Mountain West Conference men’s basketball preview

Credit: Paul Garrison/ EVT Sports

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

As the turn of the calendar approaches, college basketball turns the page from the non-conference play and begins the eventful three-month stretch of conference matchups. Teams across the country, playing their long-time rivals, find out if they have what it takes to go dancing in March.

This season, the Mountain West is as loaded as it has been in years. Every team’s record is above .500, and there are six teams ranked inside of the top 65 for the NET ranking. At the conclusion of last season, the conference had only four teams ranked in the top 70. Two years prior, it had only two teams.

The last five regular-season winners of the conference have had conference win totals of 16, 17, 15, 15, and 14. In the three years that the NET ranking has been around, the winners of the regular season title have had a ranking of 26, 4, and 23. The lowest an at-large bid has ranked in the NET was 47. Utah State reached this mark last season. 

KenPom currently rates the Mountain West better than the West Coast Conference. This should enhance the conference’s chances to get more teams in and cut some slack for difficult losses suffered throughout the season.


The committee has not been kind to the Mountain West in the last five seasons. There have been teams snubbed, including multiple that have gone 13-5 in conference play. The 2015-2016 season was the last year that the Mountain West had three teams go dancing. In that year, Boise State and San Diego State shared the regular-season crown, and Wyoming won the conference tournament.

This Mountain West season is no different from years past. The travel will still be brutal, there are difficult atmospheres to play in, altitude changes, and the competition will have their opportunity to prove if they are deserving of an at-large bid.

Listed below are the Mountain West teams ranked in preseason order with a summary of their team and notes relative to San Diego State.

 

  1.     Colorado State #20 (10-0)

Net ranking: 26

Best non-conference win: vs. Saint Mary’s (NET: 48), neutral against Creighton (NET: 59)

Dates against SDSU: Feb 4th @ Colorado State, March 1st @ SDSU (SDSU Senior Night)

Summary:

Credit: Colorado State Athletics

The Rams are undefeated due to their prolific offense. They are #1 in the country in effective FG% and three-point %. They hit their free throws and do not turn the ball over. Their defense is decent, ranking 93rd according to Kenpom. The drawback to this Rams’ team is that they have not played a road game all season, and they are in the midst of an extensive layoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the team. The Rams missed an opportunity to play a nationally ranked Alabama team as nine Rams’ players and four coaches tested positive for COVID-19. The last game the Rams played was on Dec 11th, and they will not get back out there until Jan 4th. This team has a lot of potential and was deservedly ranked as the preseason #1 ranked team in the polls.

Key players: The Rams returned many key players from last season. The dynamic backcourt of Isaiah Stevens and Kendle Moore is safe with the ball, and Stevens is a strong dual-threat as he averages 14 points and seven assists a game. John Tonje has an increased role with the team and has been superb from beyond the arc as he is shooting a blistering 58% from three. The leader of the Rams is still David Roddy. Roddy is one of the front runners to win MW player of the year. With his large and physical frame, he is averaging 20 points and almost eight rebounds a game.

Notes relative to SDSU: The Aztecs faced almost the same Colorado State team last season in back-to-back games at Viejas Arena. The teams split the meetings. But the loss for the Aztecs was a memorable one as SDSU blew a 26 point lead. 

 

  1. San Diego State (8-3)

Net ranking: 63

Best non-conference win: neutral against Saint Mary’s (NET: 48)

Summary:

The Aztecs may have four conference foes ranked above them according to NET, but they must feel optimistic with where they stand in the conference. They have suffered no bad losses. Their lone defeats were on the road to BYU and Michigan and a neutral game against undefeated USC. They are coming off their best win this season against Saint Mary’s, and their offense is starting to click. The last five games, the Aztecs have shot 45% from the field and 41% from three. This is impressive, considering emerging point guard Lamont Butler has been sidelined with a wrist injury the past four games. This is not the hot shooting Aztec team of the last two seasons that can overpower teams with their offense. They win with elite defense. The Aztecs are ranked ninth in the nation defensively, which keeps them in every game. If they continue to gel as a team, capture defensive rebounds, and shoot the ball consistently, they will have every opportunity to win the Mountain West conference again.

