Stephen Vilardo’s 2024 Mtn West Tournament Title Preview

For the first time since 2020, the No. 1 seed will not win the MW Conference Tournament

Posted on March 16, 2024

  By Stephen Vilardo, SuperWest Sports

As competitive and as wide open as the Mountain West was this season, is it a surprise to anyone that the Championship game will feature the five seed against the six seed?

This is not your typical underdog story in either case though. San Diego State is coming off a run to the NCAA title game last season and has the best player in the conference.

Heading into the final week of the season they were in the mix for a share of the league title before dropping their last two regular season games.

New Mexico has a team loaded with talent and spent time in the top 25 before a slump to close out the season.

For the first time since 2020, the No. 1 seed will not win the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

And for the first time since 2019, the number one seed will not be playing for the title.

No. 6 New Mexico vs. No. 5 San Diego State

Saturday, March 16
3:00 pm, CBS

While some things seem different, others seem oh-so similar. For the seventh consecutive season Brian Dutcher and San Diego State will play for in the championship game of the conference tournament.

Not only is it seven straight conference title appearances for the Aztecs, but it is now an appearance in the final for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons.

San Diego State is in search of their eighth MW Tournament Championship, and second consecutive, as they are appearing in the final for the 16th time.

New Mexico is looking to cut down the nets for the fifth time ever and the first time since 2014. UNM is also appearing in the MW Final for the eighth time.

In their win over top-seeded Utah State, the Aztecs shot 52% from the floor in the second half and were led by Jaedon LeDee who went for 22 points and 8 rebounds.

The Aztecs’ ability to score the basketball and shoot well in Vegas is big. SDSU will always defend well, but now the offense is starting to come along as well.

That is a good sign and similar to the way they started their run in March a year ago.

SDSU had great depth in the semifinals as five players scored in double figures last night.

Perhaps the most promising stat to come out of the semifinal win for the Aztecs was that they committed just five turnovers for the game. Replicating that in the finals against the Lobos pesky defense will be big.

That pesky defense was active in the semifinal win over CSU creating 14 turnovers leading to 22 points.

Jaelen House was in control for the Lobos in Friday’s 13-point win with eight assists vs. no turnovers and was able to push the pace with two steals. He added 19 points as well.

New Mexico vs San Diego State Jan 13 | Eric Draper/AP

San Diego State relies on their defense, and they will force opponents to hit contested shots and collect the rebounds off of those missed shots.

They are not going to force a lot of turnovers and create a lot of fastbreak opportunities, but they will make you work for every point.

New Mexico will need to knock down their shots against the Aztecs and push the pace to create easy buckets when they can.

The Lobos can also get things done on the defensive end. New Mexico held Colorado State scoreless for the final 6:48 of the first half, and this was after opening the game with an 11-0 run.

The Lobos were particularly good defensively in the half-court against a team that is exceptionally good in their half-court sets. UNM limited the Rams to 34.1% from the field, CSU shot 48.8% on the season.

Normally the Lobos create their offense on the defensive end. The Lobos average 8.8 steals per game.

While UNM is getting a steal on 11.8% of possessions, San Diego State’s opponents are just getting a steal on just 8.7% of possessions, and in the MW tournament that total has dipped below 5%.

The Aztecs only turned the ball over five times in the win over Utah State. That will be a key to watch in this one.

If New Mexico can get things going in transition, the Lobos could have an edge. If the Aztecs can keep possession, they will be able to control the pace of the contest.

The Aztecs and Lobos met twice in the regular season with the home team winning both games. In Albuquerque, the hosts scored 24 fastbreak points with 16 points scored off 13 Aztec turnovers.

In the Aztecs’ win in Viejas, UNM scored 26 points off 20 SDSU turnovers but only nine fastbreak points. The Aztecs were able to control the pace in the 11-point win as they limited the Lobos to 35.5% from the floor.

San Diego State vs New Mexico Feb. 16 | K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune

The Aztecs also countered the turnovers with sharp shooting when they kept control of the ball. San Diego State 56.9% from the floor to get the win.

New Mexico is also active in protecting the rim. The Lobos are 24th in the nation with a blocked shot rate of 8.4% this season. They have blocked 16 shots in their two games this week.

San Diego State has only seen 5.5% of their field goal attempts this season.

The Lobos outrebounded the Aztecs in both ball games this season. A 47-37 advantage in their win and a slim 33-32 edge in the contest won by SDSU.

Granted, the way the Aztecs shot the ball in their win there were not a lot of opportunities for rebounds, especially on their end of the court.

If San Diego State wants a back-to-back title in Vegas, they cannot afford to be as careless with the basketball.

Jamal Mashburn missed New Mexico’s season finale with an illness and needed fluids during the second half of the win over Colorado State. His health and availability will be huge as four games in four days will take a toll.

The Aztecs are safely in the NCAA tournament and are playing only for seeding at this point. The Lobos should be in but could still get stung by some bid stealers around the nation.

You have to think they have played their way into the field, but a win is the only way to guarantee they hear their name on Sunday evening.

As good as New Mexico has played, the Aztecs are looking like a team that has found things this week.

This one may come down to the final possession, but in the end, I think SDSU will cut down the nets and UNM will hope they did enough to extend the season to the NCAA Tournament.

—More from Stephen Vilardo—