We are nearly three weeks into conference play for the Mountain West men’s basketball season. Everywhere you look, results have been jarring: UNLV beats New Mexico in The Pit before losing by 18 at home to Boise State days later; San Diego State dominated Nevada for 35 minutes before a late slip-up resulted in a nine-point win; Colorado State trounced Fresno State before letting go of the rope against Air Force.
Even through two-and-a-half weeks, there’s a laundry list of entertaining, unpredictable Mountain West action. Nevertheless, let’s get into some (belated) New Year’s Resolutions for each Mountain West program for the 2023 calendar year (even though we mainly focus on the 2022-23 season)!
Air Force: Find extra possessions
Air Force will always be at a size disadvantage compared to (most) other Division-I programs because of the size regulations for being at an Academy. Though this Air Force offense is its most efficient unit since 2020 with the highest effective field goal percentage since 2007, the Year the Falcons won the Mountain West. Joe Scott’s group has executed his Princeton offense — a deliberate attack with accentuated cuts and screens — very well, but with how efficient it’s been, finding a way to secure extra possessions would be ideal. They’re not a good offensive rebounding team and they don’t force many turnovers — four of their seven losses have come by six or fewer points. Finding a way to generate extra possessions could go a long way to beating some of the Mountain West’s best, which is obviously easier said than done.
Boise State: Get Marcus Shaver 100 percent healthy
Boise State is one of the best teams in the Mountain West, and they proved that yet again Wednesday with their 84-66 win over UNLV. But Marcus Shaver is noticeably not 100 percent with a lower body injury. Boise State is still a machine; Tyson Degenhart has built after winning the conference’s freshman of the year; Chibuzo Agbo has been one of the conference’s top transfers; Max Rice is still an exceptional shooter and they’re a very well-coached team with Leon Rice, who’s built a model of consistency at Boise. But with how deep the conference is, it makes their task that much harder to make it into the big dance if he’s not fully healthy. He’s the best guard rebounder in the Mountain West, their most dynamic shot creator and by far the player they want the ball in the hands most in the most important moments.
Colorado State: Defense, defense, defense
Colorado State is only ahead of Fresno State in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Taviontae Jackson has been Colorado State’s best defender, but the team defense still hasn’t been where it’s expected to be. In five of their last seven losses, they’ve allowed 80 or more points — including 84 against Air Force (with the help of overtime), when the Rams completely fell apart. Defense wins championships — or, in this case, games — and Colorado State has had their chances, but haven’t gotten consistently good results on the defensive end yet, which they’ll need to.
Fresno State: Orlando Robinson to return....or gain some sort of offensive identity
Orlando Robinson was the Bulldogs’ offense last year. Now, the Bulldogs are by far the least efficient offense in the Mountain West and they don’t have much of an offensive identity without Robinson. Isaih Moore, Jemarl Baker and Isaiah Hill have shown flashes in the pan, but their offensive identity is far from complete — perhaps the biggest reason to their 6-10 start. They’re not going to win many MW games if they can’t figure that out. Point. Blank. Period.
New Mexico: Keep racking up wins in MWC Play
In non-conference play, New Mexico finished 13-0 after their seven-point win against Oral Roberts on Monday. But in Mountain West play, they’ve gone 2-2 with slip-ups against a struggling Fresno State squad plus UNLV at home. I’m not the first person, nor will I be the last person to say this — but the conference is loaded. To keep stacking that NCAA Tournament resume — should New Mexico not win the MW Tournament (they might anyways!) — it can’t continue faltering against conference competition. I don’t anticipate they will, but the warning signs are up and in bold. New Mexico’s as good as anyone, but you have to play your best each and every night to survive.
Nevada: Frontcourt depth
Injuries haven’t been kind to Nevada this year. Three players — Michael Folarin, Hunter McIntosh and KJ Hymes — are (likely) out for the year with separate injuries, with the former two missing the start of the year with knee injuries. Folarin and Hymes were expected to be apart of Nevada’s frontcourt — Folarin as the third-string big behind Hymes and Will Baker. Instead, redshirt freshman Nick Davidson has held down the fort and has done a very good job, but the Wolf Pack would still prefer the extra frontcourt depth so there’s a less of a burden on the two-man frontcourt of Baker/Davidson.
SDSU: Stronger interior defense
The Aztecs’ defense on the interior has been unreasonably mediocre this year, despite possessing yet another top-25 unit nationally. The Aztecs are allowing teams to shoot 50.7 percent from inside the arc — the highest since 2004-05, per KenPom — including 64.6 percent at the rim.
The Aztecs still have reigning Mountain West defensive player of the year Nathan Mensah manning the middle, who’s still rebounding the ball well and blocking shots at a top-50 clip. Teams aren’t getting more offensive rebounds, nor is SDSU drastically turning it over at a higher clip compared to previous seasons. Perhaps the Aztecs are on the wrong end of unfortunate shooting luck?
SJSU: Tim Miles to win Coach of the Year
Nothing would be better for San Jose State than to rack up wins and reward Tim Miles with the conference’s coach of the year trophy. Their turnaround has been remarkable and they would likely need to get to at least 8-10 Mountain West wins to seriously warrant consideration. But it’s in the cards after the Spartans were projected to be a bottom-feeder heading into the 2022-23 season.
UNLV: Defensive rebounding
UNLV is the smallest team in the Mountain West. Only one of its regular rotation players — David Muoka — is above 6-foot-9. Despite their athletic, switchable defensive activity that forces a bevy of turnovers, its biggest weakness is closing out possessions on the defensive glass. They’re the worst defensive rebounding team in the conference and place in the bottom-30 defensively in defensive rebounding percentage across the country. In each of their four losses, opponents have averaged 13.5 offensive rebounds per game that’s led to 13 second-chance points. In three of their four defeats, they’ve lost by single digits, including by one possession against San Francisco and San Jose State, where they tallied 15 and 12 second-chance points, respectively. Those are backbreakers.
Utah State: The triples to keep falling
Utah State has been one of the best 3-point shooting teams in America, really buoyed by their three top scorers in Steven Ashworth, Taylor Funk and Max Shulga. They have combined to shoot 43.8 percent from 3-point range on (5.8 triple tries per game), including 51.3 percent (on 6.6 attempts) from Ashworth. Their 3-point shooting has been the biggest catalyst to their success thus far, so sustaining that mark will be important.
It’s not a lost year for Wyoming yet, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere without Graham Ike. Just get healthy for 2023-24.