Mountain West Basketball: Chase for the Regular Season Championship

Mountain West Basketball: Chase for the Regular Season Championship

Boise State

Mountain West Basketball: Chase for the Regular Season Championship


Mountain West Basketball: Chase for the Regular Season Championship

Breakdown of the 5 contenders for MWC title & @MWCwire

Battle for the Conference Championship

Amazingly, six of the 10 weeks of league play are already complete in the Mountain West. Four weeks from today, the bracket will be set for the conference tournament in Vegas. College basketball and media nationwide have been talking about the incredible play from the teams at the top of a “mid-major” this season. Truthfully, those five teams at the top, and the rest of the MWC as a whole, have outperformed some of the power conferences in 2022-23 (looking at you ACC and Pac-12). As we get set for the stretch run, let’s take a look at those five contenders and their path to the regular season championship.

A couple of notes first. Obviously every game is important for each of these five. The six teams not in the mix all have the potential to play spoiler, and already have several wins over the top five, with many more near misses. The ‘key game’ is one that in most cases is virtually necessary for that team to win in order to have a chance at claiming the regular season crown. Also, they are listed in order of current league record, or in the case of teams 2-4, alphabetically.

San Diego State (current record 9-2)
Remaining schedule – at Utah State, vs. UNLV, at Fresno State, vs. Colorado State, at New Mexico, at Boise State, vs. Wyoming

Outlook: The preseason pick by the media, San Diego State has a one game lead, so that’s a nice head start. They are also coming off a statement win in a first place showdown with Boise State. But, they still must play 3 of the other 4 teams on this list at their place, so they are far from in the clear.

Key Game: 2/8 at Utah State. Wednesday night the Aztecs travel to Logan, where the Aggies are super difficult to beat; just ask New Mexico. If SDSU can pull off the road win, they’ll have a two game lead, and the tiebreaker over Utah State, all but eliminating the Aggies.

How they get it done: Consistency on the defensive end. Granted, Boise State was without its point guard Marcus Shaver, and Tyson Degenhart was in early foul trouble, but San Diego State was locked in defensively on Friday night, reminiscent of many Aztec squads of the past decade plus. Tuesday night Nevada shot 65% in the second half against that same defense, seemingly scoring every time down the floor in the last 10 minutes. Defense is supposed to travel, and with San Diego State’s 3 biggest games all on the road, it will have to make the trips, or this crown will go somewhere else.

Boise State (current record 8-3)
Remaining schedule – vs. Wyoming, at Colorado State, vs. UNLV, vs. New Mexico, at San Jose State, vs. San Diego State, at Utah State

Outlook: Not many outsiders had the Broncos as a serious threat after losing top end talent, yet here they are. They have a difficult last few weeks though, particularly the final 4 games, which include three games against the other top contenders, and a tricky trip to San Jose State, a team that took them to the buzzer earlier this year.

Key Game: 2/28 vs. San Diego State. They have to wait awhile, but Boise State will want to atone for Friday night’s beatdown at Viejas Arena. Like most of the teams in the title chase, BSU is much better at home. They’ll get their chance for payback right before the calendar turns to March.

How they get it done: Health. Nobody in the Mountain West relies on their starters and core guys for as much production as Boise State. Shaver has been banged up most of the season, and veteran glue guy Naje Smith just missed most of their mid-week game against Air Force with a leg injury. If Shaver misses more time, or is significantly less than 100%, it’s going to be very difficult for the Broncos to navigate their late-season schedule, no matter how well they play defense.

Nevada (current record 8-3)
Remaining schedule – at New Mexico, vs. Fresno State, at Utah State, vs. San Jose State, at Fresno State, at Wyoming, vs. UNLV

Outlook: Steve Alford has the Wolf Pack in the thick of a loaded MWC after a disappointing 2022. They have already completed their season series with Boise State and San Diego State, so many of their challenging tasks are behind them. But, and it’s a big but, they have been fairly poor away from the Lawlor Events Center. Four of their remaining seven are on the road, and anything less than 3-1 in those contests likely cooks their goose.

Key Game: 2/18 at Utah State. One of those four roadies is in Logan, and the Aggies will be looking for revenge, after Nevada blew open a tight game in early January to defeat Utah State going away. This will be a daunting challenge, but if the Wolf Pack can snag this one, they might be looking at a regular season championship.

