Checking In On… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by rtmsf on December 6th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences, and a Pac-12 microsite staffer.
A Look Back
After a 39-10 start to the season, highlighted by UNLV’s 7-0 start and win over the nation’s then #1 team, North Carolina, the Mountain West was getting some love around the country. As a result, this week’s 10-4 record, with all four losses coming as a part of the MW/MVC Challenge, including a 19-point loss for those same Runnin’ Rebels to Wichita State, had to seem as something of a step back for the conference. The MW/MVC Challenge technically ended in a 4-4 tie (I say technically, because Boise State’s 44-point thrashing of Drake on Wednesday night was not included as a part of the challenge) after the Mountain West had won eight of the nine games in last year’s inter-conference battle. Aside from the UNLV game, San Diego State also took a tough loss on Wednesday night, blowing a 17-point first half lead in a loss to Creighton, although the Aztecs did bounce back with a hard-fought win over Cal on Sunday.
Team of the Week
Wyoming – Larry Shyatt’s Cowboys aren’t the best team in the Mountain West. They may not even be in the top half of the conference. And certainly their 8-1 record is built entirely on wins from the bottom half of Division I. But given that we’re talking about a team that was an absolute mess last season, a team that lost to South Dakota and UC Irvine, North Florida, and Northern Colorado, this 8-1 record (and a six-game winning streak for the first time in nine seasons) truly shows serious progress. Last year the Cowboys were a turnover waiting to happen, giving away the ball on 21% of their possessions, good for #236 in the nation. Thus far this year, led by point guard JayDee Luster who has turned the ball over just five times against 37 assists, the Cowboys are #35 in the nation in turnover percentage, giving it away on 17% of their possessions. Last year the Cowboys allowed their opponents to shoot an 52.9% eFG from the field; this year that number is just 40%. Last year, Wyoming allowed its opponents to grab 33.7% of their offensive rebound opportunities; this year that number is down to just 28%. In short, under Shyatt the Cowboys have made significant progress in a short time, and while those numbers will almost certainly worsen once they get into conference play and compete against better athletes, this program is certainly on the right track.
Player of the Week
Hank Thorns, Sr, TCU – In lieu of giving credit to the entire Horned Frog team for their 2-0 week and 6-2 start to the season, we’ll give the nod to Thorns over a host of worthy contenders across the conference (apologies to Mike Moser, Chase Tapley, Drew Wiley and Wes Eikmeier). Thorns has led his Horned Frogs in assists in each of their eight games this season, and Saturday at Evansville he absolutely refused to let his team go home a loser. Thorns hit a three with 20 seconds left in regulation to tie the game up and send it to overtime, then hit the game-tying and game-winning baskets – the last with just two seconds remaining – to give TCU the win.
Newcomer of the Week
Drew Wiley, Jr, Boise State – Mike Moser could likely win this award just about every week this season, but in the interest of mixing things up, we’ll give this one to Wiley. Not to say Wiley, a transfer from Oregon, didn’t earn this award; however, because in the Broncos’ two wins this week, he hit nine of his 11 three-point attempts (making up the sum total of his field goal attempts this week) on his way to scoring 29 points in 41 minutes of play.
Game of the Week
UNLV 94 UC Santa Barbara 88 (2OT) – Last week the Gauchos earned mention in this spot for their heartbreaking overtime loss to San Diego State. This week, it was the Runnin’ Rebels that got them in an epic basketball game that featured multiple clutch shots, all sorts of hustle and effort plays, two great players in Orlando Johnson and Mike Moser (who combined for 70 points and 20 rebounds), a great college basketball atmosphere, and several “wow” moments. How about 7’3” Greg Somogyi grabbing a tipped-rebound after an intentionally missed free throw and scoring as time expired to send the game to overtime. Or here, as Chace Stanback drills a step-back three following an offensive rebound to squelch the UCSB students’ dreams of a hometown RTC.
Games of the Upcoming Week
UNLV @ Wisconsin, 12/10, 11 AM PST, Big Ten Network – The Runnin’ Rebels head to Madison to face the Badgers in a battle of a couple of teams that have given North Carolina great games so far. While the Rebels came out on top in their own hometown, Wisconsin couldn’t quite handle the Tar Heels in the Kohl Center. Both teams have relative breathers still ahead on their schedule before this weekend battle, but with UNLV dropping its game on Sunday and Wisconsin having dropped its last two, there will be quite a bit at stake in this one. Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the nation at defending the three-point shot (and really, at defending anything anywhere), so UNLV will need to find some way to generate some offense against the stingy Badgers.
1. UNLV 8-1
After the Rebels’ big win over North Carolina, a letdown against UC Santa Barbara would have been justifiable. While UNLV definitely wasn’t sharp in the first half that night, the remainder of that game was a crisply-played battle that maybe just pushed the UNLV let down back a game. Because on Sunday, the Shockers just tore through the Rebs, grabbing a 15-point halftime lead and never looking back. UNLV had no answer for Joe Ragland’s three-point shooting (8-9 from three, 31 points), or for just about anybody else on the Wichita State squad.
A look ahead: Prior to the trip to Madison on Saturday, the Rebels host Cal State San Marcos at the Orleans Arena on Wednesday.
