- Ky McKeon
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Sam Merrill, Jr., Utah State
Coach of the Year: Craig Smith, Utah State
Newcomer of the Year: Braxton Huggins, R Sr., Fresno State
Freshman of the Year: Neemias Queta, Fr., Utah State
1. Unbelievable Utah State
Utah State was the talk of the Mountain West this season, streaking to a 15-3 conference record and a share of the title after a disappointing 8-10 year. Craig Smith proved to be an absolute homerun hire, so much so that USU fans should probably be worried about a larger program luring him away in the near future. Smith brought in a whole new style when he moved south from South Dakota this offseason - I wrote about his brilliant offense in an article earlier this season - and his Aggies were just as tenacious on the defensive end. Sam Merrill proved to be one of the best players in the league and Neemias Queta seemingly came out of nowhere, dominating the MWC in his inaugural collegiate season. With a signature win against Nevada on March 2nd and quality victories at Fresno State, at UC Irvine, and against Saint Mary’s on a neutral, the Aggies should be safely in the Field of 68 win or lose in the MWC tourney.
2. What to Make of Nevada?
Nevada was a unanimous top ten team entering the season and one could argue the Wolf Pack should still be considered at that level. The issue is, Nevada’s strength of schedule and lack of quality wins brings into question just how good they really are. Eric Musselman’s team did its job in the non-con, knocking off Loyola and USC on the road and Arizona State on a neutral, but all three of those squads turned out to be semi-garbage. To make matters worse, the MWC as a whole was very down this year. From a NET and Big Dance resume perspective, the Pack are looking at anywhere between a 5 and 7 seed due to only 1 Q1 victory (against Utah State). On paper, this is still one of the most talented teams in the country and one that is very capable of crashing the Final Four.
3. Anyone’s Guess
What a weird season it was in the Mountain West. Pinpointing where teams would end up at the end of the year was like trying to guess when George R.R. Martin is releasing Winds of Winter. San Diego State, a near preseason 3MW top 40 squad, struggled offensively and suffered through its worst season since 2005. New Mexico, picked 3rd, was absolutely brutal in non-conference play; Boise State crashed and burned after being picked 4th; Fresno State shocked everyone by finishing alone in 3rd place despite bringing in a brand new coach; Wyoming had one of the worst years of any team in the country thanks to incredibly poor injury luck; We already discussed preseason 9th-ranked Utah State; and, Air Force went on an unexpected tear to finish 6th (picked 11th).
The MWC tournament is held in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Too bad it hasn’t really helped UNLV in recent years…
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
Utah State tied for 1st place, but this is Nevada’s tournament to lose. The Wolf Pack have by far the most talent and athleticism in the conference and should be able to waltz their way to the MWC championship game. If Nevada wins the whole thing, it could conceivably earn as high as a 4-seed in the Field of 68.
If Nevada falters to either San Diego State (very possible) or Utah State, look for the Aggies to take advantage and nab the auto-bid. USU likely falls into the 8-9 range if they win out, and in the 10-11 range if they lose in the MWC tourney.
Dark Horse Team
Well, San Diego State was supposed to be supposed to be a conference title contender with so many minutes returning from last season - the Aztecs even received a 1st place vote in the preseason poll. But an offense that ranked 8th in the MWC held back a dominant defense. SDSU proved it could hang with the big dogs by beating Nevada and Utah State at home this season, but a neutral floor makes things more difficult.
Fresno State has to be the other choice for the conference crown. New Mexico State transfer Braxton Huggins was a godsend for first year coach Justin Hutson, and he forms one of the best trios in the league with Deshon Taylor and Nate Grimes. The Bulldogs knocked off USU once this year, hung tough with Nevada twice, and swept SDSU, so they could pull off a sneaky run to claim what would likely be an 11 or 12 seed in the Dance.
(8) Boise State over (9) Colorado State
(7) New Mexico over (10) Wyoming
(6) Air Force over (11) San Jose State
(1) Nevada over (8) Boise State
(4) San Diego State over (5) UNLV
(2) Utah State over (7) New Mexico
(3) Fresno State over (6) Air Force
(1) Nevada over (4) San Diego State
(2) Utah State over (3) Fresno State
(1) Nevada over (2) Utah State
STRAIGHT CHALK. I have no qualms picking chalk in this conference because the pecking order in this league is very clear. UNLV has a shot at upending SDSU on its home floor, but there is such a clear drop off after the top 4 teams in this league, that I just don’t think it’ll happen. Fresno could certainly take down USU, but I don’t think they have the firepower to defeat Nevada. Plus, we all NEED a rubber match of Nevada / Utah State after that post-game locker room incident.