The Mountain West tournament gets underway with two major storylines: can anyone stop San Diego State and will the Aztecs cap off a stellar regular season with a conference title and top seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament?
Tournament schedule (all times Pacific)
All games will be played at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV.
First Round (March 4)
Quarterfinals (March 5)
Air Force/Fresno State vs #1 San Diego State, 11:30am, CBS Sports Network
San Jose State/New Mexico vs #2 Utah State, 6:00, CBS Sports Network
Wyoming/Colorado State vs #3 Nevada, 8:30, CBS Sports Network
Semifinals (March 6)
Game 4 winner vs Game 5 winner, 6:00, CBS Sports Network
Game 6 winner vs Game 7 winner, 8:30, CBS Sports Network
Final (March 7)
Semifinal winners, 2:30, CBS
San Diego State looked set for an undefeated regular season until their lone slip-up 11 days ago at home to UNLV. The Aztecs are still the class of the conference, first in scoring defense (59.2 ppg allowed), scoring margin (+16.2), field goal defense (38.3%), 3-point field goal defense (28.8%), turnover margin (+3.21), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.36). Malachi Flynn is the heart of the team, picking up Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Forward Matt Mitchell also garnered first-team all-conference honors with averages of 12.4 points and 4.8 rebounds a game as well as being a deadly shooter as evidenced by his 47.9 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from three-point range. Yanni Wetzell was third on the team in scoring (11.6 ppg), tied for first in rebounding (6.4) and tops in field goal percentage (59.8). Brian Dutcher was honored with the Coach of the Year award.
There are three teams that have a slight chance of upsetting San Diego State. Second seed Utah State, winners of six of their last sveen games, looks to defend their title led by last year's Mountain West Player of the Year and first-team all-conference performer Sam Merrill. The senior guard put up averages of 18.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game while also nailing 40.8 percent of his three-point attempts and 90.1 percent from the free throw line.
Third seed Nevada is paced by the dynamic backcourt of Jalen Harris and Jazz Johnson Jr. Harris is the conference's leading scorer at 25.3 points a game and can hit from long distance (41.4%). Johnson raised his scoring average from 11.0 in his junior year to 15.0 in his senior campaign and is also a fine three-point shooter at 39.8 percent as they paced the league's highest scoring offense (77.3 ppg) and best three-point shooting team (38.4%).
Fourth seed UNLV has the advantage of hosting the conference tournament and has that victory over San Diego State as part of a five-game winning streak to end the regular season. Elijah Long and Amauri Hardy combined for 36 in the February 22nd game in San Diego. Bryce Hamilton played one game for the Runnin' Rebels last year, but is a first-team all-league performer this year, leading the team at 15.8 points per game.
Who will win the tournament?
This is about as obvious as any conference tournament prediction all postseason long. San Diego State is playing for more than a conference title. A #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and likely placement in the West Regional would make their path to a national championship that much easier. Are they unbeatable? If this season has taught us anything, it's that no one is.
Utah State is an excellent team and has the experience of winning the conference tournament last season. Merrill is the type of guard that can carry a team through a tournament like this as he looks to end his career in March Madness (the Aggies are in contention for an at-large berth). Ditto for Nevada's backcourt of Harris and Johnson. A potential semifinal between the Aggies and Wolf Pack would be thrilling entertainment, but might prove to be costly in the final should they play a close game as would be expected.
The wild card is UNLV. With a potential semifinal against San Diego State on their home floor and the confidence of beating the Aztecs just 11 days ago, the Runnin' Rebels are perhaps the biggest challenge to Dutcher's squad despite not being as good as Utah State or Nevada. Still, it's hard to see anyone topping San Diego State. The Aztecs will continue their path to Atlanta with a conference title.
Prediction: San Diego State def. Nevada