By TOM MOSSER @coachmosser
The Mountain West Conference has drawn plenty of attention from national media thus far in the 2023-2024 season. So what is the fuss all about? Let’s take a look at the reasons why six bids to the Big Dance are in play come mid-March.
1.They took care of business in the non-con
The 6 teams pushing for bids (Boise St, Colorado St, Nevada, New Mexico, San Diego St, and Utah St) went an eye popping 69-10 in non-conference play. And while not all of the schedules were littered with P6 opponents, two things should be noted. First, there were several very good wins from these teams - beating Creighton, Colorado, TCU, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s (twice), and more. Also, they avoided bad losses - the ‘worst’ two being USU at Bradley and Nevada to Drake on a neutral, neither one a really bad loss. In other words, they won games, almost all of them, that’s a pretty good start.
2. Elite coaching
There is a nice split of these 6 teams - with 3 veteran coaches, and 3 on the younger side, but they are all outstanding at their craft. Brian Dutcher (SDSU), Leon Rice (Boise), and Steve Alford (Nevada) have been around and seen the college game change plenty, but they have adapted to the current state and consistently been near the top of the conference. Niko Medved (CSU), Richard Pitino (UNM), and Danny Sprinkle (USU) are in the earlier part of their careers, and are considered rising stars in the profession.
3.Talent on the floor
Players make the plays, and the MW has plenty of dudes doing this on a nightly basis. Jaedon LeDee was on many All-American teams after a dominant Nov/Dec for SDSU. His numbers have tapered off a bit in conference play, but that’s to be expected when you are double or even triple teamed on nearly every touch. Isaiah Stevens is what college basketball used to have a lot more of - guys sticking around the program that recruited them. The 5th year senior recently passed 2,000 career points for Colorado State and is the definition of a leader for the Rams. There are many others having standout seasons, including O’Mar Stanley (Boise), Nique Clifford (CSU), Kenan Blackshear (Nevada), Donovan Dent (UNM), Lamont Butler (SDSU), and Great Osobor (USU). And that was limiting each team to one - the league is filled with players capable of going for 25 on a given night.
4.Older is better
There was time in college basketball when building your roster through elite prep recruits, often one-and-done players, was all the rage. Those players rarely found their way to the Mountain West anyway, but in today’s college hoops landscape, experience wins in March. That’s good news for the MWC’s hammers. There are 4th, 5th, and even 6th year seniors littered across the rosters. In many cases, Utah St being the exception, there is great continuity and familiarity as well. But even the transfers that the Aggies brought in are veterans. For many of these players it is their last go round. Don’t underestimate that.
There are 4 and a half weeks of the regular season left, and most teams have 8 league games to play, before a much anticipated MWC tourney takes place in Vegas. While plenty of attention is being paid to these teams earning NCAA tournament berths, of more interest to fans at this moment, should be the fact that 7 teams (UNLV the 7th) are within 1 game of each other in the loss column in the MWC standings. How did we get here and what’s upcoming? Let’s take a look at a capsule of all 11 teams in order of league record (ties listed alphabetically).
1. Boise State (16-7, 7-3 MWC)
The Broncos started a bit slow this season, although that was due in part to a challenging non-con schedule. The other piece was adjusting to life without Marcus Shaver Jr. running the show. The graduated PG was sorely missed, as transfer Roddie Anderson struggled with turnovers and a low shooting %. Boise St has a very talented group of veterans who can each dominate a game, and have taken turns doing so - Max Rice, Tyson Degenghart, Chibuzo Agbo, and Stanley all have games with at least 27 this year. But the Broncos make their hay on the defensive end, where they rank 27th in KenPom. They are one of four teams tied at the top with a 7-3 league record, but the remaining 8 games will be no picnic (you’ll notice this to be a recurring theme). Brutal road trips to Utah St and San Diego St loom, as well as a tricky game in Laramie, where it’s always tough to play. They also host New Mexico and Nevada, who will each be looking for revenge, after the Broncos won on their home floors. A 6-2 finish will be super difficult.
