Mountain West Basketball Non-Conference Report Cards
Breaking down each Mountain West team’s non-conference performance
Nevada leads the way with a 13-0 record
Mountain West conference play begins Wednesday night. Let’s stop for a moment and reflect on what each team has (or hasn’t) accomplished to this point.
Air Force, more or less, has been about what we anticipated heading into the year. Offense, again, has been a major issue for Dave Pilipovich’s group. The abundance of turnovers the Falcons have committed in their first 12 games have prevented Air Force from ranking in the top 300 nationally in both two-point attempts and three-point attempts. Air Force can shoot efficiently, but failing to make attempts at the basket combined with a poor effort on the offensive glass (331st in offensive rebounding percentage) explains why Pilipovich’s team is struggling to score.
Bronco fans have gotten so familiar with Leon Rice’s magic that it’s almost hard to envision a BSU team failing to finish near the top of the Mountain West with at least 20 wins. Both of those benchmarks might not be achieved this year as the Broncos are off to their worst 13-game start to the season since 1996. R.J. Williams has been the go-to guy while Justinian Jessup is still the team’s best outside scorer. Alex Hobbs, who has missed four games, could be the difference-maker.
First-year head coach Niko Medved will look to go to work in his first go-round in Mountain West play. CSU started fast out of the gates but has since lost seven of its last eight games – the sole win being a six-point home victory over Sam Houston State. The nation’s 319th-ranked defensive unit needs to improve or the Rams will spend their second consecutive year towards the bottom of the MWC ladder.
The Mountain West Wire staff might have been higher on Fresno State in the preseason than most, but not many anticipated the Bulldogs would look like the second or third-best team in the conference in January. That’s exactly what Justin Hutson and his staff has accomplished the first two months of the season, though, even with Deshon Taylor missing four games due to injury. Newcomer Braxton Huggins has played like an all-league guy, and once Taylor is back to full strength, Fresno State could be an incredibly tough out in March’s league tournament.
Arguably the biggest disappointment in the conference thus far has been the New Mexico Lobos, limping into league play with an even 6-6 win-loss record. Defense has been a disaster for Paul Weir’s squad, though it has seen modest improvements as of late. Only twice this season has UNM allowed fewer than 75 points against D-I competition. The infusion of transfer Carlton Bragg could ignite a fire into the Lobos, having averaged 11.8 points and seven rebounds per game over his first four appearances on the year.
There’s a lot that can be said – both good and bad – about Nevada’s non-conference performance. Either way you shape it, though, the Wolf Pack is 13-0, ranked sixth in the nation, and is looking all of the parts of a national title contender. Cold spells, particularly following the opening tip-off, has been a problem for Eric Musselman’s team. Nevada has trailed by eight or more points in the first half in four games this year, but quick starts in the second half have helped the Wolf Pack’s undefeated streak remain. Eventually, one of two things will happen: Nevada rids itself of its slow starts and plays at a higher level for a complete 40 minutes, or it will continue to have stretches where it looks out of sorts and it will lead to losses. Again, the fact that Nevada is 13-0 and hasn’t even looked all that great for a full 40 minutes yet is rather impressive.
San Diego State
San Diego State wrapped up the 2018 season as one of the hottest teams in the country, going a full calendar month without losing a game. The tide has quickly changed for the program, though, as SDSU is sitting at 8-5 after an up-and-down non-conference slate. San Diego State has trailed by 30 or more points on three separate occasions through 13 games, the most alarming coming last week against Brown, a stunning 82-61 home loss to the Ivy League opponent. Strangely enough, the thorn in the side of the Aztecs has been perimeter defense. SDSU currently ranks 175th in adjusted defense efficiency, which would be the program’s worst since 2005.
San Jose State
The bar was set super low for SJSU coming into the year, but Jean Prioleau’s team has competed at a high level, even if it hasn’t led to many wins thus far. Seven of San Jose State’s nine losses have come by eight points or fewer, including hard-fought true road matchups against Stanford and Cal out of the Pac-12. I still don’t expect the Spartans to finish any higher than ninth in the league, though the first 13 games have been a step forward. Turnovers (336th in turnover rate) remain a major issue.
Last year around this time, UNLV was sitting at 11-2 with both losses coming in overtime to quality opponents when the Rebels entered conference play. This time around, Marvin Menzies and his Rebs have already suffered six losses and are without its best player for the rest of the year as Shakur Juiston had to undergo season-ending surgery. So where does UNLV go from here? It ranks 258th in effective field goal percentage and 312th in turnover percentage, almost entirely explaining the team’s struggles on offense. Someone needs to step up or the Rebels will finish in the bottom half of the Mountain West for the third straight year under Menzies.
How about this Utah State team under first-year head coach Craig Smith? The Aggies are the only team not named Nevada without a bad loss to date, as each of USU’s three blemishes have occurred against top 85 KenPom teams on the road. The biggest question heading into the year was whether Sam Merrill would have enough of a supporting cast, and that answer has been a resounding yes. Dwayne Brown moved out of the starting lineup and has shined, Portuguese freshman Neemias Queta is an effective and formidable mammoth inside, and guys like Diogo Brito, Quinn Taylor, and Brock Miller have produced when called upon. There’s a lot to like about what the Aggies have shown early.
Wyoming has been nothing short of horrible this year. The Cowboys are 3-9 against D-I teams (needed a buzzer-beater to knock off D-II Dixie State at home last week) including home losses to UC Santa Barbara, Niagara, Northern Colorado, and Denver. Fresh off its third 20-win season in four years, Allen Edwards’ group has been downright dreadful on both ends. I’ll refrain myself from giving Wyoming an ‘F’ because of the ridiculousness that is Justin James and the injury plague that has caused the Cowboys to fall so far down the MWC ladder.
Eli Boettger is the lead basketball writer at Mountain West Wire. He’s covered Mountain West basketball since 2015 and his work has been featured on Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, SB Nation, Yahoo Sports, MSN, and other platforms. Boettger is a current USBWA member.