- Matt Cox
3MW's All Conference Teams:
1. Nevada Out'Mussels' the Rest of the Mountain West
It took only two years for Eric Musselman to steer Nevada back to MWC prominence. Musselman wasted no time building momentum in his inaugural season at the helm last year, leading the Wolfpack to a 24-win campaign - one of the biggest turnarounds in college basketball. A formidable core of Cameron Oliver, DJ Fenner and Lindsey Drew all returned this season to join two impact transfers from the Missouri Valley Conference in Jordan Caroline and Marcus Marshall. This starting lineup led Nevada to a 25-6 record and eventual MWC regular season crown, neither of which had been done since 2012. Together, the talented top-5 carried one of the biggest burdens in the country for their squad, as only two other teams in division 1 basketball played their bench less than Musselman did this year. A 1st round bye in the MWC tournament will give his guys a much needed day off, which should keep them fresh for what will hopefully be a 3-day run to a MWC tournament title.
2. Fall of the Aztec Empire
Steve Fisher's dominance of the Mountain West over the last decade cannot be understated. Dating all the way back to 2004-05, Fisher had never finished .500 or worse in the MWC, but that streak was officially snapped this season. After a pedestrian 9-9 league performance this year, San Diego St. now finds themselves in unfamiliar territory as the #6 seed in this weekend's MWC tourney, which means the Aztecs will have to win four games in four nights if they hope to get back to the Big Dance.
3. Rebels Begin Rebuilding
I sure hope Marvin Menzies knew what he was getting into when he took over a UNLV basketball program that's been plagued with inconsistency in recent years. The Runnin Rebel faithful had to lower their standards for success this season before the year began, but what transpired over the past two months surely failed to meet those expectations. After a respectable 3-4 start in conference, the Rebels quickly spiraled out of MWC relevancy, losing 10 of their final 11 games to finish in a two way tie for last place with Air Force. The irony is that UNLV's prior head coach Dave Rice - who was inexplicably canned during the early portion of last season - is now a top assistant of Musselman's at Nevada, making him a direct competitor of Menzies on the recruiting trail.
The lone bright spot for UNLV is that they get the luxury of hosting the MWC tournament at their home venue of Thomas & Mack Arena in Las Vegas. The 11-team format rewards the top-5 seeds - Nevada, Colorado St., Boise St., Fresno St. and New Mexico - with opening round byes.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s): Nevada: 12-seed
The eye test tells me Nevada absolutely looks like an at-large caliber team that could be seeded much higher than a 12. However, the reality is that the Wolfpack simply didn't do much of anything in the non-conference, and now find themselves victims of a weak Mountain West Conference this year. The implication is that the Wolfpack will likely need to win the MWC tournament to solidify their place in the field of 68.
Dark Horse Team(s): San Diego St.
Despite a frustrating season for the Aztecs, the advanced analytics still believe in Steve Fisher's team this season. Kenpom.com has San Diego St. ranked as the 2nd best team in the Mountain West on an adjusted efficiency basis, which translates to the 83rd ranked team nationally. And even though the Aztecs were the class of the league defensively (ranked 1st overall in defensive efficiency), they took a major step back from the elite level of defense that completely shutdown MWC foes in each of the past two seasons - they dropped to 32nd overall in defensive efficiency this year, compared to 4th overall in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. The bottom-line is that Steve Fisher should never be overlooked, especially now with a vast amount of talent and athleticism at his disposal. The key for this team - as it is with most Aztec teams - will be how consistently they knock down outside shots. San Diego St. was a relatively high-volume 3-point shooting team this year, but their primary gunners struggled mightily from long range. Trey Kell saw his 3-point percentage plummet to an abysmal 26% on 131 attempts and no other player on the roster shot better than 36% from downtown. If the Aztecs can catch lightning in a bottle - similar to what they did in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii earlier this year - they are more than capable of running through a watered down MWC field to steal an automatic bid.
(8) Utah St. defeats (9) San Jose St.
(7) Wyoming defeats (10) Air Force
(6) San Diego St. defeats (11) UNLV
(1) Nevada defeats (8) Utah St.
(4) Fresno St. defeats (5) New Mexico
(2) Colorado St. defeats (7) Wyoming
(6) San Diego St. defeats (3) Boise St.
(1) Nevada defeats (4) Fresno St.
(2) Colorado St. defeats (6) San Diego St.
(2) Colorado St. defeats (1) Nevada