NCAA Tournament First Round: Mountain West Preview

NCAA Tournament First Round: Mountain West Preview

Boise State

NCAA Tournament First Round: Mountain West Preview


NCAA Tournament First Round: Mountain West Preview

4 MWC teams are playing in the Big Dance. Here’s a brief look at each matchup. & @MWCwire

It’s the middle of March, and you know what that means. Time to fill out your brackets, be unproductive at work, and watch the greatest sporting event in the country from dawn to dusk on both Thursday and Friday. For fans of the Mountain West Conference, they get an added bonus, as they’ll have action on Wednesday night as well. They also corralled an impressive 4 bids for the second consecutive year. The trick now becomes winning one or more of these games, something they have struggled mightily to do the last several years. Nevada in 2018 is the last MWC team to win a game in the Big Dance, and last year’s 0-4 effort was a stain on the league’s reputation.

The four teams selected this season have an opportunity to reverse that narrative. There are similarities between the two years when looking at the seeds. Each had/has a team in a play-in game (Wyoming in 2022, Nevada in 2023), each had/has a fairly high seed (#6 Colorado State last year, #5 San Diego State this year), and each had/has two teams in toss-up games (#8 Boise State and #8 San Diego State a year ago, #10 Boise State and #10 Utah State currently). Got all that? Fans of those four teams and the conference hope the similarities end there. Let’s take a quick look at the strengths/weaknesses of the opponents the Mountain West teams will take on, listed in order of game time.


Nevada was a surprise entry in the tournament to some, who projected the Wolf Pack to be one of the first schools left out. But they will not apologize for being chosen, and in fact, teams in Nevada’s position have won play-in games before. To do that, they will have to reverse the late season swoon that almost cost them this spot.

An interesting storyline in this game is a pair of the Sun Devils starters. Desmond Cambridge Jr. and Warren Washington spent a few seasons with the Wolf Pack and now are major contributors for Bobby Hurley’s club. Cambridge is the leading scorer, though like his team as a whole, he does not shoot the ball well. In fact, ASU ranks low in most offensive statistical categories. They are here on the backs of their defense, and will try to make life miserable for Jarod Lucas and Kenan Blackshear. Washington and Will Baker are going to have a nice battle in the paint, and Pack defensive stopper Tre Coleman will be tasked with slowing down Cambridge. The Sun Devils like to force turnovers, but Nevada has been pretty solid taking care of the basketball. There also should be a few second chance buckets on offer, as ASU is a below average rebounding team. This one sets up as a defensive affair, with points at a premium. Like many play-in games recently it should also go right down to the wire. Lucas will try to channel his experience as an Oregon State Beaver two years ago when they made it all the way to the Elite Eight. That may be the difference here.

Prediction: Nevada 64 Arizona State 60

THURSDAY, MARCH 16TH – 11:40 AM MT, 10:40 AM PT

Despite falling in the conference tournament championship game, Utah State comes in as one of the hotter teams in the field. Their offense has been humming, and the defense has improved tremendously in the last two months. Head coach Ryan Odom should have fond memories of the NCAA Tournament – in his lone appearance, his UMBC team shocked the college basketball universe, becoming the first and only #16 seed to knock off a #1 seed (Virginia).

For an opponent, the Aggies draw Missouri, a super athletic club that likes to play fast and score points. That’s quite alright with Utah State. The Tigers were a surprise in the SEC this season under first year coach Dennis Gates. They lack size, and as a result, USU should have an edge on the glass, both Dan Akin and Trevin Dorius may be able to grab their share of offensive boards. Where the Tigers are dangerous is with their aggressive defense; they force a lot of turnovers and score plenty of points off of those turnovers. If Utah State takes care of the ball, that cuts off a massive source of Missouri offense.

