Checking In On… The Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on February 8th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
- We have suspected since late November or so that the bottom half of this conference was pretty darn good, but we still figured that when push came to shove it would be UNLV, San Diego State, and New Mexico mostly dominating the other five teams in the league. And yet, last Saturday we saw the Aztecs fall to an undersized Colorado State club, while this week it was UNLV’s turn, as they lost a tough roadie at Wyoming on Saturday night. Along the way, both SDSU and UNLV have had other struggles with Air Force and Boise State, two teams who are a combined 1-13 in the Mountain West.
- The lone team in the conference that has been taking care of business on a regular basis lately has been New Mexico, winning its last four games by an average of more than 26 points. The only problem there, however, is the Lobos were uncompetitive at UNLV and folded in the second half of a home game with SDSU. So, for now, it appears that New Mexico is playing the best ball in the conference, but they will need to prove themselves against the Aztecs and the Rebels next week before we can really take them seriously.
- Saturday’s slate in the Mountain West represented the halfway mark in the conference season. San Diego State sits atop the conference with a 6-1 record, with New Mexico and UNLV a game back and Wyoming and Colorado State, two teams who are at least in the NCAA at-large discussion, a game back from there.
- Looking forward to some of the postseason awards, it looks like UNLV’s Mike Moser (14.5 PPG/11.5 RPG), who leads the conference in rebounding and is fourth in scoring, is the favorite for the Mountain West’s Player of the Year honor, with San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin (16.0 PPG/7.2 RPG) and Chase Tapley (15.9 PPG/4.2 RPG/2.1 SPG) perhaps the only other names in the mix right now.
- For Coach of the Year, there are several names that deserve to be considered. SDSU’s Steve Fisher may be the favorite at this point, rebuilding a team on the fly after losing four of five starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team, but he’s just one of many MW coaches who are excelling this year. UNLV’s Dave Rice took over in Vegas when Lon Kruger left for Oklahoma, and he not only didn’t skip a beat, he seems to be on the verge of turning the Rebels back into a consistent national power again. At Wyoming, new head coach Larry Shyatt has completely turned around the culture in Laramie, taking a team that was a 10-21 disaster last year and building a hard-nosed consistent bunch out of largely the same cast of characters. Meanwhile, Tim Miles has taken a completely undermanned Ram team with no player over 6’6” earning significant playing time and put them in good position to possible earn an NCAA Tournament bid. Heck, even Jim Christian at TCU is working wonders. Last year the Horned Frogs lost 14 of their last 15 games; this year they’ve got pretty much the same crew and they’re now 13-9 with a chance of a better than .500 record (although their remaining schedule is brutal). While Fisher is the odds-on favorite to take down the honor, all of those coaches are doing great jobs.
- The Freshman of the Year award is a bit more muddled. Early on, it looked like Boise State’s Anthony Drmic would run away with it, but he hit a wall midseason and has struggled lately; he shot a 57.7 eFG% in the non-conference slate, but is now hitting just 36.5% in conference play. New Mexico’s Hugh Greenwood has made a big splash in Albuquerque after taking over the point guard duties early in the season, but his effectiveness has taken a hit since an ankle injury in early January, and he’s not yet back to the same player. Boise’s Derrick Marks is averaging 9.0 points per game and has come on strong of late, but he is still a fairly up-and-down player. Then there’s TCU’s Kyan Anderson, who went for 22 points against SDSU this weekend and who figures to be an impact player for the Frogs in the future, but whose overall numbers this season don’t really merit FOTY consideration. If you expand the definition out to Newcomer of the Year, there are all sorts of good options (Leonard Washington at Wyoming, Xavier Thames at San Diego State, and, the clear cut winner, Moser), but halfway through conference play, the FOTY award is still very much up for grabs.
Team of the Week
New Mexico – For the second consecutive week, the Lobos take home the honors here on the strength of a 2-0 record over lesser Mountain West teams; the twist this week was that they scored both of those wins on the road. UNM started the week by scoring a 39-point win at Air Force in which they dominated almost every aspect of the game, then they wrapped it up with a 16-point win at Boise State. The theme for the week was balance, with six different players scoring in double figures this week, but particular highlights included Hugh Greenwood’s 10-point, 10-rebound double-double against Boise State and Demetrius Walker’s 11-point, eight-rebound outing against Air Force.
