Photo: Steve Ranson/LVN
Nevada’s Warren Washington (5) looks for an open Wolf Pack player during Friday’s game against Colorado State in Reno.
Brian Dutcher summed up the strange and unpredictable 2020-21 Mountain West men’s basketball season perfectly last week.
“What this team accomplished this season is really special,” the San Diego State Aztecs coach said after a 71-62 victory at UNLV last Wednesday. “We started back in September with one coach in gloves and a mask, one basketball and one player and we couldn’t even rebound the ball for the player. And, to think, a few months later we are celebrating a conference championship.”
The Aztecs, the No. 1 team in this week’s Nevada Appeal Mountain West rankings, finished the regular season as the No. 1 seed heading into this week’s conference tournament in Las Vegas. San Diego State (20-4, 14-3) will take on the winner of Wednesday’s San Jose State-Wyoming game on Thursday at noon at Thomas & Mack Center.
Wednesday’s other opening-round games will be Air Force against UNLV at 1:30 p.m. and New Mexico against Fresno State at 4 p.m.
No. 2-seed Utah State will meet the Air Force-UNLV winner on Thursday at 6 p.m. No. 3-seed Colorado State faces the New Mexico-Fresno State winner on Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. while No. 4-seed Boise State meets No. 5 seed Nevada on Thursday at 2:30 p.m.
Wednesday’s games will be available on the Mountain West Network (themw.com) while Thursday and Friday’s games will be televised on CBS Sports Network. The conference title game on Saturday (3 p.m.) will be broadcast on CBS.
San Diego State has won its last 11 games. The Aztecs might be the only team in the Mountain West that won’t have to win the Mountain West tournament to get to the NCAA Tournament.
“Our best basketball is hopefully still ahead of us,” Dutcher said.
The Aztecs got 19 points from Matt Mitchell and 16 from Jordan Schakel to beat UNLV. The Aztecs’ defense held UNLV top scorer Bryce Hamilton to 3-of-14 shooting and nine points though the Rebels’ David Jenkins got 32 on seven threes. Schakel, who also had nine rebounds and four 3-pointers, played the game with a sore back he injured earlier in the week.
“You can’t sit these games out,” Schakel said. “Playing for a championship is not something everybody gets to do. There was no way I was sitting this game out.”
Utah State climbed into the No. 2 seed spot by beating Wyoming 72-59 on Thursday and Fresno State 57-51 on Saturday. The Aggies trailed Fresno State 27-17 at halftime.
“We were just not very tough at the rim to start,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said.
“It’s not how you start,” said Utah State forward Justin Bean, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds. “It’s how you finish. It’s very cliché but that is what is going through our minds now.”
Fresno State, which upset Boise State 67-64 on Tuesday, did not go to the free throw line in the second half at all on their own home court. Isaiah Hill led the Bulldogs with 16 points while Orlando Robinson had 12 points and 11 rebounds, despite missing 11 of his 15 shots.
Boise State, the No. 5 team in the Nevada Appeal rankings but the fourth seed in the tournament, heads to Las Vegas and its matchup with Nevada with a three-game losing streak. The Broncos lost to Fresno State 67-64 at home on Tuesday as Derrick Alston had 12 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
“It takes grit, it takes toughness to win those close games,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “They (Fresno State) kind of out-toughed us mentally and physically.”
Boise State lost both of its games against Nevada this season, 74-72 and 73-62 on Feb. 5, 7 at Lawlor Events Center.
No. 3 Colorado State had a very active week last week, playing three games in just five days. The Rams whipped Air Force 74-44 on Monday and New Mexico 87-73 on Wednesday (both at home) but lost at Nevada on Friday, 85-82, on a last-second 3-pointer by the Wolf Pack’s Grant Sherfield.
Kendle Moore missed all nine of his 3-pointers against Air Force. Adam Thistlewood had five threes against New Mexico. The Rams then seemed to run out of gas against the Wolf Pack, missing 10-of-12 threes in the second half.