2. New Mexico (19-4, 7-3 MWC)
UNM took advantage of a softer schedule to build a 12-1 record heading into conference play. They failed their biggest test at Saint Mary’s, but they steamrolled through the rest of the early season due to the emergence of two players. When discussing the Lobos in the build up to ‘23-’24, there were two names that came to mind - Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. But each of those two backcourt stalwarts missed games in November due to injury. That allowed Donovan Dent to explode onto the scene. The sophomore took advantage of his opportunity to run the show and put up huge numbers. Also bursting onto the scene was 6’9” freshman J.T. Toppin, who displayed an unbelievable skill set, routinely registering double-doubles without having many sets run for him.Mash and House have returned, and the biggest issue now for the Lobos is making sure they share the ball and take good shots within the flow of the offense. Some of that offense comes from their defense, with House being the catalyst there. UNM ranks top 40 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom, and are actually the conference’s highest ranked team there at 19.When looking at closing schedules, there is no tougher batch of games than the one facing the Lobos. Things like this are usually balanced, but not this year for New Mexico, as their last 4 road games are - at Nevada, at SDSU, at Boise, at Utah St. Throw in home games versus UNLV and Colorado St (who both already defeated UNM) and 5-3 would be a good finish, no matter how talented this team is.
3. San Diego State (18-5, 7-3 MWC)
The defending national runners-up were the pick by most media members to repeat as MWC champions. And while they still may pull that feat off, they will have to earn it. The departure of several key pieces from that squad were underestimated by many. It was more than just Matt Bradley and Nathan Mensah. It was program guys like Aguek Arop and Adam Seiko leaving the bench a lot thinner this season. And don’t forget, front court stud Keshad Johnson transferred to Arizona, where he is thriving for a top 10 team in the country.It took Dutcher awhile, but he seems to have figured out the proper roles for this version of the Aztecs. He’s also been down this road before, starting slow and then kicking into gear down the stretch. SDSU is up to 21 in KenPom’s defensive ranking and they’ve been better on the glass lately as well. And it helps to have the best player on the floor like they have with LeDee. Whether or not they can get consistent play from Reese Waters, Butler and Darrion Trammell will determine the ceiling for this team. The third of the four teams at 7-3, San Diego State is one of two remaining unbeatens at home in league play (CSU), but have dropped all 3 of their outings on the road against the other contenders. While they have some challenging games left, at Nevada and at Utah St for starters, if they can run the table at home they may be in position to end up on top, an almost improbable result a few weeks ago.
4. Utah State (19-4, 7-3 MWC)
One of the biggest surprises in the entire country over the first 3 months of the season resides in Logan, Utah. The Aggies returned literally zero production from last year as the entire roster hit the transfer portal following a coaching change. All Danny Sprinkle did to begin his tenure was start 19-2 before a brief 2 games slide over the last week. Sprinkle has proven to be exceptional at many things, including getting his guys to believe they will win. USU pulled several rabbits out of the hat to win games, including the infamous 5 point play in the last 8 seconds to defeat UNLV in Vegas. He also has a knack for halftime adjustments. But, have the Aggies hit a bit of a wall? They did not look like the same confident team against Nevada on Tuesday that we have seen all year.Fortunately for Sprinkle, he has a tremendous leader in point guard Darius Brown II, a true floor general. Brown followed Sprinkle from Montana State. As did Osobor, the first team all-conference candidate. The inside outside duo have great supporting characters as well, in Ian Martinez, Mason Falslev, and Josh Uduje. Compared to the other teams at the top of this list, the Aggies closing schedule is mild. Of the 4 games left against fellow contenders, a trip to Fort Collins to take on Colorado State is the only road one. They will host Boise St, San Diego St, and New Mexico. If they can snap out of their brief funk, a conference championship is there for the taking.