How they get it done: Take the three-headed monster on the road. Jarod Lucas, Kenan Blackshear, and Will Baker are having outstanding seasons, but have been far more productive at home, which is partly why their road record is not good. Baker, for example, went from a 28 point night against New Mexico at home, to a 2 point night on the road at UNLV in the span of 4 days. Role players traditionally are not as effective in visiting arenas, so your stars gotta star.

Utah State (current record 8-3)
Remaining schedule – vs. San Diego State, at San Jose State, vs. Air Force, vs. Nevada, at Wyoming, at UNLV, vs. Boise State

Outlook: Utah State has seemingly flown under the radar, but they have a favorable schedule and they control their own destiny to claim a league title, with all 3 teams tied or ahead of them still visiting Logan. Similarly to Nevada though, the road has been a bugaboo. Those previously mentioned teams each defeated the Aggies by double-figures on their own home floors. Furthermore, Saturday night USU needed a remarkable 12 second-half made three-pointers to fend off a depleted Colorado State team that was down to six scholarship players because of injury. It would not be surprising at all to see Utah State sweep their remaining 4 home games. Can they go 2-1 away from The Spectrum? That may be enough.

Key Game: 3/1 at UNLV. This may seem like an odd choice, especially with 3 heavyweight matchups at home still to come, but the Rebels have the kind of aggressive, athletic lineup that can give the Aggies problems. In fact, they had a lead in the late stages a few weeks ago, before Steven Ashworth buried a three with 90 seconds left to propel Utah State to victory. Avoiding losses to the bottom half is just as important as winning games against the top half.

How they get it done: Commitment to defense. You could tell within 5 minutes on Wednesday night vs. New Mexico that Utah State was engaged defensively. That’s not always the case. The fact that they sustained it for 40 minutes was impressive. If they can do that for four more weeks, with their schedule and offensive firepower, this might be your regular season champ.

New Mexico (current record 6-4)
Remaining schedule – vs. Nevada, at Air Force, vs. Wyoming, at San Jose State, at Boise State, vs. San Diego State, vs. Fresno State, at Colorado State

Outlook: The Lobos are ahead of schedule in year two of a massive rebuild by Richard Pitino. They started fast, and were the last remaining unbeaten in the country. They also are the only one of these five teams to boast a road win over one of the other contenders (at SDSU). The problem is, they have not one, but two bad losses (at Fresno State, vs. UNLV). That will likely prevent them from claiming a share of the crown, as they trail 4 teams in the standings. Additionally, they have 8 games to play, whereas the teams above them will have an off date built in and only have 7 left to play.

Key Game: 2/7 vs. Nevada. There is virtually no margin for error left for the Lobos, so they need to get their stretch run started by winning this revenge matchup on Tuesday night. These two played a classic in Reno two weeks ago that went double OT. There was controversy at the end of the game, but the Wolf Pack scored the ball too easily in that one, and UNM will have to tighten up their D. The Pit should be rocking on Tuesday night, as the Lobos look to avenge the earlier defeat to old friend/current foe Alford. Drop this one, and New Mexico can forget about winning the conference title, and instead focus their efforts on winning enough games to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.

How they get it done: Recharge Jaelen House. Through the first few weeks of conference play, House was an easy choice for MWC POY. He has cooled off a bit though and would be down the ballot if the award were voted on now. His boundless energy has seemingly been reduced to occasional 2-3 minute bursts of high flying play, followed by periods of inactivity. As the head of the snake, House must stay engaged, be on the attack, and cause havoc defensively.

Down the Stretch

The Mountain West action has been top-notch since night one in league play, and that’s unlikely to change through early March. There are really no freebies, even if it’s one of these five going against someone in the bottom tier. That’s what makes this race so interesting and fun to follow. Whoever gets to hang a banner will have earned it, and it’s certainly possible we have two (or three) teams tied atop the standings when it’s all said and done. We’ll update the race in two weeks after we’ve been able to thin the herd. Then again, the way the conference has gone, at that point all five teams will probably be within one game of each other. And we wouldn’t want it any other way. Enjoy the weeks ahead!!



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