The race for second place in the Mountain West is starting to get serious.
No less than five teams (Nevada, Utah State, Colorado State, Boise State and UNLV) are in the hunt to finish second this season with just two weeks remaining in the Mountain West regular season.
San Diego State, No. 1 in this week’s Nevada Appeal Mountain West men’s basketball rankings, has already clinched first place at 26-0 overall and 15-0 in league play. The Aztecs, though, have plenty of incentive to keep beating Mountain West teams. San Diego State’s goal, after all, is to finish undefeated through the conference tournament and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The top goal now for the five teams mentioned above is to finish second and avoid a game in the conference tournament against San Diego State until at least the championship game on March 7 in Las Vegas.
No. 2 Utah State (21-7, 10-5), has the inside track to second place right now. The Aggies beat Colorado State (75-72) on the road and Fresno State (71-59) at home last week and have now won four games in a row and seven of eight. Utah State’s final three opponents (Wyoming, San Jose State and New Mexico) all have losing records in conference play (10-32 combined).
The Aggies got 56 points and nine 3-pointers in two games last week combined from senior guard Sam Merrill. Merrill, named the Mountain West Player of the Week on Monday, had 32 against Colorado State and went over 2,000 career points. He had 24 against Fresno. His 2,052 career points is fifth in Mountain West history and third in Utah State scoring behind Jaycee Carroll (2,522) and Greg Grant (2,127). Merrill is also second in the Mountain West in scoring this season at 18.6 points a game, behind Nevada’s Jalen Harris (21.5).
“When Merrill’s got it going they’re very difficult to defend,” Colorado State coach Niko Medved said.
No. 3 Nevada (16-10, 9-5) survived a scare in Las Vegas last week, beating the Rebels 82-79 in overtime as Harris had 29 points. Jazz Johnson also had 19 points and had four of Nevada’s six 3-pointers.
The Wolf Pack has just four games remaining in the regular season, at New Mexico Tuesday night, home against Fresno State on Saturday, at Wyoming on Feb. 25 and back home on Senior Night against San Diego State on Feb. 29.
“We just have to go into another environment and be a little bit tougher,” said Nevada coach Steve Alford, who coached New Mexico from 2007-13.
New Mexico (78.6 points a game) and Nevada (77.1) are the two highest scoring teams in the Mountain West.
“Your defense travels (on the road) and your offense might not travel,” Harris said. “So for us to go in and focus there (on defense), that’s the biggest key for us.”
No. 4 Colorado State (18-9, 9-5) has won 11 of its last 14 games despite losing to Utah State last week. The Rams also beat Wyoming (77-70) on Saturday (five Rams had 10 or more points) to salvage the week and remain in the race for second place.
Colorado State trailed Utah State 49-37 with just under 17 minutes to play but pulled to within 68-67 with 1:13 to go. Utah State’s Merrill, though, hit a key 3-pointer with 29 seconds to play and two free throws with 15 seconds left.
No. 5 Boise State (17-10, 9-6) whipped Air Force (74-57) last Tuesday and lost to San Diego State (72-55) on Sunday. Justinian Jessup had 40 points in the two games combined and now leads the Mountain West with 82 3-pointers, ahead of Nevada’s Jazz Johnson (78).
No. 6 UNLV (13-14, 8-6) rebounded after its loss to Nevada on Wednesday with a 78-73 win at New Mexico on Saturday. The loss was just New Mexico’s second at home this season in 16 games. Bryce Hamilton had 40 points in UNLV’s two games last week combined. Marvin Coleman had 16 points against New Mexico and was perfect from the floor (6-of-6 overall and 4-of-4 on threes). UNLV beat New Mexico despite being outscored at the free throw line 23-7.
No. 7 New Mexico (17-10, 6-8) also lost to San Diego State (82-59) last week. The Lobos, though, had a chance to beat UNLV, controlling the ball with just over 20 seconds to go and trailing just 74-73. UNLV’s Elijah Mitrou-Long, though, stripped New Mexico’s Zane Martin of the ball with 18 seconds to go. Martin also missed a 3-pointer with four seconds to play.
“He (Mitrou-Long) was phenomenal,” UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “The stats don’t tell of his energy, getting loose balls and steals. He set the tone for us.”
JaQuan Lyle also had just three points in 32 minutes against UNLV. The former Ohio State player (he averaged 11.1 points in two seasons at Ohio State) has now scored just 16 points in his last three games since returning from a knee injury. He did not play in New Mexico’s loss at Nevada in late January but is expected to face Nevada on Tuesday night.
“I just suck right now,” Lyle said after the loss to UNLV. “I’m not making any shots (just 5-for-25 over the last three games). I’m not helping my teammates.”
No. 8 Fresno State (9-17, 5-10) won at San Jose State (84-78 in overtime) and lost to Utah State (71-59) last week. Niven Hart, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Orlando, Fla., had 30 points against San Jose State but just nine against Utah State.
No. 9 Air Force (10-16, 4-10) lost to Boise State (74-57) and beat San Jose State (95-86) last week. Lavelle Scottie had 38 points in the two games combined.
No. 10 Wyoming (6-20, 1-13) lost at home to Colorado State 77-70 as Hunter Maldonado had 17 points. The game was decided at the free throw line where Wyoming was just 13-of-17 while Colorado State was 26-of-40.
No. 11 San Jose State (7-19, 3-11) last week lost to Fresno State in overtime (84-78) and Air Force (95-86). The Spartans, which have lost five games in a row and eight of nine, were 25-of-75 on threes in the two games combined.
The Nevada Appeal Mountain West men’s basketball rankings for the week of Feb. 17-23:
1. SAN DIEGO STATE (26-0, 15-0). This week: vs. UNLV (Saturday).
2. UTAH STATE (21-7, 10-5). This week: vs. Wyoming (Wednesday).
3. NEVADA (16-10, 9-5). This week: at New Mexico (Tuesday); vs. Fresno State (Saturday).
4. COLORADO STATE (18-9, 9-5). This week: at UNLV (Tuesday); vs. San Jose State (Saturday).
5. BOISE STATE (17-10, 9-6). This week: at San Jose State (Wednesday); vs. New Mexico (Sunday).
6. UNLV (13-14, 8-6). This week: vs. Colorado State (Tuesday); at San Diego State (Saturday).
7. NEW MEXICO (17-10, 6-8). This week: vs. Nevada (Tuesday); at Boise State (Sunday).
8. FRESNO STATE (9-17, 5-10). This week: vs. Air Force (Wednesday); at Nevada (Saturday).
9. AIR FORCE (10-16, 4-10). This week: at Fresno State (Wednesday); vs. Wyoming (Saturday).
10. WYOMING (6-20, 1-13). This week: at Utah State (Wednesday); at Air Force (Saturday).
11. SAN JOSE STATE (7-19, 3-11). This week: vs. Boise State (Wednesday); at Colorado State (Saturday).