The Mountain West Conference tournament gets underway today and there is a lot on the line, especially for the top four teams. Three of those top four are on the bubble and need a big week in Las Vegas to get themselves in a spot to make the tournament. With so much on the line, here are seven storylines you should keep an eye on as the tournament gets going:
How many teams does the MWC get in?
A few weeks ago it looked like the Mountain West Conference was comfortably going to get three teams in the tournament with a chance at a fourth sneaking in as well. But so much has happened on the bubble lately that there is a chance the Mountain West could be a one-bid league.
Right now, San Diego State is solidly in the field, no matter what happens this week. Then there are three more teams that are living dangerously on the bubble who control their own destiny to make the tournament, Colorado State, Boise State, and Utah State. Many bracketology projections have the Broncos and Rams barely in the field, while Utah State is just out.
As those three teams suffered tough losses down the stretch, it is almost impossible that all three of those teams will be getting in the NCAA Tournament field. There is a potential semifinal matchup with the Rams and Aggies that could be an elimination game and knock the loser out of the field. Those teams will also likely need help with other teams on the bubble, like Xavier, Syracuse, and Wichita State to lose early in their respective conference tournaments.
At most, it looks like the best case scenario for the Mountain West is getting three teams in the tournament with two of them likely playing in the First Four. Each of those three teams on the bubble cannot afford a bad loss and get to the semifinals and see what happens, as we know in March, anything can happen.
Can Boise State recover after devastating loss?
The Broncos will have nine days between its loss against Fresno State and its quarterfinal matchup with Nevada on Thursday. That is a lot of time for Boise State to reflect and regroup after they suffered a devastating loss that knocked them down many bracketology projections.
All that time could be seen as a good thing, or a bad thing. The good thing that is they have had all that time to prepare for their opponent, which is what happened last year when Boise State lost to UNLV and then eight days later beat them in the MWC Tournament quarterfinals. Also, Nevada, the five seed, will not play in a play-in game.
The bad is rust could develop with the long layoff. Also, Nevada is one of the hottest teams in the MWC no one is talking about and they swept Boise State earlier this season, the third time could be the charm from the Broncos, but the Wolf Pack might be very confident coming off the thrilling victory over Colorado State.
Boise State has struggled in March and has very little success in the MWC Tournament, which includes five opening game losses. Nevada will be Boise’s toughest test they have faced in a while, but this could be the year the Broncos end their bad luck in March and play themselves off the bubble.
How will Colorado State handle the pressure?
The Rams turned a lot of heads last year by finishing sixth in the MWC standings, but their feel-good story quickly came to an end after 11 seeded Wyoming upset Colorado State in the first round. Now, everyone knows how good Colorado State is and they have put themselves in a position to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Just like the other MW teams on the bubble, Colorado State cannot afford a bad loss because they do not have a lot on its resume to fall back on. All of their best wins come from the other top teams in the conference, including that thrilling comeback against San Diego State.
The dynamic duo of David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens, each averaging over 15 points per game, has put everyone in the conference on notice on how good this Rams team is. They are no longer a surprise team like they were coming down the end of last year and the competition is aware this team could get hot and find itself playing for a conference championship come Saturday.
Lunardi has the Rams in as one of the last teams in and Palm has them in as well as an 11 seed, so their margin of error is slim. Regardless of how the tournament goes, Niko Medved, who I believe should have been conference coach of the year (but what do I know), has done an outstanding job and is laying a foundation for Rams teams in the future to contend in the conference.
Does Utah State have more March Magic?
The last two seasons the Aggies have been on the bubble, instead of leaving it up to the selection committee to put them in or not, Utah State went out and won the conference tournament to get the conference’s automatic bid. There could be arguments on if those last two Utah State teams really needed to win those conference tournaments to get in, but there is no question this year.
