Checking In On… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 24th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
- Coming into the week, three Mountain West teams appeared in the RTC Top 25, but it was New Mexico, who was ranked #25, that had the biggest chance to make a splash, getting a crack at the other two teams: San Diego State at home and UNLV on the road. Following an 0-2 week, however, there are more questions than answers in Albuquerque, as the once impressive Lobo defense took a huge step back, allowing 1.25 points per possession in their two games this week.
- In the wake of UNM’s failures, for the time being, it is a two-team race at the top, with San Diego State holding a slim edge on UNLV based on their home win over the Rebels in the conference opener. But, with both teams firmly in the top 25, the Aztecs and the Rebels look like sure bets to go dancing come March.
- Back of the lead pack, we have Wyoming and Colorado State each sitting at 2-1 after the Cowboys handing the Rams their first conference loss in their first conference road game. Air Force and TCU each sit at 1-2, while Boise State has settled into the role of basement dweller.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – In order for one team to separate itself from the pack atop the conference, contenders for the conference title needed to be able to defend their home court and steal a win on the road against the other contenders. So far, Steve Fisher and the Aztecs are off to a great start. Not only did they open the conference season with a home win over UNLV and follow that up this Saturday with a workmanlike win over Air Force, they bisected those wins with an impressive road win at New Mexico, an outcome that not only served to improve the Aztecs to 3-0, but to kick the Lobos down a notch. Enough cannot be said about the job that Fisher has done with not only this program, but this specific team.
After losing the bulk of last year’s record-setting team, this year’s Aztecs haven’t slowed down, as junior guard Chase Tapley has taken the leap from role player to lead guard, Jamaal Franklin has emerged as a star in the making after playing a bit part last year and Xavier Thames came back from his transfer year in exile to prove his tremendous abilities. Throw in gritty contributions from guys like Tim Shelton (he of the five knee surgeries), DeShawn Stephens (playing just his third season of organized basketball), Garrett Green (a graduate transfer from LSU) and James Rahon (who struggled early with a lingering ankle injury and is just now hitting with consistency), and Fisher’s got a good thing going down on Montezuma Mesa.
Player and Newcomer of the Week
Leonard Washington, Jr., Wyoming – With apologies to UNLV’s Anthony Marshall, who also just killed it this week, we’ve got to give this one to Washington, who was a one-man wrecking crew for the Cowboys last weekend. Things started out innocently enough on Wednesday night, when Washington had 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals in a road win at Air Force, but digging a little bit deeper into those numbers showed a sign of things to come, as Washington alone grabbed 46.4% of all the potential Cowboy defensive rebounds. Saturday night against an undersized Colorado State team, Washington upped that number to 55.9% and added a personal 22.3% offensive rebound percentage – a number some entire teams in the league would consider a fine effort. Washington wound up with 32 points and 14 rebounds (both career highs) in a performance dominant enough to allow us to completely forget about the two banked-in threes near the end of the Cowboys’ 19-point win.
Game of the Week
TCU 54, Boise State 52 – When it is the second weekend in March and all the Mountain West teams are gathered in Las Vegas for the conference tournament, this game will likely have long since been forgotten, but for the Horned Frogs, they are riding high following this win. With just under nine minutes to play in front of the home crowd, TCU found itself down 50-36 and with little hope of even making this game interesting. But then senior point guard Hank Thorns made a seemingly innocuous pull-up jumper to cut the lead to 12. Boise State sophomore Ryan Watkins grabbed an offensive rebound on the next possession and attempted to put it back, but was swatted by TCU’s Adrick McKinney, the ball bounced to Amric Fields who turned up court and found Kyan Anderson for a three-pointer to cut the lead to double digits. A couple possessions later, McKinney made another strong defensive play, grabbing a steal that led to a Fields’ fast break layup. A couple more steals, another block, four offensive rebounds and a couple threes later, TCU saw Thorns wrap up an 18-0 run with a layup that was anything but innocuous, putting the Frogs up four with just over a minute to go, a lead they held on to, sending BSU to 0-3 on the year and giving TCU their first conference win.
