Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by AMurawa on December 13th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
This week marked the start of a relatively quiet time in the Mountain West schedule. With the MW/MVC Challenge and early season tournaments a thing of the past, and with the combination of finals, holidays and a late start to conference play, we’re treated to almost a month worth of sleepy matchups. We’ve still got a handful of interesting games, however, like the UNLV-Wisconsin matchup this past week, or the upcoming Rebels’ matchups with Illinois and Cal (other games of note include New Mexico-Oklahoma State and Boise State-Iowa). But for every one of those types of games, we’ve got a UC Riverside-San Diego State or Sioux Falls-Wyoming snoozefest to keep us in check. Despite the fact that the Mountain West currently ranks fourth among all conferences in RPI, you can expect that the anticipated dive in strength of schedule over the next month will hurt the conference’s member institutions when it comes to selection and seeding for the NCAA Tournament.
Team of the Week
- Air Force – The Falcons are my team of the week, almost by default. They are the only team in the conference to win two games this week, and they did so in convincing fashion, knocking off Wright State by 21, then taking care of Arkansas-Pine Bluff by 12. The Falcons used suffocating defense to limit WSU to just 9-of-46 shooting from the field and coasted enough to allow a whopping 17 players to get playing time in the game. Senior guard Michael Lyons led the way in both games, and is now averaging 19 points (best in the conference) and 5.4 rebounds per game (#11 in the conference), while Mike Fitzgerald busted out with six threes on his way to a career-high 19 against UAPB. The Academy is now 5-2 on the season, with the two losses (to Colorado and Drake) coming by a combined total of just five points.
Player of the Week
- DeShawn Stephens, Jr, San Diego State – In a week where there was no runaway winner, we’re going to take this opportunity to recognize Stephens, a junior college transfer in his first year on Montezuma Mesa. With the Aztecs woefully thin up front to begin with, more minutes opened up for Stephens when senior big man Tim Shelton was limited to just seven minutes by yet another knee injury in their game against cross-town foe San Diego. Stephens, a quick learner who didn’t play basketball in high school, responded with 16 points and nine rebounds in the Aztecs win, and should be in line for more minutes from here on out, as he is already arguably the best SDSU big man.
Newcomer of the Week
- Stephens – The 6″8″, 215-pound Los Angeles native is also converted 7-of-8 shots in the victory over San Diego.
- Wyoming 65, Colorado 54 – The most competitive game of the week in the Mountain West was New Mexico’s 44-41 win at USC on Saturday, but selecting that for any type of recognition would only encourage that type of behavior. Instead, we’ll pick a victory for a Mountain West team that was a huge win for an up-and-coming program. In going into Boulder and knocking off a middling Colorado squad, the Cowboys captured their best win of the season. Adam Waddell (10.8 PPG/3 RPG) led the way for Larry Shyatt’s club with 17 points – all in the second half – on the way to snapping Wyoming’s 23-game road losing streak. It was a huge win for the recently moribund program, proving that this Cowboy team is a whole different club than they were in recent years.
Game of the Upcoming Week
- 12/17 – UNLV at Illinois, 3 PM MST, Big Ten Network – There are exactly seven games featuring Mountain West teams between today and next Sunday. Though that’s not a huge sample size, the Rebel and the Illini will definitely be a game worth keeping an eye on. While Illinois is a perfect 10-0 so far, their best win is over a Gonzaga team that is fairly suspect itself. In short, the Rebels will provide the Illini with by far their biggest test of the year. Bruce Weber’s 7’1” sophomore center Meyers Leonard has taken a huge leap forward in his second season, but UNLV’s three-headed center will provide a stiff test for him. The most intriguing facet of this game could be in the backcourt, where UNLV’s backcourt of Oscar Bellfield (11.2 PPG/4.9 APG), Anthony Marshall (8.8 PPG/5.7 APG), Justin Hawkins (10.6 PPG/2.8 RPG) and Kendall Wallace (4.3 PPG) will match up against the Illini’s strength in Brandon Paul, D.J Richardson, Sam Maniscalco and a handful of young contributors. Illinois will be well-rested at game time, while the Rebels have a game against UTEP on Wednesday before making the trip to Champaign, but this game should be a good yardstick for both teams.
