A year removed from its best season, the Mountain West is in a slump. And even a downturn in the early part of the year has major implications in March.
The Mountain West was one of the top conferences in the nation last season, sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Once there, though, the league did a collective face-plant, with only San Diego State getting a win.
Predicted order of finish:
1. San Diego State
2. New Mexico
3. Boise State
5. Utah State
7. Colorado State
8. Fresno State
10. Air Force
11. San Jose State
Team on the rise
Boise State. A borderline NCAA Tournament team last year, the Broncos are now fighting to get to the top of the conference. Losses to Kentucky and Saint Mary’s show they aren’t quite there yet, but Boise has a lot of characteristics of winning programs: The Broncos are good shooters, take care of the ball, and make free throws. Leading scorer Anthony Drmic is a matchup nightmare, leading an offense that keeps a break-neck pace.
Team on the decline
UNLV. OK, so it’s easy pickings. The Rebels could still bounce back from a 5-4 start, but things aren’t looking so good for Dave Rice’s team at the moment. They’re inefficient shooters (44.4 percent from the floor) and they turn it over too much. Close losses to Illinois, Arizona and Arizona State show what this team can do, but the Rebels have been inconsistent to say the least, as a thrashing by UC Santa Barbara indicates.
Kendall Williams, New Mexico. Hard to pick just one on a team that has arguably three of the five best players in the conference, but Williams is also hard to argue against. One of the top scorers and the top playmaker in the league, he always gives the Lobos a fighting chance in any game they play. He’ll likely get a shot at the NBA next year, but this year his scoring and passing will be key in breaking down defenses that struggle to guard everything New Mexico has to offer.
Wyoming. The temptation might have been to sleep on the Cowboys after a late fade last year, but here are their losses: Ohio State, Colorado and Denver. Two of those are powerhouse programs, and the third is a tough, awkward team to play against. Wyoming thrives on getting high-percentage shots and playing good defense. Larry Nance Jr. will create problems with his size, and the Cowboys will be tough to beat in Laramie.
Projected NCAA Tournament bids
That downward momentum seems to have carried over to this season, where the conference hasn’t had a lot of marquee wins to brag about.
While the Aztecs have cruised to a league-best 8-1 mark — their only loss to No. 1 Arizona — New Mexico, Utah State, UNLV and Boise State have lost some of the games they were hoping to pocket. Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg pointed out this week that the rest of the conference is 1-21 against the top-70 RPI teams in the nation.
As a result, the Mountain West’s NCAA Tournament berths could dwindle as conference play begins, meaning the battles at the top will be fierce.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has projected only two Mountain West teams — San Diego State and New Mexico — to make the field in his latest bracketology predictions.
The league is loaded with scoring-capable guards: New Mexico’s Kendall Williams, Nevada’s Deonte Burton, San Diego State’s Xavier Thames and Utah State’s Preston Medlin. Teams with good swingmen have also stood out this year, as New Mexico has relied on Cameron Bairstow and Boise State has put Anthony Drmic at the forefront of its own offense.
Although high-scoring offenses may be key to winning, defense may be what sets the top of the league apart. The Aztecs feature one of the best scoring defenses in the nation, allowing only 56.1 points per game.
Though teams such as UNLV, Wyoming and Utah State aren’t favored to win the conference at this point, they may make stands in their tough home atmospheres and by slowing down some of the more efficient teams on offense.
At the bottom of the league, Nevada, Fresno State, Air Force and San Jose State are fighting for some legitimacy. Although none are true contenders this season, they could steal some league games and build momentum.
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