Game of the Upcoming Week
San Diego State @ Wyoming, January 24, 6:30 PM MST, The Mtn. – After two straight wins and a 16-3 overall record, the Cowboys are feeling pretty good about themselves. With reigning RTC MW POTW Leonard Washington on a rampage of late, they host the conference leader in Laramie. Wyoming will want to play slower than molasses, keeping the Aztecs in the halfcourt, grinding out every possession and hopefully finding a way to take advantage of the SDSU frontline on the boards. However, while the Cowboys have sparkling defensive numbers, they will need to prove that they have the horses to keep up with the higher level of competition they’re facing in the Aztecs. For starters, while Luke Martinez and Francisco Cruz have been excellent on the wing for Larry Shyatt, it remains to be seen if either of those guys can match up athletically with SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin or Chase Tapley. But, if Wyoming can ride the momentum of a home crowd and maybe catch the Aztecs napping, perhaps they can stay within shouting distance and have a chance after the final television timeout to prove they belong in the conversation atop the conference.
- San Diego State (17-2, 3-0): The Aztecs did a great job Wednesday night of fighting back from an early road deficit in their first game outside of the city of San Diego in almost two months. After allowing New Mexico to score the first 10 points of the game, SDSU saw junior guard Chase Tapley take over for a brief stretch with a couple jumpers, a block, a steal and some all-around great effort to get the Aztecs back to all square. From there, the rest of the first half was all Xavier Thames; of the Aztecs final 20 points of the half, Thames either scored or assisted on all but one Tapley three-pointer. But still, the worm did not truly turn until the Aztecs turned up the defensive heat in the second half, limiting the Lobos to just three points over a ten-minute span and breaking the game open with a 20-3 run. Again on Saturday, it was the defense that propelled SDSU to victory over the Air Force, as the Falcons were held to just one-of-18 shooting from three and 0.76 points per possession. A look ahead: There are a few teams in this conference that a team the caliber of SDSU can overlook a bit, and still beat, provided they turn on the juice early enough. While the Aztecs get a bit of a break after a opening one-two punch of UNLV/New Mexico, this week is certainly not a week where the Aztecs can expect to earn wins without their best effort: road trips to Wyoming (tonight) and Colorado State (Saturday) will definitely present challenges.
- UNLV (18-3, 2-1): The Rebels bounced back from their conference opening loss to SDSU in fine fashion, destroying TCU in an up-and-down affair that began with an 18-2 Rebel run and never saw the opposition get closer than 13. Anthony Marshall was spectacular for UNLV in the open court, scoring 27 points, handing out nine assists, blocking three shots and notching a couple of steals. But, then again, just about everybody wearing a Rebel uniform was excellent in this game; the team handed out 28 assists on their 37 baskets, and as a result, shot a 66.4 eFG%. Against New Mexico on Saturday, the team sent a message, turning up the defensive intensity, forcing 21 turnovers and getting out on the fastbreak early and often, drilling a good defensive team to the tune of 1.25 points per possession. Almost everybody got in on the action, but Mike Moser gets some well-earned accolades, as he posted his second double-double of the week and tenth of the year. A look ahead: The Rebels spend the week on the road, but the matchups are more than manageable: a visit to Boise tomorrow night followed by a run in with Air Force on Saturday.
- New Mexico (15-4, 1-2): We mentioned the turn for the worse that the Lobo defense took this week in our open, but the UNM offense deserves some lumps as well. It was a 20-3 SDSU run that decided the game last Wednesday, during which the Lobos looked lost at times offensively. Tony Snell, who has been spectacular for Steve Alford to start the year, seemed to lack confidence in his jumper, Jamal Fenton was too often out of control, and Hugh Greenwood is clearly not back to full health following an ankle injury. There were a couple bright spots for the Lobos offensively though, as senior Phillip McDonald announced to the world that he was back from his early season health problems, hitting six threes and scoring 20 points. And Drew Gordon had one of his better offensive games of his career, scoring 15 points and handing out a career-high five assists. In Gordon’s 73 previous career games, he had posted more than two assists exactly once, but against SDSU was able to successfully pass out of the double-team. Gordon continued his strong play with a double-double performance against UNLV (including a couple more assists out of the post) that featured some strong individual defensive work, but he also turned it over four times and the team defense as a whole was poor. A look ahead: The Lobos head back to their Pit to lick their wounds, hosting Colorado State tomorrow night in a solid test, then TCU on Saturday.
