2023 Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview

2023 Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview

Who will win it all?

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MWMadness starts on Wednesday

As promised, the Mountain West regular season was filled with chaos, and it’s not going to stop soon. Last season, with the conference’s triumphant return to the ranks of four-bid leagues, the tournament was everything it purported to be. This year, after another successful campaign, the tournament, once again, promises madness. 

Of course, in the wild west, the madness doesn’t wait until March to commence. Only one team, San Diego State, the preseason favorite, ended up where they were predicted to be. Wyoming, picked as the runner-up, finished last, down nine spots. Utah State, Nevada, and San Jose State were all up five spots from where they were predicted to finish, and Colorado State was down four spots. 

The mayhem that is Mountain West Basketball, as usual, sculpted an interesting landscape in the west. 

Wyoming seems least equipped to make a tournament run. The Cowboys were harassed by injuries all season and after winning only four conference games, the off-season might come as a welcome reprieve. Luckily it’s probably just a game away.

Air Force managed only five wins against conference opponents and is currently on a three-game losing streak. Although Air Force improved this season and had its best record since 2014-15, the Falcons also appear to be a game away from the off-season. 

After going undefeated in non-conference play, and becoming the final unbeaten team in the nation, New Mexico fell to a sixth-place finish. For the Lobos, it was a painful reminder of how difficult the gauntlet of league play can be in the Mountain West. For everyone else, it was an exciting reminder of how fun and unpredictable the gauntlet of league plan can be in the Mountain West. 

The much-improved Spartans have a three-game winning streak coming into the tournament. San Jose State has notched wins against Boise State and Utah State with a sweep against UNLV on the way to their first overall winning record since 2010-11 and their first winning conference record since 1995-96. San Jose State also posted the best overall record since 1976-77

While San Jose State is heating up, Nevada might be running out of gas. The Wolf Pack is certainly showing signs of slowing down. Despite an unexpectedly explosive season, Nevada has a two-game losing streak and has lost three of the final five games. 

After starting the season with nine wins in a row, Utah State is on a roll again. With five straight wins, including wins against Nevada, at UNLV, and against Boise, the Aggies are the hottest team in the league coming into the tournament.

After dropping a game at Boise State, San Diego State bounced back to beat Wyoming to close out the season. Before that loss, the Aztecs had a six-game win streak that lasted nearly the entire month of February and included wins against Boise State, Utah State, UNLV, and New Mexico.

With that unique background, the 11 Mountain West meet in the desert to find their path to the championship game. 

Where some conferences meticulously design their tournaments to protect their flagship programs, the Mountain West is different. The Mountain West bracket might not be intentionally engineered to maximize entertainment value, but that may as well be. The bracket features two guaranteed matchups between consecutive seeds, the first-round game between the 8 and 9-seeds and the quarterfinal game between the 4 and 5.

The top three teams, San Diego State, Boise State, and Utah State all await their opponents. The top seed, San Diego State is the clear favorite, but the Aztecs need to be careful not to count their chips while they’re sitting at the table. 

Because of the way the bracket is formatted, the most formidable adversaries are lurking on the other side of the bracket. San Diego State wouldn’t face Boise State, one of the only teams to beat the Aztecs this year, or Utah State, the analytics darling, until the final game. 

But even with the second and third-place teams on the other side of the bracket, the Aztecs could encounter a dangerous rival before the championship game. In the first round, Colorado State and Fresno State will battle for the chance to play San Diego State in the quarterfinals. The 8 and 9-seed respectively, have an identical 6-12 record in Mountain West play, while overall, the 14-17 record for the Rams, has a slight edge on the 11-19 record for the Bulldogs. In reality, both teams have talent and are much better than their records would indicate, but both are lacking the weapons needed to down the Aztecs. While San Diego State’s first matchup is favorable, their second matchup could be sneakily tough.

