and the committee’s 14 ranking, voters took notice and placed the Aztecs 19th in both polls this week. 

Despite dropping to 5-7 in Q1 games with the loss to Utah State on Tuesday night, the Aztecs remained 18th in the NET rankings. Every loss on the season has come in a true road game. Conversely, the Aztecs are 13-0 in non-Q1 games. Only Houston (1st in NET), Purdue (2nd), UConn (4th), Dayton (19th), and Florida (29th) join the Aztecs as D1 teams to have not lost any non-Q1 games this year.

“It’s a byproduct of playing quad one road games,” said SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher following last night’s loss. “We have seven losses, all quad one and all on the road. It’s not like we’re being upset. Every game we’ve lost, I think the other team has been favored. We’re in here fighting, but we haven’t got over the hump.”

Closing out the season with four more wins would cement the Aztecs as a top-4 seed regardless of how they fare in the conference tournament. Winning the conference tournament or possibly just reaching the final with two more wins could propel the Aztecs to the 3-seed line. Another regular season loss, especially since the remaining games would likely be non-Q1 games would drop the Aztecs to a 5 seed and loss of their geographical protection for the first weekend of the tournament. 

The conference’s above average season has no doubt helped the Aztecs standing with the committee and maybe their run to the National Championship Game last year did as well, although committee members are asked to only look at current season resumes when determining inclusion and seeding. Six teams from the Mountain West are currently in the top 43 in the NET.

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