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Mountain West Tournament Primer: X-Factors, Keys, What to Watch

The march to March begins Wednesday.

NCAA Basketball: Colorado State at Nevada Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

The Mountain West Tournament tips off Wednesday morning from Las Vegas. Here’s all you need to know about the teams that will be competing in this year’s tourney.

Nevada (25-6, 14-4)

How they got here: Edged Colorado State 85-72 on March 4 in winner-take-all matchup for MWC title. The Wolf Pack was led by five double-digit scorers, most notably Marcus Marshall at 19.7 points per game, who transferred last summer from Missouri State.

Key to winning the tournament: Controlling the three-point line. In all but one of Nevada’s losses did the Wolf Pack opponent record a better percentage from deep.

X-Factor: Jordan Caroline. Nevada is 19-1 when Caroline shoots over 40% from the field. Nevada will need Caroline’s consistency this weekend.

Last year: Lost in semifinals to San Diego State, 67-55

Colorado State (21-10, 13-5)

How they got here: Managed to make do with just seven scholarship players and winning 10 of its last 12 games. Gian Clavell, with 19.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, was named the conference player of the year.

Key to winning the tournament: Defense continuing to show up. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing more than 77 points, and 21-6 when they keep opponents under 77.

X-Factor: Gian Clavell. He’s the go-to guy. He will record more individual possessions late in games than any other player in the conference. He will need to be clutch.

Last year: Lost in semifinals to Fresno State, 64-56

Boise State (19-10, 12-6)

How they got here: Led by the growth of Chandler Hutchison, the Broncos have weathered a difficult offseason to win 12 conference games, locking up the #3 seed last weekend.

Key to winning the tournament: Efficient shooting from the perimeter. BSU loves to jack up threes, but it will not win if Nick Duncan or James Reid go cold from deep.

X-Factor: Nick Duncan. This is Duncan’s last hurrah. He’s been inconsistent from beyond the arc this season (33.5%), but I have to believe he has some magic left in the tank.

Last year: Lost in quarterfinals to Colorado State, 88-81

Fresno State (19-11, 11-7)

How they got here: The defending conference champs have had an up-and-down year but finished 5-1 against the top three teams in the league. The Bulldogs are led by four double-digit scorers, including Jaron Hopkins at 13.3 points per game.

Key to winning the tournament: Keep the momentum going. Fresno has won each of its last five games including road wins over San Diego State and Boise State. FSU held a six-game winning streak prior to its MWC tournament title last season.

X-Factor: Deshon Taylor. He doesn’t possess the ball as much as Jaron Hopkins, but Taylor has the ability to explode, going for 20+ points in five appearances this season.

Last year: Won championship over San Diego State, 68-63

New Mexico (17-13, 10-8)

How they got here: New Mexico’s best forward, Tim Williams, missed nine conference games as the Lobos (again) struggled in February. Glimpses of promise keep NM intriguing, however.

Key to winning the tournament: Get to the free throw line. We say it all the time but it’s true: when the Lobos create fouls, it leads to wins. New Mexico is 13-1 when it attempts 25 or more free throws.

X-Factor: Tim Williams. The doctors have cleared Williams, but reports say that fatigue could still be an issue. He will need to be active and productive if NM wants to win the tournament.

Last year: Lost in quarterfinals to Nevada, 64-62

San Diego State (17-13, 9-9)

How they got here: SDSU was a near-unanimous MWC title favorite in the preseason, but the Aztecs’ non-elite defense has caused issues for an offensively-challenged squad.

Key to winning the tournament: Production from the SDSU backcourt. Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley have enough experience that they shouldn’t be intimidated by being the underdogs for the first time in an Aztec uniform.

X-Factor: Trey Kell. SDSU is 9-0 this year when Kell makes over half of his shots. He and Hemsley need to take over and be consistent and efficient on the offensive side.

Last year: Lost in championship to Fresno State, 68-63

Wyoming (18-13, 8-10)

How they got here: The Cowboys started the season 10-2 and pushed a then-undefeated USC team to overtime, but it’s been a struggle ever since. Wyoming has lost nine games by single-digits.

Key to winning the tournament: Control the pace. The Cowboys love to get out and run (12th in adjusted tempo), while only one other MWC team is ranked in the top 100 in pace.

X-Factor: Jason McManamen. The senior guard has really struggled this year after an electric 2016 season, but he still has the ability to score in bunches. I’d keep an eye out for this talented shooter.

Last year: Lost in first round to Utah State, 88-70

Utah State (14-16, 7-11)

How they got here: Even with the addition of freshman of the year Koby McEwen, the Aggies couldn’t seem to put the right pieces together with star forward Jalen Moore. Utah State struggled on both ends of the floor this season.

Key to winning the tournament: Tighten up the defense. Utah State very rarely forces turnovers on the defensive side, and an extra possessions could be the difference for an Aggies team that has two talented scorers in McEwen and Moore.

X-Factor: Sam Merrill. The freshman has come out of nowhere to be one of the top three-point shooters in the nation. If he Moore and McEwen can heat up simultaneously, there could be an upset brewing.

Last year: Lost in quarterfinals to San Diego State, 71-65

San Jose State (14-15, 7-11)

How they got here: Dave Wojcik has continued to make strides with SJSU, winning seven conference games this season after just five in the past three years combined. Brandon Clarke has been the best player in the MWC not named Gian Clavell.

Key to winning the tournament: Shake off the losing streak. San Jose State was playing some of the most fluid and inspiring basketball all season during four-game tear where it beat San Diego State and New Mexico. SJSU has dropped five of six since.

X-Factor: Ryan Welage. The only other significant contributor on the offensive end besides Clarke needs to step up for the SJSU front line. Both forwards combine to take 55.1% of the Spartans’ shot attempts when on the floor.

Last year: Lost in first round to Colorado State, 80-61

Air Force (11-20, 4-14)

How they got here: Many (including myself) believed that Air Force could make a run into the top half of the conference this season, led by one of the more experienced teams in America. Instead, the Falcons have been putrid on defense and have won just three times since the calendar flipped to 2017.

Key to winning the tournament: Play some defense. Seriously. Last time Air Force was in the MWC tournament it allowed UNLV to score 108 points (in three overtimes) despite a fantastic shooting performance. The Academy will shoot from downtown, but any form of defensive intensity will be necessary.

X-Factor: Jacob Van. Van jumped onto the scene last year when he tallied a career-high 37 points in the Mountain West tournament game, so maybe he can unload again on Wednesday.

Last year: Lost in first round to UNLV, 108-102 (3OT)

UNLV (11-20, 4-14)

How they got here: The Rebs are in complete rebuilding mode after ushering in new head coach Marvin Menzies. According to Sports Reference, this is the worst UNLV squad in school history, with an SRS rating of -3.62, surpassing 1995-96’s Bill Bayno-led team.

Key to winning the tournament: I don’t see it happening, but the Rebels do have the benefit of playing in their home arena. But how many UNLV fans will show up?

X-Factor: Jovan Mooring. Mooring has scored in double figures in 20 games this season, while eclipsing 20 points five times.

Last year: Lost in quarterfinals to Fresno State, 95-82

What are your thoughts on the MWC tournament? Leave a comment below or send a tweet to @boettger_eli or @MWCConnection on Twitter.