The 2023 Mountain West Tournament is here and the possibilities are endless.
The beauty and the challenge of the single-elimination format is that what you did in December or even February basically no longer matters. Whether you are a top 25 team or a perennial loser, everybody gets the same opportunity to compete on the court for a championship. And while the process may be imperfect — at times it allows flukey squads to advance — the result is a wonderfully chaotic experience.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at the 2023 Mountain West Tournament and dive into what you should know going into it.
Can anyone push SDSU?
San Diego State is favored to win the whole thing and rightfully so. The depth and experience that the Aztecs bring to the table is absurd.
On a team that went 24-6 overall and 15-3 against league competition, Brian Dutcher did not have a single guy average more than 30 minutes per contest. It was not for a lack of trustworthy options either. As the Rams found out the hard way in the loss at Viejas Arena, when one experienced and skilled individual goes to the bench, another one that’s just as good from the rotation goes in to replace him.
Being able to bring a big like Jaedon LeDee off the bench, a guy that would start for every other team in the conference, is a perfect example of the embarrassment of riches that SDSU currently possesses.
As deep as SDSU is though, and they really are extremely deep, in a year where we’ve already seen some weirdness due to how good the league is from top to bottom, one shouldn’t rule out the possibility of an upset or two along the way.
Teams like New Mexico and Utah State have shown that when they get hot from deep, their fast-paced offenses are capable of causing trouble for anyone. It would not be surprising to see either score 80+ on an opponent or maybe make a push for the title game.
And that’s not even getting into Boise State or Nevada, both of which have likely already secured at-large bids regardless of how things play out at the Thomas and Mack Center for them.
Along with the aforementioned, San Jose State, CSU and Wyoming all have talented enough guards to take over and slay a giant in the conference tournament. All three had representatives on the all-conference teams and the Spartans even had the MW Player of the Year (Omari Moore).
While they probably won’t make a ton of noise this week, Air Force and Fresno State have proved to be tricky at times as well, largely due to the uniqueness of their respective styles.
Opening Round vs. Fresno State
CSU went 2-0 against the Bulldogs this season, which means that the Rams should have confidence going into the matchup, but also recognize the challenges of trying to beat the same opponent three times.
Offensively, the Bulldogs tend to be inconsistent, though they are coming off of a 108-72 win over Chicago State. Fresno was led by Jemarl Baker in that one, as he finished with the single-game school record for points in a game (43).
What you really need to know about the Bulldogs though, is that they will absolutely try to bully you on the defensive end. They have a ton of length. And they’re great at getting in your grill, clogging up passing lanes and pressuring opponents into poor offensive possessions.
Coming off of CSU’s best offensive output of the year, albeit against lax defense, it will be really interesting to see what kind of looks the Rams are able to create from the floor.
It will be interesting to see what type of game we get as well. CSU pretty much dominated the first meeting, however, they were probably lucky to escape Fresno with a comeback win in the second.
Why the Rams can make a run
If you believe in CSU’s potential, it’s most likely because of the experience that they have at guard. Isaiah Stevens is the best true point guard in the Mountain West and John Tonje is playing some of the best ball of his career.
While they are very different styles of players, both are capable of taking over a game and shouldering the majority of the scoring if needed. We’ve seen Stevens and Tonje each drop 30 on someone without breaking much of a sweat.
What’s particularly important about these two though, is the fact that they can create a quality look for themselves anywhere on the court. When it’s win or go home, there are times where you need to be able to trust someone to put the ball on the floor and just go make something happen. These are the guys that can do that for the Rams.
What could hold CSU back
CSU has not been very consistent on the defensive end this season. If you are looking for a reason to fade the Rams, the fact that they rank last in the conference in defensive efficiency is a good place to start.
The other big concern is how streaky this group seems to be. When things are clicking on the offensive end, CSU’s good is really good. The problem is that their bad is just as dramatic. There are times where it feels like the Rams go so dry that they wouldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. It’s hard not to worry about that going into the tournament, particularly given who CSU would have to get through in order to even make it to the semifinals.