When it comes to the “mid-majors”, all of the attention goes to the AAC and the Big East. Let’s be honest. Those are major conferences as far as college basketball goes. The leader of the next tier is the Mountain West Conference. Year in and year out, this is a solid group of teams. These teams have the ability to make some noise come tournament time and there are a lot of good players coming through this conference each season.
That is true again of the MWC for the 2019-20 season. We could see a noteworthy changing of the guard from Nevada to one of the other hopefuls. Eric Musselman is now at Alabama and the Martin twins, Jordan Caroline, and Trey Porter are among those that have moved on.
Musselman didn’t leave the cupboard bare in Reno, but Steve Alford has quite a task ahead of him. It feels like he did less with more at UCLA, but the Bruins did make three Sweet Sixteen appearances on his watch.
Anytime a program experiences losses at the mid-major level, the sharks start to circle. Utah State was a tournament team last season and is the +150 favorite win the automatic bid from the MWC per the odds at DraftKings Sportsbook. The Aggies won the conference tournament last season, not by beating Nevada, but by beating San Diego State. That serves as a reminder that teams like SDSU, New Mexico, and Boise State can make some moves as well. Even UNLV, who is well down the board as a long shot, has had more than a few moments in conference tournaments and the Big Dance.
Utah State has the conference’s best player in Sam Merrill. Is that enough to justify the +150 price tag? Probably not, but Craig Smith’s first year in Logan went really well after four seasons with South Dakota in the Summit League. In four seasons with South Dakota, Smith took a team that ranked well into the 200s and put them into the top 100, including a 23-7 conference record over his last two seasons. With a good group established at Utah State, he went 28-7 overall and 15-3 in conference play with one of the country’s best defensive teams.
Merrill was held to 10 points on 2-of-9 shooting against Washington in the NCAA Tournament, but he averaged almost 21 points per game and is the favorite for Conference Player of the Year. That is one of many reasons why Utah State is the favorite.
Nevada is +250, but with a new head coach and a ton of scoring to replace, the Wolf Pack may be lined more on reputation than reality, much like we see in the MAC with the Buffalo Bulls. That being said, Nevada still has some high-upside guard play in Lindsey Drew, Jazz Johnson, and Jalen Harris. Considering the success that Alford had with guards at UCLA, maybe we shouldn’t turn our back on the Wolf Pack so soon.
San Diego State was the runner-up in the conference tournament last season and looks poised to make another run this season at +400. The problem with this price is that the Aztecs have started slowly in conference play and have found a groove as the season has gone along. It would be in your best interest to wait on this one and try to get a better price later, as the Aztecs lost three of last season’s four most productive players.
Do the Boise State Broncos, pardon the pun, have the horses to make a run? This is a solid, but unspectacular team. Last year’s shortcomings were the exception and not the norm for Boise State. A game effort against Nevada in the conference tournament was a positive sign for things to come, but it is hard to erase the memory of Boise losing 11 of its last 14 conference regular season games. The +650 price just isn’t good enough to give them a look.
Fresno State lost a lot from last season. Colorado State is rebuilding. Air Force returns a lot of talent, but that talent underachieved last season with a sixth-place finish and the metrics weren’t super high on the Falcons. Is there a surprise team waiting in the wings?
Consider New Mexico. The +1400 price tag for a team with a ceiling like the Lobos is hard to pass up. Conversely, the floor could be very low for UNM. The Lobos about hit that floor last season with Paul Weir, as they went 14-18 and 7-11 in conference play. Maybe the Lobos got big-headed after a resounding 85-58 win over Nevada, because they went 5-11 in conference play after that. This team has all the hallmarks of a long shot to consider.
If the Mountain West was a board game, it would be called Ceilings and Floors instead of Chutes and Ladders. There are a couple of teams with truly high floors and one of them is the favorite and the best bet to win this conference.
Best Bet: Utah State
2019-2020 Mountain West Basketball Conference Winner Odds:
|San Diego State||+400|
|San José State||+5000|