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Steve Vilardo’s MW Friday 1st-Round Big Dance Previews

SDSU, New Mexico, and Utah State give the Conference three shots at redemption today

Posted on March 21, 2024

  By Stephen Vilardo, SuperWest Sports

All three Mountain West teams that have played in the NCAA Tournament through Thursday have been eliminated.

However, San Diego State, New Mexico, and Utah State are slated to take the court today, giving the Conference three more chances to redeem itself.

I preview the remaining First-Round matchups here and my picks appear below.

12-seed UAB vs. 5-seed San Diego State

Friday, March 22
10:45 am PT, TNT
Spokane, WA

For the 11th time in the last 15 seasons, the Aztecs are playing in the NCAA tournament. This year they face the AAC tournament champ UAB.

SDSU opened their run to the NCAA title game a season ago as the No. 5 seed as well.

The Aztecs hold a significant edge over the Blazers, especially on the defensive side of the floor. SDSU is allowing just 67.3 points per game this season.

UAB can score an average of 77.4 per outing. During their run to the AAC title, they averaged 83.3 points per game.

San Diego State doesn’t give up anything easy on the defensive side, ranking 32nd in the nation with a 41.1% FG defense. The Blazers are scooting just 56% on non-blocked two-point attempts and 45% on all FGs.

The Blazers are a team that San Diego State should have no trouble scoring against, with 75.8 points per contest average, ranking them 241st nationally.

UAB has some guards that can score with the best of them, including Alejandro Vasquez and Eric Gaines. Gaines can be menacing on the perimeter as he had three blocks in the AAC title game.

Aztec's Jaedon LeDee | SDSU Athletics
Aztec’s Jaedon LeDee | SDSU Athletics

Inside, the strength of the Blazers is Yaxel Lendeborg who has posted 19 double-doubles this season, tied for the fifth most in the nation.

The UAB big man is averaging 14.0 rebounds per 40 minutes played, 19th most in the country.

At 6-foot-9, he will equal Jaedon LeDee in size, but LeDee is much more polished than the former JC All-American.

An interesting dynamic in this one could be the crowd. The Aztecs have the geographic advantage in Spokane, but the pod is filled with the state of Alabama.

Auburn and Bama are both playing in Spokane and you have to wonder how many of those fans may be pulling for UAB?

The defense will have to keep the high-powered Blazers in check as this is a game SDSU can’t fall behind in. Overcoming a large deficit could be a problem. But I don’t think that will happen.

While the Aztecs have had trouble scoring at times, I think they will get points in this one and march on.

11-seed New Mexico vs. 6-seed Clemson

Friday, March 22
12:10 pm PT, truTV
Memphis, TN

New Mexico played their way into the NCAA field with their championship in Las Vegas on Saturday.

While they were pretty firmly on the bubble, again I think the Lobos are under-seeded quite a bit at an 11.

Either way, I really like the matchup in the opening round with Clemson. The Tigers shoot the ball better than the Lobos with an effective FG rate of 53.9% to 51.0%, but most metrics tilt toward New Mexico.

Extra scoring chances per game is a stat that heavily favors New Mexico. The Lobos are fourth in the nation at +6.3 per game while Clemson is –0.4 per contest.

A big reason for this is turnovers. UNM is forcing a turnover on 19% of possessions and getting a steal on 11.7% of possessions.

The total rebound rate for these teams is nearly identical but the offensive rebound rate again is heavy in the Lobos’ favor 31.1%-26.1%—their difference of ranks in that category is 62-202.

UNM's Jaelen House | Steve Marcus/AP
UNM’s Jaelen House | Steve Marcus/AP

The one major issue for the Lobos could be the play of PJ Hall underneath.

The Clemson center has posted 14 20-point games this season and is one of just four players in the nation averaging at least 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.5 blocked shots per game.

Nelly Joseph could have his hands full on the low block.

Guard play goes a long way in March and the Lobos certainly have talent in the backcourt with Donovan Dent, Jamal Mashburn, and Jaelen House.

And that guard play goes deep with Jamarl Baker among the best in the nation in turnover-to-assist ratio. Combine that with JT Toppin and Nelly Joseph and the Lobos will be a difficult out for anyone.

I think the extra opportunities created by turnovers and second-chance points will be the difference in this one and lead to a win for New Mexico.

9-seed TCU vs. 8-seed Utah State

Friday, March 22
6:55 pm PT, TBS
Indianapolis, IN

Utah State is another team from the Conference that seems to have got a rough go of it from a seeding standpoint. An eight-seed for the regular season conference champions seems low.

It does however match the best seed in program history. And with the eighth seed comes a difficult matchup with TCU.

The one thing the Horned Frogs do not do well is hold on to the basketball. TCU is 237th in the nation with a turnover rate of 17.5%. Utah State has a turnover rate of 15.4% ranking 89th.,

Despite the turnover woes for TCU, they still rank 14th in the country with an average of 4.8 more scoring chances per game than opponents.

That is a result of TCU ranking 15th in the country with 14.9 turnovers forced per game. A big reason for that is their offensive rebound rate of 33.8%, the 20th-best in America.

A strength of Utah State is not giving up a lot of offensive rebounds. The Aggies are 34th in the nation with a defensive rebound rate of 76.9%.