- Wyoming (16-3, 2-1): Great week for Larry Shyatt and the Cowboys, picking up two very good conference wins and proving that their gaudy overall record is not solely the product of poor non-conference competition. We’ve covered Leonard Washington’s week above, but he’s been strong all season. He’s 15th in the nation in true shooting percentage, 16th in defensive rebound percentage, 21st in effective field goal percentage and rates a mention in both steal percentage and block percentage (71st and169th, respectively). And, he’s just beginning to really harness his immense physical talents – his best days are ahead of him. His teammates Luke Martinez and Adam Waddell both deserve mention here. Martinez was known as a shooter prior to this season (and he’s done that very well, hitting 38.8% of his threes), but he’s shown he’s a solid secondary ballhandler and a tough defender. This week he had 27 points, six steals and four threes. Meanwhile, Waddell is the size inside for the Cowboys at 6’10”, providing a good last line of defense at the Cowboy interior, but he is also chipping in offensively, converting at a high rate from the field, getting to the line with regularity and providing very efficient offense for the Cowboys. A look ahead: A major test comes tonight for the Cowboys as they host San Diego State, prior to a road trip to Boise on Saturday. Shyatt better make sure his team doesn’t suffer a letdown after the SDSU game, because even at 0-3, Boise State is capable of rising up and biting a sleeping team.
- Colorado State (13-5, 2-1): The Rams are sitting here at 2-1 in the conference, and there’s generally a good feeling about the status of the program. But a closer look reveals that those two wins came at home over arguably the two worst teams in the conference, while the one loss was a 19-point thrashing at the hands of a team that has more or less the same roster as a team that went 3-13 in the conference last year. In other words, CSU still has a lot to prove. The Rams flaunt a pretty effective offense that is one of the best shooting teams in the land, but are almost as bad defensively as they are good offensively, in part due to the fact that they have one of the smallest teams in America (no player on the team that has earned more than 15% of the team’s minutes is taller than 6’6”). Despite some hard work on the defensive glass, the Rams just aren’t big enough to be a truly good rebounding squad, and they’re capable of being taken advantage of along the frontcourt. A look ahead: They kick off the roughest part of their schedule this week, beginning tomorrow night with a trip to New Mexico, followed by a visit from San Diego State on Saturday, capped with a visit to UNLV next Wednesday. If Tim Mileslooks up from his cereal next Thursday morning and realizes his team is still 3-3 in conference play, he should be very happy.
- Air Force (11-6, 1-2): Just as Michael Lyons returned from his ankle injury, senior guard Taylor Stewart – the only senior on the team earning significant minutes – went down with a broken left calf. While the injury won’t require surgery, the best case scenario for Stewart is a return in time for the conference tournament. Nevertheless, the team has to move on. Lyons played in the last two games for the Falcons, though he is clearly not back to his old self yet (he was 1-of-11 against SDSU), but head coach Jeff Reynolds has seen freshmen like Kamryn Williams, Chris Carter, Max Yon and Justin Hammonds step up. Hammonds was particularly impressive in the loss to Wyoming, scoring in double digits for the first time in his career and adding five rebounds. Depending on how quickly the AFA youngsters develop, next year could be quite an interesting year in Colorado Springs. A look ahead: The Falcons travel to TCU tomorrow night before hosting UNLV on Saturday night. While it would take a lot for Air Force to hang tough with UNLV for 40 minutes, even at home, the road game against TCU is a toss-up.
- TCU (11-7, 1-2): After getting outclassed by the Runnin’ Rebels on Wednesday night, the Horned Frogs bounced back just in time with a memorable come-from-behind win against Boise State on Saturday (see our Game of the Week section above). But, it is becoming clear that despite the fact that Jim Christian has this team improved from last year, it is still a strong candidate for the cellar in the conference. Right now, the biggest asset the Frogs have going for them is their experience; seniors Hank Thorns, J.R. Cadot and Temple-transfer Craig Williams have all been around the block a time or two, and each is helping to mold some of the youngsters in this program like sophomore Amric Fields and freshman Kyan Anderson. This week Anderson had his best two-game stretch in his young career, scoring 36 points in 67 minutes of action. A look ahead: TCU hosts Air Force tomorrow night, then travels to New Mexico on Saturday.
- Boise State (10-8, 0-3): For most of the early part of the season, we’ve wondered who the worst team in this conference was, but now with Boise State out to an 0-3 start we have our answer. Aside from the struggles this young team has had defensively, they are now playing with a depleted roster, as Jeff Elorriaga joined Igor Hadziomerovic as Broncos likely lost for the season, when he went down with a broken hand this weekend. BSU also played a game without second-leading scorer Kenny Buckner this week, when he was left home from the trip to Colorado State due to an investigation into his academic eligibility. Buckner did return for Saturday’s loss at TCU. Freshman Anthony Drmic, the team’s leading scorer, has hit a bit of a wall lately; he’s just nine-of-34 from the field in MW play. A look ahead: At least the Broncos get to stay at home this week, but the matchups with UNLV and Wyoming certainly present challenges.