5. Colorado State (18-5, 6-4 MWC)
While Utah State got off to a flying start, they were a bit overshadowed in MW circles by CSU. That’s because the Rams strung together an impressive set of wins over P6 competition - BC, Creighton, Washington, and Colorado, before finally succumbing to Saint Mary’s.Isaiah Stevens played at an All-American level through December, and several different Rams stepped up on various nights (Clifford, Joe Palmer, Patrick Cartier, and others). But the thing that distinguishes CSU from its competitors is their unselfishness. Their overall team passing is unrivaled, with one of the highest % of made field goals assisted in the nation. The offensive movement and flow is a thing of beauty most games, and leads to several easy baskets each night, part of why their KenPom offensive rating is 21st. The defensive mark of 72nd might not be overly impressive, but it’s leaps and bounds better than last year. One area the Rams have trouble with on occasion is the glass.Already trailing 4 teams by a game, there is no margin for error if the Rams have aspirations of a conference title. Two brutal road games are left (at SDSU and at UNM) in addition to hosting USU and Nevada. CSU has looked much sharper the last week and a half following a bit of a rough few weeks, and 6-2 is certainly in play to finish, but that will likely leave them a game short of league glory.
6. Nevada (18-5, 5-4 MWC)
Steve Alford’s crew seems to get overlooked when the big guns of the Mountain West are mentioned. Even after they finished non-con play with a flurry, a 13-1 record, and a Diamond Head Classic title, knocking off TCU and Georgia Tech in the process. But overlook this team at your own peril; they are experienced, have great length, a future pro, good wing defenders, and a knockdown shooter.If there is one reason why they don’t get the attention some others get, it may be because they seem to be inconsistent. They show flashes of brilliant play on the defensive side of the ball a few times, and then allow 98 in a loss at Wyoming. Some of their go to guys are also hit or miss. Kenan Blackshear has an NBA ready game; smooth handles, great court vision, a tremendous mid-range post game, and can defend multiple positions. But his intensity levels seem to vary from night to night. He’s not the only one either, Lucas and others have laid eggs several times. Stretch 4 Nick Davidson has looked really good recently, and if he can continue that play, it totally changes things for the Pack.Not only is Nevada one game back in the loss column, but they have played one fewer game than the rest, which means they will be going twice a week through the end of the season. That takes a toll both mentally and physically. As for the opponents, they have encounters at CSU and Boise, and host SDSU and UNM. Plus they have two games against in-state rival UNLV, whom the Pack are 0-4 against the last two years. 7-2 would be an outstanding finish, while 6-3 is the most likely outcome. Since Nevada is the closest to the 6 of these teams to the bubble, a 5-4 close may be good enough depending on other variables.
7. UNLV (12-9, 5-4 MWC)
What an enigma UNLV is. Picked in the 4 through 6 range in the preseason by most, the Rebels opened the season with a double figure home loss to Southern. Not Southern Cal or even Southern Miss - Southern, out of the SWAC. Eek. They piled up a couple of other bad losses before the holidays, but did get a nice win over Creighton to show their potential.Health, or lack thereof, has been an issue for sure. Multiple players have missed games, and grad transfer Keylan Boone missed the first month before being given a waiver to play. He adds shooting and size, and meshes well with his twin brother Kalib. Reclass freshman DJ Thomas has a super bright future, and has handled PG duties very well for someone who should be in high school and is being defended by 22-23 year olds. The defensive end is where the Rebels have fallen short, ranking in the 150’s in KenPom, that’s not good enough.For how strong the league is, UNLV’s last 9 games isn’t the most difficult batch. They do have a trip to The Pit to face a Lobos team looking for revenge, and they must play the rival Wolf Pack twice as noted before. The main issue is, the Rebels haven’t shown the consistency to string 5 good weeks together to be a factor in the league title race.. They absolutely have shown they can beat anyone they step on the floor with though, and will play spoiler to someone, while lying in the weeds waiting for the conference tournament on their home floor.
8. Wyoming (12-11, 5-5 MWC)
Coach Jeff Linder composed an almost entirely new roster after an injury plagued ‘22-’23. The Cowboys showed flashes of good play in the early stages but suffer from lack of depth and have been poor on the road. It’s never easy for teams traveling to Laramie though, and they have already knocked off two of the league's best there - Nevada and rival CSU.Linder allows his guards lots of freedom, partly because he has nowhere else to turn, and Sam Griffin, Akuel Kot, and the gang have ridden some hot shooting nights to some recent wins. On the flip side, they turn it over a lot and can shoot the Cowboys out of games just as easily. Because the guards are undersized and there are just not enough rotation pieces, Wyoming has really struggled on the defensive end, ranking 228 in KenPom.
