Mountain West Watch Mar. 18 — NCAA Tournament preview – Cache Valley Daily

San Diego State’s forward Jay Pal (4) dunks near Utah State’s Great Osobor (1), Javon Jackson (22) and Mason Falslev (12) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference men’s tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill)

The Mountain West received its dream of becoming a six-bid league for the first time ever. Each of San Diego State, Utah State, Boise State, Colorado State, Nevada and New Mexico made it into the NCAA Tournament. It showcases the growth and strength of the conference. And despite USU’s loss in the Mountain West conference tournament semifinal, the Aggies still found themselves ranked in the AP Top 25 Monday morning, dropping two spots to #20. Joining the Aggies in the rankings are the San Diego State Aztecs, jumping back into the Top 25 at #24. Other Mountain West Conference teams received votes in the poll but did not make the top 25, including New Mexico (effectively ranked 26th), Nevada (28th), Boise State (37th) and Colorado State (42nd).

But while the selection committee felt bound to award the Mountain West with six bids (and despite the solid votes from the Associated Press), it did not see fit to do any additional favors to the conference. Five of the six teams from the MW were under-seeded based on projections from bracketologists. In fact, the five most under-seeded teams according to those same projections were, in order, Nevada, Boise State, Utah State, Colorado State and New Mexico.

NCAA Seeding for Mountain West (Projected, Actual)

  • San Diego State (5, 5)
  • Utah State (6, 8)
  • Nevada (7, 10)
  • Boise State (8, 10)
  • Colorado State (9, 10)
  • New Mexico (9, 11)

“I was really surprised how most of the Mountain West was seeded,” Colorado State head coach Niko Medved told media. “I’m not the expert or anything, but I think if you talk to the hundreds of people who do the bracketology, they really had all the Mountain West teams seeded higher. But you know what? That’s fine. They always disrespect our league and now it’s time to go out and do something about it.”

A somewhat shocking tidbit of reporting that emerged after the bracket reveal is that New Mexico would not have made the bracket without winning the Mountain West Tournament. And while the Lobos had been on the bubble, their resume should have been good enough to ensure getting in after wins over Boise State and Colorado State to get to the conference tournament final. It’s what pretty much most of the national media and virtually every bracketologist felt going into Saturday.

So far, most of the outrage over the seeding has come from outside the teams. Medved’s comments were about as fiery as it got from the teams, although Boise State’s reaction to being one of the most under-seeded teams of all is worth noting. Utah State guard Darius Brown echoed the feeling of surprise, but told media he wasn’t disappointed by it.

On “The Field of 68” live stream reaction to the bracket, multiple people on the stream, including Jeff Goodman and Kevin Sweeney, were very vocal about their displeasure over the Mountain West’s seeding.

“I am not happy about the Mountain West here,” Goodman said on the stream. “They got tremendously under-seeded through and through. I’ve seen that league. Nevada as a 10 is a joke. Colorado State in the play-in is a joke”

Outrage aside, it’s time for a preview into each of the teams and their respective matchups. We’ll go in chronological order by when the teams play for each of these.

#10 Colorado State vs #10 Virginia

  • When: Tuesday, March 19 | 7:10 p.m. MT
  • Where: UD Arena (Dayton, OH) – SOUTH Region
  • How to Watch: truTV

Last Matchup: First-ever meeting

This isn’t the same Virginia that was a one seed four times in a six-year span, including a national championship in 2019. Nor is it even the team that was a four seed just last year. This year’s Cavaliers were a bit of a shell of its normal self under long-time head coach Tony Bennett. But it’s still a team capable of holding its own and did just as much by finishing third in the always tough ACC.

Bennett’s teams always play slow and have elite defense and the Cavaliers have not deviated from that in the slightest. Virginia ranks 362nd, AKA dead last, in KenPom’s adjusted tempo and seventh in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The combination of slow pace and suffocating defense has given the Cavaliers the third-best scoring defense, allowing just 59.6 per game. They’re also only one of two teams this season to not allow any opponent to score 80 or more points.

