Mountain West Conference Tournament: Opening Round Preview
3 games on Wednesday kick off the Mountain West Conference Tournament. Here’s a look.
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What: Mountain West Conference Tournament Opening Round
When: Wednesday, March 8th – 11:00 AM PT, 1:30 PT, 4:00 PT
Where: Thomas & Mack Center; Las Vegas, NV
How to Watch: All 3 games can be Livestreamed on the Mountain West Network
After an absolutely thrilling two and a half months of conference play, all 11 men’s basketball teams will converge on the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for the 2023 Mountain West Conference Tournament. With regular season champion San Diego State the only team really guaranteed to be in the 68 team field announced on Sunday night, every other program is fighting for their postseason life.
The true bubble teams (Boise State, Utah State, Nevada) don’t hit the court until the quarterfinals on Thursday, but first we have three competitive and intriguing games on Wednesday. Let’s take a quick look at the three with some thoughts on the matchup and each team’s potential to make a run to the weekend. Note the early start times; that is to accommodate the women’s tournament which will hold their championship game on Wednesday night.
Game 1: 11:00 AM PT – #9 Fresno State Bulldogs (11-19, 6-12) vs. #8 Colorado State Rams (14-17, 6-12)
Expected Point Spread: Colorado State -3
The tournament opens with the 8-9 game and two teams that underperformed a bit this year. Colorado State has dealt with injuries to multiple key contributors going all the way back to the preseason, but head coach Niko Medved has had the same 9 man rotation in the lineup for the last 3 weeks, so that provides some much needed continuity. The Rams of course, possess one of the best guards in the country in Isaiah Stevens, who enjoyed a memorable senior night last Friday in a win over New Mexico. Their problem has been a lack of consistent scoring to help Stevens. The defense has been leaky at times as well.
Defense cannot be blamed for Fresno State’s shortcomings. The Bulldogs defend as well as anyone in the Mountain West, but for much of the season they couldn’t hit water from a boat when firing from the perimeter. That’s what makes Saturday’s game one of the great anomalies of the entire season. As a team, Fresno State made 21-32 three-pointers, and Jemarl Baker Jr. himself connected on 10-11 for 43 points. Context must be given, as they were playing Chicago State, an independent playing their final game of the season, and maybe just out for a little vacation in the lovely Silicon Valley. Still, had the Bulldogs shot anywhere near that the last couple months they would have a few more wins for sure.
Colorado State won both meetings between the teams this year, winning easily in Fort Collins in early January, before a last second victory in Fresno a few weeks ago. Both teams have reasons to think they can give top seeded San Diego State problems in the quarters if they can get by this contest – the Rams took the Aztecs to overtime in January, while the Bulldogs lost a 45-43 rock fight in mid-February. This is Stevens last hurrah, and as one of the best players in the conference’s history, he will attempt to will his team deep into the weekend. But the hunch here is there’s some carryover from Fresno State’s offensive explosion, and the better defensive team comes away with the W.
Prediction: Fresno State 69 Colorado State 64
Game 2: 1:30 PT – #10 Air Force Falcons (14-17, 5-13) vs. #7 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (18-12, 7-11)
Expected Point Spread: UNLV -8
The middle game of the day features UNLV taking on Air Force. With the tournament taking place on their home floor, the Runnin’ Rebels will be a trendy pick to play spoiler and possibly steal a bid from a bubble team by claiming the conference’s automatic bid, especially on the heels of Saturday’s dramatic come from behind overtime win in Reno against rival Nevada. The Rebels trailed by 8 with less than 2 minutes left before some late heroics. It was quite the turnaround from Wednesday’s lifeless performance on Senior Night against Utah State, when UNLV gave up the last 12 minutes and were run off Jerry Tarkanian court by 25 points.
Air Force has improved tremendously under Joe Scott. The problem is, the Mountain West is really good, and it’s not easy to show tangible progress. They were not within 2 possessions of the top 4 teams in any of their regular season meetings, so they’re not quite ready for that type of breakthrough, but the talent has been upgraded and the Falcons are no longer an easy victory, they make you work for it. The next step comes from closing out games. They lost their last 3 outings by a total of 8 points, and blew late leads in 2 of them.
One of those 3 games was the only meeting of the season between these two. It was not an aesthetically pleasing game – the Falcons shot 39%, the Rebels 41%, and there were a combined 33 turnovers. UNLV snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a late EJ Harkless steal and bucket. Expect a bit more offense in this one, but we should still get a close game. The mid-afternoon Wednesday tip-off against AF is not likely to provide much of a home court advantage, and the Falcons hang around against just about everybody. If the Rebels don’t come prepared, their stay as host will be a short one. Eventually, it says here they will survive to Thursday, where they’ll present a tricky matchup for Boise State.
Prediction: UNLV 72 Air Force 67
Game 3: 4:00 PT – #11 Wyoming Cowboys (9-21, 4-14) vs. #6 New Mexico Lobos (21-10, 8-10)
Expected Point Spread: New Mexico -10
Wyoming and New Mexico will complete the opening day men’s tripleheader. For New Mexico, they know what’s in front of them; win 4 games in 4 days, or prepare for a home game at The Pit in the NIT. The Lobos have truly been one of the most entertaining teams in the country this season. Between packed houses at one of the best venues in the sport, a couple of star players (and a coach) with familiar last names, and some of the finishes to outstanding games, there has been no shortage of excitement for UNM fans. Of course, with some of that excitement has come heartbreak. Can they summon one final run to reward the large Lobo faithful expected to travel to Vegas?
Much like Colorado State, Wyoming has been snakebit by injuries, including to star forward Graham Ike, who has not suited up once for the Cowboys after a dominating 2021-22 campaign. Also like the Rams, Wyoming has one of the programs all-time best closing out his career in Hunter Maldonado. The 6th year senior was one rebound shy of a triple-double in his final home game last Monday against Nevada. Despite the injuries and dismissal of several other contributors (though that likely helped instead of hurt), this team has stuck together and played hard all season, a testament to head coach Jeff Linder.
These teams split two games, as UNM escaped Laramie with a one-point win on New Year’s Eve, before Wyoming drilled the Lobos in The Pit a few weeks ago. Jaelen House didn’t play, but his teammates didn’t really show up either, in what was by far their worst effort of the season. The Cowboys like to fire from deep, and with Maldonado creating open looks for his teammates and the overall length of Wyoming, this isn’t a great matchup for New Mexico. There isn’t a team in the field that the Lobos can’t beat, but they will have their hands full to win 4 straight, as they do not utilize much of a bench and the legs will be heavy later in the week. We have seen stranger things though, and a deep run by this group would surprise no one. They’ll have to work for it on Wednesday, but despite Maldonado’s best efforts, they should advance to a juicy matchup with Utah State late on Thursday night.
Prediction: New Mexico 81 Wyoming 74