LAS VEGAS — At one point during the Wyoming-Boise State Mountain West semifinal game Friday night, Cowboys coach Jeff Linder called out a play for his team to run. Immediately, a staffer on the Broncos bench who was watching Linder reacted, shouting out the defensive counterpunch.
There are no secrets. Both teams knew each other’s plays, knew each other’s tendencies and probably knew what kind of toothpaste they prefer. That’s life in many conferences come March, when teams often are meeting for the third time, but the Mountain West this year has taken it to another level. This conference has never been better—more good coaches, more good players, more good teams capable of scouting each other into defensive stalemates.
The battles have been vicious, tense and unrelenting, in both the regular season and now the postseason. All four quarterfinals Thursday and both semifinals Friday were decided by seven points or fewer, with an average margin of 4.3 points. This tournament has been one long held breath.
Unless the NCAA tournament selection committee robs Wyoming, the league will get four teams in the Big Dance: Boise (26-7), Colorado State (25-5), San Diego State (23-7) and the Cowboys (25-8 ). That’s the most for the Mountain West since getting five bids in 2013—and even then the league wasn’t as deep as it is now. The second tier of UNLV, Utah State and Fresno State is tough, too.
Currently, the Mountain West has those seven teams in the top 85 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings and six in the top 70. Those are both league records for the Pomeroy Era, which stretches back to 2002. Previously the MWC had never had more than five in the top 85 or top 70. Pomeroy ranks the league as a whole seventh out of 32 in Division I, the highest it has been in nine years.
“From top to bottom, the best (the league has been),” said Boise State coach Leon Rice. “And I’ve been in this league a long time, so I have a lot of reference points.”
Indeed, this is the former Gonzaga assistant’s 12th season at Boise and in the MWC. This is Rice’s best team, with a school-record 26 victories and the regular-season title to its credit, and now a berth in the tournament title game after dispatching stubborn Wyoming 68-61. The Broncos will play San Diego State, which held off Colorado State 63-58 to make its fifth straight title game.
By all means, expect the title game to go down to the wire as well. When Boise played at San Diego State, it lost by five. When the rematch was at home, the Broncos won by one.
“Right now, March is for these guys to shine in hard moments, and these are hard moments,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said late Friday night. “And we’ll see how both teams shine tomorrow.”
Hard moments are about all anyone in this year’s Mountain West knows.
The four NCAA-bound teams are accustomed to those grinders that aren’t decided until the last minute: 12 of the 13 they have played against each other thus far were won by seven points or less, (The only outlier was a 30-point blowout the Aztecs administered to the Rams in early January.) Their records in two-possession games this season: Boise is 11-4, Wyoming 10-3, Colorado State 9-2, San Diego State 6-4.
They all survived close scrapes in the quarterfinals Thursday.
When Wyoming’s NCAA bid probably hung in the balance against UNLV, the decisive shot in the final half-minute was a three-pointer from Xavier DuSell, a sophomore who is at best the Cowboys’ fourth option offensively. DuSell helped get Wyoming in bubble position in the regular-season finale, scoring a season-high 21 in an overtime win against Fresno State.
In Colorado State’s quarterfinal against Utah State, the game was tied when point guard Isaiah Stevens drove to the basket, drew the defense and dished to Chandler Jacobs for the winning layup with 1.8 seconds left—Jacobs’s only basket of the game.
Boise found itself sweating out a Nevada three-point jumper with six seconds left, clinging to a two-point lead after being up seven with 2:20 to play. San Diego State was only up two with 80 seconds to play against Fresno State before hitting its free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
“We’ve been in more close games than probably any team in the country,” Linder said. “And that’s how this conference has been from top to bottom. …It’s a really, really tough league.”
One of the reasons why: the coaches are outstanding. Rice has had nine 20-win seasons at Boise; Dutcher has never won fewer than 21 games in five seasons as the head coach at San Diego State; Niko Medved rebuilt Colorado State and has authored three straight 20-win seasons, narrowly missing the NCAAs last year; and Linder (a former assistant to Rice at Boise) has four 20-win seasons in tough jobs at Northern Colorado and Wyoming. Then you have power-conference coaches in the early stages of rebound jobs at Nevada (Steve Alford), New Mexico (Richard Pitino) and San Jose State (Tim Miles). And Utah State has the guy who coached the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history when he was a No. 16 seed at UMBC in 2018 (Ryan Odom).
The task facing some MWC schools—particularly Colorado State and Wyoming—will be keeping their rising star coaches.
Contrast that with the coaching stagnation in the Pac-12, where only three teams will get NCAA bids: Mike Hopkins is in his third straight season missing the Big Dance at Washington; Bobby Hurley just complete a second straight losing season at Arizona State; Jerod Haase has zero NCAA bids in six years at Stanford; Mark Fox has yet to have a winning season in three years at California; and Wayne Tinkle just presided over the most astonishing backslide in recent Division I memory, going from the Elite Eight last year to 3-28 this year.
Despite all that underachieving, they might all keep their jobs. Call it patience or apathy or football monomania, but the Pac-12 should be hearing basketball footsteps from the Mountain West.
While the coaches in the Mountain West respect and appreciate the level of competition this season, they also can’t wait to be done with one another. Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming are ready to face an opponent that doesn’t know every play call and every tendency. The NCAA tournament will set them free.
With seedings that could range from 6-12, none will be expected to win more than one game in the Big Dance—yet all will be capable of crashing the Sweet Sixteen. The Aztecs are the No. 2 defensive team in the country according to Pomeroy’s metrics, and Boise is No. 19. The Rams are the No. 19 offense, led by a power forward who looks like a tight end in David Roddy, the Mountain West Player of the Year. Wyoming has one of the better two-man tandems in post player Graham Ike (19.6 points, 9.6 rebounds per game) and point forward Hunter Maldonado (18.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists).
The product they take into the NCAAs is more gritty than pretty, with slow pace and lots of defensive stops. But tournament basketball is all about embracing—and winning—the grind. It’s about handling the pressure. And no league in America has put its top teams through a more sustained gauntlet of tense games and dramatic outcomes than the Mountain West.
There probably won’t be a Final Four team in the group. But good luck trying to eliminate them.
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