The Mountain West has entrenched itself as one of the more exciting leagues in collegiate basketball, so it’s high time to be doing a weekly look around how the conference is going. Mondays are as good a time as any to refresh things and figure out where everyone stands.
This new weekly installment will be a collection of standings, power rankings, check-ins on races for end-of-season awards along with highlighting the risers and fallers of the league. There will even be a weekly look at bracketology for the entire conference. It’ll be a one-stop shop for a summary of the Mountain West week-by-week. A lot of it is my opinion but mixed in are some objective metrics I have not control over.
Let’s get started.
We’ll get to power rankings in a moment, but here are the standings as they sit now. I’ll also put AP Poll ranks next to applicable teams, including teams who received votes (the “received votes” teams will have a number in parenthesis denoting where they’d rank if you extended the AP Poll beyond the top 25 teams).
|#17 Utah State
|#19 New Mexico
|(27) San Diego State
|(34) Boise State
|(31) Colorado State
|San Jose State
Those who follow me on social media will have seen my weekly posts where I take a large handful of computer rankings from around the web and average them out to see what the consensus is when it comes to the best teams in the Mountain West. Here seems like the perfect place to recycle that work. For full transparency, there are eight rankings I draw from — KenPom, Haslemetrics, TeamRankings, EvanMiya, ESPN’s BPI, Sports Reference’s SRS, NET, and T-Rank.
Walker’s Mountain West Power Rankings
- New Mexico
- Utah State
- San Diego State
- Boise State
- Colorado State
- San Jose State
- Fresno State
- Air Force
My own power rankings differ in a few key ways from the consensus computer ones. Right now I’d put New Mexico at the top as they’re absolutely rolling, even with concerns over how they’ll handle road games taken into consideration. For now, I’ll also put Utah State at second since I’d have a hard time putting the team currently first in the standings any lower than that (but it’s also hard to put San Diego State third, so there’s that).
I’m also being far less forgiving to Colorado State and their fall from grace, but also a little more forgiving to Boise State and its loss to the Aggies and narrow win over Fresno State. For a moment, I considered moving Wyoming above UNLV, but I don’t think the Cowboys are too much of a threat outside Arena-Auditorium (granted they’re a big threat inside of it) so even though the Rebels are inconsistent, they’re higher on my list.
The Lobos blasted back-to-back opponents by 20+ points – San Jose State (95-75) and Nevada (89-55) – emphasizing a seemingly unstoppable offense that’s now scored 85 or more points in five straight games (a stretch where they’ve played three teams with a defenses that rank 51st or better in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency). Those two great victories made the conference’s weekly awards a virtual guarantee to be swept by the Lobos, and lo and behold, Jaelen House earned Player of the Week with JT Toppin claiming his third straight Freshman of the Week honor.
New Mexico rose to No. 19 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll, the highest the team has been ranked by the AP since the final poll of the 2013-14 season where it finished 17th. The Lobos will get another chance to flex its muscles when it hosts Boise State on Wednesday, but one thing of note to keep an eye on with the Lobos is how it will handle going on the road against the best of the Mountain West. The top six team in the Mountain West they’ve played on the road is Colorado State and they dropped that one 76-68 (UNM also lost at UNLV 83-73). They’ll go on the road to face Nevada, San Diego State, Boise State and Utah State in the final month of the season for what will be a truly daunting gauntlet.
The Cowboys have now pulled off two surprises in conference play, the most recent example being a win over then-No. 24 Colorado State in overtime. That’s now two of the top teams in the conference Wyoming has taken down at home (Nevada, which they beat 99-93, being the other team). They’re not likely to threaten too many teams on the road (they’ve lost by at least 16 points in road games at New Mexico, Utah State and San Diego State) but Wyoming’s high-elevation, home-court advantage is becoming one of the more dangerous venues for top Mountain West teams.
While not as dominant as the Lobos, the Aggies got some vindication of their own, silencing a few more critics with an impressive win at Boise State. It added a Quad 1 victory to USU’s resume, though that is countered by its win over Colorado State dropping into Quad 2 since the Rams fell this week (see more below).
Although not universally seen as the top team in the conference by most rankings (often not even top two in quite a few), Utah State is in a fantastic position when it comes to making a run at the regular season Mountain West title. It’s already gone to Boise State and New Mexico, and after playing San Diego State in Viejas Arena this upcoming Saturday, the Aggies will play just one road game against the rest of the top six in the conference (at Colorado State) and will get to host the Broncos, Lobos, Aztecs and Wolf Pack.
Just as the Rams had found a way to get themselves back in the AP Top 25, jumping back in at No. 24 in last week’s poll, they managed to collapse again, going 0-2 this past week. The loss at Nevada wasn’t the most surprising but the defeat at the hands of Wyoming certainly was. That loss probably has a lot more to do with why Colorado State went from being ranked 24th, to appearing on just one AP ballot in this week’s poll.
It’s more than a little staggering that just a little under two months ago, Colorado State were ranked 13th in the AP Poll and the seeming frontrunners for the Mountain West but are now tied for sixth in the conference and sitting behind Wyoming in the standings.
Last year Rice finished as one of the better guards in a conference filled to the brim with great guards. He was Second Team All-Mountain West and expected to be a key part of Boise State’s squad picked to finish second in a stacked conference. But while the Broncos are mostly living up to its preseason billing, Rice hasn’t exactly done the same.
