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Mountain West men’s basketball preview: How does Wyoming stack up against as deep of a league as ever?

(University of Wyoming via Twitter)

Is the hype real this year for Wyoming men’s basketball?

Time will tell if that’s ultimately true, but there’s little to complain about in Laramie in the season’s early goings.

A hot start to the season has the Pokes looking like contenders in the Mountain West Conference, in which they begin play against Boise State at 2 p.m. Saturday at Arena-Auditorium. Oil City/Cap City will provide coverage of the game on its platforms.

But Mountain West, no slouch normally, looks especially stacked this year. It’s entirely possible that the conference could feature multiple NCAA Tournament bids come March. Whether or not Wyoming gets one for the first time since 2015 likely depends heavily on its play during the league season.

Here’s a look at what’s been going right and wrong across teams in the MWC universe as Wyoming and its league foes aim for glory over the next couple of months.

Wyoming Cowboys

Record: 11–2 

The highs: The Cowboys are on their best start to a season since 2016-17 — when future NBA Draft pick Justin James was coming into his own as a sophomore — with coach Jeff Linder being just three wins away from equaling his total last season. Center Graham Ike might be the Mountain West’s best big man (19.5 points, 8.4 rebounds) as he currently leads the NCAA in 2-point field goals made (93).

The lows: A blowout loss at Arizona, which is looking more and more like a national title contender, has looked more understandable over time, but the Pokes have to be wishing they had a narrow defeat to Stanford back. Also, Wyoming doesn’t have a win over a team better than 120th in KenPom rankings, something that could come back to bite the Cowboys when the meat of MWC play comes along.

What makes them dangerous: Beyond Ike, a mountain of a man that few can outsize in college basketball, the Pokes smother backcourts defensively on the perimeter as the nation’s No. 1 team in steal rate (5.8%). Fifth-year guard Hunter Maldonado (17.3 points, 52.9% field goal percentage) also looks to be amid a career year.

Colorado State Rams

Record: 10–0

The highs: Can “everything” be an answer? The Rams are unbeaten through 10 games for the first time since 2014-15 and have thoroughly deserved their current No. 20 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25. Double-digit wins against Creighton on a neutral site and Saint Mary’s at home are the most eye-popping results, while junior guard David Roddy is putting up astounding numbers (20.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 46.9% from 3) as a legit All-America candidate.

The lows: There aren’t many, but CSU did have to come back from down double digits against Mississippi State in its last game December 11. COVID-19 issues within the team also canceled what would’ve been a titanic matchup with No. 19 Alabama on December 21. Furthermore, the Rams are putrid at getting second-chance looks, ranking 355th in the country — fourth-to-last — in offensive rebounds per game at 5.8.

What makes them dangerous: This might be the best shooting team in America, no matter the conference or location. Colorado State as a team shoots 43.8% from 3-point range, which is an absurd 1.4% better than any other team in the country, and ranks among the elite in just about every offensive category. Plus, the Rams’ passing prowess is underrated as they manage a top-20 mark nationally at 17.5 dishes a night.

San Diego State Aztecs

Record: 8–3

The highs: Another year, another season of San Diego State being squarely in the upper echelon of the Mountain West. All three of the Aztecs’ losses (BYU, USC and Michigan) have come to teams either currently or formerly ranked in the AP Top 25. Transfer guard Matt Bradley — a two-time All-Pac 12 nominee at Cal — has had a smooth transition to the move to southern California with 14.7 points per game thus far this year.

The lows: There’s nothing alarmingly wrong at the moment for coach Brian Dutcher’s team, except maybe free throw shooting. San Diego State shoots 65.7% from the foul line, which ranks in the 300s in Division I. With Dutcher being a defense-first coach, offense doesn’t come as easy as you’d think for the Aztecs; a 46.9% team mark from inside the 3-point line is well below the national average.

What makes them dangerous: Experience and guarding the ball. There are seven seniors on the roster and 10 total upperclassmen, making the Aztecs used to the speed and knowledge required to succeed at the college level. Teams only score an average of 58.5 points on SDSU for a top-20 mark nationally, an impressive mark considering its solid nonconference slate.

