Mountain West Conference Preview

Credit: Josh Jimenez/ EVT Sports

The calendar is about to turn to 2023, bringing conference play to college basketball. In the non-conference season, teams play uncommon opponents from unique locations with different styles and skill levels. Most have a relative idea of the talent that they possess. There are contenders and pretenders, conference play weeds out which teams are for real. 

The Mountain West(MW) is known for difficult travel, similar skill level, and elite defense. Teams are familiar with one another, which produces close contests. This year with a conference as strong as it has ever been, it will be no different.

Last season, the MW had six teams ranked inside the top 65 in the NET heading into the conference play. By March, four teams made the NCAA tournament, the most since 2013, when the MW had five. 

The Mountain West has six teams inside the top 65 in the NET again this season. 

The NET, used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to determine the tournament’s field, accounts for the opponent, location, and the winner of the contest. These are the biggest factors in the formula, but it also compares teams’ efficiency, their offense compared to their defense, and also looks at the overall winning percentage. 

Below are writeups on the 11 teams in the conference. Kenpom and NET ratings are both used to classify the teams. At this point in the season, Kenpom is considered more reliable as it analyzes each team’s performance and ranks them compared to the other NCAA teams.

With the ratings changing every day, the data in this article is taken as of December 20th. The teams are listed in predicted order of finish in the conference’s preseason poll.

SDSU: (9-3):

SDSU

Best non-conference win: Ohio State (25 in NET)

Net ranking: 41

Kenpom rating: 26

Key Dates: Feb 21-28. Three games in the penultimate week of the schedule could decide the regular season champion. SDSU starts the week at home against Colorado State, then visits New Mexico three days later before heading to Idaho to play Boise State.

March 4th, Senior Night: The graduating seniors will be Adam Seiko, Aguek Arop, Nathan Mensah, and Matt Bradley.

Summary: This year’s SDSU team had preseason predictions of a deep NCAA tournament run. They have not shown that level of play to this point, but it is clear that the potential exists.

Comparing this team to last year, they are much better on offense. Last year’s team improved throughout the year and still finished a meager 167th. This year, they are 68th. The elite defense has taken a small step back. SDSU ranks 15th in the nation this year. 

At the beginning of the year, Coach Brian Dutcher preached to his team that they needed to play their best basketball early in the year due to stiff non-conference competition. Glimpses of their potential were shown in their win over Ohio State and overtime loss to Arkansas. But it is clear that there is another level that SDSU needs to reach.

Dutcher’s teams always improve throughout the year and play their best basketball by March. If the Aztecs are to reach their lofty expectations, Dutcher needs to get the team’s defense back to last year’s standards, and the offense will need to continue to improve.

The newcomers, Darrion Trammell, Micah Parrish, and Jaedon LeDee, have been difference-makers. Trammell fits well with Bradley as one of the best scoring options on the team. Parrish has been a spark plug off the bench, and LeDee bullies opponents in the paint and on the glass. 

Twelve games into the season, though, they have their flaws. Trammell is cold from beyond the arc, Parrish’s role remains undefined in the lineup, and LeDee struggles to find offensive consistency. The three of them must continue to evolve on the team for the sake of the team’s success.

Making a deep NCAA tournament run is the end goal for the team, but winning the Mountain West is also an important accomplishment for the program. The Aztecs are the best team in the conference this season, even with the increased competition. There will be difficult opponents, hostile venues, and altitude games like every year. There will be more close games this season, but SDSU has the experience of their difficult non-conference schedule to help them in the final stretches of games. 

Wyoming (5-7)

Credit: Wyoming Athletics

Best non-conference win: Louisiana Tech (196 in NET)

Net Ranking: 233

Kenpom Rating: 129

Dates against SDSU: Jan. 7 @ Wyoming, March 4 @ SDSU (Senior Night)

Summary: The Cowboys are the most disappointing team in the Mountain West this season. After losing in the first four of the NCAA tournament last year, they were projected to finish second in the conference. They brought in multiple transfers and kept their key contributors. But they currently have the second-worst record through non-conference play in the MW. Their struggles can be attributed to missing the Preseason MW Player of the Year, Graham Ike, for the entire season thus far. Reports stated he suffered a lower leg injury to start the year and would be out for six to eight weeks. After six weeks, there is not much of an update if Ike will return at all.