Where the Rams find their biggest advantage is their balance in offense and defense. They rank inside the top 45 in both KenPom’s offensive and defensive metrics while Virginia is barely in the top 200 in offensive efficiency in the same metrics. The Cavaliers have often paired efficient (even if low-scoring because of pace) offense with its fantastic defense to continuously win games by scoring in the mid-60s and holding opponents to the low-60s or even below 60. That offense just simply hasn’t been there and Virginia has been held to 55 or fewer points eight times, tied for the third-most of such games in the Bennett era.

#10 Boise State vs #10 Colorado

  • When: Wednesday, March 20 | 7:10 p.m. MT
  • Where: UD Arena (Dayton, OH) – SOUTH Region
  • How to Watch: truTV

Last Matchup: 2022, BSU won 68-55 (BSU leads series 1-0 all-time)

The only other meeting between these two teams in either program’s history happened just last year and is was Boise State that took home victory and in fairly dominant fashion. And in a rare feat for modern college basketball, there will be a lot of familiar faces between the two teams. Of the 16 players that played at least 16 minutes in that 2022 game, eight are set to appear (four on each side) for this year’s rematch and both head coaches are back as well.

Colorado has done the most improving since the last matchup, going from team that barely finished above .500 (18-17) and competing in the NIT to earning an at-large bid by virtue of a 24-10 campaign and third-place finish in the Pac-12.

The team as a whole made notable improvement, but the continued improvement of junior guard KJ Simpson certainly had a lot to do with the Buffaloes moving up the standings this year. He went from being a leading scorer on the team last year at 15.9 points per game to unquestionably the leading scorer at 19.6 per game. His biggest individual improvement was upping his 3-point percentage from its 26.9 percent as a freshman and sophomore to an elite 45.3 percent this year.

Both teams are fairly well balanced, with a slight edge to Colorado, though each team’s strengths lean notably in different sides of the ball. The Buffaloes are better on offense than defense, ranking 25th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency and 42nd in defense with the Broncos essentially opposite, being 52nd in offense and 29th in defense. It should create for a fun matchup where the strength of each team is going against the strength of the opponent.

#10 Nevada vs #7 Dayton

  • When: Thursday, March 21 | 2:30 p.m. MT
  • Where: Delta Center (Salt Lake City, UT) – WEST Region
  • How to Watch: TBS

Last Matchup: First-ever meeting

Nevada was the single most under-seeded team of the tournament, no questions asked. Perhaps some of that was their own doing, losing in the quarterfinal of the Mountain West tournament, but that alone doesn’t explain how the Wolf Pack ended up as a 10 seed.

What that under-seeding means is that this will be one of the closes projected matchups of the first round and is one of just three games — aside from the 8/9 seed matchups — where the worse seed is the betting favorite.

To fully take advantage of being the favorite, the Wolf Pack will need to keep one of the most versatile and dangerous bigmen in the country under control. DaRon Holmes II, a 6-foot-10 junior forward, was recently named A-10 MVP and with very good reason. He averaged 20.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.1 blocks. He also shot 38.5 percent from three. There’s not a whole lot Holmes can’t do out there on the court.

The Wolf Pack and Flyers will have one thing in common in this matchup, that being unrealized potential in their respective conference tournaments. Nevada lost to Colorado State in its first game of the tournament while Dayton fell to the eventual A-10 tourney champ Duquesne in its opener.

Dayton leans heavily toward being an offensively focused team, ranking 18th in KenPom offensive efficiency while being just inside the top 100 defensively at 87th. Nevada is much more balanced, ranking 40th on offense and 36th on defense. 

#5 San Diego State vs #12 UAB

  • When: Friday, March 22 | 11:45 a.m. MT
  • Where: Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena (Spokane, WA) – EAST Region
  • How to Watch: TNT

Last Matchup: 1989, UAB won 91-46 (UAB leads series 1-0 all-time)

The only previous matchup between the Aztecs and Blazers took place a full decade before SDSU’s emergence as a mid-major power under Steve Fisher. It’s hardly worth noting, but there it is.

UAB have been a consistently solid program but with irregular appearances in the NCAA Tournament as members of Conference USA. Last year the Blazers went 29-10 but were left out of the bracket. This year, UAB joined the AAC, but it was winning the conference tournament that sent the team to the Big Dance for just the second time in the last nine years.

