Difficult to get out of the one-bid rut

Two months ago it seemed the Mountain West was in the midst of a pretty healthy men’s basketball season, one that could signal a recovery from two straight years of one-bid status in the NCAA Tournament. As recently as a week ago, the MW was seen by many as a two-bid league. But since Boise State’s loss at San Diego State, the only hope has been that somebody other than Nevada would win this week’s Mountain West Tournament, paving the way for the Wolf Pack to be an at-large selection. The last time the MW was a multi-bid conference was 2015 (which is also the last time the Broncos made the Big Dance). Is it any wonder that the league salivates over Gonzaga?

To be clear, though, we’re talking about a trend in college basketball. Virtually all mid-major leagues are struggling to land more than one team in the NCAA Tournament these days. A year ago, only four at-large bids went to the 26 conferences outside what you might call the Big 6 conferences (football’s Power 5 plus the Big East). There were six such at-large bids in 2016, and seven in 2015. And mid-majors were awarded at least double-digit at-large slots in each of the three years prior (you’ll recall that in 2013, the Mountain West landed five schools in the tournament). This is just symptomatic of the growing division of power in college athletics. Financially it’s not as pronounced in hoops as it is in football, but man, it is there.

The Mountain West Tournament begins tomorrow with the play-in games in Las Vegas. The one on Boise State’s radar, of course, is Utah State-Colorado State, as the Broncos await the winner. Crazy things can happen this time of year—in fact, it wouldn’t be totally crazy if CSU, despite its agonizing turmoil culminating with last week’s “resignation” of coach Larry Eustachy, upsets the Aggies. The Rams defeated USU 84-75 in Logan. But that was in January, before things went sideways. The day begins with UNLV meeting Air Force at 11 a.m. Pacific in Thomas & Mack Center, a tough sell for Rebels fans. And the day ends with Wyoming taking on bottom-feeding San Jose State.

One of the enduring stories of this season for Boise State has been Leon Rice striking gold with graduate transfers. So, what would Chris Sengfelder’s and Lexus Williams’ senior seasons have been like had they stayed at their former schools instead of joining the Broncos? Let’s just say they’re glad they’re here. Fordham, where Sengfelder started 93 straight games before heading West, was last in the Atlantic 10 Conference, going 4-14 in league play and 9-21 overall. Williams’ old team, Valparaiso, finished last in the Missouri Valley with a 6-12 conference record and a 15-17 mark overall. No wonder the duo was alternately all-smiles and all-business on Senior Night.

CBSSports.com has an interesting angle on Leighton Vander Esch’s performance at the NFL Combine. It pits Vander Esch in a contest of sorts with Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, who some see as a top five pick in the NFL Draft. Writes Chris Trapasso: “The former Boise State star took full advantage of Edmunds, his main, similarly-sized competition, sitting out the majority of the measured drills. Vander Esch ran 4.65 at slightly over 6-4 and 256 pounds. He proceeded to crush the rest of his workout. He had a 39.5-inch vertical, a 10-foot-4 broad, and a superbly quick time of 6.88 in the three-cone drill. His 4.15 in the short shuttle was an awesome time, too. He can now be classified as a Combine freak.” That sounds like it’s worth a high pick in the draft. And Vander Esch will be much better in games than in scripted drills.

This is the final week of winter conditioning before Boise State spring football starts next Monday. We’ve been following the Broncos’ “Ironmen of the Week,” and the Week 5 honorees were running back Robert Mahone and cornerback Jalen Walker. Reading between the lines, you could say dedication in the weight room indicates that Mahone is not discouraged by his lack of playing time last season. He had an opportunity last October when he got the start at BYU, but that door was closed by a combination of a first-quarter fumble and the explosion of Alexander Mattison the remainder of the game in the 24-7 Bronco victory. Walker is a guy who paid his dues last fall and was rewarded with a starting spot against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl when Tyler Horton was unable to play.

Spring football kicked off yesterday at BYU, where Eagle High grad and Cougars quarterback Tanner Mangum has been furiously rehabbing his Achilles tendon and is on track to be ready for the 2018 season. Mangum ruptured his Achilles in the fourth quarter of a loss at Fresno State last November. It was a “what else can happen?” moment for the Cougars during their 4-9 season. “Thankfully modern medicine has made progress, and an Achilles tendon injury doesn’t take quite as long to heal as it used to,” Mangum told the Deseret News recently. “I’ve started to jog in an anti-gravity treadmill, so (using) a certain percentage of my body weight—to do that has been great.” Mangum thinks he’ll be able to do some non-contact drills during spring ball.

The Boise State women know their foe as they open play in the Mountain West Tournament this afternoon in Las Vegas—and it’s Air Force, who shot past Utah State 68-54 yesterday in the first round. The official conference awards were released on the women’s side yesterday, and Boise State’s Riley Lupfer and Marta Hermida were voted first-team All-Mountain West (there’s just one 10-player team named). Lupfer was not named MW Player of the Year, leaving Broncos play-by-play man Chris Lewis aghast. Lupfer ranks 11th in the country in three-pointers made with 108, three away from breaking the Mountain West record. She shattered the MW mark for conference games with 79 treys, 36 better than the second-best shooter.

Hoops notes on the men’s side: College of Idaho coach Scott Garson tweeted a photo Sunday night from a jet airliner aisle during the Coyotes’ flight to the NAIA Division II National Tournament in Sioux Falls, SD. Garson is pumped. The Yotes earned the No. 3 overall seed and the top spot in its bracket after going 27-6 and winning the Cascade Conference championship. C of I meets Mayville State of North Dakota Thursday afternoon. And University of Idaho senior Brayon Blake was named first-team All-Big Sky yesterday. Blake is averaging 16.6 points this season and leads the Big Sky with 9.5 rebounds per game. In conference play those numbers were 18.3 and 9.6. Blake has recorded 11 double-doubles on the season. The Vandals begin play in the Big Sky Tournament Thursday night.

This Day In Sports…March 6, 2000:

The highest-scoring game in the NBA career of Shaquille O’Neal, who put up 61 points and pulled down 23 rebounds in the L.A. Lakers’ 123-103 win over the L.A. Clippers. And Shaq did it on his 28th birthday. O’Neal was in his fourth season with the Lakers and would be named NBA Most Valuable Player and win his first NBA championship—and the Lakers repeated the following two seasons. Shaquille O’Neal…46 years old today.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)