By: Matthew Terry
On Wednesday, the Sin City will be the host to one of the more interesting tournaments in college basketball this season, the Mountain West tournament. In previous years, the Mt. West has been a conference where a few bids into the NCAA tournament wouldn’t be surprising. This year, however, is very different. The Mt. West is experiencing a down year for most of its programs, and of the 11 teams, there isn’t really a lock to even make March Madness this year aside from the eventual MWC tournament winner. The previous year’s champion, Wyoming, is the No. 8 seed in the MWC tournament after a 7-11 campaign in conference play this year and a 14-17 record overall. Usual top teams like UNLV have struggled and this year, there’s a clear favorite to come out on top of Mt. West Madness (yes, they seriously call their tournament that. Original, right?).
The easy favorite to win the Mt. West tournament this year is none other than the San Diego State Aztecs. The Aztecs are sitting pretty in the No. 1 seed after an impressive 16-2 conference season, with both of their losses by a combined four points to the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the conference (Fresno State and Boise State, respectively). San Diego State is also the top defensive team in the league, holding opponents to a stifling 60.0 PPG (good for 5th in the nation), however their offense is second-worst in the MWC at just 68.2 PPG (only Air Force has a worse offense). With that being said, the Aztecs may have learned from the Denver Broncos this year in that a top-class defense paired with a slightly-better-than-the-worst offense is the key to winning championships, so SDSU remains the favorite to win the tournament. As of right now, lead bracketologist (I still can’t believe that’s a real thing) Joe Lunardi has SDSU as a #11 seed, and as the only Mt. West squad to go dancing next week. If SDSU wants to make the tournament, they’re going to need to go to at least the conference championship game, because anything less will knock them down to the dreaded “First Four Out” list.
Now, onto the contenders that will compete with SDSU for the MWC title. The two main ones are those previously mentioned as the ones that beat SDSU, Fresno State and Boise State. Boise State has one of the best wins in the conference, a 74-72 win over Oregon (however UNLV has also defeated the Ducks this year), but also has one of the worst conference losses this season, a 68-63 road loss to San Jose State (4-14 in the MWC this year). Fresno State is in the same boat as Boise. A great home win versus MWC Regular Season champions San Diego State, however they also fell on the road to San Jose State 65-63. My point is, the Mountain West is confusing, and aside from San Diego State, there really isn’t a team in the conference I’d be comfortable betting on. These two teams, along with San Diego State, earned byes into the quarterfinals of the tournament and will begin their tournament action on March 10th against opponents that will be determined by the first round games. The 4th quarterfinal, also on the 10th, will be between No. 4 New Mexico and No. 5 Nevada, two teams that boast three of the conference’s top five scorers (Elijah Brown and Tim Williams for UNM, Marqueze Coleman for Nevada).
Lastly, a quick preview of the three first round games and the teams that are competing in them. The first match-up will be between No. 9 Utah State and No. 8 Wyoming. Wyoming, the defending champions of this tournament, have the top scorer in the conference in senior guard Josh Adams, whose 24.4 points per game is fourth in the country. After that game, the No. 7 UNLV Rebels, the only MWC team with two wins over AP Top 25 teams, go in action against the worst offense in the league, the Air Force Falcons. And, to cap off the first round of action, the No. 6 Colorado State Rams, featuring the league’s top offense and the league’s worst defense, will go in action against the last place team in the MWC, the No. 11 San Jose State Spartans.