Mountain West Conference men’s basketball preview

Credit: Paul Garrison/ EVT Sports

Credit: Fresno State Athletics

 

  1. Fresno State (10-4) (0-1 in MWC)

Net ranking: 60

Best non-conference win: Neutral against Santa Clara (NET: 89)

Dates against SDSU: Jan 5 @ SDSU, Feb 19 @ Fresno

Summary:

Former SDSU assistant coach Justin Hutson has adopted an old Aztec technique this season, which is to grind out games to win. The Bulldogs have one of the slowest tempos in the nation. This is effective due to their defense ranking 44th in the nation. They have a decent offense ranked at 105th, but they shoot only 30% from beyond the arc. With only one player who averages in double figures, they will have to rely on their stout defense, avoid turnovers, and make their free throws. They have been without Arizona transfer Jemarl Baker due to a knee injury. He has shown flashes of offensive output, and he will be pivotal for the Bulldogs if they want to make a run at the Mountain West Conference.

Key player: Orlando Robinson. He almost declared last season for the NBA Draft. This season he is currently setting career highs in points, assists, steals, and blocks. He’s averaging 18 points and eight rebounds a game. 7’0 feet tall, 235 pounds, hits his free throws, and can even shoot from outside. He’s a matchup nightmare. He will fill up the stat sheet on a nightly basis, but the Bulldogs will need others to step up offensively to contend.


Notes relative to SDSU: The Aztecs have won the last four matchups against the Bulldogs, but Fresno State has had the Aztecs number in the past as they’ve won five of six games before this Aztec current win streak.

 

  1. UNLV 8-5

Net Ranking: 141

Best non-conference win: vs. California (NET:119)

Dates against SDSU: Jan 1 @ UNLV (1st MW game), Jan 18 @ SDSU

Summary:

Credit: UNLV Athletics

The Rebels are another example of how deep the Mountain West is this year. On paper, it may not show it, but the Rebels have potential. They suffered a last-second loss to Wichita State, battled Michigan for a half, and are now winners of their last four games. They are fairly average statistically offensively 120 and defensively 148, but they do not shoot themselves in the foot as they commit turnovers at a very low rate.

Key Players: The Rebels have two double-digit scorers. The leader of this team is Bryce Hamilton; he has been the team’s most consistent scorer for the last three seasons. He averages almost 19 points per game. He controls this offense and is not afraid to pull the trigger, as he averages about 16 attempts a game. With this kind of usage, the Rebels go as far as Hamilton’s shooting will take them. Donovan Williams plays a complementary role as he averages about 12 points per game and shoots 41% from beyond the arc. He exploded for 32 points against Hartford, so if he can stay consistent, Hamilton and Williams will be a dynamic duo.

Notes relative to SDSU: The Aztecs have dominated the Rebels as of late as they are 17-2 in the last 19 encounters. But the Rebels will forever hold one of the most prominent wins in this matchup with their victory at Viejas to snap the Aztecs 26 game win streak. This was the last time that the Rebels were at Viejas Arena.

 

  1. New Mexico 7-6

Net ranking: 170

Best non-conference win: @ New Mexico State (NET: 83)

Dates against SDSU: Jan 15 @ New Mexico, Jan 31 @ SDSU

Summary:

Credit: New Mexico Athletics

The Lobos are one of the bottom dwellers of the conference. Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams are not here to save this team. But they do a couple things well and have the potential to scare some teams in the conference. They play at one of the fastest tempos in the nation, which is impressive considering they rank 17th in avoiding turnovers. They also get to the free-throw line and convert at a high rate. They have two elite scoring threats who can win them games, but their overall offense ranks 170th. Their biggest flaw is a defense ranked at 271st in the nation. They are also a very inexperienced group as they rank 333rd in minutes continuity from the previous year. They have scoring talent, but they may be too young and have too many weaknesses to have any shot at a run at the title.

Key Players: The Lobos have two bucket getters, transfers Jamal Mashburn and Jaelen House. Sophomore Mashburn came from Minnesota. House played for Arizona State for two seasons before transferring. These two most likely transferred to have more freedom to shoot the ball. Mashburn takes about 15 attempts per game, while House averages 13. They are New Mexico’s two-headed Orthus. Mashburn averages 18 points per game, and House is almost at 17. They are both capable of catching fire. House had a season-high of 31, and Mashburn has scored 26 on three different occasions. When Mashburn and House shoot the ball well, it takes a Herculean opposing offensive performance to defeat them. 

Notes relative to SDSU: The Aztecs have historically struggled to play the Lobos on the road in ‘The Pit.’ The Aztecs are 12-30 all time. Granted, the last time they played in New Mexico, the Aztecs won 85-57 and started the game up 17-0 in less than five minutes.

