Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mountain West title could be decided Thursday

Well, here we are.  It's the final week of the regular season and we're just four days away from Selection Sunday when the 64-team NCAA Tournament field will be unveiled (7 p.m. Pacific time on ESPNU).

Stop us if you've heard this before:  Fresno State will travel to the state of Nevada in firm control of the conference race in the final week of the season.  Does it remind you of anything?  It should, because the MW race is in nearly the exact same situation this year as last year. 

In 2014, the Bulldogs traveled to face the Nevada Wolf Pack in Reno in the season's final week.  Going in, Trisha Ford's squad knew all it had to do was win that series, or hope that the San Diego State-Boise State series didn't result in an Aztec sweep.  We all know how that turned out:  The Aztecs swept the Broncos, while the Bulldogs lost two of three to the Wolf Pack, and SDSU ended up winning the conference title by a game over the Bulldogs.

Instead of heading north to Reno, this season the Bulldogs will make the trek south to Las Vegas and UNLV.  Fresno State's lead this year is even greater than last season.  The Bulldogs hold a 2-game lead in the loss column over both San Diego State and San Jose State with three games to play.  By virtue of holding the tiebreaker over the Aztecs, one win by Fresno State means the Aztecs can not win the league's automatic NCAA bid.

That painful 2014 ending lingered all offseason in the minds of what is now an older, more experienced, and more focused group of Bulldogs in 2015.  A key difference has been the stretch drives of the two teams.  The 2014 Bulldog team was 8-8 in its final 16 games; its final RPI of 59 meant Ford's squad was on the outside looking in when NCAA bids were announced and San Diego State was the lone Mountain West representative.

This season looks a lot different.  Fresno State is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, riding an 8-game winning streak and earning victories in 13 of its last 14 games.  With an RPI of 46 and strong numbers when you look inside the RPI (a 4-1 record vs. teams ranked 26 to 50, and 22 wins vs. the RPI top 150), the Bulldogs are far better suited for an NCAA at-large bid this season than last.  Here's the caveat though:  Fresno State does not want to leave its NCAA fate up to the selection committee.

The deal is this:  Two wins this week will give the Bulldogs the outright Mountain West championship and automatic NCAA berth.  Fresno State also can grab that NCAA bid with just one victory, provided that New Mexico wins at least one of its three home games this weekend versus San Jose State.  The Bulldogs are the only MW team that controls its own destiny heading into the final week of the season.

That means the title could be decided as early as Thursday.  A Fresno State win, combined with a San Jose State loss, gives the Bulldogs the automatic bid and will end the suspense early.  Obviously the Spartans and Rebels will have a lot to say about that though.

New Mexico can secure coach Erica Beach's first 30-win season if the Lobos win at least two games this weekend against San Jose State.  After being picked to finish last in the conference, UNM has been the biggest surprise.  One victory will assure the Lobos of a winning Mountain West record.

San Diego State, which has completed its conference schedule, hosts a reeling Oregon State team whose season went downhill quickly with an injury to its top pitcher, Bev Miller.  The Beavers got off to a good start this season and were 18-5 and looking like an NCAA lock before Miller's injury.  She came back for the first time in several weeks on Saturday and led her team to a win over nationally-ranked Washington.  But it could be too late.  OSU is 4-16 in its last 20 games and must beat San Diego State at least once this weekend to even be in consideration for an at-large bid, per NCAA rules.  Oregon State is currently 26-25 overall, and a team must finish at .500 or above for NCAA Tournament consideration.

Colorado State closes the season at Nevada, while Boise State hosts Utah State.