It seems pretty easy to see what a major key in Indianapolis on Friday will be. USU must limit the second-chance opportunities for TCU.

Utah State's Great Osobor | Ronda Churchill/AP
Utah State’s Great Osobor | Ronda Churchill/AP

TCU also enters the tournament not playing their best basketball having lost four of their last six with the wins coming over Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tourney and a win over lowly West Virginia.

The Frogs are just 5-7 since the calendar turned over to February.

TCU averages 18.1 fastbreak points per game and has 22.5% of its scoring via the fastbreak; both lead the NCAA. Utah State needs to limit the turnovers and keep the Horned Frogs from getting out and running.

Great Osobor will have to have a big game for the Aggies and his 15 double-doubles this season are tied for the 20th most in the nation.

But Utah State is balanced. The Aggies can get scoring from anyone on the floor, and it could come from a different source.

While Osobor is the leading scorer, USU is built to weather a game in which he may not score a lot of points.

In a very tight game that could see plenty of scoring, I like the Aggies to keep playing into the weekend.

Result: Dayton 63, Nevada 60

Thursday, March 21
1:30 pm PT, TBS
Salt Lake City, UT

Nevada is another Mountain West team that is seeded far lower than they should be, as a 10. The Wolf Pack, however, have a bit of a favorable draw in Dayton.

The Flyers lost their opener in the A-10 Tournament, scoring just 57 points after averaging 89.9 in their opening three games in March. Playing UD in Salt Lake City is also an advantage for the Pack.

Dayton enters the NCAA Tournament with just a 5-4 mark in their last nine games played while Nevada has been red hot the last two months of the season winning 10 of their last 12 games since the start of February.

Dayton has a legitimate defender in DeRon Holmes II, who last week was named the A-10 defender of the year.

Holmes is a versatile big man underneath, the only player in the nation with more than 65 blocks, 65 dunks, and 65 assists this season. He ranks 20th in the country with 1.1 blocked shots per foul committed.

Nevada coach Steve Alford | Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Nevada coach Steve Alford | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Wolf Pack are really efficient at getting their shots up though ranking 23rd nationally with a shot blocked rate of just 4.4%.

A big issue in this one could come at the FT line. Nevada is third in the nation with .462 FT/FG attempts and is fourth nationally with 26.3 made foul shots per 100 possessions.

Dayton does a good job of defending without fouling, though. They are committing a foul on just 20.2% of possessions, ranking 12th in the nation.

If the Wolf Pack can get to the line like they are used to and get to the Flyers bench a bit, they should be in good shape.

A win on Thursday would make Steve Alford only the second coach in NCAA history to win a tournament game at five different schools, joining Lon Kruger.

I think Alford will join that list and they could be playing into the second weekend of the tournament. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Result: Texas 56, ColoradoState 44

Thursday, March 21
3:50 pm PT, TNT
Charlotte, NC

The Rams were the last team invited to the NCAA tournament and they are going to be sticking around a little longer, thanks to their dominant win over Virginia.

Next up: Seventh-seeded Texas.

The Longhorns were challenged all year in the Big 12, easily the nation’s best conference this season. Eleven of UT’s 32 games were against ranked opponents, with eight of them played outside of Austin.

The Rams proved they were the more physical team in the win over UVA as they owned the paint with a 36-20 edge in scoring in the lane and a 37-17 advantage on the boards.

Gaining an inside edge on the glass against the Longhorns could be a bit more of a challenge.

Texas was a better rebounding team this season than Virginia. The Horns have a total rebound rate of 50.7%, whereas Colorado State’s rate this season is 50%.

Whichever team does a better job on the glass in this game could emerge victorious.

Texas goes as their defense goes. In their 20 wins this season, the Horns have allowed 63.5 points per game on 39.6% from the field.

In the 12 losses, they have given up 80.6 per outing on 49.6% from the floor. The rebound margin in the wins was +5.9 while they were -7.1 on the glass in the losses.

Rams' Isaiah Stevens | Jeff Dean/AP
Rams’ Isaiah Stevens | Jeff Dean/AP

Colorado State is an outstanding shooting team, ranking 16th in the nation shooting 48.4% from the field.

Part of the reason the Rams have shot the ball so well has been their ball movement. CSU has an assist rate of 65.3%, ranking third in the nation.

Often in the NCAA Tournament, the guards tend to take over. Both Texas and Colorado State have players who could play that role.

Isaiah Stevens can light it up on any given night, and that—coupled with his ability to distribute the ball—could prove challenging for Texas.

UT’s Max Abmas is scoring 17.1 points per game. The grad student is now the eighth-highest-scoring player in D-I history with 3,110 points in his career.

The challenge will be stiffer this time, but with a game under their belt and confidence gained from the performance on Tuesday, the Rams keep dancing.


Stephen Vilardo’s Game Picks

MW Matchups in 2024 NCAA Tournament


No. 12 UAB vs. No. 5 San Diego State
Mar 22, 10:45 AM PT
San Diego State
No. 11 New Mexico vs. No. 6 Clemson
Mar 22, 12:10 PM PT
New Mexico
No. 9 TCU vs. No. 8 Utah State
Mar 22, 6:55 PM PT
Utah State
This Week 1-3 (25%)
 Overall Record 125-48-0 (72%)

—More from Stephen Vilardo—