Like last season, the Cowboys have relied on an efficient offense with sophomore Noah Reynolds and super senior Hunter Maldonado leading the way. But without their big man, they rank 214th defensively. Hunter Thompson is filling in for Ike but is a worse rebounder and much less involved on offense. This is still a veteran-led group, 36th oldest in the NCAA, with a respected Jeff Linder at the helm. If Ike returns, they could put it together by March and claim an NCAA berth in the MW tournament. If this is the case, their poor NET ranking will leave stains on Mountain West resumes hoping for an at-large birth.

Key Players:

Noah Reynolds: 14.1 ppg, 40.6% from beyond the arc

Hunter Maldonado: 12.8 ppg, 4.0 reb., 3.9 assists

Graham Ike: Averaged 19.5 ppg, 9.6 reb. last season.

Notes Relative to SDSU: Last season, the Aztecs came into Laramie and beat the second-place Cowboys, which essentially locked SDSU into an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Traveling to Laramie has historically been difficult for SDSU. But they may benefit by traveling to Wyoming early in the season as Ike may still be absent from the team.

Boise State: 10-3

Credit: Boise State Basketball

Best non-conference win: Colorado (49 in NET)

Net Ranking: 39

Kenpom Rating: 51

Dates against SDSU: Feb. 3 @ SDSU, Feb. 28 @ Boise

Summary: The Broncos started the year with two bad losses, losing to South Dakota State at home, then Charlotte in a neutral site game two days later. Since then, they won nine straight before dropping a game to Santa Clara. Marcus Shaver Jr. has been sidelined for a few games with an injury. Similar to last year, they are riding a lengthy win streak into conference play. They are doing so because of their defense. They rank 13th nationally, allowing opponents to only shoot 25.9% from three. They also a rock-solid defensive-rebounding team. With their defense and rebounding ability, this team is like the Broncos team that won the MW regular season and tournament last year. But they are not quite as long and athletic with Abu Kigab and Emmanuel Akot graduating.

This season’s team is weaker offensively, ranking 150th nationally, they finished 86th last year. Shaver Jr. returned to the program for his sixth collegiate season and remains the team leader. Tyson Degenhart and Max Rice have increased their roles and play significant minutes. San Diego local Chibuzo Agbo transferred to the Broncos from Texas Tech, with his long frame, he is a perfect fit. Coach Leon Rice does not use a deep lineup, playing these players with heavy minutes.

Key Players:

Shaver Jr.: 14.8 ppg, 7.4 reb., 4.1 assists

Degenhart: 13.4 ppg, 5.2 reb.

Rice: 12.5 ppg, 5 reb.

Agbo: 10.9 ppg, 4.8 reb., 41.9% from three.

Notes Relative to SDSU:

Facing a strong Broncos team defensively is no surprise to the Aztecs. BSU won 42-37 last season at Viejas Arena, this was one of their three victories, including a last-second win in the MW championship. The losses were by a combined seven points. The veteran SDSU team will have this year’s matchups circled on their schedule for revenge.

Colorado State: 8-5

Credit: Colorado State Athletics

Best non-conference win: @ Saint Mary’s (19 in NET)

Net Ranking: 79

Kenpom Rating: 88

Dates against SDSU: Jan. 18 @ CSU, Feb. 21 @ Viejas

Summary: Without MW Player of the Year, David Roddy, this is not the same CSU team as last season. They return dynamic guard Isaiah Stevens and forward John Tonje. But Stevens missed the first seven games of the season due to a foot injury. Since his return, he has been stellar and has the Rams playing their best basketball after defeating the Gaels only eight days after Saint Mary’s topped the Aztecs.