Credit: NCAA Logos

Key players: If the Aztecs are to defend their regular-season title for a third straight year, it will be because of Trey Pulliam, Matt Bradley, and Lamont Butler. Pulliam has arguably been the Aztecs’ most important player. With Butler sidelined, Pulliam has had a much heavier workload. Pulliam has played at least 36 minutes in three of the last four games and even played 33 minutes in a game when he was sick. He’s averaging 11 points and almost four assists a game. Bradley is the bucket getter for the Aztecs. He is still finding out where he fits into the offense, but he’s starting to get into his rhythm. He is averaging almost 18 points in his last four games; he will be essential for the Aztecs in games decided at the wire. Butler is the spark plug of this Aztec team. SDSU has certainly missed his energy defensively as he is constantly in the passing lanes, stripping the ball and guarding the opposing team’s best player. His offense has also taken a step forward this season. Butler is averaging almost 10 points per game and is shooting a ludicrous 47% from the three-point line.

Tough Schedule Spots: In this conference, with travel, altitude, and competition playing a factor, there can be difficult schedule spots. A few important ones are listed below:

Jan 1: @ UNLV: Due to COVID cancellations, this will be the first Aztec game in 10 days. Only their third game in 24 days. Coach Dutcher ran a simulated game in practice, but the team could still be rusty with their extensive layoff. UNLV is also winners of four straight, has two dynamic scorers, and always look to take out the Aztecs. This is a difficult way to start conference play.

Jan 8-15: This is one of the schedule spots that Dutcher most likely has circled on the calendar. On the 8th, the Aztecs play a difficult Nevada team at Viejas. Quickly after on the 12th, the Aztecs will travel to Laramie, Wyoming. They have only traveled here twice since 2017, but this has historically been one of least preferred travel destinations for the Aztecs. With elevation over 7,000 feet, travel on a small plane, and now facing a strong Cowboys team, this will be a tough out. The week does not get easier. Three, three days later, the Aztecs travel to New Mexico, where they’ll play in “The Pit,” which is a difficult arena to play in. The Aztecs are only 12-30 all-time playing in New Mexico. The Lobos may be weak this year, but this is a gruesome week that could result in a fatigued game.

Feb 15-22: This week also has three games in seven days, and two of the matchups are on the road. On Tuesday, the week kicks off with an always difficult matchup against Utah State at Viejas Arena. Following this is a road trip to Fresno State on Saturday. Then just three days later is a matchup at Boise State, where the Aztecs have notoriously struggled over the years.

 

  1. Nevada (6-4)

Net ranking: 129

Best non-conference win: Neutral against George Mason (NET: 115)

Dates against SDSU: Jan 8 @SDSU, March 5 @Nevada (Nevada senior night)

Summary:

Credit: Nevada Athletics

This has certainly been one of the most disappointing teams in the Mountain West this season. But just to add to how difficult this conference is, the Wolfpack are trending upwards as of late. Since dismissing AJ Bramah for conduct detrimental to the team, they have gone undefeated in their last five games. Offensively, they rank 50th in the country in Adjusted Efficiency and 120th defensively. The slow start did not derail this Wolfpack team which is partly due to the scoring talent that the team possesses.

Key players: The Wolfpack may have departed with a double-digit scorer in Bramah, but they still have four others. Will Baker is a transfer from Texas who is averaging 12 points a game on an efficient 55% from the field. Seven-footer Warren Washington averages almost 12 points per game and leads the team in rebounds and blocks. Desmond Cambridge is a familiar name to Aztecs fans as he helped his former team Brown defeat SDSU in Viejas. He is averaging 17 points per game and is shooting a career-best 38.4% from beyond the arc. These three players are tremendous compliments to the Mountain West preseason player of the year, Grant Sherfield. He has been stellar as he’s averaging 20 points a game with 6.5 assists. He has a bit of a turnover problem, but the Wolfpack can beat any team when Sherfield is playing well.