Joe Lunardi has Utah State as the first team out and Jerry Palm also has the Aggies in the “First Four Out” grouping, so Utah State has to do some work in the Mountain West Tournament. They have no room for error, any upsets or even a close loss to Colorado State in the semifinals would not help the Aggies’ chances. They have to make the finals to at least have a chance at one of the final at-large spots.
What hurts Utah State, just like the other Mountain West teams on the bubble, is they do not have any quality non-conference wins. They were blown out by VCU and had a close loss against BYU, and they have a bad loss against UNLV. A feather in their cap is they swept San Diego State this year, the only team in the conference to do so. The Aztecs are also the team Utah State has beaten the last two years in the conference championship game. Compared to the other Mountain West teams on the bubble, Utah State has experience of playing under pressure and making deep conference tournament runs, so you cannot count out the Aggies.
What is San Diego State’s seed ceiling?
The only team feeling comfortable heading into the conference tournament is San Diego State, who will be in regardless of whether or not they win the conference tournament or not. All San Diego State could do this week is help or hurt its potential seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Many bracketology projections have the Aztecs in the seven to nine seed range, and it would appear a solid showing in the Mountain West Tournament, as in winning the tournament in dominating fashion, could boost them up some seed lines likely to a seven seed, or maybe a six seed.
The downside of being a seven or eight/nine seed is if you win your opening round game, you get a one or two seed in the next round. And being a six seed means you could face one of the First Four teams in your opening round game. There is no way the Aztecs could get to a five seed based on their resume and rankings, it appears a six seed might be the ceiling.
This Aztec team might not be as dominant as last year’s but they showed in conference and in some big out of conference games what they are capable of. There is likely added motivation for San Diego State who did not get a chance to prove itself in the NCAA Tournament last year and after they were beaten in the championship game the last two years. Watch out for the Aztecs when the tournament begins and don’t be surprised if they are a second weekend team.
Will there be a Bid-Stealer?
So much attention is on the top-four, but could someone else in the tournament get hot and pull off a few upsets and hear their name called on Selection Sunday? It could happen, because it’s March and anything can happen in the tournaments.
The middle four teams in the conference, Nevada, Wyoming, Fresno State, and UNLV have each shown flashes, some more than others, that they could play with and beat some of the top teams in the conference. The latter of the three teams would need to win four games in four days, while Nevada has a bye to the quarterfinals by being a top-five team, and they are the team to watch for.
The Wolf Pack have elite scoring with Grant Sherfield, a member of the All-MW First Team, leading the way and a great supporting cast with Desmond Cambridge, Tre Coleman, and Warren Washington. Defensively, they hold teams to just around 40% shooting from the field. They have a solid mix on both ends of the ball to give the other teams fits in the tournament.
It will be tough for one of these teams to steal a bid given they will likely have to play three of the top four teams as the tournament advances. An advantage some of the lower seeds might have is there are no fans at these games, the energy given to a San Diego State or Utah State from their loud fan bases will not be there and could serve as an equalizer to the rest competition.
Does COVID impact the tournament?
Yes, COVID is still around and it could possibly wipe out a team or the entire tournament. Thankfully, as of now, no other major conference tournament has been impacted due to COVID, but that doesn’t mean everybody should let their guard down and not think it could impact one of these conference tournaments. Mountain West teams will be testing the day of their games and get results before they play.
I hate to bring up COVID because everyone has COVID fatigue and they want to watch a sporting event and not worry about it, but it is still out there and could put the tournament in danger if someone tests positive or if there is an outbreak among a team.
Just as bad, what if someone from Colorado State test positive and misses its game, which could eliminate them from the NCAA Tournament in getting an at-large spot, or if Utah State has an outbreak before playing in the conference championship game?
We all hope the tournament goes smoothly and we are certain all teams are taking every precaution to avoid exposure from the virus, but it would be extremely heartbreaking to see one of the top four teams have to miss games and miss out at a chance at the NCAA Tournament. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, as everyone says now: Stay Positive and Test Negative! Here’s to a great Mountain West Tournament!