Last year’s team was better offensively and defensively. Still, the Rams rank 54th on offense  and 137th defensively. They are an efficient team, shooting 56.7% in effective FG%, and do not turn over the ball. They have six players who play increased minutes and shoot over 50% from the field. Like last season’s team, they do not crash the glass offensively. With Stephens back, they have their go-to-scorer in MW play, but they will need to sure themselves up defensively in order to compete for a MW title.

Key Players:

Stevens: 19 ppg, 5.2 assists, 54.7% FG, and 48 3PT% (Six game sample size)

Tonje: 14.8 ppg, 5.4 assists, 50 FG%

Notes Relative to SDSU: The Aztecs won two out of three battles last season against the Rams. The game they lost was in Fort Collins, where SDSU trailed by as many as 20 and rallied for a historic comeback to take a last-second lead before Roddy hit the game-winning shot. The Aztecs had the last laugh sending the Rams home in the MW tournament.

New Mexico: 12-0

Best non-conference win: @ Saint Mary’s (19 in NET)

Net Ranking: 22

Kenpom Rating: 75

Dates against SDSU: Jan. 14 @ SDSU, Feb 25. @ New Mexico

Summary: The Lobos are on top of the conference as one of the nation’s last remaining undefeated teams. They are two wins off from last year’s win total, a team that finished 13-19 and won only five conference games.

The good takeaways from last year’s Lobos team was a decent offense, with two dynamic scoring guards, Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn, and they did not turn the ball over. They returned their guards this season and also added Morris Udeze, a transfer from Wichita State, and their offensive numbers have taken a leap. They have the 47th-best offense in the nation, are 15th in the nation in preventing turnovers, and they find their way to the free-throw line.

Their defense held them back last year, ranking 243rd in the nation. Now they have improved to 106th. They will need to continue to get better defensively, but with three tremendous scorers, they can beat anyone on any given night. Richard Pitino, in his second season, has done a tremendous job reviving the Lobos program. He even defeated Iona, coached by his father, Rick Pitino.

Key Players:

Udeze: 17.6 ppg, 6.7 reb.

House: 17 ppg, 3.5 reb., 5 assists, 46.5% from three-point range

Mashburn: 16.7 ppg, 3.3 reb, 37.5% from three

Notes Relative to SDSU: Last season, the Aztecs dominated the Lobos at Viejas Arena in their only matchup. But they have not played in ‘The Pit’ since 2020, one of the most difficult venues in college basketball, especially when New Mexico is playing winning basketball. Against Iona, the venue held over 14,000 people.

UNLV: 10-1

Best non-conference win: Washington State (70 in NET)

Net Ranking: 64

Kenpom Rating: 79

Dates against SDSU: Dec. 31 @UNLV, Feb. 11 @Viejas

Summary: The Rebel’s success is a pleasant surprise for the conference. They started the season 10-0 before dropping a game to San Francisco at home. Last season with one of the best scorers in the conference, Bryce Hamilton, UNLV disappointed, finishing with a 18-14 record and an immediate loss in the MW tournament.

Kevin Kruger revamped the team by adding multiple transfers. Their impact has been felt the most on the defensive end. The Rebels rank 41st nationally on defense and are forcing turnovers at the second-highest rate in the NCAA. Offensively, they rank 132nd and rely on their three-point shooting. They only shoot 33%, good for 189th in the nation, but it accounts for 44.4% of their points, the second most in the nation.

With three double-digit scorers and an improved defense, the Rebels have the potential to be a threat in the MW. But their offense will have to make strides if they want to pose a real challenge to be atop the standings. Statistically, they are an average offense with a solid defense, their record should be taken lightly, considering they have only faced two teams inside the Kenpom top 100.

Key Players:

EJ Harkless (transfer from Oklahoma): 15.2 ppg, 4.2 reb., 3 assists

Keshon Gilbert: 14.6 ppg, 3.9 assists, 51.5% from three

Luis Rodriguez (transfer from Ole Miss): 12.4 ppg, 5.6 reb.

