Checking In On… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 10th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
One of the unpleasant side effects of the recent spate of conference realignment maneuverings was this year’s MW being left with just eight teams, meaning a 14-game conference schedule is all that is required to complete a full home-and-away round-robin. Meaning that while conferences like the Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12, all of whom play 18-game conference schedules, have been going at it for two weeks now, the MW is just now gearing up to kick off conference play this weekend. And, in the meantime, the last two weeks have yielded some absolutely horrendous matchups for MW teams as their schedule-makers had a hard time finding quality opponents at this time of the year.
So, in lieu of looking back to a week in which a four-point TCU win over Rice and a six-point Wyoming win over Utah Valley are the “highlights,” let’s take a look back at a pretty impressive non-conference performance for the Mountain West. Overall the conference has posted a 94-26 record on the season thus far, good for a .783 winning percentage and a conference RPI of six. UNLV leads the way for the conference, currently ranking 13th in the RPI with their big win over then-#1 North Carolina highlighting their tournament resume. Colorado State is, quite surprisingly, the second highest RPI team in the conference, checking in at #27, but the Rams have nothing on their schedule that would qualify as a marquee win, although their one-point win over Colorado is looking better by the day. The other two teams that have their eyes set on a possible NCAA Tournament bid are San Diego State (RPI #45) and New Mexico (RPI #64). The Aztecs sport wins over California, Arizona, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara, but haven’t played anybody of interest in more than a month. The Lobos struggled out of the gate with two pretty unattractive losses in their first four games, but have now won 12 straight, with wins over Saint Louis, Missouri State and Oklahoma State mixed in there.
Team of the Non-Conference
UNLV – It is hard to argue with UNLV here. They’ve got the single best win – their November 26 upset of North Carolina – out of any of the MW teams, the highest RPI, and they head into conference action ranked 12th in the latest RTC top 25. Throw in wins over California, Illinois and 13 other teams, with the only losses coming at Wichita State and at Wisconsin and the Rebels have put themselves in a position where they would need to somehow take an unprecedented dive in conference play in order to miss the NCAA Tournament. And, given the fact that they’ve done all this while breaking in a first-time head coach in Dave Rice, this has been an excellent first half of the season for the Runnin’ Rebels.
Player of the Non-Conference
Mike Moser, Soph, UNLV – It’s a pretty tight race here, but we’ll take Moser by a nose over guys like New Mexico’s Drew Gordon or San Diego State’s Chase Tapley. Moser has averaged a double-double with 14.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game in his first 18 games in Vegas (Gordon also averages a double-double – 12.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG), but also does a little bit of everything for the Rebs; he’s second on the team in steals, third in assists and blocks and has thrown in 19 three-pointers on the year as well. And he’s shown that he’s capable of playing up to the level of competition, grabbing 18 rebounds in the win over UNC and coming back four nights later to score 34 points, grab ten boards and hit six threes in a wild win over UC Santa Barbara.
Freshman of the Non-Conference
Anthony Drmic, Fr, Boise State - The freshman out of Melbourne has played a huge role for Leon Rice’s ballclub this season, stepping right into a big role for the Broncos. He has led BSU in scoring in six games and has scored in double figures in 11 of the 14 games he has played in. Yes, there have been some ups and downs, but he has been surprisingly consistent, knocking down good looks from deep on a regular basis (he’s shooting over 40% from three), helping out on the glass (the 6’6” wing grabs more than 17% of his opponents’ misses) and taking care of the ball. Drmic is the only freshman in the conference in the top 20 in both scoring and rebounding.
Non-Conference All-MWC Team
- G Jamaal Franklin, Soph, San Diego State – 15.1 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.5 3PG, 1.4 SPG,
- G Chase Tapley, Jr, San Diego State – 16.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.2 SPG
- F Mike Moser, Soph, UNLV – 14.2 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.8 SPG
- F Chace Stanback, Sr, UNLV – 14.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG
- C Drew Gordon, Sr, New Mexico – 12.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG
Game of the Upcoming Week
UNLV @ San Diego State, January 11, 1 PM PST, NBC Sports Network - For the second consecutive season, conference play kicks off with a matchup of ranked teams. Last year it was BYU at UNLV; this year it is the Rebels going on the road to face San Diego State in some seriously hostile territory. Last year the Aztecs beat UNLV all three times the teams matched up, in increasingly close games, so the visitors will have revenge on their mind. Both teams should be fresh, as UNLV has nine days off prior to the game and hasn’t faced strong competition since before Christmas, while SDSU is in the middle of almost two months of play without having to leave San Diego city limits. For the Aztecs to start conference play 1-0, they’ll need to prove they can hang with UNLV inside. The Rebels make 54.5% of their two-point field goals, while holding their opponent to just 41.8% from inside the arc, both numbers in the top 20 in the nation. SDSU is a relatively undersized bunch for a big-time program, but they do a great job of keeping their opponents off the offensive glass. They’ll need guys like Garrett Green, Deshawn Stephens and Tim Shelton to continue doing a good job up front in the battle with Mike Moser, Chace Stanback and the three-headed UNLV center. But the most enjoyable part of this game to watch will be the backcourt matchups. Chase Tapley has been a revelation for the Aztecs in his first year out from under the shadow of Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay, et al, while Xavier Thames has exceeded expectations at the point and Jamaal Franklin has burst onto the scene in a big way. Across the way, Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall have been solid, while Justin Hawkins has taken a big leap forward himself in his junior season. It should be a great battle – here’s hoping you’ve either got tickets or NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus.