2. San Diego State 8-2
The same night UNLV was holding off UCSB, the Aztecs were busy blowing a 17-point lead in a loss to Creighton. SDSU had no answer for Doug McDermott (25 points/12 rebounds) and despite their best efforts, couldn’t regain the lead at the end. On Sunday they were treated to another knock-down, drag-out fight with California, giving the Bears just about everything they could handle before two Chase Tapley free throws with 8.6 seconds left for a one-point win. After a brutal 10 games to start the season, the Aztecs look like they’ve put together a pretty solid non-conference resume, with wins over Cal, Arizona, UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State, and USC to go with losses to Baylor and Creighton that are nothing to be embarrassed about.
A look ahead: From here, the non-conference slate is a joke. The Aztecs don’t leave San Diego city limits again until January 18, and wrap up non-conference play with games against San Diego (Wednesdsay), UC Riverside (next Monday), Elon, San Diego Christian and Chicago State. In other words, the Aztecs had better be 14-2 when they host UNLV on January 14 to open conference play.
3. New Mexico 6-2
The Lobos seem to be hitting their stride now. They handled Idaho State the way they should have on Wednesday night with a 24-point blowout, then ripped into Missouri State from the jump on Saturday, knocking down five threes out of the gate to build a 23-4 lead and never looking back from there. Nobody scored in double figures against ISU as the team coasted, but Kendall Williams, Demetrius Walker, Tony Snell and Hugh Greenwood all scored 11 or more on Saturday.
A look ahead: In the midst of finals, the schedule slows down a bit, but USC in Los Angeles on Saturday at should provide a challenge before a trip to Oklahoma City on the following Saturday to face Oklahoma State.
4. Boise State 6-1
Two MVC teams up; two MVC teams down. The Broncos absolutely took apart Drake on Wednesday night, scoring 108 points, the Boise State record for points in a game against a Division I opponent. Five different Broncos scored in double figures, the team combined to shoot 14-22 from three and the team is now fifth in the nation in three-point shooting percentage. Saturday, Indiana State gave the Broncos more of a challenge, but still BSU had this game in control most of the way, winding up with a nine-point win in which they dominated on the glass, grabbing 91.7% of all defensive rebound opportunities and 29.6% on the offensive end.
A look ahead: While other teams slow down this time of year, the Broncos are still going strong, with three games this week: Idaho State on Monday, Portland on Wednesday and then a trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU on Saturday.
5. Wyoming 8-1
We’ve already talked a bunch about the Cowboys above in the Team of the Week section, and we haven’t even mentioned Luke Martinez yet. Martinez came to Laramie last season as a junior college transfer, but promptly broke his elbow on October 28 and missed the entire season. So far this season, Martinez has proven to be a highly effective player, averaging 12.9 points in just 21 minutes a night and shooting the ball at a great clip, knocking down 46% of the 50 three-point attempts he’s taken already. Paired with Francisco Cruz, another excellent shooter on the wing (13.0 PPG, 28.4 MPG, 37% from three), the Cowboys have shooters on the wing to free up Leonard Washington (a transfer from USC, whose story we’ll get to later in the season) and Adam Waddell inside.
A look ahead: There’s not a ton of meat on the bones of Wyoming’s schedule, but they do travel to Boulder on Friday to face Colorado in their toughest non-conference game of the season. A win there will go a long ways towards showing doubters that this Cowboy team is indeed for real.
6. TCU 6-2
The Horned Frogs knocked off Lamar and Evansville by a combined total of seven points, and have now won three games in a row. Neither Lamar nor Evansville is a great team, but both are solid teams (Lamar’s got a win over Charlotte, Evansville beat Butler), so these are good wins for Jim Christian’s team. The undersized Frogs have put forth a renewed commitment to rebounding, while also pressuring their opponents into turnovers on almost 27% of possessions (good for #18 in the nation). Just this week, three different players (J.R. Cadot, Craig Williams, and Adrick McKinney) all grabbed double digit rebounds in a game. There still probably isn’t enough talent on this team to do some serious damage in the MW, but they’ll win a few games here and there, and Christian continues to prove that he can coach his guys up as well as anybody.
A look ahead: The Horned Frogs get a taste of life in the Big 12 on Tuesday when Texas Tech comes calling, while Nebraska gets a shot at the Frogs on Saturday – all things considered, a couple of good challenges for this team.
7. Air Force 3-2
Considering what Boise State had just got done doing to Drake (dropping 108 points on them, for those that skipped ahead), the Falcons’ 62-60 loss to that same team on Saturday is a little disturbing. While the Broncos scored at will against the Bulldogs, AFA shot less than 50% and needed a big run at the end to get within striking distance. But still, the Falcons had to good three-point attempts in the final five seconds that would have given them the win, but Todd Fletcher and Mike Fitzgerald both had their shots go awry.
A look ahead: The Falcons host Wright State on Wednesday, then Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday.
8. Colorado State 5-3
Whenever it looks like the Rams are starting to gain some traction, they come back and lay an egg. After opening the season with two wins, they got handled pretty easily by Stanford and Southern Miss. They bounced back with a couple wins against middling competition, then earlier this week they knocked off in-state rival Colorado in dramatic fashion. But three days later, on a trip to Cedar Falls, the Rams fell to Northern Iowa in a shootout. UNI posted an eFG of 69% and outscored CSU from the line 25-11 in a game it never trailed. Wes Eikmeier had 19 points in each game this week, while Dorian Green not only had the game winner against CU, but also 21 points in the loss to UNI and nine rebounds in each game.
A look ahead: A trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday means the CSU losing streak will likely reach two games just before they take 11 days off for finals.