‘Dynamic’ Mountain West hoops race could see 6 teams move on to March Madness

FILE - New Mexico head coach Richard Pitino reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado State, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Albuquerque, N.M. Pitino said. "The better everybody's doing with NET rankings and KenPom and all those things, it just helps it. It'll be fun to see how it all plays out and it will certainly make for an amazing Mountain West tournament." (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)

FILE – New Mexico head coach Richard Pitino reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado State, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Albuquerque, N.M. Pitino said. “The better everybody’s doing with NET rankings and KenPom and all those things, it just helps it. It’ll be fun to see how it all plays out and it will certainly make for an amazing Mountain West tournament.” (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Brian Dutcher has experienced all 25 seasons of Mountain West basketball and he’s never seen one as crazy as this one.

A season after Dutcher’s San Diego State Aztecs became the first Mountain West team to reach the Final Four, the conference could have a record six teams reach the NCAA Tournament.

“Unbelievable,” Dutcher said of the race in the Mountain West, which stretches from San Diego’s beaches to the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains and into the high desert of New Mexico, where the Lobos would love to rejoin March Madness after a decade away. “It’s dynamic. You’ve just got to enjoy every win you get.”

For the longest time, several teams were within one game of the lead. The reigning regular-season and conference tournament champion Aztecs, ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press poll and led by power forward Jaedon LeDee, could have jumped into the lead two weeks ago but lost at Utah State. The No. 22 Aggies continued their unexpected run under first-year coach Danny Sprinkle when they clinched at least a share of the regular-season title by winning at San Jose State on Wednesday night.

The Aggies can claim their first outright regular-season championship with a win Saturday against New Mexico. Utah State made the NCAA Tournament last season but was picked to finish ninth in the league this year after adding 13 new players and returning zero points from last year’s team.

“You know there’s something special,” Sprinkle said. “We’ll probably realize that a lot more in a couple of years. … To have 13 brand new guys playing together, it’s pretty incredible.”

The Aztecs have no shot at the title following a four-point loss at UNLV on Tuesday night that magnified their shooting woes and road struggles. One of the worst-shooting teams in the league, the Aztecs made just 28.1% of their shots and lost their sixth conference road game. The highest seed they can get in the MWC tournament is No. 4.

That’s how wild it’s been out West. And it could get wilder if UNLV, which has won 10 of its last 11 games, continues to stay hot in next week’s conference tournament in its home arena, the Thomas & Mack Center, where the winner will clinch the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth.

“The key is one loss can’t knock a team out of the tournament,” New Mexico coach Richard Pitino said. “The better everybody’s doing with NET rankings and KenPom and all those things, it just helps it. It’ll be fun to see how it all plays out and it will certainly make for an amazing Mountain West tournament.”

SDSU has reached the NCAA Tournament 12 times in the Mountain West era, the first eight under coach Steve Fisher — with Dutcher as his top assistant — and the last four with Dutcher in charge. They reached the Sweet 16 in 2011 with Kawhi Leonard, and again three seasons later. Then came last year’s breakthrough, when Lamont Butler hit the biggest shot in school history, a buzzer-beater against FAU in the national semifinals that thrilled the city. The Aztecs lost to UConn in the championship game.

The MWC has had four teams in the NCAAs the last two seasons, including SDSU and Boise State both seasons. The record is five, in 2013.

In the current NET rankings, one of the major metrics used to select and seed the field of 68, the Mountain West has six programs ranked among the top 35: San Diego State (19), Boise State (25), New Mexico (26), Utah State (32), Nevada (33) and Colorado State (35).

In Albuquerque, Pitino has assembled a roster that is a marvel of the post-COVID landscape and could be the most interesting team if it makes the field for the first time since 2014. It’s almost like the wind blew all these tumbleweeds into the Pit, which has become raucous again.

The Lobos had been tumbling toward the bubble by losing five of eight, including to last-place Air Force at home, before routing Fresno State on Tuesday night.

Pitino was fired by Minnesota after the 2020-21 season and hired less than 24 hours later by New Mexico, which had gone just gone 6-16. His first recruiting class included eight players who had never seen campus and were enticed during Zoom calls. They included the sons of famous fathers, guards Jamal Mashburn Jr., who followed Pitino from Minnesota, and Jaelen House, who transferred from Arizona State.

Pitino’s next class included Donovan Dent, who won several California player of the year awards.

Nigerian big man Nelly Junior Joseph played for Pitino’s father, Rick, and transferred to New Mexico after the elder Pitino took the St. John’s job before this season. Then there’s 25-year-old Jemarl Baker Jr., who transferred to New Mexico after two years each at Kentucky, Arizona and Fresno State.

“It’s a very diverse group, all from different backgrounds,” Pitino said. “You’ve got kids from all over and they’ve certainly been a joy to coach.”

The Lobos made it to the NIT last year, losing at home to Utah Valley of the WAC.

“Certainly, everybody would love to be in the NCAA Tournament, everybody would love to win the Mountain West,” Pitino said. “I more tell them, ’Hey guys, we need to act like an NCAA Tournament team, we need to act like an MWC championship team. That’s what it needs to look like every single day and we’ll see where the chips fall at the end of the year.”

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