Notes Relative to SDSU: The Aztecs own the Rebels. Since 2013-2014, they are 19-2. Last season, SDSU defeated UNLV in the opening game of the MW regular season. A game in which Lamont Butler was sidelined due to a wrist injury, and Trey Pulliam was a last-second scratch due to illness. Adam Seiko took over ball-handling duties, and the Aztecs were too physical for the Rebels to claim the victory.

Fresno State: 4-7

Best non-conference win: @ UC Irvine (89 in NET)

Net Ranking: 201

Kenpom Rating: 139

Dates against SDSU: Feb 15 @ Fresno State

Summary: The Bulldogs were frisky last season due to a stifling defense and their big man, who was First-Team All-Mountain West, Orlando Robinson. They returned many of the same pieces to a team that relied on making games ugly and closing it out with Robinson. But Robinson graduated, and now both sides of the basketball are worse off this year. Defensively, they rank 86th nationally, down from their top-40 defense last season.

Their offense is also the worst in the conference, ranking 225th nationally. They shoot only 28.9% from three, turn the ball over at a high rate, and do not secure offensive rebounds. They only have one legitimate threat to score, and that is transfer, Isaih Moore, but even he will have break-out games followed by shooting duds.

If Justin Hutson is to give this Bulldog team a pulse, he will need to revive the offense and find a new scorer with Robinson no longer in the program.

Key Players:

Isaih Moore: 11.7 ppg, 7.7 reb., 51.5% FG

Jemarl Baker: 10.1 ppg, 2.6 reb.

Notes Relative to SDSU: The Aztecs are on a seven-game win streak against Fresno State. But former SDSU assistant coach Hutson always has his Bulldogs barking against the Aztecs. SDSU had to squeak out a victory in the MW tournament last season and also barely survived a double overtime thriller on their senior night.

Utah State: 10-1

Credit: Utah State Athletics

Best non-conference win: Oral Roberts (56 in NET)

Net Ranking: 28

Kenpom Rating: 53

Dates against SDSU: Jan. 25 @ SDSU, Feb. 8 @ Utah State

Summary: Last season, after the non-conference schedule, Wyoming was the biggest surprise as they were projected to finish eighth in the preseason polls yet were 11-2. The Aggies are the eye-opener of the league this season.

They lost significant pieces, Justin Bean and Brandon Horvath, from last year. But they added Saint Joseph’s transfer, Taylor Funk, and returned Sean Bairstow, Steven Ashworth, and Max Shulga. This unit opened the year, winning their first nine games before dropping a game to Weber State. They have relied on an efficient offense, ranked 34th in the nation. They have the best three-point percentage in the country at 42.7%, and they don’t turn the ball over. The Aggies have excelled with five double-digit scorers but particularly rely upon Ashworth, who is playing some of the best basketball in the entire country right now, as he has the third-highest offensive rating in the NCAA.

The Aggies again have a solid defense, ranking 77th in the nation, and they do not allow offensive rebounds. Their resume is not very impressive, and they have played an average difficulty in their schedule, but they continue to win games. If their offensive numbers are sustainable, they will be dangerous in the Mountain West.

Key Players:

Ashworth: 18.2 ppg, 4.8 assists, 54.2 FG%, 54.1 3PT%

Funk: 15.6 ppg, 8.3 reb., 43.1 3PT%

Dan Akin (transfer from Cal Baptist): 13.2 ppg, 6.9 reb., 68.1 FG%

Notes Relative to SDSU: The Aggies have had SDSU’s number as of late. They have won four of the last six games. But the Aztecs are undefeated at home with an 8-0 record.

Nevada: 10-3

Credit: Nevada Athletics

Best non-conference win: Sam Houston St (20 in the NET)

Net Ranking: 60

Kenpom Ranking: 89

Dates against SDSU: Jan. 10 @ SDSU, Jan. 31 @ Nevada

Summary: Last year, the ceiling was high for the Wolfpack as they had plenty of talent. They ended up being the disappointment of the conference, finishing with a 13-18 record. Grant Sherfield, Desmond Cambridge, and Warren Washington all transferred out of the program. This year, the expectations were low for Steve Alford’s squad. But they brought in transfer Jarod Lucas, who was a part of Oregon State’s magical Elite Eight run, and they have remained a solid program.

