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Blowout Central

The MW has been a league of blowouts; how did this happen?

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks young, the Mountain West has had the highest percentage of blowouts of any conference, per KenPom. A staggering nine of 24 games in conference play have been decided by over 20 points.

  1. January 2nd: #6 Nevada 72, Utah State 49
  2. January 2nd: Fresno State 73, San Jose State 53
  3. January 5th: New Mexico 85, #6 Nevada 58
  4. January 5th: Boise State 88, San Diego State 64
  5. January 8th: San Diego State 84, Wyoming 54
  6. January 8th: Colorado State 87, Air Force 64
  7. January 9th: #10 Nevada 92, San Jose State 53
  8. January 12th: Boise State 87, San Jose State 64
  9. January 15th: San Diego State 97, New Mexico 77

So the question then is, what gives? It’s a historically atypical percentage of games that haven’t been close and there are a handful of factors why.

  1. The bottom tier of the conference is atypically woeful.

Of the blowouts on this list, three of them involve San Jose State and one (so far) involves Wyoming. These two teams have a combined conference record of 0-7 and the two teams that just don’t have enough firepower to compete in the MW. However, it should be pointed out that this is the second-worst team the Spartans have ever fielded in MW play, per KenPom. Their winless season in 2014-15 was an anomaly; the Spartans were facing academic sanctions that season and completely remade their coaching staff and roster. In Wyoming’s case, this is shaping up to be their worst team in MW play ever, per KenPom. Most of that is due to roster depletion, especially after the revelations surrounding senior Nyaires Redding. For what it’s worth, the MW has never had two teams finishing in the 300s in KenPom.

2. Defenses have been terrible.

Traditionally, the Mountain West has been a very good defensive league. Per advanced metrics, it’s very rare that multiple teams finish in the bottom 25% percent of Division I team defense.

MW Adjusted Defense By Season

SEASON #1-100 #101-202 #202-264 #265-353
SEASON #1-100 #101-202 #202-264 #265-353
2008-09 5 2 1 1
2009-10 6 0 3 0
2010-11 5 4 0 0
2011-12 4 3 1 0
2012-13 5 2 2 0
2013-14 4 5 3 0
2014-15 4 4 1 2
2015-16 4 4 2 1
2016-17 3 7 0 1
2017-18 4 3 4 0
2018-19 3 1 4 3

The MW has never more than two teams historically play team defense this badly, let alone three. Additionally, a majority of defenses in the Mountain West have worse than average Division I teams. Recently, we’ve highlighted the defensive struggles of both New Mexico and San Diego State. Some of the strongest defensive teams in years past are incredibly young, the Aztecs especially, and are still trying to find their identity. Overall, it’s been a down year for the conference and even with the surprises, there’s been a noticeable drop in quality across the league, with many programs hitting a down cycle simultaneously.

3. Living and dying by the three-pointer.

The game of basketball is changing, it’s not news anymore. The prevalence of the three-point shot can mean really good games and really bad games for teams that are overly reliant on it to get the offensive juices going. Look no further than San Diego State and Nevada. In their blowout loss in Boise, they shot 14% on 21 three-point attempts and lost by twenty points. Three days later, the Aztecs shot 50% on 24 three-point attempts in a thirty point rout over Wyoming. Nevada shot a putrid 4-for-22 from three-point range in their loss at New Mexico. They turned around to shoot 38% on 34 shots from three-point range when they routed San Jose State in Reno three days later. In conference play alone, half of the teams have relied on three-point shooting for a third of their offensive production. This means there will be some blowouts and there will be some 106-88 scorelines as well.

It will be interesting to see if the numbers even out and the law of averages says they should. Traditionally, games usually aren’t as wide-open when the second round robin in leagues begin because teams are more prepared for each other.

Secondly, the schedule has thrown together some really rough stretches for certain teams. In four games, the Spartans have already played Nevada, Fresno State, and Boise State. New Mexico had to play back-to-back road games at Colorado State and San Diego State, resulting back-to-back blowout losses. This weekend, Wyoming has to travel to the Pit for their third road game, having already played in Las Vegas and San Diego.

Thirdly, per KenPom, no conference in any year, ever, has had this high of a percentage of games be classified as blowouts. The law of averages suggests that these numbers will even out as more games are played.

So far though, the Mountain West has been a roller coaster and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.