1. UNLV 16-2
Prior to the season, it was expected that the Rebels would compete with New Mexico primarily for the regular season title. Now with MW play imminent, those expectations remain, although a third team, San Diego State, is certainly in the mix. But there is still room for improvement on this Rebel squad, and if the right things happen, they could be a force to contend with on the national stage in March. First and foremost, the Rebs need to get to the line more often; of their five players that play more than 50% of their minutes, only Marshall gets to the line with any consistency, and he is good enough to get there more often, while Moser in particular needs to be more aggressive in attacking defenses. Also, the Rebels could be better defensively. They’re not pressuring the ball nearly as much as they did last season, and as a result, the number of turnovers they force is way down. It remains to be seen whether Rice will call for more defensive pressure, but guys like Marshall, Hawkins and Moser can certainly provide it if called upon.
One other note of excitement for UNLV fans, Monday it was announced that Khem Birch, a 2011 McDonald’s All-American who transferred out of Pittsburgh during the first semester, would wind up in Las Vegas, where he’ll be eligible at the semester break next season.
A look ahead: The Rebs start conference play Saturday at San Diego State, then return home on Wednesday to start a two game homestand with TCU and New Mexico coming to town.
2. New Mexico 14-2
After getting off to a somewhat concerning 2-2 start to the season, the Lobos have been rolling for nearly two months now. And they’ve been doing it primarily with defense, as in their last 12 games – all wins – they have yet to allow their opponent to average more than a point per possession and have averaged allowing just 0.82 PPP over that stretch. That’s some heady stuff that would be good for 4th in the nation (had those 12 games made up the entirety of the UNM schedule – which they didn’t). Offensively, the Lobos are still a work in progress, but they’ve shown some progress as well. Kendall Williams got off to a terrible start to the season shooting the ball, including going 0-for-13 from the field in the two losses, but he’s been more comfortable recently and is getting used to playing off the ball again. He’s able to do that because head coach Steve Alford now has not one, but two, point guard that he’s got trust in, as both Hugh Greenwood (who missed UNM’s last game with a sprained ankle) and Jamal Fenton have been playing well as of late.
A look ahead: The Lobos open up conference play with a sneaky tough road trip to face Wyoming on Saturday afternoon, but the fact that they dropped the 2011 Mountain West opener in Laramie will surely have them focused. However, a visit from San Diego State and a trip to UNLV loom afterwards.
3. San Diego State 13-2
It’s been so long since the Aztecs played any type of interesting game, it’s like I’ve forgotten whether or not this team is really any good. Take the stats from their last five games and flush ‘em; they’re meaningless. But, this team showed early in its schedule that it is capable of beating good teams and will likely be a factor in the conference race, even though I’d still put them as a distant third. While there are some nice parts on this team, it is not a team that does anything particularly well offensively, they’re thin on the bench, and they seem to be a team that is just going to pack it in defensively and make you knock down jumpers to beat them. That means they may play in a lot of close games and have good chances at knocking off UNLV and New Mexico in any individual game, but it also means they may have a good chance of losing to Wyoming or Boise State should things bounce a certain way. The Aztecs have built up enough solid wins in the non-conference to have a good head start on its NCAA Tournament resume, but my guess is they plug along to something like a 10-4 conference record and sneak into the tourney as an 11 seed or so.
A look ahead: I’m very much looking forward to seeing the Aztecs again after their five weeks in exile. They open with UNLV on Saturday, then travel to the Pit to face New Mexico on Wednesday. We’ll know in just over a week how seriously this SDSU team needs to be taken.
4. Wyoming 13-2
From my perspective, the battle for the fourth spot in the conference is wide open. All of these teams from here on down have serious flaws, but each has a strength or two that could propel them to as high as a fourth place finish. For Wyoming, the strength is defense, defense, defense. After being just awful defensively last year, new head coach Larry Shyatt has instilled a culture of hard work that has Wyoming ranked in the top 50 nationally in defensive efficiency. Couple that with the fact that this squad plays at a snail’s pace, and the Cowboys have only allowed one team all season (Utah Valley, of all teams) to score more than 60 points in a game against them. Offensively, things have improved as well. Senior point guard JayDee Luster is drastically better at taking care of the ball this season than he has been in seasons past and as a result the Cowboys have gone from one of the worst teams in the nation in turnover percentage to a team that turns it over on just 18% of their possessions. And last year, where they were the worst team in Division I in three-point percentage, they are now squarely middle of the pack. Now, of course, all of these accomplishments came against an absolutely terrible out-of-conference schedule, but that schedule did allow Shyatt a chance to install his new system and instill some confidence in a team that was anything but confident last season.