Metrically, the Wolfpack are decent. They are 103rd offensively and 82nd defensively, both improvements from last season. They do not force turnovers, but they make it difficult for opponents to find open looks. They are eighth best in the country in defense on two-point field goals. They are also the 21st tallest team in the nation.

On offense, they struggle to score, but they play winning basketball. They turn the ball over at a low rate, find their way to the free-throw line, and convert from the charity stripe at the 17th-highest mark in the nation. They need to make strides offensively if they want to contend in the Mountain West, but they will be competitive and steal victories.

Key Players:

Lucas: 16.8 ppg, 38.8 3PT%

Kenan Blackshear: 14 ppg, 5.5 reb., 5.2 assists

Will Baker: 11.5 ppg, 4.7 reb.

Notes Relative to SDSU: The Aztecs have won eight straight games against the Wolfpack and 11 of the last 12. But nine of those wins were decided by single digits. Last year, on Nevada’s senior night, SDSU almost blew an 18-point lead as they needed to force a miss on the final possession to hold off UNR. 


San Jose State: 9-4

Credit: San Jose State Athletics

Best non-conference win: Santa Clara (114 in NET)

Net Ranking: 139

Kenpom Rating: 159

Dates against SDSU: Jan. 28 @ Viejas

Summary: The Spartans have nine wins through non-conference play. Nine wins. They have already won more games this year than they have in any single season since 2016-2017. They returned many of the same pieces from last year’s team. A team that won only one conference game but started clicking as the season went on as they forced Fresno State into overtime in the MW tournament.

Offensively, they are still led by Omari Moore, their only double-digit scorer. They shoot the ball at an efficient 53.2% in one of the slowest paces in the country. Defensively, they have improved, as they are the 183rd-rated defense compared to last year’s abysmal 296th rating.

With a lack of offensive weapons and an inadequate defense, they will still be one of the conference dwellers, but they will be much more competitive this season. Since 2016-2017, they have never won more than three conference games, they should go above that number this season.

Key Players:

Moore: 13.9 ppg, 4.8 reb., 4.5 assists

Sage Tolbert (Temple transfer): 9.9 ppg, 8.2 reb., 50 3PT%

Notes Relative to SDSU: The Aztecs are 15-1 all-time against the Spartans. In the last six years, the closest matchup the teams have had was the 2020 season, where Malachi Flynn needed a heroic buzzer-beater three to continue their undefeated season.

Air Force: 9-4

Credit: Air Force Athletics

Net Ranking: 168

Kenpom Rating: 150

Dates against SDSU: Dec. 28 @Viejas, Jan. 21 @ Air Force

Summary: The Falcons are overachieving as well in this conference. For once, they have a decent defense. They rank 127th nationally, which if the season ended today, would be their best rating since the 2007-2008 season. They are forcing opponents to shoot 44.3% from the field, 24th best in the nation.

Their offense ranks 214th nationally, which is their best in the last four years. They still run a slow offense that focuses on screens, passing, and movement to find open looks. Their effective FG% is 56.2, which is the 16th highest in the nation.

Overall, the Falcons are still not a threat in the MW. But their improvements this year are encouraging. They are one of the youngest teams in the NCAA and have multiple underclassmen playing legitimate minutes. The future is bright.

Key Players:

Jake Heidbreder: 15.7 ppg, 3.3 rebs., 50.4 FG%

Corbin Green: 10.8 ppg, 4.7 rebs., 58.3%

Notes Relative to SDSU: The Aztecs will have a travel decision to make in January. On Jan. 18, they play in Fort Collins against Colorado State, then three days later play on the road against Air Force. The team will most likely stay in Colorado for a couple days. SDSU has won 15 of the last 17 games against the Falcons. But playing on the road has been difficult as they have an 11-11 record all time. 

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Austin Tarke
Class of 2022 at San Diego State University. 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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