Nevada, the No. 5 seed but the No. 4 team in the Appeal rankings, trailed Colorado State 44-37 at halftime last Friday for their first victory since beating Boise State 73-62 on Feb. 7. The seven-point deficit is the largest at halftime the Wolf Pack has ever overcome to win a game in the two years since Steve Alford has become coach.
“I’m excited we got a win going into this (Mountain West tournament),” Alford said. “If we had lost three in a row, two at Utah State (two weeks ago) and now this one (Colorado State), I don’t know where our guys’ mindset would be.”
“This is a big win for us because it gives us confidence to go win three games in the conference tournament,” Sherfield said.
UNLV lost twice last week, to San Diego State 71-62 on Wednesday at home and 80-69 at Wyoming on Saturday. Jenkins’ followed up his 32-point effort against San Diego State with 10 at Wyoming. Hamilton rebounded from his 9-point performance against San Diego State with 17 against Wyoming.
“They had everything going from the start,” said UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger of Wyoming. “They were better in every area.”
UNLV has hosted the Mountain West tournament each year since the first one in 2000 except for three years (2004-06) when the tournament was in Denver. The Rebels have won three Mountain West tournaments but none since 2008.
Utah State has won the last two Mountain West tournaments. San Diego State has won the most conference tournaments in Mountain West history with five (2002, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2018). New Mexico has won four (2005, 2012-14) and is the only team to win three in a row. Nevada (like Fresno State and Wyoming) has won just one tournament (2017). The Wolf Pack was last year’s No. 3 seed and was upset by No. 11-seed Wyoming.
Air Force, San Jose State and Boise State have never won the Mountain West tournament.
The Nevada Appeal’s Mountain West men’s basketball rankings:
1. SAN DIEGO STATE (20-4, 14-3): Last week: San Diego State 71, UNLV 62 (March 3). This week: San Diego State vs. San Jose State-Wyoming winner at Las Vegas (March 11), Noon, CBS Sports Network.
2. UTAH STATE (18-7, 15-4): Last week: Utah State 72, Wyoming 59 (March 4), Utah State 57, Fresno State 51 (March 6). This week: Utah State vs. Air Force-UNLV winner at Las Vegas (March 11), 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network.
3. COLORADO STATE (17-5, 14-4): Last week: Colorado State 74, Air Force 44 (March 1), Colorado State 87, New Mexico 73 (March 3), Nevada 85, Colorado State 82 (March 5). This week: Colorado State vs. New Mexico-Fresno State winner at Las Vegas (March 11), 8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network.
4. NEVADA (15-9, 10-7): Last week: Nevada 85, Colorado State 82 (March 5). This week: Nevada vs. Boise State at Las Vegas (March 11), 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network.
5. BOISE STATE (18-7, 14-6): Last week: Fresno State 67, Boise State 64 (March 2). This week: Boise State vs. Nevada, Las Vegas (March 11), 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network.
6. FRESNO STATE (11-11, 9-10): Last week: Fresno State 67, Boise State 64 (March 2), Utah State 57, Fresno State 51 (March 6). This week: Fresno State vs. New Mexico at Las Vegas (March 10), 4 p.m.
7. WYOMING (13-10, 7-9): Last week: Utah State 72, Wyoming 59 (March 4); Wyoming 80, UNLV 69 (March 6). This week: Wyoming vs. San Jose State at Las Vegas (March 10), 11 a.m.
8. UNLV (11-14, 8-10): Last week: San Diego State 71, UNLV 62 (March 3), Wyoming 80, UNLV 69 (March 6). This week: UNLV vs. Air Force at Las Vegas (March 10), 1:30 p.m.
9. SAN JOSE STATE (5-15, 3-13): Last week: Idle. This week: San Jose State vs. Wyoming at Las Vegas (March 10), 11 a.m.
10. AIR FORCE (5-19, 3-17): Last week: Colorado State 74, Air Force 44 (March 1). This week: Air Force vs. UNLV at Las Vegas (March 10), 1:30 p.m.
11. NEW MEXICO (6-15, 2-15): Last week: Colorado State 87, New Mexico 73 (March 3). This week: New Mexico vs. Fresno State at Las Vegas (March 10), 4 p.m.