We’re nearly three weeks into conference play for the Mountain West men’s basketball season. Everywhere you look, the results were staggering: UNLV beat New Mexico in The Pit before losing at home to Boise State by 18 days later; San Diego State dominated Nevada for 35 minutes before a late slip resulted in a nine-point win; Colorado State beat Fresno State before letting loose the rope against the Air Force.
Even in two and a half weeks, there’s a laundry list of fun, unpredictable Mountain West action. Nonetheless, let’s make some (belated) New Year’s resolutions for every Mountain West program for calendar year 2023 (although we’re mostly focusing on the 2022-23 season)!
Air Force: Find additional possessions
The Air Force will always be at a size disadvantage compared to (most) other Division I programs because of the size requirements for attending an academy. Despite this Air Force offensive being the most efficient unit since 2020 with the highest effective field goal percentage since 2007, the Falcons won the Mountain West. Joe Scott’s group executed his Princeton offense – a deliberate attack with accented cuts and screens – very well, but with his efficiency finding a way to secure extra possession would be ideal. They’re not a good offensive rebound team and they don’t force many turnovers — four of their seven losses have been by six points or fewer. Finding a way to generate additional possessions could go a long way in beating some of Mountain West’s best, which is obviously easier said than done.
Boise State: Get Marcus Shaver 100 percent healthy
Boise State is one of the best teams in Mountain West, and they proved it again Wednesday with their 84-66 win over UNLV. But Marcus Shaver is noticeably not 100 percent fit with a lower body injury. Boise State is still a machine; Tyson Degenhart built after winning the conference’s freshman of the year; Chibuzo Agbo was one of the top signings of the conference; Max Rice is still an exceptional marksman and they are a very well trained team with Leon Rice having built a paragon of consistency at Boise. But as deep as the conference is, making it into the big dance unless he’s fully sane makes her job that much more difficult. He’s the best guard rebounder at Mountain West, their most dynamic shot creator, and by far the player they want their hands on most in the moments that matter most.
State of Colorado: Defense, Defense, Defense
According to KenPom, the state of Colorado is only ahead of the state of Fresno in adjusted defense efficiency. Taviontae Jackson was Colorado State’s best defenseman, but the team’s defense still wasn’t where it was expected. They’ve conceded 80 or more points in five of their last seven losses — including 84 against Air Force (with help from overtime) when the Rams fell apart completely. Defense wins championships — or games in this case — and Colorado State has had its chances but hasn’t yet produced consistently good defensive performances, which they’ll need.
Fresno State: Orlando Robinson returns…or gains some kind of obnoxious identity
Orlando Robinson was the Bulldogs’ offensive line last year. Now the Bulldogs are by far the least efficient offensive line in Mountain West and they don’t have much of an offensive identity without Robinson. Isaih Moore, Jemarl Baker and Isaiah Hill have all shown flashes in the pan, but their offensive identities are far from complete — perhaps the main reason behind their 6-10 starts. You won’t win many MW games if you can’t figure that out. Point. Empty. Period.
New Mexico: Rack up more wins in MWC Play
In the non-conference game, New Mexico finished 13-0 after their seven-point win over Oral Roberts on Monday. But in the Mountain West game, they went 2-2 with slips against a struggling Fresno State squad plus UNLV at home I’m not the first person to say this and I won’t be the last person to say this – but the conference is loaded. To continue stacking the NCAA tournament resume — should New Mexico not win the MW tournament (they might anyway!) — it must not continue to falter against conference competition. I don’t expect that to be the case, but the warning signs are high and bold. New Mexico is as good as any, but you’ll have to do your best every night to survive.
Nevada: Frontcourt Depth
Injuries have not been good for Nevada this year. Three players – Michael Folarin, Hunter McIntosh and KJ Hymes – are (likely) out for the year through separate injuries, with the former two missing the start of the year with knee injuries. Folarin and Hymes were expected to be separated from Nevada’s frontcourt – Folarin as the third string behind Hymes and Will Baker. Instead, redshirt newcomer Nick Davidson held his ground and did a very good job, but the Wolf Pack would still prefer the extra frontcourt depth to put less stress on Baker/Davidson’s two-man frontcourt.
SDSU: Stronger central defense
Aztec home defense has been unduly mediocre this year, despite owning another top 25 unit nationally. The Aztecs allow teams to shoot 50.7 percent from inside the bow — the highest since 2004-05, according to KenPom — including 64.6 percent on the rim.
The Aztecs still have reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Nathan Mensah down center, who still rebounds well and blocks shots on a top-50 clip. Teams aren’t getting more offensive rebounds, nor is SDSU turning drastically with a higher clip compared to previous seasons. Perhaps the Aztecs are on the wrong end of their unfortunate shooting luck?
SJSU: Tim Miles wins Coach of the Year
Nothing would be better for San Jose State than clinching wins and rewarding Tim Miles with the conference Coach of the Year trophy. Their turnaround was remarkable and they would probably need at least 8-10 Mountain West wins to warrant serious consideration. But it’s on the horizon after the Spartans were forecast to be bottom-feeders in the 2022-23 season.
UNLV: Defensive rebounding
UNLV is the smallest team in Mountain West. Only one of his regular rotation players – David Muoka – is over 6-foot-9. Despite their athletic, switchable defensive activity that forces a variety of turnovers, their greatest weakness is excluding possession on the defensive glass. They are the worst defensive rebound team in the conference and in the bottom 30 defensively nationally in defensive rebound percentage. In each of their four losses, opponents averaged 13.5 offensive rebounds per game, resulting in 13 second chance points. They have lost by single digits in three of their four losses, including on possession against San Francisco and San Jose State, where they had 15 and 12 second-chance points, respectively. These are backbreakers.
State of Utah: Triples continue to fall
Utah State was one of the top 3-point shooting teams in America, really carried by its top three scorers in Steven Ashworth, Taylor Funk and Max Shulga. They collectively shot 43.8 percent from 3-point range (5.8 trebles per game), including 51.3 percent (on 6.6 attempts) from Ashworth. Her 3-point shooting has been the biggest catalyst to her success so far, so maintaining that mark will be important.
It’s not a lost year for Wyoming, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere without Graham Ike. Just stay healthy for 2023-24.