What to make of the Mountain West

There are myriad things pundits point to when trying to figure out why the Mountain West has taken such a dive. There are myriad things pundits point to when trying to figure out why the Mountain West has taken such a dive in basketball. Some say, well, it’s because BYU and Utah aren’t around anymore. But the Cougars and Utes were already two years gone when the Mountain West hung around No. 2 in RPI among conferences in 2013 and placed five teams in the NCAA Tournament. Some say it’s scheduling. But the league’s schools have ratcheted up scheduling, Boise State among them. The Mountain West just hasn’t been winning many high-profile games (and there have been some bad losses, too). I’m afraid the main culprit is the sudden swiftness with which the power conferences have been able to widen the financial crevasse between them and the mid-majors. That’s a major factor in recruiting. And there you go.

This season the Mountain West dropped all the way to No. 12 in the RPI, hence its status as a one-bid league in the NCAA Tournament. The only entrant this year was conference tournament champion Fresno State, which was slapped with a No. 14 seed in the Midwest Region. That meant the Bulldogs had to face a No. 3, and that happened to be Utah last night. Fresno State had a case of the yips in the first half and didn’t even hit double digits until 6½ minutes remained before the break. The ‘Dogs made a run early in the second half and took the lead for 33 seconds midway through, but the Utes prevailed, 80-69.

Former Borah High star Isaiah Wright, who usually spells the Utah guards off the bench, played just the final 13 seconds in the win over Fresno State. Hopefully Wright will get more time tomorrow when he and the Utes go against Gonzaga and another former Treasure Valley star, Kyle Dranginis. The Skyview High grad scored eight points and pulled down six rebounds as the 11th-seeded Zags upended sixth-seeded Seton Hall, 68-52. There’s a couple other roundabout local ties on the Utah bench. Utes head man Larry Krystkowiak coached the Idaho Stampede in 2003-04, and his associate head coach is former Borah High star Tommy Connor, who used to entertain Boise State fans as a grade-schooler with his shot-making process during halftimes in old Bronco Gym in the mid-1970’s. Connor’s dad, Bus, was BSU’s head coach.

The Lyle Smith celebration on the blue turf was pretty special yesterday. Smith, the legendary former Boise Junior College coach and Boise State athletic director, turned 100 years young on St. Patrick’s Day, of course. After their morning practice, the Broncos sang “Happy Birthday” to him, and coach Bryan Harsin presented him with a No. 100 Boise State jersey with his name stitched in. Smith also addressed the team. Inquiring minds want to know: what has been the top moment for Smith in his almost 70 years of involvement with the school? “The Fiesta Bowl,” said Lyle. “When (Ian) Johnson crossed the goal line, I thought, ‘The Broncos have arrived.’”

Boise State spring football pauses for spring break now. All is going well so far, especially on the defensive line, where those inside the program would suggest that the sky is not falling. Bronco strength and conditioning coach Jeff Pitman, who is not easily impressed, says the group has been solid. Coach Bryan Harsin, as he did going into spring football, singles out the potential of redshirt freshmen Matt Lochar and Sam Whitney.

When Ryan Clady made it through last week as a member of the Denver Broncos, I took that to mean the team still has plans for the former Boise State star. Well, Denver’s plan now is to trade Clady, the All-Pro left tackle who had to sit out last season with a torn ACL. The Broncos made it clear yesterday when they signed free agent tackle Russell Okung from Seattle. Clady is entering the fourth year of a five-year, $52.5 million contract, giving the Broncos a $10.1 million salary cap hit. Denver was trying to negotiate with Clady to whittle that number down, but the two camps have been at an impasse. He turns 30 years old in September, and he’s missed both of Denver’s Super Bowls during his eight years with the club due to injury.

We have a special teams checklist going as the Idaho Steelheads host Rapid City tonight and tomorrow night in CenturyLink Arena. The Steelheads have not allowed a power play goal in the last eight games and are 28-for-29 on the penalty kill over the last 10 contests. On the other side, the Steelies’ Jefferson Dahl is tied for second in the ECHL with 10 power-play goals. Counterpoint: the Rush are third in the league on the penalty kill at 86.7 percent. What a ride for Idaho this season—it’s now been more than three months since the Steelheads have lost back-to-back games in regulation.

The Idaho Stampede have a broken record in their midst, and his name is Treveon Graham. Night after night, Graham was been elevating his game since the Stampede turned their roster inside out two weeks ago. Last night he poured in 34 points as the Stamps stopped the L.A. D-Fenders 110-101 in CenturyLinkArena. Graham has now put up 191 points in the last seven games—that’s 27.2 points a night. The Stampede don’t play again until next Thursday at Santa Cruz.

Does Troy Merritt have his mojo back? We’ll see. The former Boise State star is only one round into the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but he’s just one shot behind leader Jason Day after opening with a five-under 67. Merritt birdied the first hole at Bay Hill in Orlando and had five birds before encountering the only blemish on his round, a bogey on No. 14. He’s tied for second with Marc Leishman, Brendan Steele, Henrik Stenson and the red-hot Adam Scott.

Women’s gymnastics rankings are based on Regional Qualifying Scores, so that explains why Boise State dropped from No. 12 to 15 on this week’s list after posting a school-record score of 197.325 last week. I guess. The Broncos, the only undefeated team left in the country, will host the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference Championships tomorrow night at Taco Bell Arena. BYU, Southern Utah and Utah State join Boise State, which is going after its second straight conference title.

Other notes going into the weekend: Boise State’s Geordan Martinez and Chris Castillo each went 1-1 at the NCAA Wrestling Championships yesterday at Madison Square Garden in New York. They qualify for the consolation round today. College of Idaho’s Joey Nebeker was named an NAIA honorable mention All-American yesterday. The junior from Melba averaged 20.7 points per game for the Yotes. And best wishes to Cary Cada, who is retiring as head basketball coach at Borah High after 22 seasons at the helm. Cada led the Lions to 15 state tournament appearances and four state championships. He replaced Kirk Williams in 1994. Add in Williams’ 16 seasons at the school, and Borah has had just two hoops coaches in the past 38 years.

This Day In Sports…March 18, 1953:

The first of five major league franchise moves to take place during the 1950’s is announced, as the Boston Braves confirm they are relocating to Milwaukee. The Braves had drawn just 281,000 fans in 1952 but would attract more than 1.8 million their first year in Milwaukee. The St. Louis Browns would become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, the Philadelphia Athletics would move to Kansas City in 1955, and the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers bolted for California in 1958.

(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.)