It. Is. March. Basketball fans everywhere rejoice as we enter the month where the madness happens. Due to the CONEXPO occurring in Las Vegas next week, the Mountain West decided to avoid congestion and have the conference tournament a week earlier than usual (that’s why each team played two conference games back in December). As a result, the conference tournament champion will be crowned a week before most, meaning certain teams (Utah State) might be sweating their March fates longer than usual. Let’s take a look at look at the state of the conference heading into tourney week.
1. San Diego State - 28-1 (17-1), #4 NET
It wasn’t a week featuring convincing results for the Aztecs, but the job was done nonetheless. Colorado State nearly pulled off a mid-week shocker, as did Nevada on the weekend in Reno, but like San Diego State is accustomed to doing, they clawed back and ended up winning by more than one possession. The tournament bracket sets up to likely feature the Aztecs facing UNLV, their lone loss on the season, in the semifinals in Vegas. The Aztecs will be a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament, maybe even a 1-seed, but a few closer contests combined with the UNLV loss a week back means the Aztecs will need to be focused if they want to win the conference tournament. They’re huge favorites, but not absolute favorites.
2. UNLV - 17-14 (12-6), #104 NET
So much for last week’s ranking being a one-week deal. The Rebels sit here for two reasons. 1.) Utah State screwed up (we’ll get to that) and 2.) the Rebels are scorching hot. After a week that featured wins over Colorado State and the San Diego State Aztecs, the Rebels blasted Boise State (do not let the final score fool you, it was ugly) and wrecked San Jose State. Nobody in the conference it hotter than T.J. Otzelberger’s Rebels. They’ll likely whip Boise State again in the conference tournament, and then have a chance to dream big against the Aztecs.
3. Nevada - 19-11 (12-6), #86 NET
I contemplated ranking the Wolf Pack one spot below this slot, especially after nearly losing to Wyoming mid-week, but Utah State’s loss (again, we’ll get there) was too much to ignore. The Wolf Pack have been relativity steady, and pushed San Diego State on Saturday. Their side of the conference tournament bracket is favorable and a conference championship appearance is probably necessary if the Pack want an NIT bid. Nevada might be the executioner of Utah State’s bubble this week.
4. Utah State - 23-8 (12-6), #38 NET
What...have you done? The Aggies were sitting pretty. A cakewalk of a conclusion to the regular season, an at-large bid to the big dance appeared to be a formality. As a I noted last week, the only threat appeared to be an early exit in the conference tournament. Then the unthinkable happened as the New Mexico Lobos went to Logan and stunned the Aggies 66-64 on Senior Night. Somehow, this major loss didn’t show up in the NET rankings. Still, suddenly it looks like the Aggies will need to qualify for the conference championship game just to remain in the at-large conversation. A major blow to the conference’s March hopes. Are the Aggies Dayton-bound? Or gasp NIT bound?
5. Colorado State - 20-11 (11-7), #102 NET
The Rams have been inconsistent as of late, which made the valiant effort of nearly stunning San Diego State at Viejas all the more surprising. Rams capped off the regular season by defeating Air Force on Saturday. The Rams are 5th in this poll, but thankfully 6th in the conference tournament, meaning they avoid San Diego State’s side of the bracket. Utah State and Nevada feel pressure to perform, could the Rams spoil their intentions?
6. New Mexico - 18-13 (7-11), #148 NET
The Lobos do. not. care. A terrible midweek loss to Air Force, this program was in shambles (and still probably is) and had people wondering if Lobos fans, who typically bombard Vegas for the conference tournament, might decide to stay home this year. A trip to Logan was not worth monitoring, until it was. Pissing off Utah State fans (and Craig Thompson), the Lobos spoiled Senior Night and quite possibly popped the Aggies’ tournament bubble. The Lobos are a mess, but I have to give them a likely one-week bump in these rankings for managing to knock off the conference’s second best team.
7. Boise State - 19-11 (11-7), #95 NET
Wait, what?! The team ranked 3rd in the conference in NET is ranked 7th in this poll? How? Last week, Boise State had an early preview of Las Vegas, playing the Rebels on Senior night. The Broncos were torn apart, only scoring 22 points in the first half. It’s a familiar tale for Boise State fans. With the conference bracket set up with the Broncos facing UNLV again, and then likely San Diego State in the unlikely event that the Broncos advance, it’s another feeling of “here we go again” with this program. Don’t get me wrong, Leon Rice consistently churns out 20-win season for the Broncos, who don’t really spend a bunch of money on this particular sport. That said, the facts are the facts. Since the Broncos joined the conference, each program has made an appearance in the conference championship game. All except for three programs. Predictably, Air Force and San Jose State. And...Boise State. You can count on the Broncos being in the top 6 of the conference standings almost every year. You can also count on this team playing its worst basketball in March every year. 2020 appears to be no different.
8. Fresno State - 11-18 (7-11), #156 NET
Welcome to the Wednesday teams portion of the power rankings. The Bulldogs defeated Wyoming, as one would expect, and will have to play Air Force for the right to play San Diego State. Despite their youth, the Bulldogs have gradually improved this season. One way or another, their season likely ends on Thursday, but at least this group displayed fight in a rebuilding season.
9. Air Force - 11-19 (5-13), #225 NET
It’s been touched on more than once that a promising 2019-2020 season has gone all wrong for the Falcons. That said, credit them for digging deep on delivering a positive result on Senior Night against New Mexico. The Saturday contest against Colorado State went poorly, but at least the Falcons managed to add a win before the season closes. I’m not sure what happens to Dave Pilipovich in the coming weeks, but the Falcons play Fresno State Wednesday and look to salvage some pride in March.
10. Wyoming - 7-23 (2-16), #283 NET
It’s difficult to find something positive to say. The Pokes managed to avoid being blown out, and probably should have defeated Nevada. Another Border War game will break out on Wednesday for the right to play Nevada. It’s been a long season, and unless something spectacular occurs in Vegas, a coaching search will be born in the coming week for Wyoming basketball.
11. San Jose State - 7-23 (3-15), #284 NET
No more piling on. The Spartans got blown out twice. Again. They’ll face New Mexico for the right to play a desperate Utah State team. It’s hard to gauge a program that loses as rampantly as San Jose State does. I highly doubt Jean Prioleau is let go, but man this program needs a ray of sunshine at some point.
That’ll do it. I’ll do one more power rankings next week after the conference tournament has concluded. Any bold takes? San Diego State a near lock? What does Utah State need to do to play in the big dance? Any dark horse tournament winners? Comment below.