Boise State Broncos

Record: 10–4

The highs: Wyoming’s league-opening opponent has a gnarly defense (58.2 points allowed per game) and is brimming with plenty of confidence as it enters Laramie riding a seven-game winning streak. The Broncos’ last two wins against Washington State and Fresno State, two teams that should be right in the thick of the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation, were especially impressive.

The lows: Remember how San Diego State is a bad free throw shooting team? Well, Boise State is bad with a capital B and an exclamation point. Its rate from the foul line of 60.7% is sixth worst in the country. Moreover, the Broncos are prone to cold shooting streaks, like when they shot 6 for 32 from 3-point range in a no-good, very bad 46–39 loss to Cal State Bakersfield on November 26.

What makes them dangerous: When senior forward Abu Kigab gets going, he’s a force to be reckoned with in the paint. Posting career highs of 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, the Canadian has been a big part of Boise State’s winning streak, like when he had a 32-point double-double with three blocks in the Broncos’ blowout win over Prairie View A&M on December 10.

Fresno State Bulldogs

Record: 10–4

The highs: Mentioning defense so much around this conference seems like it’s getting repetitive, but the Bulldogs are too good at it to not mention. Teams average just 55.6 points per game (fifth in the country) on Fresno State as it simply does not allow opponents to get many quality shots off. 

The lows: The Bulldogs can’t really shoot (30.5% from 3-point range) and fell flat in their MWC opener to Boise State, where they lost 65–55 and shot a grand total of two (!) free throws. Junior forward Orlando Robinson is an incredible player (more on him in a second) but he doesn’t get much help, with no one else on the roster averaging more than 8.6 points per game.

What makes them dangerous: Yeah, Orlando Robinson is pretty good. The 7-footer has been an awesome presence on the low block for three seasons now in Fresno, but a career-high 18.7 points on 51.6% shooting — to go along with 8.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks — makes it feel like there’s a new level to his game. He’s also shooting (and making) more 3-pointers than ever in his college career, leaving him unguardable at points some nights.

Utah State Aggies

Record: 9–5

The highs: Utah State has the ability to put the ball in the basket from just about anywhere on the floor, having current top-35 shooting percentages nationally from both inside and outside the 3-point arc. A 73–70 neutral-site win over a good Oklahoma team last month will also greatly help the Aggies’ NCAA Tournament hopes as they look to get to their third straight Big Dance.

The lows: The Aggies’ 49–47 loss in their league opener to Air Force was truly bizarre, especially considering they shot a horrid (and unusual) 1 for 19 from 3-point range (5.3%). A home loss to UC Davis way back during their season opener November 9 wasn’t great, either, especially considering UC Davis lost by 19 points later in the year to Academy of Art. Yes, it lost by double digits — at home! — to a Division II art school.

What makes them dangerous: How do you replace a two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year (Neemias Queta) that went to the NBA Draft last year? Just fill in the void with another fantastic two-way player Justin Bean, who is having the season of his life at 19.8 points, 10.4 rebounds on an astounding 65.6% from the field. All of those aforementioned marks are currently first or second in the MWC at the moment, by the way.

Air Force Falcons

Record: 8–4

The highs: The Falcons’ current record is actually their best start to a season since 2015-16, and they caught some eyeballs around the league with a great win over Utah State in their conference opener. Guard A.J. Walker was an All-Mountain West nod last year and looks on pace for another one with a career-high 16.7 points per game.

The lows: This is nothing new for Air Force — academy height limits put the Falcons at a disadvantage inside — but it’s one of the worst rebounding teams in America as it only manages 28.4 total boards a game, second-to-last in the country. The bigger problem might actually be turnovers; on paper, Air Force averages 15 per game, but it plays so few possessions as a slow-paced offense that it actually has an alarmingly high turnover percentage (23.7%).