As noted by Jay Tust of KTVB, of the 798 players that have attempted at least 70 shots in conference play thus far, Rice ranks 794th in field goal percentage. Rice has gone 22 of 77 (28.6%) from the field overall and 12 of 43 (27.9%)from 3-point range.
There are 798 players that have attempted at least 70 shots in conference player this year.
794) .286 – Max Rice, #BoiseState
795) .276 – Jeremiah Oden, DePaul
796) .276 – Dylan Andrews, UCLA
797) .273 – Devon Savage, Merrimack
798) .260 – Jalen Cone, Cal#TuSTATS pic.twitter.com/LsM6V7fHMt
— Jay Tust (@KTVBSportsGuy) January 29, 2024
It should probably be considered impressive that the Broncos are winning as much as they are despite the shooting struggles of their top guard. And if Rice climbs anywhere close to his efficiency numbers of last season (43.4 percent overall and 40.9 percent from three) then the rest of the conference will start sweating bullets.
It may feel like a more distant memory since there have been more upsets and amazing basketball games, but less than a week ago the Rebels were involved in what could be awarded as the worst preparation for a game in conference history. UNLV was seemingly on a roll, being fueled by a cruel last-second loss to Utah State to a victory at Boise State that snapped the Bronco’s 22-game home winning streak and a narrow loss at Colorado State. The Rebels had gone from being in a tier below the top six teams in the conference then all of a sudden, UNLV was gob-smacked by Air Force to the tune of 32 points. At home no less. The Falcons were winless in conference play prior to that game (and remain winless vs MW teams aside from that win at this moment). Apparently, the Rebels just weren’t ready for the unique style Air Force brings to the court. Just watch a highlight reel of that game and you’ll see just how many times UNLV got back-cut for wide open layups.
The Rebels did recover some of their pride with a 77-65 win at San Jose State, but that loss to Air Force will haunt UNLV throughout the season.
End of Season Awards Races
Player of the Year
- Jaedon LeDee (SDSU)
- Great Osobor (Utah State)
- Jaelen House (New Mexico)
There’s probably justification to make this list bigger to just include the top players from each of the top six teams, but right now these are not only the three best players, in my opinion, but they’re also on the three top teams currently. So while it’s worth noting Isaiah Stevens, Tyson Degenhart and Kenan Blackshear as top players, right now it’s a three horse race between LeDee, Osobor and House and you could honestly list those three in any order and I wouldn’t call you crazy.
Defensive Player of the Year
- Jaelen House (New Mexico)
- Kenan Blackshear (Nevada)
- JT Toppin (New Mexico)
It’s hard not to put multiple players from New Mexico on this ranking since they’re stacked with great defenders that have helped give the Lobos one of top defenses. For now, House is at the top as the steals leader at nearly three per game, Toppin leads the conference in blocks and Blackshear is quietly one of the best defenders in the league himself.
Newcomer of the Year
- Great Osobor (Utah State)
- O’Mar Stanley (Boise State)
- Ian Martinez (Utah State)
Utah State has a bit of an unfair advantage in this award seeing as all but two of their players are eligible for the award so whichever player led the way for the Aggies this season was always going to be a top candidate. Heck, even Darius Brown could be squeezed into the conversation for the award instead of or alongside Martinez. But it’s pretty clear that Osobor is the frontrunner. He’s third in the league in points, first in rebounds and is near the top in numerous statistical categories. He’s a candidate for the Player of the Year award so naturally he’s going to get high consideration here.
Freshman of the Year
- JT Toppin (New Mexico)
- Mason Falslev (Utah State)
- Tru Washington (New Mexico)
There hasn’t been a freshman as dominant as Toppin in this conference since Neemias Queta back in 2018. Toppin has been a perfect replacement for Morris Udeze, and in some ways he’s been even better despite his youth.
Coach of the Year
- Danny Sprinkle (USU)
- Richard Pitino (New Mexico)
- Brian Dutcher (San Diego State)
As deserving as Pitino would be in virtually every other season for COY, you couldn’t possibly give the award to anyone other than Sprinkle at this point. The reasons why have been discussed to death, but it can be said at least one more time. A coach that had to rebuild an entire roster and was picked to finish ninth in one of the toughest conferences in the country has his team in first place in said conference several weeks in. He can be considered nothing less than the runaway winner of the award at this point.
There’s been a lot of pushing from the mid-major crowd, and especially Mountain West fans, for the conference to be a six-bid league. At times this hype has been matched by the bracketology community, who’s collective projections for the NCAA Tournament are collected on BracketMatrix.com. As of Jan. 26, the most recent update from the site, there are 80 brackets publicly published, including the likes of notable bracketologists like ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS’ Jerry Palm.
Here is what the consensus of all the collected brackets says about teams from the Mountain West being in the NCAA Tournament.
In the Tournament
- San Diego State – 5 seed (in on 80/80 brackets)
- Colorado State – 6 seed (80/80)
- Utah State – 6 seed (80/80)
- New Mexico – 8 seed (78/80)
- Boise State – 10 seed (73/80)
Outside Looking In
- Nevada – First Four Out (29/80)