San Diego State is a decent favorite, being given a 6.5-point edge in this one. Confidence in the Aztecs is justified given their success from last year in making it to the championship game, doing so as a five seed just as they are this year. That and the fact they pushed their way to the Mountain West tournament title game as a five seed in that bracket. But SDSU has lost as a higher seed previously, falling in the first round as a six seed in 2021. Current head coach Brian Dutcher is 1-3 in the first round in his tenure with the Aztecs.

The Blazers, though, don’t seem to match up particularly well with San Diego State. They’re a team that’s lived by taking tons of free throws (12th in FTA nationally) and grabbing numerous offensive rebounds (28th nationally). But SDSU is good at both not fouling (plus the fact that fewer fouls are called in the NCAA Tournament) and in dominating the glass. If UAB wants to pull off the upset, they’ll need to beat the Aztecs at their own game. Possible, but not probable.

#11 New Mexico vs #6 Clemson

  • When: Friday, March 22 | 1:10 p.m. MT
  • Where: FedEx Forum (Memphis, TN) – WEST Region
  • How to Watch: truTV

Last Matchup: First-ever meeting

Winning the Mountain West Tournament proved to be a necessity for the Lobos to make the tournament. But aside from that four-wins-in-four-days run getting them to the tournament, perhaps it’ll give them a boost in the Big Dance. Talking points surrounding momentum abound in March, partly because teams have ridden improbably conference tournament runs into NCAA Tournament success. New Mexico will simply try to be the latest.

As one of the teams under-seeded by the selection committee, New Mexico’s been dealt a rough hand against Clemson, but the Lobos are actually the betting favorite (-1.5) as of the writing of this article. New Mexico is the only seed 11 or lower that is favored in its first-round matchup.

Some of that favoring for the Lobos could be coming from the momentum they have as opposed to how Clemson finished the season. The Tigers have lost three of their last four games while UNM is on a four-game win streak, including wins over three of the best teams in the Mountain West.

That momentum could be big in a matchup like this one, where both teams are very capable of putting points on the board. Both sides are top 50 in KenPom offensive efficiency with New Mexico’s pace leading it to rank 21st in the country in points per game.  New Mexico will push the pace faster than Clemson has typically played, but it’s not like the Tigers are allergic to high-possession games. In fact, most of the fast-paced games Clemson has played in, it’s won, including an 80-76 victory at North Carolina.

This game could feature two of the most interesting individual matchups, with Clemson guard Joseph Girard and forward PJ Hall matching up with New Mexico guard Jaelen House and forward JT Toppin. Both sets of players were key in their respective team’s success and should provide an exciting game on both ends of the court.

#8 Utah State vs #9 TCU

  • When: Friday, March 22 | 7:55 p.m. MT
  • Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse (Indianapolis, IN) – MIDWEST Region
  • How to Watch: TBS

Last Matchup: 1982, USU won 84-59 (USU leads series 2-0 all-time)

The regular season Mountain West champions were slated as just an eight seed, a bit of an embarrassment for the conference but the Aggies have the chance to show their worth. Outside analysis favors TCU with the Horned Frogs as 3.5-point favorites and most computer projections giving them the edge over Utah State.

The Horned Frogs have been very up-and-down for a month, though more down than up to be honest. They’ve gone 3-5 since Feb. 20, though in being fair to TCU, the list of opponents its lost to — Texas Tech, Baylor, BYU, UCF and Houston — is a pretty impressive list of teams. In games where they weren’t facing top-30 teams, TCU went 3-0.

This game could be a tough matchup if the Aggies don’t learn from previous struggles against smaller teams. TCU will largely focus on playing its three 6-foot-7 forwards — Emanuel Miller, Micah Peavy and JaKobe Coles — and use their versatility and athleticism to overwhelm the Aggies on defense while being able to adequately stifle USU in the paint and keep Mountain West Player of the Year, Great Osobor, at bay. Finding ways to defend the perimeter without giving up easier shots in the paint against five-out lineups is something Utah State struggled with at times this season and they’ll be tested in that very subject on the biggest stage on Friday.

What really could give the Aggies an extra edge, though, is Osobor. TCU won’t have the greatest matchups defensively for him and if he draws fouls the way he has much of the season, it could wreak havoc on the Horned Frogs and give USU some easy offense.

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