In the semifinals, the Aztecs would be forced to play a team with a winning record. In the Mountain West, seeding can be deceiving. Both the 4 and the 5-seed have winning records in conference play and overall. Both teams have also proven that they can beat anybody in the conference. The Mountain West is a lawless den of anarchy, after all. 

The quarterfinal matchup between Nevada and San Jose State should be an interesting one. The two teams could not be more different. For years, Nevada has enjoyed success in the Mountain West, while San Jose State has been the jester of the league. The Wolf Pack is trying not to stall out, while the Spartans have momentum. Nevada is trying to honor a well-established winning legacy, while the Spartans are looking to create a new one. 

If the Aztecs face the Wolf Pack, they will be facing a team with 23 wins looking to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament. If they face the Spartans, they would be facing a red-hot San Jose State team on a four-game win streak. For the former, a win against the Aztecs would once again return them to the championship game and might be enough to vault them into the tournament. For the latter, it would result in the first-ever trip to the championship game and would be a crucial building block for a rebuilding program. The Aztecs should easily win regardless of the opponent, but could just as easily fall to either.

On the other side of the bracket, if Boise State and Utah State meet, which they should, the winner will advance to the Championship game. The teams split in the regular season and seem to be a worthy match for one another. But, both teams have to get to the semifinals first. 

Boise State will play the winner of the first-round matchup between UNLV and Air Force while Utah State awaits the winner between New Mexico and Wyoming. 

The Broncos shouldn’t have trouble beating either team, although facing UNLV in the Thomas & Mack Center is not a fate to be envied. UNLV is about as good as a 7-seed can be. The Rebels should win handily, but the Falcons could certainly sneak by. If Air Force has a win in them, however, it’s probably the only one.

Like UNLV, New Mexico is really good for their seed and has no business losing to Wyoming. The Lobos should be the team to advance to meet Utah State in the quarterfinals and could cause a problem for the Aggies once there. Utah State would have the advantage, but New Mexico is not a team to be overlooked. Like the Falcons, the Cowboys might be capable of a win, but not two. 

The top three against the field carry the overwhelming odds, in a city like Las Vegas, even the best odds don’t mean much. This hasn’t been Wyoming’s year and Air Force just isn’t ready. Fresno State and Colorado State have too much work to do, but outside of those four teams, no one should be counted out. Nevada, San Jose State, New Mexico, and UNLV are dangerous teams and could easily threaten the top teams. 

Once again, for the perennial hoops powerhouse San Diego State, the tournament is only a matter of seeding. San Diego State’s invitation to the Big Dance is already signed, sealed, and nearly delivered. Balancing the importance of staying healthy with the intense competitiveness the Aztecs carry will be tricky. It’s not like the Aztecs to take a day off, but if San Diego State can’t pull off the balancing act, it might be an opportunity for a hungrier team. 

Boise State, as well, enjoys the same luxury, although to a lesser degree. With the Broncos practically guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament, they too, have bigger priorities. Of course, the Broncos aren’t any more likely to throw a game than the Aztecs, but if they miscalculate their priorities, they could be vulnerable as well. 

Utah State’s resume is impressive but has some blemishes. The Aggies suffered two Quad 4 losses, proving they aren’t infallible. It might be tough to beat Utah State, but it’s not impossible. The Aggies, however, don’t share the same peace of mind enjoyed by the Aztecs and Broncos. They might be in already, but the Aggies are still looking to lock up a surefire invitation. 

So, the tournament is San Diego State’s to lose, but it won’t be easy, even for the Aztecs. If the Aztecs do what they are capable of, they should be able to take care of business and retake the Mountain West crown. However, even for the best teams, Vegas has a small margin of error. Small mistakes lead to going home early.

The Mountain West Tournament is one of the most entertaining events on the calendar. But as the ancient proverb says, all good things must come to an end. The Mountain West tournament will give way to an even bigger tournament. When the dust settles and a victor is crowned, the job is not finished. In fact, for the deserving Mountain West teams, the job is just beginning, and teams will be tasked with kicking the nasty habit of Mountain West march meltdowns.


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Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire