Checking In On… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 17th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
At long last, Mountain West conference play is finally here. And after the long wait, the opening weekend did not disappoint in the least.
- The conference opener between San Diego State and UNLV was the sole matchup between ranked teams across the nation on Saturday, and it was everything that could be expected of it and more. But, we’ll get to that shortly.
- Elsewhere around the league, Colorado State knocked off TCU in a wild double overtime affair in Fort Collins, while New Mexico and Air Force came up with impressive road wins over Wyoming and Boise State, respectively. While those later two games may not have been all that competitive down the stretch, after one weekend we’re even more sure of the idea that this is going to be a fun season to watch in the MW. Not only do the three teams at the top – San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV – figure to be in for a stirring battle for the top spot in the league, but the five other teams in the conference feature good athletes, fun styles and some very solid teams. In past years, let’s be honest, there were teams in this conference that were almost unbearable to watch (Wyoming the last couple of years, TCU last season, Air Force a couple years back, even Utah last year). This year, I fully expect to be able to tune into any single Mountain West game on the schedule and be thoroughly entertained. Stay tuned, this is going to get fun.
Team of the Week
- San Diego State – All of the winners this week deserve a mention here, what with New Mexico going on the road and getting past a game Wyoming team, Air Force handling Boise State in their opener despite still playing without their best player – Michael Lyons – down with an ankle injury, and Colorado State fighting through a blown lead late and a couple nail-biting overtimes to finally dispense with TCU. But, we’ve got to give the Aztecs this recognition this week if for no other reason than as a welcome back to the land of the living. You see, since December 4, SDSU has been stuck playing teams like Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and, most recently, coming back from a seven-point second-half deficit to winless Chicago State. But, after being off the radar for about a month and a half, Steve Fisher’s club came back to their first game against significant competition without missing a beat. Jamaal Franklin continued his breakout sophomore season with arguably his most important performance of his career, James Rahon broke out of his season-long slow-down with a sparkling 22-point performance, the backcourt of Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley fought the tough and athletic UNLV backcourt to a draw, and even Tim Shelton made significant contributions above and beyond what his relatively tame stat line would indicate. In short, if you had forgotten the Aztecs in recent months, you can hardly be blamed, but now it is time to make sure this team is on your radar again.
- Jamaal Franklin, Soph, San Diego State – Just look at the line, and you get a pretty good feel for how important Franklin was to the Aztecs’ win over the Rebels on Saturday: 24 points, 10 rebounds, perfect from the line on eight attempts, even a block and a steal. But that line only begins to tell the story. Then, maybe you just take a look at this YouTube video, which has a couple of spectacular highlights from Franklin among SportsCenter’s top ten plays of the day, including the game winning basket:
- And, while those are both some seriously dazzling plays, again, that video only tells some of the story. Because just prior to that game winning shot, Franklin had been inadvertently slammed into a photographer row by UNLV’s Justin Hawkins in a clean play with both players going for a loose ball. Franklin remained down for quite some time, then limped off the court with an injured ankle. However, when the clock stopped again following an Oscar Bellfield blocked shot that went out of bounds, Franklin re-entered and moments later, made that double-clutch runner with 0.3 seconds left to give the Aztecs the win.
Newcomer of the Week
Leonard Washington, Jr, Wyoming – Following a 12-point, nine-rebound performance in the Cowboys’ final non-conference game, against Idaho State, Washington got his MW regular season career underway with 15 points and seven rebounds in a losing effort against New Mexico.
Game of the Week
San Diego State 69, UNLV 67 – The double-overtime game between Colorado State and TCU was an absolutely thrilling game, chock full of great plays, big athleticism, excellent passing and an exciting tempo. And any other week, that game may well have won the game of the week. But, not only was the SDSU/UNLV game a more important game in terms of not only the eventual conference title and it was a game that will have an impact on the national picture come Selection Sunday, but it was also a truly compelling game. At the very least, those last five minutes or so on Montezuma Mesa on Saturday afternoon were a good microcosm of all the things we love about college basketball.
- UNLV (16-3, 0-1): So the Rebels lost a road game at San Diego State on a last second shot. Who’s panicking? So far as we know, they’re still the best team in the conference. The relative quiet out of, well, every Rebel not named Anthony Marshall in that game is of some concern, but things happen. And the t10 misses on 21 free throw attempts certainly did little to help the Rebels’ chances, but maybe Dave Rice and his staff can look at this game and figure that they played about as poorly as they could, and were still right there at the end. Mike Moser and Chace Stanback combined to shoot just 6-of-20 from the field, but Moser at least contributed elsewhere, grabbing 12 rebounds, snatching four steals and swatting a couple of shots. Oscar Bellfield was also a shell of his usual self, missing 11 of his 12 field goal attempts, but Rice did get great minutes out of senior center Brice Massamba, who had nine points and six rebounds, including five key points in the game’s final four minutes. A look ahead: The Rebels are rewarded for their tough start to conference play with a week at home, hosting TCU tomorrow night, then New Mexico on Saturday.
