Predicting first half of Mountain West play for CSU basketball

Adam Thistlewood, Doobie Jenkins and Nico Carvacho on the break. Credit: CSU Athletics Communications.
Adam Thistlewood, Doobie Jenkins and Nico Carvacho on the break. Credit: CSU Athletics Communications.

The Colorado State Rams men’s basketball team learned about the impacts of a challenging non-conference schedule the hard way.

CSU now begins its 18-game conference slate on Wednesday against UNLV on the road after dropping eight of its final ten non-conference games.

Currently, the Rams are 5-8 overall, marking their worst non-conference performance since beginning the 2008-09 season with a 5-9 overall record.

CSU’s 265 NET Rating is the third-worst out of ten Mountain West teams, above only Wyoming (272) and San Jose State (281).

Though the Rams’ spot in the NCAA’s new ranking system is nothing to boast about, it reflects how CSU’s difficult non-conference portion can be used to its benefit.

The average NET of a Mountain West team is 184, while five of the Rams’ losses came against teams with a NET of 125 or better. In other words, against programs which are better than the average MW opponent, as well as at least two-thirds of the nation, statistically speaking.

Struggling through a tough non-conference schedule can be discouraging to a team. However, the goal of playing respectable programs early on is to be better prepared for conference play.

Ideally, head coach Niko Medved’s group will use what they learned from losses against teams such as Arkansas, New Mexico State, and Colorado to their advantage as the season progresses.

Only time will tell if this is the case. For now, let’s take a stab at predicting the first half of MW play for the 2018-’19 CSU Rams.

01/02/2019: At UNLV (6-6)

  • NET: 155
  • Key Victories: BYU (115), Hawaii (152)

As will be the case with many teams moving forward, CSU matches up well with the Rebels in most areas, besides the rebounding department.

Rebounding has been the Achilles heel for the guard-heavy Rams often this season, even against teams who are only average on the glass.

Unfortunately for the green and gold, UNLV is exceptional at creating extra possessions offensively and limiting their opposition’s shots defensively on the glass.

Led by senior forwards Shakur Juiston and Cheikh Mbacke Diong, who combine for over 15 boards per game, the Rebels’ rebounding ranks No. 19 in the nation, with an average of 41.4 each contest.

This, paired with the frequent scoring from guards Kris Clyburn and Amauri Hardy, have kept games against Power-5 opponents close for UNLV. The Rebels lost by a combined seven points in back-to-back games against Cincinnati and Illinois.

I like CSU’s chances against UNLV at home in March to conclude the regular season.

However, playing away from Moby Arena to begin conference play against a team that is hungry to get over .500 won’t be easy. Especially considering UNLV appears to be better than its overall record indicates. I’m taking the Rebels in a competitive game.

Prediction: Loss.

01/05/2019: At Fresno State (9-3)

  • NET: 70
  • Key Victories: Northwestern (54), Hawaii (152), California (191)

Following a successful 21-win campaign one season ago, the Bulldogs have established themselves as one of the best teams in the Mountain West.

Fresno State returned leading-scorer Deshon Taylor, who is scoring 18 points per game after nearly identical numbers last season.

Taylor, coupled with New Mexico State transfer Braxton Huggins, gives the Bulldogs one of the best guard duos in the conference. Huggins has had no issues transitioning to a new program. The guard currently leads the Bulldogs in scoring, averaging 18.8 points per game.

Excluding Nevada, Fresno State very well may be the best team in the Mountain West. The Bulldogs are 7-0 at home this season, and they will most likely keep rolling against the Rams.

Prediction: Loss.

01/08/2019: Vs. Air Force (5-7)

  • NET: 254
  • Key Victories: South Dakota (215)

It is worth noting that the Falcons won a neutral site matchup with South Dakota, a program which defeated the Rams at Moby Arena a few weeks ago.

Regardless, there aren’t very many positive things to say about Air Force. The Falcons found themselves near the bottom of the Mountain West standings last season, and almost undoubtedly will again this season.

CSU will pounce on the opportunity to pick up its first conference win of the season at home after most likely dropping two consecutive MW games.

Prediction: Win.

