Checking In On… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on November 22nd, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences and a Pac-12 microsite writer.
Reader’s Take I
A Look Back
Coming into the season, New Mexico and UNLV were the clear favorites to be the class of the conference this season, with the other six teams in the conference were littered with question marks. After a little more than a week of the regular season, UNLV has more than lived up to expectations while New Mexico has already stumbled once (to in-state rival New Mexico State) and has generally looked shaky at best. Around the rest of the conference, San Diego State has been the most active, already completing six games and losing only a road game to Baylor, RTC’s #11 team in the country. TCU pulled off a big surprise with a win over Virginia in the Paradise Jam (nevermind the fact that it backed up that breakthrough with a loss to Norfolk State). Air Force is undefeated through three games, sweeping the All-Military Classic with wins over Army and Virginia Military. And then, there’s our team of the week, below.
Team of the Week
Boise State – All apologies to UNLV, who has looked excellent in its four games so far, but the nod here goes to the Broncos, who have impressed in their first three games as members of the Mountain West. They’ve played nobody of note, but at least they’ve handled those three teams (Colorado Christian, Utah and Cal State Northridge) with ease, winning the three games by an average of 38 points per outing. Despite replacing three starters with a roster chock-full of newcomers, BSU has had three different players lead the team in scoring in its three games, and it has had seven different players score in double figures at least once. They’ve got bigger tests ahead (starting tonight with a trip to Long Beach State), but they have sure started well.
Player of the Week
Chase Tapley, Junior, San Diego State – There are a lot of possibilities here, including Tapley’s sophomore teammate Jamaal Franklin who has been outstanding, but we will go with Tapley for his across-the-board production and efficiency. In six games, Tapley has averaged 16.5 points per game, while contributing nearly five rebounds a night, 2.5 assists per outing and more than three steals a night, all while shooting 47.8% from the field and 53.1% from three-point range. In the Aztecs lone loss, it was Tapley who kept them in shouting distance, posting a career-high 28 points while hitting eight of his ten three-point attempts in their loss to Baylor.
Newcomer of the Week
Mike Moser, Sophomore, UNLV – There are plenty of worthy newcomers in the conference as well, but here the selection is a bit easier. In fact the only problem with the selection of Moser here is that he wasn’t also selected as Player of the Week. Moser started off his UNLV career by posting 16 points and 20 rebounds against Grand Canyon, and has back that up with games of 8 and 11 against Nevada and 19 and 9 against Canisius. Then on Sunday night he almost single-handedly destroyed Morgan State, scoring 23 points, grabbing 17 rebounds, handing out six assists, and snagging five steals. It will be seriously hard to find a better line than that all season. So why is Tapley the Player of the Week and Moser is not? Mostly because I think those numbers against Nevada and Canisius are more representative of what to expect of Moser as the season goes on and competition improves.
Game of the Week
TCU 57, Virginia 55 – Last year the Horned Frogs limped to a 11-22 record, dropping 13 straight conference games at one point. With little new blood in Fort Worth, it was expected that this season wouldn’t be much different. Meanwhile, Virginia was being touted as a sleeper in the ACC, a team capable of earning an NCAA Tournament bid. Nevertheless, TCU stepped up and slapped down the Cavaliers in the Paradise Jam behind senior point guard Hank Thorns. After Virginia had closed to within 43-41, the 5’7” Thorns scored inside, drilled a three, and followed it up with a floater in the lane to pull away again. The Frogs held on from there, giving the conference a solid non-conference win.
Game of the Upcoming Week
UNLV at the Las Vegas Invitational, 11/25 and 11/26 – The Rebels open the mini-tournament at the Orleans Arena in their hometown with a matchup with USC, a game that UNLV should win, but one where they will likely be tested by the defensive toughness of the Trojans. Assuming the Rebs get past that one, they could have the #1 team in the country, North Carolina, waiting for them on Saturday night (again, assuming UNC gets past South Carolina on Friday). What would UNLV need to do in order to hang with the Tar Heels? First and foremost, they’d need to get some serious production out of their frontline, especially on the glass. While the Rebels may not be as long as UNC up front, the three-headed center of 6’8” Quintrell Thomas, 6’9” Brice Massamba, and 6’10” Carlos Lopez is big enough to battle Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and company, especially with Chace Stanback and Mike Moser chipping in on the glass. Next, UNLV’s guards will need to extend their defensive pressure, hopefully forcing Tar Heel point guard Kendall Marshall into mistakes (Marshall did turn the ball over on nearly 30% of UNC possessions last year). And finally, they need to make shots; thus far guys like Justin Hawkins, Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield, and Kendall Wallace have been knocking down threes, and they’ll need to keep that up if the Rebels have any chance at knocking off the Tar Heels. My guess? UNLV fights UNC tooth and nail to the very end, and may have a puncher’s chance at winning.