- New Mexico (15-2, 1-0): The Lobos were a team first and foremost this week in defeating a hard-nosed Wyoming team. All nine players that got in the game Saturday scored, everybody took at least a couple of shots and nobody took more than eight, seven of the nine players grabbed at least two rebounds and five players handed out assists. Questions still remain for this team though. Who is going to take the final shot in close games? Kendall Williams, Jamal Fenton and Demetrius Walker appear to be the only guys capable of creating for themselves off of the dribble, but it remains to be seen if any of those guys has the killer instinct. Drew Gordon is the team’s best player, but he’s an absolute disaster in the post on the offensive end. Freshman guard Hugh Greenwood missed the opener with a sprained ankle, but it seems likely that he’ll be back Wednesday. Meanwhile, senior guard Phillip McDonald appears to be back to full strength, and he hit a couple big threes in UNM’s 17-2 second half run that broke open the game against the Cowboys. If he can be a legit offensive threat off the bench for Steve Alford the rest of the way, this team could still have another gear ahead of it. A look ahead: Huge week. We’ll know by the end of the week just how good this Lobo team is. They host SDSU Wednesday night, then take to the road for UNLV on Saturday night. Must-see TV all around.
- San Diego State (15-2, 1-0): Calm down, Aztec fans. I know you’ve already got a win over the #1 team in these power rankings, but don’t take this third spot as a slight. You’ll have plenty of chances to prove whether or not you’re the best team in this conference. For right now, I’m still getting used to the fact that SDSU is again playing basketball against legitimate Division I competition, so they’re not budging from here for now. But, that being said, Saturday’s win was mighty impressive. Holding one of the most efficient offenses in the nation to just 0.9 points per possession? Yes, that will get it done. But it is going to be interesting to see how this team progresses. Can Steve Fisher really continue to play just seven guys, including trying to get 30+ minutes out of Tim Shelton? And can the Aztecs continue to be as bad as they were on the glass Saturday (they grabbed just 60.9% of their defensive and 11.5% of their offensive rebound opportunities)? That remains to be seen, but if Jamaal Franklin is capable of replicating those kinds of performances on a regular basis, and if James Rahon’s shot has really returned from the back of a milk carton, this Aztec team is in business. A look ahead: A trip to Albuquerque is a rough proposition no matter when it comes, but when it falls on the heels of such an emotional victory as the one over UNLV? That’s a recipe for trouble. The Aztecs do get a chance to return home following that game to host Air Force Saturday evening.
- Wyoming (14-3, 0-1): For the first 30 minutes or so, the Cowboys played New Mexico to a standstill, answering every move the Lobos made. And then the offense went away. Over the course of about 12 minutes in the middle of the second half, Wyoming made just one field goal and scored four points, and what had been a tie game turned into a 15-point deficit at its peak. But, give credit to Larry Shyatt’s club, as they kept fighting, got the lead down to seven and made the Lobos hit some free throws in order to roll out of Laramie with a win. A disappointing loss, for sure, but the Cowboys can take away from this game some confidence that they can compete with the best in the MW. Leonard Washington and Larry Nance are certainly the athletic equals of just about any other frontcourt players in the conference, while Francisco Cruz and Luke Martinez have proven their shooting acumen time and again. This is definitely a Cowboy team that is going to play a lot of teams close this year. A look ahead: We’ll get a good feel for Wyoming this week, as they’ve got a manageable but challenging schedule. Their first road trip of conference play is to Air Force on Wednesday night, then they return home to host Colorado State on Saturday afternoon.
- Air Force (11-4, 1-0): Since the Falcons’ leading scorer, Michael Lyons, went out early in the first half of a game against Gonzaga just before Christmas, Jeff Reynolds has been working on developing other options on this team. They wound up giving the Zags a good run before fading late, then lost their next game to upstart Wagner, but since then have reeled off five straight wins. And their road win over Boise State on Saturday was the most impressive of the bunch. At times, the Falcons got suckered into playing the uptempo game that the Broncos wanted to encourage, but the difference this year for the Academy is that they have enough athleticism to get by doing that from time to time. In Lyons’ absence, freshmen Kamryn Williams and Chris Carter have earned some run, and they’ve shown great upside. Lyons could be due to return this week, although he may be a game-time decision on Wednesday, but when he does return, he’ll come back to a team with more confidence and more experience than when he went out. A look ahead: They host Wyoming on Wednesday, then travel to San Diego State for a tough roadie on Saturday night. You can bet Lyons would love to be back for that game at the latest.
