The top four in the Mountain West Conference standings have garnered much of the attention the conference is getting this season, and rightfully so, as all four teams are fighting for NCAA Tournament spots.
Part of the reason those in the top four have been able to stack up so many wins and separate themselves from the rest of the pack is how bad the bottom of the conference is. Air Force, New Mexico and San Jose State have each combined for eight total conference wins this season and each having a conference winning percentage below .200.
That leaves four teams in the middle, Nevada, Fresno State, UNLV, and Wyoming, that might have been overlooked throughout the season. Each of these teams had games and moments that made you believe this is a good team, and each also had outings that made you scratch your head and doubt if they are really a good team, which is why they ended where they are, by finishing in the middle of the road.
One of the things everybody loves about the NCAA Tournament and March Madness is the unpredictability, and that is often seen in bid-stealers in the conference tournaments. When the tournaments come around, all you need to do is be better than the other team for 40 minutes, and you advance to the next round.
Given how unpredictable the Mountain West has been in recent years, it is not crazy to think one of those four middle teams could get hot for three or four straight days, rattle off a couple of wins and play their way in the NCAA Tournament. Here where those four middle teams rank in terms of possibility to pull off an upset and steal a bid to the NCAA Tournament:
Some wondered if the Eric Musselman run at Reno was just a flash in the pan and if the Wolf Pack could ever be as successful as those teams are. But in his second year, Steve Alford and his staff are a year away from a big year. The conference tournament could be a preview for how good this Nevada team could be next year, with two transfers from Power 5 schools transferring to Nevada next year.
But on this year’s team, it all starts with Grant Sherfield, the Wichita State transfer. He is a scoring machine for the Wolf Pack, he finished second in the conference averaging 18 points per game. It isn’t just him, Desmond Cambridge averages over 15 points per game and Tre Coleman averages just under 16 points per game and they have a whole supporting cast that can get double-digits any given night, like Tre Coleman and Warren Washington. It’s not all just offense for Nevada, as they are third in the conference in field goal defense at 40.3%.
Looking back at this past season, the Wolf Pack gave San Diego State its two toughest games in any series this year with a pair of nail-biting games that went down to the wire. Most recently, they swept Boise State at home and upset Colorado State on a last second shot that knocked both teams down the seed list in many bracketology projections.
The Wolf Pack managed to get the five seed, so they do not have to worry about an opening round game. They play Boise State in the first round if they win, they would likely meet up with San Diego State for a third time this season in the semifinals. Despite having to face San Diego State in the quarterfinals, the top half of the bracket suits Nevada well, they certainly have the firepower offensively to pull off three wins in three days and get back to the NCAA Tournament.
The Cowboys were the “Cinderella” of last year’s Mountain West Tournament as the 11-seeded Cowboys made a run to semifinals, upsetting Colorado State and Nevada on the way to the semis, where they lost to Utah State 89-82. They fired coach Allen Edwards after winning only two conference games and finishing 9-24 overall. Jeff Linder came over from Northern Colorado, where he had three straight 20-win seasons and instantly improved.
Wyoming leads the conference in 3-point field goals made per game, averaging 9.9 made per game, which is one more than second place Colorado State at 8.9. They are also third in the conference in scoring with 75.6 points per game. The Cowboys have a trio of double digit scorers with Marcus Williams (14.9), Hunter Maldenado (12.3), and Kwane Marble (10.1). There are also four Cowboy players who shoot at 35% from three or better. A hot 3-point shooting team could give any team problems in the tournament.
Aside from sweeping Nevada earlier this season, they do not have any big or notable wins on their schedule and struggled against the top teams except for a two-point loss at home against Colorado State. It helps that they will get San Jose State in its first round game, but they have to turn around the next day to face San Diego State.
Wyoming’s road to steal a bid might be the toughest out of all the teams on this list, but they showed last year that anything can happen in this tournament, so do not count out the Cowboys until the game is over.
3. Fresno State
Two years ago Fresno State finished with 22 wins and was third in the conference standings in Justin Hutson’s first season. Last season was tough, when they finished in eight place and were bounced in the first round of the tournament by Air Force. The Bulldogs finished in sixth place behind Nevada after being picked to finish eighth in the preseason poll.
The Bulldogs are a top-five defense, allowing only 66.8 points per game, which is behind the top four teams (San Diego State, Utah State, Colorado State and Boise State). Hutson is known for being a great defensive mind, as he helped so many of Steve Fischer’s San Diego State teams when he was an assistant with the Aztecs. They are the best defensive team on this list and 40 minutes of great defense could put a stop to any of the top four teams in the league.
Offensively, Orlando Robinson leads the way with 14.5 points per game. Deon Stroud and Isaiah Hill both average double figures, they also shoot well from three, 35.8% and 39%, respectively, giving the Bulldogs both a big man presence inside and capable shooters to knock down three-pointers.
Fresno State is coming off upsetting Boise State, knocking the Broncos down many bracketology lists to either one of the last four teams in or one of the first four out, they also gave Utah State a scare. They get New Mexico in the first round and would play Colorado State if the win. The Rams blew out the Bulldogs earlier this year, but Fresno State could have added confidence given how they ended the regular season and could end the Rams’ chances of an at-large bid if they play them.
This was a disappointing year for UNLV, who was picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason, but ended up finishing seventh. They also have gotten the production from players like David Jenkins and some members of its freshman class like they anticipated, and the season ending injury to point guard Marvin Coleman was devastating to the team who has struggled to find a replacement.
A huge problem for UNLV has been finding consistency on both ends of the floor. Bryce Hamilton has struggled of late to score, and when he is having an off night, they will need someone else to put up 20 or more points to keep the game even competitive. Defensively is where UNLV has struggled the most, especially defending the three ball where teams are shooting over 37% percent against UNLV, which is last in the conference.
They had a COVID pause of over a month and had two opportunities for wins at Colorado State. They blew a 13-point lead in the first game and had a three-point loss two days later. They did beat Utah State at home by three points, which they almost gave up a larger lead late. In the rest of their games, they were outplayed by most of its opponents.
UNLV opens with Air Force in the first round, who they swept in the regular season. The winner gets Utah State in the quarterfinals. It is not impossible for UNLV to pull off an upset, but they have not shown consistency all season long to give you confidence that they can play at its best for four straight days. Anything can happen in the tournament and if UNLV plays at is best, they could pull off a couple of wins, but they will need everything to go perfectly if they want to be playing in the championship game with a shot at a bid.
The Mountain West Men’s Basketball Tournament begins tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. PT/12:00 p.m. MT. Follow Mountain West Connection for coverage of the tournament all week.