01/12/2019: Vs. New Mexico (6-6)

  • NET: 175
  • Key Victories: Bradley (188)

The Lobos have scuffled to stay afloat after nearly winning 20 games last season. The departures of three key starters (Sam Logwood, Antonio Jackson, and Joe Furstinger) have been tough to recover from for New Mexico.

The three players combined for nearly half of the Lobos’ scoring last season, as well 44 percent of New Mexico’s rebounding.

UNM is without the leadership and sense of togetherness that helped them come away victorious in many key games last season.

With an opportunity to keep the ball rolling at home, the Rams won’t squander this opportunity.

Prediction: Win.

01/19/2019: At Utah State (10-3)

  • NET: 34
  • Key Victories: Saint Mary’s (65), UC Irvine (109)

The Aggies are making just as strong of a case, if not stronger than Fresno State, for the silver medal in the Mountain West.

For a good reason, too. Utah State’s extremely respectable NET indicates a possible at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Other than a vastly significant win over Saint Mary’s, USU hasn’t picked up any major wins.

However, close games against Arizona State at a neutral site and then-No. 21 Houston on the road reflects USU’s ability to run through the Mountain West this season.

Junior guard Sam Merrill is playing out of his mind. The Utah native began the season by scoring a career-high 37 points against Montana State. Since then Merrill has scored at least 20 on four separate occasions.

Keep in mind that the Aggies are also an even better rebounding team than previously-mentioned UNLV. Utah State ranks No. 12 in the country with 42.4 rebounds per game.

Given that this game will also be played away from Fort Collins, things could get pretty ugly. After all, USU defeated Montana State 101-71 earlier this season, a team the Rams only beat by four at home.

Prediction: Loss.

01/23/2019: At No. 6 Nevada (13-0)

  • NET: 10
  • Key Victories: Arizona State (46), Tulsa (90), BYU (115), Loyola Chicago (121)

This one isn’t worth explaining. CSU may have an opportunity to keep the game close when the Wolfpack travel to Fort Collins in February if the Rams have some serious momentum heading into the contest.

But in Reno, Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline are going to get everything they want against the Rams, and then some.

Prediction: Loss

01/26/2019: Vs. Fresno State (9-3)

  • NET: 70
  • Key Victories: Northwestern (54), Hawaii (152), California (191)

Facing the Bulldogs at home will be CSU’s first shot at redemption this season, provided Fresno State defeats the Rams three weeks before.

CSU will be motivated to do so, but I still don’t love their odds. The Bulldogs are only going to improve throughout the season. The clear advantages they hold over the Rams will be greater than they were the first time these two teams meet.

The green and gold ideally will be a better team at this stage of the season as well. So, I think the outcome will be closer this time around. However, Fresno State will still escape Fort Collins with a victory.

Prediction: Loss.

01/29/2019: Vs. Boise State (5-8)

  • NET: 177
  • Key Victories: Pacific (166)

The dreaded Broncos.

In addition to having never defeated Boise State in football, the Rams have dropped four consecutive games to the Broncos in basketball.

CSU-BSU has become a rivalry and must-win matchup in the eyes of Rams fans due to the recent outcomes between the teams in both sports.

With this in mind, Boise State tends to get into the Rams’ heads.

Regardless, BSU is worse than it has been in a while. Without Chandler Hutchinson and Christian Sengfelder to get the best of CSU, I see the Rams breaking the losing streak against the Broncos.

Prediction: Win.

02/02/2019: @ Air Force (5-7)

  • NET: 254
  • Key Victories: South Dakota (215)

The Falcons swept the season series from the Rams last year for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Doing so broke a stretch of 12 consecutive victories over AFA.

This time around, the matchups between these two teams will revert to the norm. After beating the Falcons in early January, the Rams will do so again in Colorado Springs.

Overall, I envision CSU being a team who wins most games it should in conference play, while also hanging around and maybe stealing a few victories in games it is seen as an underdog in.

Air Force is one of those games the Rams definitely should and will need to win.

Prediction: Win.

Overall First Half of Mountain West Play Prediction: 4-5. Leaving CSU at 9-13 mid-way through conference play.

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