Player and Newcomer of the Week
Leonard Washington, Jr, Wyoming – For the second time in three weeks, Washington earns our POTW. His best game of the week came in a disappointing loss at TCU, but Washington was excellent there, hitting 8-10 field goal attempts, including a three-pointer, for a 21-point, six rebound outing. He backed that up by fighting Mike Moser to a draw in the Cowboys’ Saturday-night upset of UNLV, scoring 16 points and grabbing seven boards while setting a general tone of confidence throughout the game.
Game of the Week
Wyoming 68, UNLV 66 – Of all the great games around the country on Saturday, this one was my personal favorite, keeping me on the edge of my seat throughout the second half. The Cowboys led by as much as eight in the first half, before squandering it, rebuilding it, and squandering it again. But the effort from Wyoming never waned, as they fought off a tough UNLV team. The Rebels time and again tried to out-physical the Cowboys, with Oscar Bellfield in particular hounding point guard JayDee Luster all over the court. But they kept on fighting, diving after loose balls, hustling through and around screens and working on the glass. In the end, it was a complete team effort for the Cowboys, as four of the five starters scored between 14 and 16 points, with each contributing excellent defensive effort. In the end, the home crowd was rewarded with a big upset victory, leading to perhaps the slowest RTC in the history of RTCs.
Games of the Upcoming Week
#15 San Diego State at #12 UNLV, Saturday, February 11, 1 PM PST, NBC Sports Network – The first time around this year was a classic in San Diego, with the Aztecs winning on their home floor on a last-second shot by Jamaal Franklin. This time around, however, SDSU needs to win on the road to maintain sole possession of first place in the conference. Both teams have taken an unexpected loss in recent weeks, and neither coach would say that their team is playing its best ball right now, but come Saturday, you can throw all of that out. Thomas & Mack will be absolutely rocking and it should be one of the many great college basketball games on Saturday. Just be sure to carve out a couple hours out of your day to make sure you are able to catch this one.
- San Diego State (20-3, 6-1)– Two different Aztec teams showed up this week. Wednesday night, SDSU trailed by as many as 12 points in the second half to last place Boise State and were just unable to get anything going from the field the whole night. They posted just a 34.3 eFG% and were unable to distance themselves on the glass. But, in the second stanza they were able to get to the line 19 times, making 17 of them and holding Boise State to just 23 second half points. Still, they needed to withstand a last-second potentially game-winning three-pointer from Thomas Bropleh to finally see off the win. Saturday night at TCU, their offense was humming right along, as four players scored 13 or more points, but there were defensive lapses, allowing a mediocre offensive team to score 1.09 points per possession. A look ahead: For the Aztecs to go into Vegas on Saturday afternoon and come out with a win, they will need the good defense from Wednesday night to pair up with the effortless offense of Saturday.
- UNLV (21-4, 5-2) – Prior to the Saturday night loss to Wyoming, the Rebels looked awfully good in taking apart Colorado State. Vegas handed out 24 assists on their 30 field goal attempts and everybody shared the spotlight, with nine different players scoring and the quartet of Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback, Mike Moser, and Anthony Marshall combining for 58 points. But against a stauncher defense and a slower tempo Saturday night, the Rebs just couldn’t get in the same type of flow. They hit just 3-14 three-point attempts and wound up with just 10 assists on 25 field goals. And, notably, senior forward Chace Stanback was completely absent, attempting just two field goals, scoring just two points and grabbing just one rebound. This was just two games after Stanback went 1-10 from the field for two points against Air Force. A look ahead: Hopefully for Rebel fans, Stanback’s slump doesn’t turn into a trend, because this team will need to be firing on all cylinders for SDSU on Saturday.
- New Mexico (19-4, 5-2) – In five conference games against teams not nicknamed the Rebels or the Aztecs, New Mexico is 5-0, has scored 1.12 points per possession and allowed a remarkable 0.78 PPP. However, while the offensive PPP has dropped to just 1.07 (not a bad fall, especially against two good defensive teams), the defensive numbers go from remarkable to abysmal: 1.25 PPP. In other words, offensively, the Lobos have proven themselves every bit the equals of the two teams ahead of them, but their defensive toughness has almost inexplicably eluded them in those two games. A closer look shows that the Lobos did just fine on the glass in both those games, but had a couple of breakdowns that did them in. Against SDSU, there just wasn’t enough defensive pressure; they forced just six turnovers, allowed the Aztecs to get comfortable in the halfcourt and gave them clean looks from behind the arc. Against UNLV, the Lobos were able to turn up the defensive pressure (they forced 14 turnovers), but their offense couldn’t take care of the ball themselves, turning it over 21 times and allowing the Rebs to do what they do best: run. If the Lobos can flip the script in the next go-round (speed up the Aztecs and force turnovers, while packing it in against the Rebs and turning it into more of a halfcourt game), they’ve got a solid chance to make both of those games very competitive. A look ahead: But first, the Lobos have to take care of business in The Pit on Saturday, as Wyoming comes a-calling.
