Top-2 Teams in Mountain West Shooting for League Title and NCAA Bid
The Mountain West has been a 1-bid league for the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons. If it's going to change this year, then Saturday night's showdown in Reno is worth watching on ESPNU. Entering the week, Nevada (17-3/6-0) was unranked, but broke through to No. 25 following their road win at San Jose State. The Wolf Pack are the Mountain West's defending regular season and tournament champions, and coach Eric Musselman, like his team, is under-rated despite turning the program around. Boise State (16-3/6-1) gets far less respect, and no votes in the rankings, and the Broncos on in the 'First Four Out' in the latest Bracketology.
The rankings don't mean much when it comes to betting, as nine ranked teams, all favorites, have lost to unranked teams this week. Two Saturday's ago on Jan. 6, ranked teams went 1-9-1 ATS against unranked teams. Boise State is hoping they can be the next unranked team to knock off a ranked and higher profile team, and they will have a better shot if Nevada forward Cody Martin is unable to make post. He missed Thursday's game at San Jose State. A road win Saturday would move Boise State into first place in the Mountain West, and be meaningful for a NCAA Tourney bid if they fail to win the conference tournament.
Check the lines at the leading sportsbooks throughout the day, and especially at game time (7:00 PT) with Nevada's Cody Martin a game-time decision (Achilles strain).
Boise State (+6.5)
This key Mountain West match-up will draw more interest later in the day, but I wouldn't bank on Cody Martin playing. If you like a team that rebounds and plays defense, then Boise State as 'Dog should be appealing, especially with a 1st-team all-league performer and likely league MVP on your side. The Lawler Events Center in Reno will be rocking with 11,000 strong supporting the defending league champs. But the Broncos lead the league in rebounding margin, and hold a plus-6 boards per game edge over Nevada. Four players grab at least five rebounds per game. Boise State is also top-25 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, FG% and top-10 in 3-point defense. Defense and rebounding strength are keys, along with a cohesive and experienced core when going on the road. Senior forward Chad Hutchinson leads the league in scoring (19.6/47% FG), just ahead of Nevada's Caleb Martin (19.6/49% FG). Hutchinson is also top-5 in rebounding (8.3), joining Nevada's Jordan Caroline (9.3), who needs to pick up the slack and scoring in Cody's absence. Cody Martin (13.7/6.7) is the other key part of Nevada's senior trio, and he is Nevada's best defender and would have guarded Hutchinson. He's also No. 2 in the league in steals and assists. But with him out the Wolf Pack are thin and likely have just seven players available.
Nevada's other senior starter, Kendall Stephens, leads the league in 3-point attempts and is a marksman hitting 45% from long range. With him and Caleb hitting from the outside, the Wolf Pack are one of the top-shooting 3-point teams in the country (41%). They also play at a faster pace and can really score, but Wednesday's 71-point output was their lowest of the season in conference play, and they played a poor first half without Cody against the league's weakest opponent. Sure the Wolf Pack may have been looking ahead to this Saturday showdown. But Boise brings it with a top-10 three-point defense and the Broncos also shoot the 3-ball well (39%) and have their own high-volume sharp-shooter from the arch in Justinian Jessup (46%).
The game and match-ups are intriguing, and the motivation is strong for this Mountain West clash. Recall last season Boise State led Nevada by 8 points at halftime on this court before losing 85-77 late in the season. The Broncos players have not forgotten that sour-tasting defeat, and it looks like they have closed the gap on Nevada, who is maybe even better than last season. These mid-majors lack respect, but not for each other in what they are accomplishing.
Nevada has really benefitted from the transfer of Stephens and the Martin brothers, all from power conference programs. Each had to sit out last year, which the NCAA could change with a potential new transfer rule. I'm not in favor of that, or betting against coach 'Muss' and the Wolf Pack at home, where they are 9-0 this season after going 13-1 last year during a 28-win campaign. But without Cody Martin, it's going to be tough to hold off the bucking Broncos and likely league MVP Chandler Hutchinson. You can bet on it.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Read more great insights from Jay here and follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay