2021 Mountain West Tournament: No. 9 San Jose State vs. No. 8 Wyoming Preview
First round winner will face No. 1 seed San Diego State in Quarterfinals.
The Spartans and Cowboys have the honor of officially kicking things off in Vegas this year.
WHO: No. 9 seed San Jose State Spartans (5-15, 3-13 in the MW) vs. No. 8 Wyoming Cowboys (13-10, 7-9 in the MW)
WHEN: Wednesday, March 10th 2:00 PM ET/12:00 PM MT/11:00 AM PT
WHERE: Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV
TV/Stream: This matchup can be seen for free on the Mountain West Network
Line: KenPom, Cowboys 10-point favorites
SERIES RECORD: Cowboys lead all-time series 17-2
Wednesday’s meeting of these two squads in Las Vegas will be the first all season. As their back-to-back series scheduled to take begin on February 25th was cancelled as San Jose State dealt with covid-19 positive tests within the program. They spent the last two weeks quarantining in preparation for a trip to the conference tournament. So the Spartans are absolutely rested and ready to compete.
— Wyoming Athletics (@wyoathletics) March 9, 2021
The Wyoming on the other hand has still been competing at a high level to finish out the regular season. Winning three of their last four, most recently a 80-69 win over UNLV where they shot 55.1% from the field and 50% from three.
Last Time In Vegas
This time last year the Spartans bowed out of the festivities early, with a 66-79 loss to New Mexico. Whom they had split their conference series with earlier in the year, so the odds felt 50/50 heading into that first game. But, the scales didn’t tip in their favor. So with that loss the Spartans are still searching for their first ever Mountain West Conference Tourney win (0-6 since 2013-2014).
The Cowboys were having a different March Madness experience, but were still being led by former coach Allen Edwards. Even though things didn’t exactly work out, Wyoming played hard and established tournament run all the way to the semi-finals. There in their third game in as many days they lost to eventual champions Utah State in a hard fought 82-89 loss.
What followed was the University’s firing of Edwards in hopes of a successful revamp of the Cowboys program.
Last season they were led by a young group of players that decided to stay in Laramie for the coaching transition. First-year head coach Jeff Linder is happy they stayed but knows that the past experience won’t be enough to put on an encore performance this year.
“As I told him today, they’re not going to get the ‘Miracle’ speech from me right now… “I mean, you hope that your program gets to the point where you go into the tournament and you want the pressure on. You want the pressure, knowing, ‘hey, if you don’t win a game, you might not get an at-large bid’ and you’re actually playing for something.” said coach Linder.
Back at full strength
With both sides knowing nothing is given this time of year, coach Linder knows he is facing what looks like a Spartans squad at full strength. Leading scorer and Honorable Mention All-MW guard Richard Washington (19.6 PPG) returned to the court on February 19th against UNLV. Nearly a month after he suffered an apparent head injury against New Mexico on January 21st.
“They’re a team that’s dangerous if you don’t defend them the right way and you allow them to shoot a lot of threes,” said coach Linder “Washington is a guy who can really get going.”
In his absence junior guard Trey Smith stepped the following day, averaging 15.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG & 1.7 APG over his next seven games as the full-time starter.
The Cowboys should also be at full strength, with the return of sophomore sniper Kenny Foster earlier this month. Who missed the entire month of February with a knee-injury. Also available is sophomore big man Eoin Nelson also returning to the court since December of 2020.
Both squads seemed prime to leave it all on the court, helping tip-off men’s Mountain West action in Vegas on Wednesday afternoon.
The battle of the floor generals, should make things very interesting on come tip-off. As each side boasts a very young and talented floor general, Williams (a freshman) and Moore (a sophomore) both impact the court in different ways.
The Real Thing.
— Wyoming Cowboy Basketball (@wyo_mbb) March 10, 2021
Williams, the newly crowned freshman of the year by both the Mountain West media and coaches is an absolute game changer offensively. Though, he has struggled a bit towards the end of the season, averaging 11.1 PPG, 4.1 APG, 4.3 TOV, & 1.4 SPG over the last 8 games. He is still a multi-level scorer who may be well rested after logging just 35 minutes on the court over his last two games.
Moore on the other hand, is an absolute stat sheet stuffer and may be known around the conference as a guy who may grab more boards or log more steals than points any given night. The 6-6 combo guard averages 7.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.6 SPG & 1.0 BPG in just 29.7 MPG. Moore is perfectly fine not scoring the ball and handling a purely defensive assignment but needs his teammates to show up defensively as well if they hope to advance.
San Jose State: Perimeter Defense
Say Moore is able to neutralize Williams, coach Linder has plenty of other scoring options (insert another 300 words on Xavier DuSell, Drake Jefferies or either Hunter here easily). His teammates need to step up and play perimeter defense against a Wyoming team who leads the conference in three-point field goals taken (28.3 per game) and made (9.9 per game).
Though the quality of the Spartan’s defensive efforts this season may be easy to question, with their opponents averaging 80.0 PPG. They defend the three rather well, holding their opponents to just 30.8% from deep, good enough for second in the conference just behind Colorado State.
For a team that likes to shoot it as much as the Cowboys do, if they aren’t falling they will definitely need some production in the paint from this next player to make up for it.
Wyoming: Graham Ike
Ike has had a very short but promising collegiate career since making his debut back on January 22nd against Nevada. In his ten appearances (five starts) the 6-9, 245 freshman is averaging 9.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG while shooting 55.1% from the field in just 19.8 MPG.
Like any underclassman getting acclimated to the college game, Ike has struggled with consistency during his time on the floor. But on two separate occasions has completely taken over, scoring 18-points in just 22 minutes of play against Nevada on January 24th. While more recently scoring 17-points and grabbing six boards in just 19-minutes against UNLV on Saturday.
His weakness you may ask, foul trouble, which plays a big part of him getting taken off of the floor. Averaging 3.6 per game, which places him second in the conference behind Air Force forward Nikc Jackson (4.0).
Ike has shown what he is capable of, with his combination of size, bounce and frame, but has also shown his inexperience just as often. Still with such a small sample size of a season, you might get either player on any given night. If he finds his scoring touch while staying on the floor just a bit longer than normal (season-high, 26 minutes w/3 fouls against Colorado State) he can advance this group to the next round.
Prediction: Wyoming 75, San Jose State 65
The KenPom line feels very accurate in this one and even though both squads are heading to Vegas with what appears to be fully healthy squads, I think the Cowboys bring the advantage.
I know things are different under a new coach, and March is built around those Cinderella style runs made by the underdogs. But majority of the squad that made that run is back, with some improvements and new additions I might add.
So barring the best defensive effort by the Spartans all season, I think Jeff Linder gets his first conference tournament win in the Mountain West before the Spartans do on Wednesday.
The winner of this first round matchup will face regular season conference champions San Diego State on Thursday. The second round matchup against who many consider to be the favorites to cut the nets down on Saturday is a tall task.
Hopefully, the victor saves some energy for the Aztecs and Mountain West Player of the Year Matt Mitchell (coaches honors) in the quarterfinals.
Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.