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Mountain West Madness: Men’s Basketball Tournament Preview

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The Mountain West conference tournament has the potential to be one of the most exciting conference championships this year in college basketball.  The men’s tournament will be held in Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center from 3/9-3/12. After years of seeing 1-2 teams selected for the NCAA tournament, the Mountain West is poised to put 4 teams in the Big Dance—a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 2013 when 5 teams got bids.

The conference is not only loaded at the top, but also deep with 8-9 teams who can make a run at the Mountain West title and punch their ticket into March Madness. Let’s take a look at the first round, semifinal matchups, and potential final matchups.

1st Round

#8 Nevada vs. #9 New Mexico

Of all of the 1st round matchups, this should be the most competitive. Nevada was picked by many to win the conference this year. To say they fell short of expectations is an understatement. The Wolfpack played several conference games without their two best players in guard Grant Sherfield and center Warren Washington. Nevada is fully healthy and has the athletes to compete with the top seeds in the tournament. New Mexico is playing their best basketball of the season with recent wins over UNLV and Fresno State. Nevada won their only meeting vs. the Lobos, 79-70. I wouldn’t be surprised if either team wins but the edge has to go to Nevada who have the more experienced roster.

#7 Utah State vs. #10 Air Force

The Aggies lost a close one at Air Force in late December only to pay the Falcons back with a 27 point pounding in Logan. Air Force didn’t win a game in February and I don’t expect they will win a game in the conference tournament either. Aggies in a landslide.

#6 Fresno State vs. #11 San Jose State

Fresno won both meetings this year by double digits. Fresno is smarting from back-to-back overtime losses on the road to the Aztecs and Wyoming. San Jose State head coach Tim Miles has a young group of players who are simply overmatched for Fresno State’s athleticism. Bulldogs by a million.

Quarterfinals

#1  Boise State vs #8 Nevada/#9 New Mexico

In years past, the safe bet was always to bet against a Leon Rice coached team in the Mountain West tournament. The Broncos have been historically bad in March. Since they joined the conference in the 2011-2012 season, Rice has a 5-10 record, never reaching the championship game and only 3 semifinal appearances during that span. It’s no wonder the Broncos have struggled to draw fans to the tournament. This was the Boise State turnout the last time fans were allowed to attend the tournament.

The difference about this Boise State team from previous teams is that the 2021-2022 squad is an elite defensive team which should allow them to stay in games when their shot is not falling. My heart tells me to fade Boise State again because they almost always choke under pressure in Vegas, but my head tells me this team is different. With 4 seniors in the starting lineup, Boise should move on to the semifinals.

#4 Wyoming vs. #5 UNLV

3 weeks ago, the Cowboys were safely in the Field of 68 with only 3 losses on the year and a few quality conference wins under their belt. Fast forward to now and the Pokes find themselves on the NCAA tournament bubble after losing 4 of their last 7 games. One of those losses was last Wednesday to UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center 64-57. Wyoming may need to win at least their quarterfinal game to punch a ticket to March Madness. The Running Rebels have been tough to beat on their home court despite not drawing a lot of fans to their games. Will the UNLV faithful finally show up? I doubt it but it may not matter either as the Running Rebels are favored to pull the upset.

#2 Colorado State vs. #7 Utah State/ #10 Air Force

Assuming this matchup is Colorado State vs Utah State, the Rams should be heavily favored. In their 1st meeting, CSU won at home by only 5. This came on the heels of a 30 point demolition by the Aztecs and a series of pauses for COVID. As the Rams got back their mojo back, they went into a hostile environment in Logan and beat the Aggies by 11. David Roddy for CSU and Justin Bean for Utah State are stars who can will their team to a victory. The complimentary pieces for the Rams are stronger than those for the Aggies. Also, preseason tournaments can help prepare a team for the postseason. CSU won the Paradise Jam tournament in November which included a victory over NCAA tournament bound Creighton. The Rams are seasoned and should be able to dispatch a pesky opponent in Utah State.  

#3  San Diego State vs #6 Fresno State/ #11 San Jose State

The last time the Aztecs faced Fresno State, it resembled a heavyweight fight of boxers trading blows back and forth. San Diego State blew some late opportunities to win the game in regulation and the first overtime. They almost choked away the game in the 2nd OT but the defense clamped down on the Bulldogs and the Aztecs survived with a one point win. Against Nevada, the Aztecs seemed to have the game under control until a late surge by Nevada and some unfortunate Aztec turnovers put the victory in doubt. Once again, SDSU’s defense saved the day and stopped the Wolfpack on the final possession.

What should we expect in Las Vegas? For one, we should put the Fresno State and Nevada games into context. The Aztecs played Fresno State 3 nights after a thrilling road victory at altitude in Laramie, WY and a long trip back to San Diego.  Then the Aztecs traveled to Reno to play Nevada on 2 days rest after a double overtime game. Coach Dutcher has 5 days to rest his guys and get them ready for the tournament. Fatigue will not be a factor in their quarterfinal matchup. It should feel like a home game for SDSU as Aztec Nation invades the Thomas & Mack to make it Viejas Northeast and gives the team an extra boost.  

Semifinals

#1 Boise State vs #4 UNLV

The Broncos beat the Running Rebels twice this season including a 10 point win in Vegas. If UNLV makes it this far, expect some Las Vegans who haven’t attended a Rebels basketball game in a long time to briefly jump back on the UNLV bandwagon. Their dreams of better days when Tark the Shark was sucking on a towel and dominating opponents will be short lived as the Broncos length and defense be too much for the upstart Running Rebels.

#2 Colorado State vs. #3 San Diego State

I think we can all agree to throw out the 1st game the Aztecs played vs the Rams because CSU was coming off of a COVID pause and clearly weren’t themselves as they lost by 30. The second game started ugly for the Aztecs and ended in a furious comeback only for the Rams to be gifted a no-call on a clear shooting foul by Rams center James Moors on Matt Bradley. Both teams have only lost once since that night in Fort Collins. The edge has to go to SDSU because of their staunch defense and a pro-Aztecs crowd making it feel like a Viejas home game. CSU traditionally has not traveled well to Vegas but the bandwagon Rams fans may make their way there this year like Nevada fans did in 2018 & 2019.

Final

#1 Boise State vs #3 San Diego State

Okay, what Aztecs fan is not going to pick SDSU to get to the final? Boise State was fortunate to catch San Diego State after a COVID pause where the Aztecs offense had their worst output of the season. This was followed up with a SDSU loss at Boise where a 79% free throw shooter missed 2 shots to clinch the game and home cooking by the refs awarded Boise 2 free throws which they made. This time it’s payback. Matt Bradley is playing like an All American right now. Trey Pulliam and Keshad Johnson are finding their rhythm at the right time. The defense is stifling. All the pieces are in place for the Aztecs to hoist the championship trophy in front of their fans for the first time since 2018.

Champion

San Diego State

This is going to be a great tournament and Vegas never disappoints. So get in your caravans and head toward Vegas by land or by air on Thursday to watch our guys take on Fresno State at 8:30pm PST.

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