Boise State’s Mountain West tournament second-round matchup against Nevada was the mere definition of a must-win game. According to Joe Lunardi, Boise State entered Saturday as one of the last four at-larges of the NCAA Tournament.
In February, the Broncos seemed to be a lock to make the tournament, and they were a popular sleeper team destined to make a deep run. They won 15 out of their first 16 games. Future NBA draft pick Derrick Alston Jr. was a star for the Broncos. He was surrounded by capable shooters and long. athletic wings who provided a dream combination for modern basketball.
However, as the competition got stronger late in the conference season, Boise State dwindled. The Broncos were swept by Nevada to begin February. Then, Boise State ended the season on a three-game losing streak that started with a sweep by San Diego State and then a disastrous loss to Fresno State. But despite all of that, Boise State still found itself on the right side of the bubble — until they weren’t.
A simple revenge win against Nevada in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinal would have cured the Broncos late shortcomings. With their NCAA Tournament invitation on the line, Boise State did not show up Thursday.
Nevada knocked the Broncos down early, opening the game on a 15-4 run into the first media timeout. From that point, Nevada never looked back, putting up a 51-spot in the first half. The Broncos made late second-half runs to get to an arm’s distance. The guard duo of Grant Sherfield and Desmond Cambridge were sensational. The Wolfpack’s one-two punch combined for 57 and a 7-of-11 day from 3-point range. Nevada is nearly unbeatable when the guards can shoot like that, and the shooting buried Boise State’s season.
Boise State’s bubble has officially burst, but the Broncos’ demise has given other mid-majors new hope.
On Friday night, we had a late-night bubble clash between Utah State and Colorado State. The winner advanced themselves into a spot in the Mountain West Conference tournament final and more or less locked up their at-large bid in the NCAA tourney. In this one, Utah State rose to the occasion, defensively dominating the Rams. Utah State star Neemis Quetta made his presence known, scoring 18 points, nabbing 13 rebounds, and recorded eight blocks. Colorado State could only muster 50 points and shot 27% from the field in the late-night contest.
While Lunardi called the late-night semifinal an elimination game, I don’t think the Rams have much to worry about — more on that later. This may be the best-case scenario for the Mountain West to get three tournament teams.
Mid-major bubble breakdown
Colorado State: While Colorado State dropped their semifinal game against Utah State, I still believe they will be one of the last four tourney teams. The Rams significantly benefited from Boise State faltering against Nevada and the Rams got help from Georgetown and LSU earlier Friday. The Rams are in the last four in or last four byes category depending on what bracket projection an expert prefers. While their loss against Utah State stings, it’s not the end of the world for their at-large hopes.
Drake: We saw the Bulldogs lose a tough-fought Arch Madness championship game against Loyola Chicago. Despite not having their top two scorers present in Romeo Penn and Shaquan Hemphill, Drake battled with a very good Loyola team. Penn is unfortunately lost for the season, but the Bulldogs are expected to get Hemphill back just in time for the NCAA tourney. The Bulldogs sit on the very edge of the bubble, listed as one of the last Four in teams in most bracketologist.
However, Boise State’s loss should solidify Drake’s position in the tournament, and it may move the Bulldogs closer to making the tournament without having to deal with a play-in game. Drake came thru beating Loyola Chicago in their so-called prove it a game. The other bubble teams do not have the same luxury.
Saint Louis: Talk about rising from the dead. The Boise State loss, in addition to collapses from other Power 5 bubble teams, has made the Billikens’ dreams of dancing somewhat plausible. Saint Louis is listed as one of the first four out in most bracket projections. Boise State’s loss to a lower-rated Nevada team makes Saint Louis’ national-TV obliteration to St. Bonaventure look slightly better.
Like Boise, the Billikens struggled down the stretch losing to Dayton twice and dropped a game to La Salle. If a team has a legitimate COVID-19 excuse, it’s this Billikens team. Saint Louis has two solid non-conference wins against NC State and LSU. While the bubble teams continue to fall in front of them, the Billikens path to a tourney bid is slowly becoming brighter.
VCU: The Rams have a chance to clinch an auto bid Sunday when they face Saint Bonaventure in the A-10 title game. In my opinion, it’s puzzling that the Rams are considered a bubble team. If you watch Mike Rhoades’ squad, it’s pretty apparent the Rams are among the 68 best teams in the country. The Rams are 7-0 in Quad 2 games, and they have a respectable 2-4 record in Quad 1 matchups. Their resume is certainly strong enough to warrant an at-large bid, and VCU passes the eye test by a mile.
Also, an early non-conference win against Utah State proves to be pivotal if those two schools were matched for one of the final spots. Overall, the Ram’s did not really need any help to improve their tournament standing. However, the losses from Boise State, Syracuse, and Xavier essentially guarantee VCU’s place in Indianapolis.
Utah State: The Aggies took care of business in their Mountain West matchup, dominating UNLV 74-53 and followed that up with a 59-50 win over Colorado State. Going into conference tournament week, the Aggies were on the outside looking in but a win against Colorado State firmly puts them on the right side of the bubble. Utah State has a chance to clinch an auto bid for the third straight time on Saturday. However, the Aggies can be self-assured that their tournament ticket is already punched.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers are still auto bid or die despite accumulating non-conference wins against Alabama, Memphis, Northern Iowa, and Rhode Island. Western Kentucky is advancing to their consecutive Conference USA title game, and it may be the year they get it done. It’s strange how WKU’s resume is simply in a wasteland.
As an auto bid, the Hilltoppers are a safe 12 seed, yet they are not on the map for at-large consideration. Western Kentucky NET ratings have been severely hindered by the lack of strength in the Conference USA, and they have suffered multiple Quad 3 losses.