Mountain West Primed For March Madness Success?
Can the conference get its first ever Final Four team?
Andy Katz released 11 dark horse candidates to make the Final Four. Both San Diego State and Wyoming were mentioned at No. 4 and 6 respectively.
Both SDSU and Wyoming should be teams that make the NCAA Tournament. Both made it last season, and they seem to be improved heading into the 22-23 season. All four Mountain West teams that made it lost their first game. It wasn’t the best showing by the conference. A deep run by a team would help correct that.
Katz is seriously lacking in his explanations though, to the point where these picks look silly because of it. Semi-casual observers can be very confused by his picks, and his reasoning is why. Luckily, the writers at MWWire are more than casual observers.
For SDSU, he mentions the return of Bradley and Mensah lifting up the offense, ignoring that they were both present last season. Mensah specifically shouldn’t be counted on to lift anyone’s offense until proven otherwise.
Last season’s SDSU team had the second-best defense in the nation, returned all their key defensive players, and added a couple more great defensive players. It should surprise no one if they’re a top-5 defense again.
The real reason for optimism is the improved offense. The Aztecs were one made free throw away from advancing to the round of 32 last season. They couldn’t pull it off though. This season they added Darrion Trammell, who can score in bunches and will have even more of an impact as a facilitator. His ball handling and passing will make life easier for guys like Lamont Butler and Matt Bradley, increasing their efficiency and helping the offense score more. A top-5 defense combined with potentially a top-50 offense or better, has the tools to make a final four run.
Katz made similar remarks about Wyoming, claiming that the return of Ike and Maldonado makes them capable of making a final four. That reasoning ignores the fact that that duo barely got the team to the tournament. They were in the last four in. To make things worse, Wyoming lost the best shooter in the conference in Drake Jeffries. The only have two players on the roster who shot more than 35%+ from deep on more than 50 attempts last season.
There are reasons for optimism however. Maldonado and Ike should be able to at least keep the offense at about the level it was (67th in KenPom.) There gave also been rumors that Ike has added the deep ball to his bag. If true Ike becomes a borderline unstoppable player, as he is already one of the best post players in the country, and would now have opportunities to shoot open threes or attack closeouts for easy dunks. Wyoming also has a slew of players that are career 35% shooters from deep, just very few that accomplished that feat last year. Getting better accuracy from the perimeter will help guys like Maldonado and Ike see less double teams in the post.
Wyoming also added a bunch of size and defense in the transfer portal. Wyoming’s roster looks like the Aztec’s 2014 roster, or Nevada’s 2018 roster, where almost every player is 6’6″ or taller. The additions of Ethan Anderson and Max Agbonkpolo from USC should make the Cowboys defense even harder to score on. They were the 71st-ranked defense in KenPom last season, but should easily be top-50 or better with all the size and athleticism they have.
An equal or slightly improved offense combined with an improved defense should make Wyoming a threat in March. It is the opinion of this author that both SDSU and Wyoming should be picked to make the Sweet 16. They both seem to have rosters capable of that. As we’ve seen so many times, most recently with St. Peters last season, anything can happen once a team gets in the dance. While the odds of each of these teams making the final four aren’t equal, both seem to be capable when you take a deeper look. Katz didn’t do these teams a service with his analysis, but his conclusion is likely correct nonetheless.