- Wyoming (18-5, 4-3) – Last year, Wyoming opened up conference play by shocking New Mexico in Laramie on a last-second putback by Francisco Cruz. It was a good win for the Cowboys, but given that it came against a team that wound up out of the picture when the NCAA Tournament field was announced, it comes nowhere close to what Wyoming did Saturday night. The win over UNLV goes down as proof that although the bulk of the 14-2 non-conference record was piled up against inferior opponents, this Cowboy team has improved to the point where they can play with anybody in the conference on the right night. And Saturday night was definitely the right night. Do you think maybe that win was just a pinch or two sweeter because former Wyoming head coach Heath Schroyer was watching from the UNLV bench? A look ahead: Another win over one of the MW’s top three teams would be sweet for Wyoming’s NCAA Tournament chances, but unfortunately, their remaining games against New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV and even Colorado State are all on the road. The good news? Wyoming’s home schedule (Air Force, Boise State, TCU) is eminently manageable, but the Cowboys will likely need to win at least one of those road games to have any prayer at an at-large bid. That challenge starts Saturday at New Mexico.
- Colorado State (15-7, 4-3) – A win over Air Force on Saturday was not enough to offset the loss to UNLV on Wednesday, and the Rams’ RPI ranking dropped from 18 to 24. But, the 18-point victory over the Falcons did provide CSU fans with a platform to celebrate 6’6” junior forward Pierce Hornung, who put up career-highs of 23 points and 17 rebounds in a dominating performance. While that level of production is not sustainable for Hornung, he’ll need to keep up that type of effort down the stretch, as he is Tim Miles’ best scrapper inside. A look ahead: The Rams are still in good shape for an NCAA Tournament bid, but they will need to come up with some road wins in the second half of the conference schedule, something they have failed to do so far. TCU on Saturday and Boise State on Wednesday provide good opportunities to get that idea kick-started.
- TCU (13-9, 3-4)– Wyoming’s win over UNLV is the big story of the week in the Mountain West, so much so that TCU’s six-point win over the Cowboys on Wednesday is largely swept under the rug. But the Horned Frogs used a 14-2 second half run to skate past the Cowboys, with Temple-transfer Craig Williams leading the way with 13 points and seven rebounds. Against SDSU on Saturday, the Frogs stuck with Aztecs for about 15 minutes before giving up a 17-4 run over about nine minutes and never really being close again. A look ahead: TCU slips in a non-conference game tonight against crosstown rival SMU, then gets back to work in the Mountain West against Colorado State on Saturday.
- Air Force (11-10, 1-6) – Last we spoke, I was here telling you all about how the Falcons were way better than their record indicated. Since then, the lost two games by a total of 57 points in which they were thoroughly outclassed from the jump. Michael Lyons is back to playing his full complement of minutes, but is not yet back to his old self, as he was just 9-of-25 from the field this week, missing all seven of his three-point attempts and turning it over five times compared to just two assists. This Falcon squad can’t win games when Lyons is playing like that. A look ahead: Air Force hosts Boise State on Saturday in a battle to stay out of the cellar. Right now, the Broncos are playing better ball than the Falcons, so they’re in for a dogfight in that one.
- Boise State (10-12, 0-7) – If nothing else, the Broncos have proven that they are capable of playing with the best teams in the Mountain West, falling to UNLV in overtime two weeks back before almost knocking off San Diego State last week. However, they’ve yet to prove that they can actually win those games. And, now, riding an eight game losing streak (they’ve also lost 11 of their last 13), the Broncos find themselves as the only team in this year’s Mountain West to have ever been saddled with a sub-.500 record. A look ahead: BSU opens up the second half of conference play with three straight winnable games: (1) at Air Force on Saturday, (2) home against Colorado State on Wednesday, and (3) home against TCU next Saturday.
Check out the final moments from the early-season thriller between UNLV and San Diego State: