MW turning into a two-team race for regular season title

Austin White

March looms for the college basketball world as the beginning to the madness is only a little more than a month away. For teams in the Mountain West, they are running out of time to catch the front-running Nevada Wolfpack and Boise State Broncos.

The Colorado State Rams (10-10, 3-4 MW) currently sit three-and-a-half games out of the first place and undefeated in conference Wolfpack (17-3, 6-0 MW). The Rams most recently lost at home to the Air Force Falcons (8-10, 2-4 MW) for the first time in head coach Larry Eustachy’s tenure in Fort Collins.

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Nixon hurt
Prentiss Nixon (11) is helped off the court after an apparent ankle injury late in the 2nd half of the Rams 76-71 loss to Air Force. (Javon Harris | Collegian)

Conference season and the year as a whole have been very streaky for the Rams who have shown glimpses of potential while also displaying their struggles. All three of their conference wins have come on the road and they are winless at home with losses to San Diego State, Fresno State and Air Force.

As a team, the Rams have issues scoring as seen by their 46.1 field goal percentage ranking last in the Mountain West. Their 71.4 points per game is not much better as that number comes in ninth out of the 11 Mountain West squads.

Those numbers are not the fault of junior guard Prentiss Nixon though as his 17.9 points per game is the fifth best in the conference. However, injuries continue to nag Nixon who ended their last game against Air Force with a left leg injury after already coming into the game wearing a serious brace on his right knee.

The Eustachy system calls for a team that drives the ball to the basket and is strong down low. Redshirt sophomore Nico Carvacho is starting to fill into that role. He recorded his third double-double in the last four games Wednesday night against the Falcons and his 8.9 boards per game ranks fourth in the conference.

Leading the Mountain West Conference is the preseason pick for Player of the Year in Chandler Hutchison of Boise State. The senior guard leads the Mountain West in points per game with 19.6 and ranks sixth in boards per game at 8.3. He also falls in the top 10 in assists per game. Hutchison helped lead the Broncos (16-3, 6-1 MW) to their upset victory on the road over the Oregon Ducks with 20 points, snapping the Ducks’ 46-game home win streak.

Boise State is currently a half game behind Nevada for the conference lead as the two teams will square off this Saturday for the first time this season in Nevada.

The Wolfpack have their own Player of the Year candidate in North Carolina State transfer Caleb Martin. The junior forward comes in right behind Hutchison in points per game with 19.3. Often times the Player of the Year winner benefits from being on the best team, and Nevada continues to look like the top squad.

They spent a week in the top 25 of the AP poll at No. 22 after starting the year 8-0 before losing two close contests with Texas Tech and the current No. 24 TCU Horned Frogs. Nevada is also the only Mountain West team receiving points in the AP poll with 23 coming for the Wolfpack in the latest release.

Nevada was the preseason favorite to take the conference and right behind them was the SDSU Aztecs who have not met those expectations.

The Aztecs (11-6, 3-3 MW) have a new coach for the first time since 1999 when Steve Fisher took over the program. Fisher retired following the end of last season and the Aztecs appear to be going through some growing pains under new head coach Brian Dutcher as they sit at 3-3 in conference, on a two-game losing streak.

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SDSU does have the conference’s only AP Top 25 win this season however, after they defeated then No. 12 Gonzaga at home, 72-70.

No teams have been too surprising but the upstart team of the year in the Mountain West has been Fresno State (14-6, 4-3) who is tied for third in conference at 4-3. Two of the Bulldogs losses came at the hands of Nevada and Boise State, but Fresno State stayed close in both games and looked as if they could pull off some upsets come conference tournament time.

The Bulldogs are currently tied with Nevada for the best 3-point percentage in conference and are led by senior guard Jahmel Taylor who ranks fifth in the conference in the stat among players who have attempted 100 or more 3s. Taylor went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc against the Rams on his way to 13 points to help Fresno State take the 82-79 overtime victory.

As for CSU, the road to a regular season title looks like it will be out of reach after dropping to 3-4 and losing to the perineal bottom-dwelling Air Force Falcons. They still have to play Nevada twice and finish the regular season with games against the top four teams in the standings currently.

CSU will try to turn their .500 season around beginning Saturday, Jan. 20 when they welcome the UNLV Rebels, who are the conference’s top scoring team with 87.8 points per game. The Rams currently give up 75.4 a game which ranks 254th in the country.

The game is set to tipoff at 3 p.m. from Moby Arena and can be viewed on CBS Sports Network.

Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @ajwrules44.