- Colorado State (12-4, 1-0): The Rams are on a bit of a roll now. Since getting blown out by Duke in early December, they’ve now rattled off seven straight wins, and added two significant ones this week – first a four-point win over Denver on Wednesday, then their two-overtime epic against TCU on Saturday. Late in regulation against TCU, it didn’t look like they would need extra time to carve out a win over the Horned Frogs, but they blew an 11-point lead with three minutes left, twice gave up the game-tying points in the last seconds of the game clock and still walked away with the win. Wes Eikmeier was prolific this week, averaging 21.5 points per game, but he required 18 field goal attempts per contest to do so. He did get to the line 10 times against Denver, making all of them, but he could certainly stand to tighten up his shot selection a bit. However, the combination of Eikmeier, Dorian Green and Jesse Carr in the backcourt for CSU provides plenty of playmaking and shotmaking ability for head coach Tim Miles. A look ahead: The Rams host Boise State tonight, before making a trip over the border to Laramie for a Saturday afternoon matchup with Wyoming.
- TCU (10-6, 0-1): It goes down as a great effort by the Horned Frogs, but in the back of their minds, you know they think that was a game they could have won. After fighting back from an 11-point deficit with under three minutes to play through a collection of forced turnovers, made threes and some free throws, the frittered away a couple of opportunities at the end of the game. Still in regulation, Garlon Green, one of the best three-point shooters in the conference last year, airballed a wide-open look at a potential game-winning three. Eventually, the Frogs got into overtime on the strength of a couple amazingly clutch free throws by Amric Fields (after he was iced by CSU, and then by his own teammates who were discussing where they should all line up on the blocks as he waited at the line), then forced a second overtime on a beautiful sweeping drive by Fields at the end of the first five minutes. But Green again tossed up an airball on a wide-open look – this one a short, potentially game-tying runner. To be clear, Green was crucial to CU’s ability to stick around as long as they did (he had 14 points and 12 rebounds), but his 0-for-6 shooting from deep had to hurt in this tight of a game. A look ahead: TCU visits UNLV on Wednesday, then returns home, likely 0-2 in conference, to host Boise State on Saturday.
- Boise State (10-6, 0-1): The Broncos are a team set up around the three-point shot. They’re a very good team on the glass, they take pretty good care of the ball and they get to the line fairly often, but this team is built around spacing the floor and setting up shooters like Anthony Drmic, Drew Wiley and Jeff Elorriaga for threes. And on Saturday, they were able to do that fairly well, as those three combined to his nine of their 19 attempts from deep. Unfortunately, they were outshot by Air Force (the five Falcon started hit ten of their 20 three point attempts) and were also bested in just about every other facet of the game (they committed 12 turnovers and only forced nine, and were also matched on the glass by a relatively light rebounding AFA team). Oh, and they can’t guard anybody. If Boise can’t succeed on the glass and win the turnover battles in conference play, no matter how well they shoot the ball from deep, their failures in trying to keep their opponents in front of them on defense could doom the Broncos to a last place MW finish. A look ahead: Boise gets a chance to get back on that horse tonight with a trip to Colorado State, followed by another road game against TCU on Saturday. While those are two winnable games, any conference road trip is going to be an uphill struggle.
Game of the Upcoming Week
San Diego State @ New Mexico, January 18, 8:00 PM MST, and New Mexico @ UNLV, January 21, 7:00 PM PST, both on CBS Sports Network – By the end of this weekend, all of the top three teams in the MW will have played each other. Sure, the results of these games will only tell half of the story, with return games of each coming later in the season, but we have the chance to get some real separation here early in the season. If San Diego State is able to go into The Pit on Wednesday night and steal a game there, they’ll advance to 2-0 with two of their toughest games of the year out of the way already. Meanwhile, if the Lobos can find a way to win both of their games this week, they’ll rocket to 3-0 in the league. More importantly, however, if they handle UNLV on Saturday, they can hand the Rebels their second loss in conference play. While it is more likely that each team wins their home games and all three of these teams finish the second week of conference play with a single loss, this week will be very important to the eventual outcome in the MW conference race.