- UNLV (9-2) – After handling Cal State San Marcos in a throw-away game on Wednesday, the Rebels made the trip to Madison on Saturday for as tough of a non-conference road game as you’ll find. And, really, the Rebels acquitted themselves pretty well, playing Wisconsin almost to a draw. Almost, that is, except for one guy: freshman Ben Brust. Brust hit all seven of his 3-point attempts on his way to a career-high 25 points and managed to drag the Badgers across the finish line. But aside from the hot-shooting Brust, UNLV held Wisconsin to 13 of 47 shooting on the night and just 3 of 19 from three. Of course, that’s a little like telling Mrs. Lincoln “aside from the shooting, the play was quite good,” but the Rebels do have something to build on. A look ahead: As detailed above, the Rebels host UTEP on Wednesday before traveling to face Illinois on Saturday.
- San Diego State (9-2) – The Aztecs began a sleepy part of their schedule by sleepwalking to a 12-point victory over San Diego on Wednesday. Chase Tapley (17.7 PPG/4.4 RPG) led all scorers with 23 points and Xavier Thames (12.3 PPG/5.8 APG) went all double-double with 11 points and 11 assists, but there just isn’t going to be much to talk about SDSU team until conference play kicks off. There was one unhappy but not altogether surprising occurrence in the game, however, as senior forward Tim Shelton was limited by a minor knee injury to just seven minutes. However, given Shelton’s history with knee injuries and the lack of depth up front for SDSU, one can’t blame head coach Steve Fisher for playing it safe. A look ahead: There is no reason the Aztecs shouldn’t be 14-2 when they kick off conference play. After taking the rest of this week off for finals, SDSU returns with consecutive games against UC Riverside, Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and Chicago State. A loss in any of those games would be quite surprising and would most likely become worst loss a Mountain West team would suffer all season.
- New Mexico (7-2) – Step back from the ledge Lobo fans. Sure, USC uglied things up something awful and turned your team’s road trip to Los Angeles into an abomination against the Basketball Gods, but they do that against everybody. And, look at it this way: your team didn’t score from the field for the final 14 and a half minutes against a Pac-12 team – and you still won. Sure, the fact that you remain unable to get Drew Gordon (10.9 PPG/9.6 RPG) consistent good opportunities in the post is concerning, but he still wound up with 13 points and 13 rebounds (quite the effort in a 44-point, um, “outburst”). And Kendall Williams (10.9 PPG/4.7 APG) still hasn’t looked anywhere near as good as he did last year, but you’ve still got several stout challenges remaining on your non-conference slate, so you can expect that Steve Alford will have this team whipped into shape by the time you travel to Laramie on January 14, right? A look ahead: Saturday finds the Lobos with a tough challenge, as they’ll travel to face Oklahoma State in a neutral-site-by-name-only game in Oklahoma City.
- Boise State (8-2) – We still don’t really have any idea how good this Bronco team is, do we? They’ve drilled the likes of Utah, Cal State Northridge an Drake by proper margins, but prior to this week, their best win was over an average Indiana State team. And on Saturday, in just their second game of the year away from Boise, they got drilled by LSU – a bottom-of-the-barrel SEC team playing without its leading scorer – by 19 points. Boise apologists can say that it was a mixture of a young team playing on the road and just a cold shooting night for a team built upon the three-ball, and really, both of those excuses make sense. It’s not like the Broncos were obviously athletically inferior to the Bayou Bengals, they just couldn’t get their shots to drop. However, given BSU’s lack of wins over quality opponents – the loss to LSU – combined with their previous loss to Long Beach State, may indicate that the ceiling for this Bronco team may be quite lower than their 100-point onslaughts against inferior opponents (Cal State Northridge, Drake) may lead you to believe. A look ahead: On Saturday, the Broncos travel to face a sneaky Denver team that has already knocked off St. Mary’s and Southern Miss, aside from taking Iona to the wire last week. This is definitely another road trip on which Boise State will be seriously challenged.