Reader’s Take II
1. UNLV (4-0): Moser has been the big story so far for the Rebels, but they have seen production from up and down their roster. While Anthony Marshall has been the face of the program in the offseason, he missed the opener with a suspension for some arcane violation of NCAA rules before being his old solid, versatile, at-times-spectacular self (9.0 PPG, 7.3 APG, 4.0 RPG). However, his backcourt mates Hawkins and Bellfield have been excellent out of the gates, averaging 26.6 points, 8.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 3.8 steals per game between them. Stanback also missed the opener (suspension for a DUI), but was back in full swing by Sunday night when he hit five threes on his way to 20 points against Morgan State. Also Wallace is back for the Rebs after missing last year with a torn ACL, and he reminded fans why he is so important to this team, by hitting three threes in the win over Canisius. In fact, the Rebels have been killing it from beyond the arc thus far, an area that was a serious weakness last year. Stanback is 8/15 from deep on the year, while Bellfield is 12/25, Hawkins is 8/19 and Wallace is 8/20. It would be nice if Marshall would join that group as a solid shooter from range, and Moser still loves to step outside and jack up threes from time to time, but Moser is 0/7 on the year and Marshall is just 2/6. To their credit, at least they’re not putting up threes as a regular part of the offense.
A Look Ahead: As we detailed in our game of the week section above, the Rebels travel across town to play in the Las Vegas Invitational at the Orleans Arena, with a game against USC on Friday night and a potential matchup with North Carolina on Saturday. Prior to that, they will host Cal Poly tonight.
2. New Mexico (2-1): I guess the question here is whether these power rankings are supposed to rank how good a team is right now, or how good a team can potentially be. Because if this is about how good a team is right now, the Lobos would not be #2 in the Mountain West. This team is just not playing well right now. Part of it is finding a replacement for Dairese Gary, and they’ve certainly got no shortage of guys trying out for the role, but there is something else amiss here. Drew Gordon, in particular, seems to be trying to prove to NBA scouts that he can play the wing at the next level, because so far he is not dominating on the interior and on the glass like he showed he could do last season. In fact, both he and Kendall Williams found themselves coming off the bench after they combined to go 0 for 13 from the floor in the New Mexico State loss. As for the new point guard, Williams has led the team in assists in all three of their games, but head coach Steve Alford would still like to play him more on the wing. Sophomore Tony Snell has also done a bit of the ballhandling, as has transfer Demetrius Walker, but it seems like eventually this role will either fall to junior Jamal Fenton or Aussie freshman Hugh Greenwood, though neither has locked up the position yet.
A Look Ahead: The Lobos head to Anaheim this week for the 76 Classic, where they will get several good tests. After opening with Santa Clara, they will play either Washington State or Oklahoma in the semifinals before possibly facing Villanova or St. Louis in the championship, should they win their first couple.
3. San Diego State (5-1): Gone are Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, and D.J. Gay. But the guys that remain for the Aztecs have gotten used to winning over the years, and they’re not going to stop simply because the big names are gone. Tapley has taken to his new leadership role, while Jamaal Franklin, after being suspended for the first game of the year, has been a revelation, scoring 31 points to go with six rebounds, three steals, and four threes against UC Davis, and has averaged 18 points and five rebounds while hitting 90% of his free throws to this point. LSU transfer Garrett Green provides a solid presence up front, Washington State transfer Xavier Thames has stepped into the point guard spot without missing a beat, and even Deshawn Stephens, a junior college transfer, has been a solid contributor, averaging 5.5 points and 5.8 rebounds for the Aztecs. James Rahon missed the first three games of the season with an ankle injury and is slowing working his way back into game shape.
A Look Ahead: The Aztecs get a couple good road tests this week, with a trip to Arizona coming Wednesday night, followed by a match-up with Orlando Johnson and UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.
