Coaching cream at the top of the MW

Just about two-thirds of the way through the Mountain West season, it appears to be a two-horse race for conference Coach of the Year. It’s easy to look on top of the standings and see Boise State’s Leon Rice and Nevada’s Eric Musselman. But really, who else has distinguished himself this winter? Rice has taken a young, rebuilding Bronco squad and has won five Mountain West road games, fostering a winning chemistry with a lot of diverse parts. Musselman took over a Wolf Pack team that was 9-22 under David Carter two seasons ago and got it a CBI postseason title in his first year, going 24-14. The Pack has the best overall record in the Mountain West at 18-5. Beyond Rice and Musselman, maybe Colorado State’s Larry Eustachy gets a look after what he’s done with a depleted roster. But whose fault was that?

The big game tonight in the Mountain West—in terms of rivalry if not competitiveness—is UNLV at Nevada. The Wolf Pack can move back into a tie for first with Boise State if it can beat the last-place Rebels. This will be the first time the teams have met since former UNLV coach Dave Rice joined the Pack staff as an assistant. He was fired in Las Vegas a year ago. Nevada is going to stake its claim to the Silver State tonight by unveiling new “Battle Born” jerseys. The uniforms feature a silhouetted Nevada state flag symbol on the back, plus the Battle Born symbol found on the flag. A small outline of the state is featured on the left shoulder with a blue star where Reno is located. Kind of an “in your face” gesture. I think Nevada is tired of everyone in Vegas calling it “UNR.”

Last night in the Mountain West, Colorado State stifled Utah State 69-52 in Fort Collins behind 24 points from Gian Clavell. CSU thus stays on the heels of Boise State and Nevada—the Rams are now 8-4 in the Mountain West and are in sole possession of third place, a half-game behind the Broncos. And then there’s San Jose State. After toppling New Mexico in Th Pit last Saturday, the Spartans took down San Diego State 76-71 last night in the Event Center. It was their first win over the Aztecs in 18 years (although they did go a long time without playing SDSU). On second thought, let’s throw someone else into the Coach of the Year conversation: San Jose State’s Dave Wojcik.

Is there a legacy developing with Boise State players who depart early for the NFL? Not really, although Jeremy McNichols could shore up that theory with decent positioning in the NFL Draft in late April. McNichols is into serious prep now ahead of the NFL Combine at the end of this month. Writes CBSSports.com’s Rob Rang in his draft profile, “If he can ease concerns about his straight-line speed during pre-draft workouts, McNichols could earn top 100 consideration.” Rang says he “shows intriguing potential, demonstrating vision, burst, power and toughness.” The synopsis: “McNichols has the combination of running, receiving and return ability to carve out a solid career in the NFL, albeit one as a reserve rather than as the headliner.” CBSSports.com projects McNichols as a fourth-round pick.

This is the fourth straight year in which a Boise State player has declared early for the NFL Draft. It’s worked out well for DeMarcus Lawrence, who left after the 2012 campaign, and Jay Ajayi, who departed two years ago. Lawrence, of course, went in the second round to Dallas, while injury concerns—founded or unfounded—kept Ajayi from being drafted until the fifth round, where Miami took him. The jury is still out on Kamalei Correa, who decided after the 2015 season to skip his senior year. Correa was selected in the second round by Baltimore last spring. He appeared in nine games for the Ravens, making just four tackles and breaking up one pass before being placed on injured reserve on Christmas Eve.

Three others left Boise State early last decade: Ryan Clady, Orlando Scandrick and Jeremy Childs. Clady, currently a New York Jet, remains the highest draft pick in school history, No. 12 overall to Denver in 2008. Scandrick was taken in the fifth round in the same year by Dallas. The NFL has worked out famously for both. Not so for wide receiver Jeremy Childs, who had huge seasons as a Bronco in 2007 and 2008 before departing early. Childs went undrafted in 2009 and signed with San Diego but didn’t even make it to training camp.

Boise State should have enough chip-on-the-shoulder material internally after losing its last two games of the season. But the Broncos could use some from the outside, too—stuff to get their adrenaline going. Donnel Pumphrey, now San Diego State’s former star running back, is graciously trying to help. Tweeted Pumphrey yesterday: “I’m pissed that Boise State is on the schedule when I’m no longer playing. & no McNichols for them, that’s a dub for us. He’s their team.” A backhanded compliment to McNichols—and a goad to about 100 other guys.

Who are the Wheeling Nailers? Idaho Steelheads fans will find out tonight, as their team faces Wheeling for the first time, despite the fact the Nailers have been in the ECHL ever since the Steelies moved to the league 13 seasons ago. The Wheeling franchise has been in existence since 1981 and is the oldest surviving minor league team below the AHL level, having never missed a season of play. The Steelheads are trying to snap a six-game losing streak that has seen them blow 2-0 leads in three of those contests. Idaho led Utah 2-0 at the end of the second period last Saturday, only to fall 3-2 in overtime.

This Day In Sports…February 8, 1936:

The first NFL Draft is held among the league’s nine franchises. The Philadelphia Eagles chose first, selecting Jay Berwanger. The halfback from the University of Chicago had just won the first Heisman Trophy. But Berwanger decided he could make more money outside of athletics and would never play in an NFL game. Financial opportunities have obviously been turned inside out in the 80 years since.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)