We see a couple of advantages for Utah State. The first is in one of the Aggies strengths – shooting the ball. Missouri’s metrics grade out poorly in several important defensive areas, primarily effective field goal % defense and three-point % defense. Here is what is really striking about those numbers. The SEC this season, for as good as some of its teams are, is an abysmal shooting conference (anybody watch Mississippi State last night?). If Missouri’s defensive field goal % numbers are bad against teams that struggle to shoot, they are up against it when facing Ashworth, Funk, and company. One other thing that must be noted is the logistics at play; the game is in California, and yet for some reason (well we know the reason, it’s TV) this game tips off at 10:40 local time. That’s 10:40 AM. While Missouri is not on the east coast, they have not played a game west of Texas this season, and they may have a hard time getting their body clocks adjusted. On top of that they’ll be tipping off when they’d normally be having breakfast. They’ll figure it out eventually, but it still provides a bit of an edge for USU. The Tigers have great athletes and won’t fold, but this is one the Mountain West should get.

Prediction: Utah State 84 Missouri 75

THURSDAY, MARCH 16TH – 3:10 EST, 12:10 PT

Out of any of the four Mountain West teams to fall in the opening round a year ago, San Diego State probably has the worst nightmares. The Aztecs led the entire way, including by 8 with less than 3 minutes left, in a low scoring game nonetheless, but they could not hang on, and fell in overtime to Creighton. They returned much of their core, added a few pieces, and completed an impressive regular season/conference tournament double. Now it’s time to win in March, late March.

In front of them is one of the best stories of the season in college hoops – Coach Pat Kelsey and Charleston, who amassed an incredible 31-3 record. To win 31 of your 34 games is difficult no matter what, but there is no denying the lack of competition on the schedule. The Cougars defeated Virginia Tech, Colorado State, and tournament entry Kent State, but that’s about it, as their conference was pretty poor overall. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good and can’t play, it just means they aren’t as battle tested as most are. They like to play up-tempo, and they score 80 points a game.

This game does have a bit of the opposite travel impact that Utah State’s game does, as the Aztecs are traveling cross-country, while the Cougars and their supporters have just a 380 mile trip down I-95. However, there are a couple of marks in SDSU’s favor here, in addition to the edge in competition. Charleston obviously did many things well to finish with the record they finished with, but they were especially strong in a couple of areas. One is on the glass, they rebounded very well. They will have their hands full in that regard against the Aztecs, who dominate the boards themselves, and have an athletic advantage as well. The other area is their depth. The Cougars have nine players averaging between 15 and 28 minutes per game, and they wore many of their opponents out. They drew the wrong matchup for that edge to matter; SDSU also utilizes nine players, they all know their role, and they are not likely to be worn down. Charleston is feisty and will give max effort for 40 minutes, but they have not seen the pressure or athleticism that they will see here.

Prediction: San Diego State 70 Charleston 62

THURSDAY, MARCH 16TH – 5:35 MT, 4:35 PT

Boise State finds themselves in a first round toss-up for the second straight year. Last season they ran into a red-hot Memphis team, and dug too big of a hole to crawl out of. After sputtering a bit to the finish line, the Broncos will hope almost a full week off recharges the batteries and leads them to the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament victory.

Standing in their way is Northwestern, who was picked last in the Big Ten, but exceeded expectations, and is in making just their second appearance in the Big Dance. The Wildcats are a defense-first squad, holding their opponents to 62 ppg. They are not a particularly strong shooting team, but they do have two very good guards. Veterans Boo Buie and Chase Audige combine to average 31 points per game, nearly half of the teams output. The percentages from behind the arc are not great, but they find a way to score the ball. And if the game is close late, Northwestern is one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country; they will have five players on the floor that shoot above 80% from the line, impressive. The Wildcats are not very deep, but neither is Boise State, so that pretty much washes out. The Broncos may have a slight edge on the glass, and both teams protect the ball well. There is not a lot separating these two, and it’s likely to come down to who executes the best, and who makes the big shots. Fortunately for Boise State, they have Big Shot Shave in the holster, as Marcus Shaver has made numerous huge shots near the buzzer in his career. That may be required here, in what shapes up as a massive rock fight.

Prediction: Boise State 61 Northwestern 59




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