What makes them dangerous: A molasses-stiff offense like Air Force’s (it averages 20.2 seconds a possession) isn’t appealing to the eye, but it can sure be effective with the right personnel. Just ask Utah State, who was heavily favored but was frustrated into a loss by shooting poorly and not getting as many shots off as it wanted in the first place. As a military academy, the Falcons are going to run it with discipline and precision as well.

UNLV Rebels

Record: 8–5

The highs: The Runnin’ Rebels don’t really have a bad loss as coach Kevin Kruger is off to a solid start in his first year as head coach. They’re still in need of that signature win, but there’s plenty of opportunities on the conference slate to do so. It helps that UNLV has two former top-100 recruits, Bryce Hamilton and Donovan Williams, both balling out late in their college careers.

The lows: UNLV hasn’t necessarily been atrocious in any department, but in both shooting (31.1%) and guarding (34.6%) the 3-pointer could be better in a conference full of teams that love to launch deep balls. But with the exception of a one-point loss to Wichita State, none of the Runnin’ Rebels’ losses have been particularly close, causing concern that they may have hit their ceiling early.

What makes them dangerous: Hamilton and Williams have the natural ability to play with anyone, but it’s the team’s experience as a whole that really sets it apart. Players on the roster have an average of 2.47 years’ college experience, and some of the move-ins Kruger got in the offseason — like Texas transfer Royce Hamm and West Virginia transfer Jordan McCabe — have been solid contributors.

New Mexico Lobos

Record: 7–6

The highs: Coach Richard Pitino’s hyper-aggressive philosophy gets the Lobos to the foul line 23.3 times a game (seventh in the country). And almost three decades after Pitino’s father Rick coached former NBA All-Star Jamal Mashburn at Kentucky, Richard is coaching Jamal Mashburn, Jr. in the desert — and like his father, he’s a pretty good player too (18.4 points per game). 

The lows: The defense can get pretty bad. Some of it is a product of the way New Mexico plays, but the Lobos are lucky to have won two of the three games in which they gave up 90 points or more.

What makes them dangerous: For better or for worse, New Mexico is going to play with an exciting style. Games are frequently shootouts, and if shots fall, it’s hard to keep up. Rival New Mexico State, the Western Athletic Conference’s favorite to go to the NCAA Tournament, found that out the hard way as the Lobos won 101-94 on November 30.

Nevada Wolfpack

Record: 6–5

The highs: Nevada has about as solid of a group of four starters as you get, with Grant Sherfield, Desmond Cambridge, Will Baker and Warren Washington all averaging at least 11 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. At 77.5% from the foul line as a team as well, the Wolfpack will often punish you if you get too aggressive with them.

The lows: Coach Steve Alford had a great base set up for him three years ago after former coach Eric Musselman left for Arkansas following three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Well, Alford hasn’t made a tournament yet since he took over. A near-miss in a three-point loss at San Francisco this season, who should be in the thick of the hunt for a bid, especially hurts.

What makes them dangerous: Height, and lots of it. Nevada’s roster averages out at just over 6’5″ to make it one of the tallest programs in Division I, with 7-footer Washington leading the team with 1.5 blocks per game. That length and wingspan helps when guarding players on the wings, too, as the Wolfpack get steals on 7.5% of defensive possessions, well ahead of the national average. 

San Jose State Spartans

Record: 6–5

The highs: The Spartans are a team that can catch a lot of other programs off guard. A 38.7% mark from the 3-point line is top 20 nationally and guard Omari Moore is a great do-it-all player at 15.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. At six wins under first-year coach Tim Miles, that’s already more victories than just one of the four full seasons under previous coach Jean Prioleau. 

The lows: This is still a team with a lot of growing to do as the Spartans aren’t expected to create much damage on the Mountain West slate. The absence of 7-footer Ibrahima Diallo over the past three games has also robbed San Jose State of one of its few inside presences, something the Spartans can’t tolerate for long against some of the towers of the league.

What makes them dangerous: Miles knows the league well, having taken Colorado State to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, and has had eight seasons over .500 across four programs dating back to 2006. There will be games this year in league play where the Spartans punch above their weight; it’s just hard to predict when.