Mountain West Tournament Preview

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

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Viejas Arena during a “Whiteout” against Wyoming. (Don De Mars/EVT)

March Madness is one of the best times of the year in sports. Teams compete in their conference tournament, hoping to hang a banner and qualify for the NCAA Tournament. If they don’t have an at-large bid into the “Big Dance,” a loss is potentially the end of their year. Every win prolongs the season.

Coming into conference play in December, the Mountain West was expected to have one of its best seasons ever. There were six teams ranked inside the top 65 in the NET. New Mexico, UNLV, and Utah State had a combined record of 32-2. If those half-dozen squads could have distinguished themselves from the bottom half of the league, the conference was expected to have three to five teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, only San Diego State distanced itself from the competition, winning the league by two full games. Five teams are still ranked inside the top 65 in the NET, but only four have a chance for an at-large bid. The argument can be made that Utah State, Nevada, and possibly Boise State must win a game or two in the MW tournament, or they will be sweating it out on Selection Sunday.

Keshad Johnson enjoys the celebration after winning an outright MW title. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Last year, KenPom ranked the MW as the seventh most challenging conference in the nation. Four teams went dancing, the most since 2013 when the conference had five. KenPom rates teams based on offensive and defensive data and adjusts the ratings to their competition.

It can be a bit unreliable compared to the NCAA tournament selection process because the tournament committee picks entrants based on the quality of a team’s wins. Winning multiple quadrant one games puts you into the NCAA tournament, and avoiding quadrant three, and four losses prevents stains on a resume.

Comparing this season to last year’s. Last season, the four teams that made it:

Colorado State as a sixth seed rated 46 in Kenpom.

SDSU was an eight seed rated 25 in Kenpom.

Boise State, as an eighth seed, rated 39 in Kenpom.

Wyoming, one of the last four teams in, as a 12 seed, rated 65 in Kenpom.

This season, the four teams with a chance at an at-large bid are much higher rated but are seen as question marks to the NCAA tournament committee.

SDSU is 15 in Kenpom. USU is 23. BSU is 29. Nevada is 39. The three other teams are struggling in the metrics that the NCAA tournament committee cares for, lack of quality wins and bad losses. Boise State has three quadrant-one wins but two quadrant-three losses. The Aggies have no bad losses but only one quadrant-one win. The Wolfpack have four quadrant-one wins but two quadrant-three losses. Only SDSU is a 100% lock for the NCAA tournament, the Broncos are most likely in. 

New Mexico, the nation’s final unbeaten team this season, is 48th in Kenpom, but they have been cannibalized in conference play and enter the MW Tournament as the six seed. 

Regardless of resumes, all 11 teams in the conference have the same opportunity win the MW Tournament and receive an automatic qualifier to compete in the NCAA tournament. The six other teams not mentioned, each with no hope of an at-large bid will be hungry to keep their season alive.

Though the MW will not set a record for the number, from top to bottom, the conference is the strongest it has been in some time. The worst team in the conference, Wyoming, is rated 152nd in Kenpom and has beaten Nevada and New Mexico. For context, the Pac-12 and ACC have two teams worse than 200th. Kenpom ranks the MW as the sixth most challenging conference.

Adam Seiko cutting down the net. He is one win away from being the MW’s all-time winningest player. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The MW tournament is spread out over four days. The top five seeds get the first day off. Seeds 6 through 11 must play on Wednesday to keep their season alive. Since the format was created in 2013-2014, no team that has played the first day has made the championship game. Historically, the two seed has the most success, winning 44% of the time. The one seed has won 33% of the time, and the three seed has never won the tournament.

As Coach Brian Dutcher can attest, winning three games in three days is difficult. He has made the championship game in his five previous seasons but has only cut down the nets in Thomas & Mack Arena twice. With teams so familiar with one another and on fatigued legs, it is anyone’s game on championship Saturday.

The scheduling favors SDSU. The one seed in the conference is catered towards more rest and weaker opponents.

On Thursday, they play the winner of the 8/9 game at noon. For comparison, the two-seed plays at 6 p.m., and the three-seed plays at 8:30 p.m.

If they win, they play the winner of the 4/5 matchup at 6:30 p.m. on Friday in the semifinals. If the Aztecs advance in that game, their opponent in the finals will have tipped off at 9:00 p.m. the night before. 

The championship on Saturday is played at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Last season, SDSU was the three seed and suffered from a lack of rest and preparation. They got to sleep well after midnight, and it was clear they were fatigued in the championship.

Games / Teams to look out for:

          If seeds 1-4 advance to the semifinals. Whoever wins their matchup on Friday will grab a huge resume booster and may solidify their spot into the NCAA tournament. In this scenario, SDSU plays Nevada, Boise State plays Utah State.

         The 4/5 matchup is fascinating. San Jose State is coming into the tournament, winning their last three games. They are led by Omari Moore, who won Player of the Year in the MW media poll, and Tim Miles, who won Coach of the Year. They have overachieved, winning 19 games, their most since 1980-1981. They are playing with house money and may be a difficult test for the Wolfpack, though they lost by 27 and 15 in two matchups in the regular season. 

          Home court advantage. At one point in the year, UNLV looked like it could grab an at-large bid. The Rebels have fallen off but still have talented players on the roster. Playing in Thomas & Mack Arena, they have the home-court advantage with fans and familiarity. If they beat Air Force in the first round, they will be a difficult test for Boise State.

         New Mexico. The Lobos were one of the biggest disappointments in the conference but are one of the most dangerous teams in this tournament. With their stellar guard play and newcomer of the year winner, Morris Udeze, they can beat anyone on any given night. But they drew a brutal draw. 

They are the six seed, a position that has never made the finals. On Wednesday, they face Wyoming, a team that defeated them a month ago and gave them fits in the contest before in 76-75 victory. Win, and they face Utah State in the quarterfinals. They are winless against the Aggies this season. Then potentially facing BSU, UNR, or SDSU in the next two days on more fatigued legs, and the path looks very challenging. With bad losses to end the season, they played themselves into this position and out of contention for an at-large bid. But, if they win four games in four days, they will make history and be a part of the ‘Big Dance.’

          SDSU’s path to their seventh MW conference championship. The Aztec championship game may occur a day early this year. On Friday, if they face Nevada, it will be their most difficult test of the tournament. The Aztecs have shown dominance over Boise State for 75 minutes in their two matchups. The Broncos have a short bench this season and may struggle to stay fresh for three days. The Aggies put up a fight against SDSU at home, but the Aztecs won both battles. Also playing USU in the championship game, a team that relies on three-point shooting, they will have fatigued legs. The championship game has notoriously had poor outside shooting. But playing the Wolfpack on Friday will be challenging. The teams have played physical battles this season, and UNR handled SDSU in Reno. The Aztecs have struggled against the taller Wolfpack guard, Jarod Lucas. Kenan Blackshear and Will Baker have also found success. Head coach Steve Alford has consistently won in the MW tournament. If the Aztecs are to hang another banner, the game before the championship may be more critical. 

Two weeks ago, Adam Seiko won his 110th game in an Aztec uniform, the most in program history. He now sits at 112. He is one win away from being the winningest player in Mountain West basketball history.

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