4. Boise State (3-0): We talked about them above in our Team of the Week section, but we didn’t even mention any names. Let’s fix that by starting with a couple of Australian freshmen wings, Anthony Drmic and Igor Hadziomerovic, who have kicked off their college careers quite well. Drmic had 23 points and five threes in Boise’s 21-point win over Utah, while Hadziomerovic had 18, five threes of his own and three steals against Cal State Northridge on Saturday. They may be easy to tie together because of their nationality, but they’re not the only freshmen who have made big splashes for the Broncos. Off-guard Derrick Marks went for 20 points, five rebounds, and four steals in the opener, sophomore forward Thomas Bropleh posted a career-high 20 points against Northridge and sophomore power forward Ryan Watkins has scored in double figures in all three games while leading the team in rebounding in the last two. So far there is no shortage of players ready and willing to step up for head coach Leon Rice.
A Look Ahead: We’ll have a much better idea of the true strength of the Broncos after tonight’s matchup with Long Beach State. The Broncos will also host Northern Illinois on Saturday.
5. Air Force (3-0): The Falcons are another team who hasn’t actually played anyone of note yet, but they have looked good in handling the teams they have played. Junior wing Mile Lyons is off to a nice start, leading the team in scoring in each of their first two games while helping out on the glass. Junior center Taylor Broekhuis came alive in the VMI game, scoring 18 points and grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds. Of the freshmen at the Academy, 6’4” Kamryn Williams has been the most impressive, leading the team with 10 points in 13 minutes in a glorified scrimmage against Western State, but also contributing in similar minutes in the first two games. He will likely earn more and more minutes as the season goes on.
A Look Ahead: The Academy’s first real test comes Wednesday night when they invite Colorado into Clune Arena.
6. TCU (3-1): These last three spots in the conference are where things get sketchy. For now, TCU, Wyoming and Colorado State seem to make up the bottom tier of the conference, but in what order remains to be seen. TCU gets this placement based on their win over Virginia in the Paradise Jam, but the fact that they followed that up with a 13-point loss to Norfolk State of the MEAC in a game in which their 26.3 eFG% doomed their chances indicates that this is more or less the same Frog team that finished 11-22 last year. Head coach Jim Christian has gotten some good production from a couple of newcomers, including junior college transfer Adrian McKinney (9.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG in 24.3 MPG) and freshman point guard Kyan Anderson (5.0 PPG, 2.5 APG, 1.3 SPG), who should see an increase in playing time as he gets more comfortable.
A Look Ahead: TCU goes to Houston on Saturday in a sneaky tough game against a young and talented Cougar squad that just knocked off Arkansas this past weekend.
7. Wyoming (2-1): The Larry Shyatt 2.0 era got off to a 2-0 start with wins over Western State and Northern Colorado, but as soon as the Cowboys came up against a non-directional school, there was trouble, as a trip to Green Bay on Saturday resulted in an eight-point loss. USC transfer Leonard Washington has given the Cowboys a strong presence inside (9.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.7 SPG, 1.3 BPG), but has struggled with foul trouble in the early going (he fouled out in 17 minutes against UNC) and will need to correct that in order to earn more minutes. Senior guard Francisco Cruz has taken a big step forward, averaging 16.7 points and 5.7 rebounds while stroking the three at a good rate, and it appears he will be the go-to scorer on the perimeter for Shyatt’s club.
A Look Ahead: Busy week for Wyoming as they host South Dakota tonight, then Portland State, Maryland Eastern Shore and Louisiana Tech during the Jim Thorpe Classic in Laramie from Friday through Sunday. Cowboy fans should hope their team is 6-1 by this time next week.
8. Colorado State (2-2): The Rams probably aren’t the worst team in this conference, but they are not very good. They got drilled Saturday night in a 21-point loss to a Southern Mississippi team that had just lost to Denver. The hope in the off-season was that either Trevor Williams or Chad Calcaterra would step up to provide some decent size inside for the Rams, but so far those two have combined to average 14.3 minutes, 2.3 points, and 3.0 rebounds per game, meaning 6’6” Greg Smith and 6’5” Pierce Hornung are the de facto big men on this CSU roster. Smith in particular has been good so far (13.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG), but the fact is this team is going to go as far as its guards (Wes Eikmeier, Jesse Carr and Dorian Green) can take them.
A Look Ahead: The Rams host Manhattan tonight as part of the NIT Season Tip-Off Consolation bracket.