9. Fresno State (10-13, 3-7 MWC)
It’s tough to separate the conference into tiers, but one thing that can certainly be said is that the 3 teams at the bottom are quite a bit below the top 8. Fresno St though seems to be the best of that group at the moment. The Bulldogs have some talent with a nice pair of bigs in Eduardo Andre and Enoch Boakye. The guard play has been streaky though and there is not a lot of depth.Fresno has also seemed to lose a bit of their identity from the last few years of really digging in on the defensive end and making you work for every bucket. Think back to last season’s 45-43 loss to SDSU, there were many just like that, but this year the Bulldogs are all the way down at 201 in KenPom’s defensive metric. Under Justin Hutson, the offense efficiency has never been better than average, and it isn’t this year either. This will very likely be the final 5 weeks of Hut’s tenure in the Central Valley.
10. Air Force (8-14, 1-9 MWC)
It’s always going to be an uphill battle for a service academy in basketball for various reasons. Throw in the fact that this year’s MWC is off the charts good, and it’s a bad recipe for the Air Force Academy. The style they play on both ends is meant to keep them in games, but this season there is just too wide a talent gap between the Falcons and the teams at the top.As is a common theme with the bottom handful of teams, there is very little depth on this roster, and size is always an issue for AF. Joe Scott gets the most out of his guys, and they pulled one of the shockers of the year in the conference when they upset UNLV in Vegas by 30, but their defense has been sieve-like on most nights. They also lose what could be one of their big advantages - defending their precision offense. The coaching in the league is too good, and teams stay disciplined and ground the Falcons before they can take flight.
11. San Jose State (8-15, 1-9 MWC)
It was always going to be difficult for the Spartans to replicate their ‘22-’23 season. Player of the Year Omari Moore moved on, and while respected boss Tim Miles still calls the shots, the talent is just not there this year. SJSU was inconsistent in the non-con, and they have found the waters even muddier in conference play.I initially thought this year the offense would take a major step back without Moore and they would rely on their defense to keep them in games. It has in fact been the exact opposite. Their KenPom defensive rank of 298 is the worst of any outfit in the MW on either side of the ball. Part of this stems from a crushing preseason injury to front court bruiser Robert Vaihola, as the Spartans have the shortest bench in the league and a lot of youth to boot. With Myron Amey, Trey Anderson, and Tibet Gorener sniping from behind the line getting set up by heady PG Alvaro Cardenas, San Jose State does have the potential to stay in games if they are hot.
THE WEEKEND AHEAD
Two games Friday and three on Saturday are on tap, with 4 of the 5 getting TV coverage (either CBS Sports or FS1). All times EST.
SDSU @ Nevada 8:00 CBS Sports Huge tilt in Reno. Aztecs defeated the Wolf Pack a few weeks ago. If Nevada can defend LeDee the way they defended Osobor Tuesday night, they may very well pick up their second straight huge win. SDSU has yet to grab a top league road win (they did win at Gonzaga in December).
SJSU @ CSU 9:30 FS1 This one has the potential to get out of hand. For the most part, the Spartans have hung around in the first half of games, only to run out of gas in the second half. Bad news in altitude against a good opponent, who thrives on defensive breakdowns by their opponent.
Fresno St @ Air Force 4:00 The least marquee game of the weekend, the Falcons will be looking to grab just their second conference win, while Fresno looks for the season sweep.
UNLV @ UNM 8:00 CBS Sports This is a rematch of an earlier game won by the Rebels in Vegas. The Rebels also upset the Lobos last year in Albuquerque. The Pit is already sold out for this one, and though UNLV is rested, it’s going to be a raucous environment. Hard to see New Mexico losing here, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this ends up a double digit victory.
Boise State @ Utah State 10:00 FS1 The game of the day in the conference. These two played an overtime classic two weeks ago in Boise that USU pulled out. Each team is coming off a loss (2 in a row for the Aggies). The court is also being named in honor of legendary Utah State coach Stew Morrill, who is revered in Logan. Expect the crowd to be at a fevered pitch. This has the makings of an all-time classic game.