Notes relative to SDSU: SDSU is 9-0 at home in the MW era against Nevada. One of these wins includes a Viejas court storming after the Aztecs beat the No. 6 ranked Wolfpack led by Devin Watson and Jalen McDaniels. Facing Nevada on their senior night will be difficult, but on Nevada’s 2020 Senior night, Malachi Flynn led the Aztecs to a victory with a 36 point performance.

 

  1. Boise State (10-4) (1-0 MWC)

Net ranking: 61

Best-non conference win: @ Washington State (NET: 64)

Dates against SDSU: Jan 22 @ SDSU , Feb 22 @ Boise

Summary:

Credit: Boise State Basketball

The Broncos started their season slow but have rallied off seven straight wins. Like Nevada, the Broncos dismissed a star player, Devonaire Doutrive, and have won every game since his departure. The Broncos survive on their defense as they have the second-best defensive rating in the conference at 19. Their offense is not dreadful as they rank 140th in the nation, but they have their share of bad offensive performances, as seen in their loss to CSU Bakersfield 46-39.

Key players: The Broncos are a senior-led squad. The trio of Abu Kigab, Marcus Shaver Jr., and Emmanuel Akot all average double digits. Hard to forget Mladen Armus still controls the paint as the Serbian is averaging almost nine rebounds per game. A player to look out for is freshman Tyson Degenhart. He’s shooting a very impressive 42% from the three-point line.

Notes relative to SDSU: SDSU has struggled playing in Boise. They are 4-5 all-time at ExtraMile Arena. But the Aztecs have won five straight against the Broncos in Viejas Arena.

 

  1. Utah State (9-4)

Net ranking: 53

Best non-conference win: Neutral against Oklahoma (NET: 39)

Dates against SDSU: Jan 26 @ Utah State, Feb 15 @ SDSU

Summary:

Credit: Utah State Athletics

Even though the Aggies lost their head coach Craig Smith and four-year stud Neemias Queta, they have remained consistent. They rank 91st defensively, which has been the team’s strength in years past, but the Aggies this season boast a great offense. They rank 36th in adjusted efficiency. They are 8th in the country in effective FG%, but their most dangerous attribute is shooting almost 40% from beyond the arc as a team. This elite shooting is difficult to sustain. In their conference opener, the Aggies got a taste of how poor shooting impacts them. They shot 1-19 from three and fell to Air Force in a massive upset.

Key Players: Senior Brandon Horvath has been an important part of this team as he averages 13 points per game, six rebounds, and shoots a ridiculous 47% from beyond the arc. Brock Miller, in his fifth season, which feels like his 15th, has been a complementary piece averaging almost ten points per game. The star of this team is Justin Bean, who is most likely the front runner to win MW player of the year. He has put up video game numbers. He has five games with 20 point double-doubles. He’s recorded a stat line of 33 points and 16 rebounds against Penn. He is shooting a nearly make-believe number of almost 60% from the three-point line. He is 17-30 on the year. The sky is the limit for this team if Bean is playing to these standards. If he regresses, the Aggies may lack the offensive depth to pick up his slack.

Notes relative to SDSU: Utah State has undoubtedly had SDSU’s number as the Aggies won back-to-back games in the regular season last year and beat the Aztecs two of the last three years in the Mountain West championship. SDSU is 7-0 at Viejas against the Aggies since they joined the MW. An iconic win was on Kawhi Leonard’s jersey retirement night at Viejas, where Matt Mitchell erupted for 24 second-half points to keep the Aztec undefeated season intact.

 

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Austin Tarke
Senior at San Diego State University, class of 2022. Communication major and pursuing a sports journalism profession. Season ticket holder of the SDSU MBB team since 2011. Fondest memory of Viejas Arena is Aztec legend, Dwayne Polee sparking a 19-1 run over New Mexico to win the MW Conference in 2014.

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