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Mountain West semifinal preview: Look for Jalen McDaniels’s emergence, Fresno State’s upset potential tonight

High seeds advance, setting up two potentially exciting semifinal games.

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

After two entertaining days of basketball, the Mountain West final four is set. The four top seeds will battle it out to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

Yesterday, top-seeded Nevada survived an early upset bid against Boise State in a game in which they trailed by as much 15 in the first half. Two-seed Utah State narrowly beat an upset-minded New Mexico team in a game that had more than 10 lead ties and lead changes. Meanwhile, San Diego State beat tournament host UNLV despite shooting just 30 percent from the floor, while Fresno State took care business and dominated Air Force and beat the Falcons by 26 points.

Now that the top four seeds have advanced, here is what to expect in tonight’s semifinal games.


Game 1: No. 1 Nevada vs. No. 4 San Diego State
6:00 p.m. PST (CBS Sports Network)
Spread: Nevada (-10.5)

The Wolf Pack will meet the Aztecs in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year. The Aztecs blitzed the Wolf Pack in last year’s semifinal 90-73, and would go on to beat New Mexico in the final.

Last Saturday, Nevada beat the Aztecs on senior night 90-73. Nevada used a 39-16 second half to route the Aztecs. Yet San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher thought that game was closer than the score indicated.

“I know when you look at the score it may not seem that way, but we were in that game,” Dutcher said. “We were trailing by 13 with over 10 minutes left. We called a timeout we needed to hit a couple consecutive baskets to get within single digits. But they hit two threes instead, went on one of their runs and that was it.”

This should be an exciting game to watch. Two of the hardest-playing teams in the country will be up against each other, so and points will be hard to come by. Vegas expects Nevada to win comfortably as a 10-point favorite, but I feel this may be closer than the experts think. Aztec nation has shown up strong once again in Las Vegas; Thomas & Mack Center will be ringing during this semifinal match.

Nevada is by far the most talented team. The Wolf Pack’s length on defense will make it hard for SDSU from getting looks inside. In the first two contests, Nevada has shut down SDSU star Jalen McDaniels, holding him to 12 total points on 25 percent shooting. In order for the Aztecs to have a shot this time around, they’ll need McDaniels to turn things around.

“I’ve been getting to my spots, I just have to execute hit my shots and I have to be able to take advantage of those opportunities,” McDaniels said after the Aztecs’ win over UNLV.

Hitting shots won’t be difficult for McDaniels, who leads the team with 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest. Against UNLV, the redshirt sophomore willed the Aztecs to victory by scoring 25 points in their quarterfinal win. McDaniels will be the top NBA prospect on the floor against Nevada, and he is going to have to dominate against the Wolf Pack’s interior defense.

“We are going to have to play tough and keep the game close all the way through,” Dutcher said of tonight’s game. “We have to prevent Nevada from going on one of their runs. We have to execute late in the game to win the game late. That’s how you have to beat them.”

After falling behind early to Boise State, the Wolf Pack should come out with a sense of urgency. They need to get Caleb Martin some open looks early, and they need to get Jazz Johnson involved in the game. Offensively, Nevada should have an advantage inside with Matt Mitchell matched up on either Tre’Shawn Thurman or Jordan Caroline. Nevada will need to continue to move the ball around efficiently and hit their threes. If Nevada shoots the ball well from deep, then they shouldn’t lose this game.

Prediction: This is going to be a a grind-it-out game that goes comes down to late-game execution and timely shooting, yet ultimately lives up to the hype. Nevada plays with a sense urgency and may actually jump out to a lead, but SDSU finds a way to make it a game. Look for Caleb Martin or Jazz Johnson to hit a big shot late to win it.

Final score: 69-64, Nevada

Game 2: No. 2 Utah State vs. No. 3 Fresno State
8:30 p.m. PST (CBS Sports Network)
Spread (N/A)

If you love points, the semifinal matchup between the Utah State and Fresno State is the game for you.

This may be the most underrated matchup of the college basketball slate. The Bulldogs are the only team to beat the Aggies in Logan this season. Fresno State and its top-50 offense has rattled off four straight since losing to Nevada at home. The Bulldogs are loaded with snipers from the outside shooting 38 percent from behind the arc, which ranks No. 17 nationally. They are lead by the explosive guard duo of Deshon Taylor and Braxton Huggins, who both average 18 points per game.

Fresno State’s shooters present a terrible matchup for a Utah State backcourt that is one of the worst teams at defending the three-point line. The Aggies rank No. 259 in three-point defense by allowing teams to shoot 35 percent. Utah State guards Diogo Brito and Abel Porter are going to have to step up.

Yet Utah State may be the hottest team in the country right now. Since losing to Fresno State at home, the Aggies have won 15 out of their last 16 games. For what it’s worth, they are also 11-5 against the spread during that stretch as well.

Utah State is an offensive juggernaut that can put up 80 points on any given night. The Aggies are averaging 79.5 points per game, which ranks No. 37 in the country.

Star shooting guard Sam Merrill (21 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting) is one of the country’s top scorers. The Aggies’ offense will face a well-balanced defense in Fresno State. The Bulldogs guard the three point line well allowing opposing teams to shoot just 30 percent from behind the arc.

This a game that Utah State may need to win inside, so expect star freshmen Neemias Queta to have a huge impact on both ends of the court.

Thanks to Queta’s 8.8 rebounds per game, the Aggies have the potential to dominate this game on the offensive glass. Utah State ranks second nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom. Second-chance points have been an Achilles’ heel for Fresno State this season.

Prediction: Expect a lot of points. Even if the total opens in the 160s, I still wouldn’t bother taking the under. This is going to be a great matchup featuring the three of the conference’s best guards in Braxton Huggins, Deshon Taylor and Sam Merrill. The keys of the game are centered around rebounding, three point shooting, and taking care of the basketball. This game will go down to the wire with the underdog prevailing.

Final score: 88-87, Fresno State.