A look ahead: Wyoming hosts New Mexico, then travels to Air Force next Wednesday.
5. Colorado State 10-4
The fact that CSU is #27 in the RPI goes a long way towards telling you just how meaningless the RPI is. No offense to the Rams, but there is not even a remote chance that this is the 27th best team in the country. Defensively, this is a pretty bad team here, ranked 222nd in defensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy; they’ve made pretty bad offenses like Manhattan and Northern Colorado look good. Part of that has to do with the fact that they’re the 11th smallest team in the nation (in terms of Pomeroy’s effective height), and part of it has to do with the fact that they may have the 11th slowest set of guards in the nation (exaggerating for effect, but only slightly so). But, this team can shoot the lights out; they’re ninth in the nation in effective field goal percentage and fifth in three-point percentage, with junior Dorian Green, in particular, shooting it way better than anyone had any reason to expect given his previous performances. One interesting development in CSU’s last game was the emergence of redshirt freshman center Chad Calcaterra. He had 14 points in 16 minutes against Nebraska-Omaha, after playing just 23 minutes in the team’s previous 13 games. Head coach Tim Miles would love it if either the 6’10” Calcaterra or 7’0” sophomore Trevor Williams were able to earn more minutes and contribute in conference play, but the mere fact that anybody is making a big deal over double-digit scoring in mop-up duty against a transition Division I program shows how far Calcaterra still has to go.
A look ahead: CSU opens conference play with a couple home games, first against TCU Saturday night, then against Boise State on Tuesday. If the Rams want to convince anyone that they’re a force in the MW, they take a 2-0 record to Wyoming next weekend.
6. Boise State 10-5
You look at BSU’s offensive numbers and you’re halfway towards believing this is a good team. They score about 1.13 points per possession (13th in the nation), they shoot it well, rarely turn it over, get to the free throw line pretty well and hit the offensive glass pretty darn well. Of the nine players on the team that earn at least 20% of the team’s minutes, every single one has an offensive rating above 100. So why does this team have no quality wins and some uninspiring losses? These guys simply can’t guard anybody. They’re giving up more than a point per possession, they allow their opponents to shoot a 53.2 eFG%, they don’t cause turnovers and they send their opponents to the line. The only thing the Broncos do well defensively is grab defensive rebounds, and that’s probably only because they’re so excited to get back on offense again. Being new to the Mountain West, there are no other coaches in the league that really know Boise’s stuff really well, so they do have a chance to simply outscore teams on occasion, but as the year progresses and the book on the Broncos becomes more well known, expect this conference of excellent coaches to take advantage of their weaknesses.
A look ahead: Boise kicks off its short-lived stay in the Mountain West with a home game against Air Force, before traveling to Colorado State on Tuesday.
7. Air Force 9-4
The big question for the Falcons heading into conference play is the health of junior wing Michael Lyons. He is the Academy’s best athlete, he uses more than 31% of the Falcons possessions (the next closest guy who earns significant minutes uses under 21% of their possessions) and he’s their best defensive playmaker. He’s also got a rather serious high ankle sprain that has kept him on the shelf for the AFA’s last fourive games and latest word is that he is unlikely to be ready for the conference opener on Saturday. With Lyons, the Falcons will be a tough out in part because of their unique style of play; without him, this team could struggle on both ends of the court. Freshman wing Kamryn Williams has earned some good minutes in Lyons’ absence, scoring in double figures twice and posting a double-double last night, while vets like Taylor Stewart, Taylor Broekhuis, Mike Fitzgerald and Todd Fletcher have all picked up their games as well, but make no mistake: this team needs a healthy Lyons.
A look ahead: A trip to Boise State without Lyons could be a tough opener for the Falcons, with a visit from Wyoming on Wednesday being little reprieve. Ideally, Lyons would be back for SDSU on the following Saturday.
8. TCU 9-5
It’s really amazing to think about the fact that Virginia is ranked in the top 25, has lost once all season, and that loss came against TCU. For perspective, this is a TCU team that also lost to the like of Norfolk State, USC and Nebraska and whose next best win comes over Lamar. They’re giving up more than a point per possession to some really bad offensive teams (seriously, USC scored 1.26 PPP against them) and aren’t a whole lot better when they’ve got the ball. This team can’t shoot the ball, certainly can’t stop anyone else from shooting and they send their opponents to the line at an alarming rate. Their best offensive player is a 5’9” point guard Hank Thorns, but he turns it over too much and probably shoots too much instead of getting guys like Garlon Green or J.R. Cadot more shots. Last year, going into conference play, TCU was 9-6; they proceeded to lose 15 or their 16 conference games. This year they’re 9-5; I’d be willing to bet they’re just a little better this season in conference. They may win two or three games.
A look ahead: The Frogs host Texas-Pan American on Wednesday night as a final tune-up before conference play, which starts with a trip to Colorado State on Saturday night.