 

  1. Wyoming 11-2

Net ranking: 32

Best non-conference win: vs. Utah Valley (NET: 78)

Dates against SDSU: Jan 12 @ Wyoming

Summary:

Credit: Wyoming Athletics

The biggest surprise for the Mountain West this season is the Cowboys. The preseason poll ranked them tied for 8th with New Mexico, yet, they have the second-best NET rating headed into conference play. Time will tell if they are legitimate, considering they have no significant wins yet. Offensively they are excelling. They rank 52nd in adjusted efficiency, do not commit turnovers, and do a good job getting to the free-throw line. They have four double-digit scorers, so there are always offensive threats on the floor. Their defense may be the team’s weakness. They rank 145th and do not create steals or block shots.

Key Players: There are two studs on this Cowboys team, Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado. Ike has taken a sophomore year leap. The forward averages almost 20 points and eight rebounds. His physicality gets him to the free-throw line. If he is hitting from the stripe, he can take over a game, as seen in his 35 point season-high against Denver. Maldonado has been a household name in the conference as he’s in his fifth year with the Cowboys. He is an all-around player. He averages 17 points a game, five rebounds, and almost six assists. Maldonado is a strong defender and efficient as he shoots 53% from the field. With the Cowboys having two other double-digit scorers, Xavier Dusell and Drake Jeffries, they are a real threat to any team they face offensively.

Notes relative to SDSU: The Aztecs have traveled to the 7,000-foot elevation of Laramie, Wyoming, only twice since 2017. The Aztecs are 9-1 against the Cowboys in the last ten meetings. This similar Wyoming team gave SDSU quite the scare last season in the Mountain West tournament as it took a gritty final couple minutes from the No.1 seed Aztecs to advance to the MW Semifinals.

 

  1. San Jose State 6-5

Net Ranking: 227

Best non-conference win: vs. Cal State Fullerton (NET: 154)

Dates against SDSU: Feb 9 @ San Jose, Feb 25 @ SDSU

Summary:

Credit: San Jose State Athletics

Certainly, one of the bottom three teams in the conference. They rank 244th offensively and 291st defensively. They do have the 19th highest three-point percentage. They will have to get hot from outside to have any chance to pick up wins in this conference. The best team they faced was Texas, who beat the Spartans down. The Longhorns led 47-17 at halftime. They can expect to see similar results in conference play. They also got the short end of the stick with COVID-19 cancellations as they will not play their first conference game until Jan 11, which will be 21 days after their latest game.

Key player to watch: Junior Omari Moore has had a surge in his career. He’s averaging 15 points per game with five assists. He’s also shooting efficiently, with 51% from the field and 60% from three. Moore’s backcourt partner is Trey Smith. Smith is a 6’3” guard averaging 10.6 points a contest. He exploded for a career-high 24 points in a 90-78 victory over Portland. The Spartans have a capable center. Ibrahima Diallo averages 7.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks on the year. Diallo is consistent. He has blocked at least one shot in each of SJSU’s games this season.  

Notes relative to SDSU: The Aztecs have won seven straight games against the Spartans. No win was more memorable than Flynn’s fadeaway buzzer-beater to keep the Aztecs’ perfect season alive.

 

  1. Air Force 7-4

Net Ranking: 265

Best non-conference win: Tulsa (Net: 202)

Dates against SDSU: Feb 12 @ SDSU

Summary:

Credit: Air Force Athletics

The Falcons are certainly in the bottom three of this conference, and they may be the worst of the bunch. They rank 317th offensively and 229th defensively. They surprisingly rank 55th in the nation in Effective FG%, but they turn the ball over so much that they do not get enough looks at the rim. If they clean up the turnovers, they could be a shooting threat. Even though Kenpom projected the Falcons to win only one conference game all year, the Falcons have already proved Kenpom and critics wrong by defeating Utah State at home in their conference opener. They won with a gritty defensive effort as the final score was 49-47. They will always have the positive of playing in Colorado Springs, which due to the high altitude, makes for a difficult place to play in for visitors. 

Key player to watch: Senior A.J. Walker has been the shining cadet on this Falcon team. He’s averaging almost 17 points per game on an efficient 52% from the field. He’s averaging 20 points in Air Force wins and only 11 in the team’s losses, so he is pivotal to this team. The Falcons have a fairly short bench as they only play eight guys a night. They rely on freshman guard Ethan Taylor to carry the bulk of the minutes. He averages 38 minutes a night and has played every minute in four different games this season. Taylor is averaging nine points and four assists but has a bit of a turnover problem with his reliance on the offense.

Notes relative to SDSU: SDSU is 33-6 against the Falcons in games played in San Diego. They’ve won 14 straight in Viejas since 2005.

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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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