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Mountain West semifinals bring NCAA tourney feel to Las Vegas

There’s a reason Friday night’s Mountain West semifinal doubleheader at the Thomas & Mack Center felt a bit like an NCAA Tournament session.

All four teams have a very realistic chance to be included in the field of 68 when it’s announced on Sunday.

Should Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming all get in, it would mark the first time in seven years the league got more than three teams into the bracket.

Wyoming was the one with the most left to prove, and the Cowboys may have left some doubt about their inclusion when their rally from 17 points down fell just short in a 68-61 loss to top-seeded Boise State in the first semifinal.

Most projections, however, indicated the Cowboys (25-8) likely secured their bid by surviving a battle against UNLV on Thursday. Coach Jeff Linder believes his team deserves to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015.

“I do believe we’re an NCAA Tournament team,” Linder said. “Hopefully based on our body of work when you look at what we did over the course of the season. I think that stands for itself. I’ll sleep pretty well, but crazier things have happened.”

Wyoming entered the day in the field on 126 of 129 projected brackets tracked by the Bracket Matrix. The Cowboys were also an 11-seed according to Bracket Odds and one of the last four teams in the tournament according to ESPN’s Bracketology.

“That was certainly an NCAA Tournament-worthy team we just played,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “I would say they are squarely in. Absolutely.”

The same can be said about his team, which is now 26-7 and finished atop a loaded conference in a banner year for the Mountain West.

“The quality of the league, it’s one of the top six in the country night in and night out,” Linder said. “Not only from a talent standpoint, but it’s such a smart league. Nobody’s going to beat themselves.”

At a time when West Coast college basketball has descended on Las Vegas with five conferences in town to determine a champion this week, the league that has called the valley home the longest has taken center stage.

“Before this tournament started, I said I think this is going to be the best tournament going on in Vegas right now,” said San Diego State guard Matt Bradley, who spent his first three collegiate seasons playing in the Pac-12 at California. “We’re extremely deep. There was great competition in the Pac-12, but it’s really deep in this conference. And to no surprise, it’s been a battle every game, top to bottom. I’m really impressed.”

That same Pac-12, long seen as the prestige league in the pacific time zone and currently conducting its tournament at T-Mobile Arena, is currently only projected to get three bids.

This is not uncharted territory for the Mountain West, which got at least three bids in five out of six years from 2010 through 2015.

But two bids has been the norm ever since and twice only the conference champion advanced to the Big Dance.

The key for the league now is to maintain the success, which Fresno State coach Justin Hutson thinks is possible due to how deep the conference is as currently constructed.

“I’ve been in this league 16 years,” the longtime UNLV and San Diego State assistant said. “I’ve been there when we had five teams in and I think this has been the toughest. It’s been one through 11. We’ve had some top-10 teams before where we were a little top-heavy with one or two teams at the top. But I think every coach in this conference has been saying the same thing: it’s a dogfight every night.”

That was evident again on Friday. Wyoming went on a 26-12 run over an 11:30 span in the second half to get within three in the final minute before the Broncos were able to put the game away.

“If you haven’t watched the league this year, this was a microcosm of the season, really,” Rice said. “Except for the big lead. We were fortunate to get enough cushion that we were able to hold them off, but every single night, it really is from top to bottom in this league, so good.”

The validation should come on Sunday.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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