The Mountain West postseason awards will be handed out in a few days and my gut tells me Utah State will be the big winners.
I tweeted about it this morning.
It's a lock Craig Smith wins MW coach of the year. His team was picked to finish ninth in the conference and he led the Aggies to a title in his first season in Logan. He inherited a 17-17 team that lost arguably its best player, Koby McEwen, to transfer and he turned in a 25-6 season and almost certainly an NCAA Tournament berth, which would be the team's first since joining the MW (and first since 2011). Nevada's Eric Musselman has done a superb job for the fourth straight season, but Smith is winning this one.
As for freshman of the year, Neemias Queta has been a huge reason for Utah State's ascension. The 6-foot-11 center is averaging 11.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. He's shooting 63.7 percent from the field. He's arguably a first-team All-MW player (he's been the best center in the league along with Colorado State's Nico Carvacho). This one is a lock, too.
The player of the year award is more debatable, and Wolf Pack fans are already debating me, arguing one of Nevada's players should win the award. Let's break down the stats to see who is most worthy. With all due respect to some of the other players in the league, this race is down to three players, although I'll toss San Diego State's Jalen McDaniels in there as well. Here are their numbers during MW play, which is important to note because the coaches vote on MW stats only, so non-conference is irrelevant. (Of note: The media has done its own postseason awards in recent years, although those are unofficial; the coaches kicked the media out of the voting a few years ago).
MW player of the year nominees
Utah State's Sam Merrill: 37.1 mpg, 22 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.3 bpg, 1.9 tpg, 44 FG%, 38 3PT%, 89.2 FT%, 24.9 PER, 3.7 win shares, 124.2 offensive rating, 103.2 defensive rating, 16.3 game score
Nevada's Caleb Martin: 33.6 mpg, 19.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.8 bpg, 1.8 tpg, 41.6 FG%, 35.7 3PT%, 70.2 FT%, 22.3 PER, 2.8 win shares, 113.5 offensive rating, 94.3 defensive rating, 13.5 game score
Nevada's Jordan Caroline: 35.1 mpg, 17 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.5 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.4 bpg, 2.8 tpg, 45 FG%, 36.7 3PT%, 65 FT%, 19.1 PER, 2.3 win shares, 104.6 offensive rating, 93.7 defensive rating, 12.1 game score
SDSU's Jalen McDaniels: 32.3 mpg, 17.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.4 bpg, 2.5 tpg, 48.5 FG%, 29.7 3PT%, 76 FT%, 22.7 PER, 2.1 win shares, 105.1 offensive rating, 94 defensive rating, 12.4 game score
Merrill has the most convincing statistical case by a solid margin. He leads the MW in minutes, points, free throws made and free throw percentage; is third in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio; and is fifth in 3-pointers made. He has the best true shooting percentage of our four candidates above, so he's been the most efficient offensive player, too.
The advanced metrics also favor Merrill, who has a higher Player Efficiency Rating (by 2.2 points); the most win shares (by 0.9, which is a sizable margin); the best offensive rating (by 10.7 points per 100 possessions); the biggest difference between their offensive and defensive rating; and the best average game score (by 2.8). These are all pretty lopsided in favor of Merrill.
When you throw in the narrative angle, which usually plays big in these awards, Merrill gets an even bigger bump. His team was voted to be the third worst in the MW but it earned a share of the title. His backcourtmate (McEwen) ditched him and he took Utah State to a level it hadn't seen in several seasons. And then you add how Merrill played in the gut of the MW title race -- he averaged 29.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game in the last four contests, including a 38-point, eight-rebound, six-assist game in the regular-season finale where Utah State needed a win to clinch the title and a 29-point game in a win over Nevada -- and it's pretty easy call. Despite Martin, Caroline and McDaniels having great seasons, Merrill has been the MW player of the year, and it's not all that close.
Yes, the Wolf Pack has one more game, and perhaps Martin or Caroline does something crazy to make this more contested, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a legitimate argument against Merrill as the MW player of the year. At least Martin will always have this on Merrill (although that was called a charge, so perhaps advantage Merrill there, too).
It'd be pretty crazy for a mid-major team like Nevada to sit in the top 17 of the nation the entire season but get shut out of the top three awards in the conference postseason vote, but that's almost certainly going to happen. Maybe Nevada will get the MW defensive player of the year award, and oddly, Caleb Martin rather than his brother, Cody, who won the honor last season, might be most worthy of that award.