- Wyoming (9-1) – The Cowboys have the best record in the Mountain West, and any Cowboy fans that read this would be justified in arguing that their team, not Air Force, should have been the MW Team of the Week (in my defense, they earned my Team of the Week honors last week). Unlike prior seasons under Heath Schroyer where the Cowboys wanted to get up and down the court, running and gunning while paying little mind to defense, this team under Larry Shyatt is a slow-it-down, defense-first throwback. Not once in Schroyer’s four years in Laramie were the Cowboys ranked better than #171 in the nation in defensive efficiency (according to Ken Pomeroy), but this year they are ranked #51. Once Wyoming begins to play a higher level of competition in conference play, that number will likely drop, but Shyatt has completely changed the atmosphere. Defensive efficiency numbers have shot way up, adjusted tempo has slowed way down, and a team that couldn’t hit the broad-side of a barn last year is now shooting a 53 eFG% on the season. He won’t have the type of national success that will garner him consideration for Coach of the Year honors, but right now, there is nobody – nobody – doing a better job of coaching up his team than Larry Shyatt. A look ahead: Wyoming hosts UC Irvine and Sioux Falls this week, and provided the above paragraph doesn’t jinx anything, the Cowboys should be 11-1 when the face Denver in a tough road battle next Monday night.
- Air Force (3-2) – We gave the Falcons plenty of love in the Team of the Week section above, but sort of glossed over Mike Fitzgerald’s accomplishments this year. Aside from the six threes he drilled on Saturday night, this guy has been excellent from three this year, hitting 56.3% of his shots from deep. Of course, the fact that he is shooting 61.5% from inside the arc largely goes unnoticed, but all things considered, Fitzgerald is one of the hottest shooters in the land right now, ranking second in the nation with a 77.8 effective field goal percentage. Combined with Michael Lyons’ ability to score from just about anywhere on the floor, the Falcons have a one-two combo that can shoot them into a ball-game. A look ahead: Air Force hosts Maryland-Eastern Shore on Saturday before heading to Gonzaga just before Christmas.
- TCU (7-3) – The fact that the Horned Frogs came out of a week with home games against Texas Tech and Nebraska and was disappointed with 1-1 record shows that this team is making progress. After jumping out to an early lead against Texas Tech and then holding on to seal the victory, TCU got off to a similar start against Nebraska. With time running down in the first half, they held a double-digit lead over the Cornhuskers, but a Bo Spencer halftime-buzzer-beater got Nebraska back within seven. Ultimately, the Cornhuskers rode that momentum to a 39-20 second half and a 12-point win. The Frogs shot just 24% from the field in that second half, and head coach Jim Christian attributed the loss to a lack of toughness on the defensive end, particularly galling since it has been toughness that has earned TCU most of its wins this year. A look ahead: TCU has to live with that loss for nine days, until they travel to Los Angeles to face USC next Monday. One thing is for certain, if the Horned Frogs lack toughness in that game, they’ll return to Fort Worth a loser.
- Colorado State (5-4) – The Rams lost at Duke on Wednesday by 23. Garlon Green had 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, and the undersized CSU squad actually hung tough on the boards with the bigger Duke squad; that’s what you need to know from this week’s game. More importantly, the fact that this team is the worst team in the Mountain West (and, yeah, you could make an argument that maybe the Rams are better than TCU or Air Force, but face it, CSU is certainly in the conversation for worst MW team) says a lot of good things about the conference. Just looking around at the worst teams in some of the BCS conferences – Utah, Penn State, DePaul, Boston College, Auburn, Texas Tech – I think I’d take CSU over any of those teams. I don’t know that there are a whole lot of people judging conference strength by the relative strength of the worst teams in the conference, but if they were, the MW would have a strong argument towards being at the top of that list. A look ahead: Ram players are trapped in a world of books and papers and exams this week; they’ll return to the court on Monday with a visit from Texas Southern before heading a little southeast to face Northern Colorado next Thursday.