Checking In On… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on February 14th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
For months now we’ve heard talk of a merger, in some form or another, between the Mountain West and Conference USA. Monday, we got a clearer picture of what that will look like, as it was reported that the remaining members from those two conferences will join together in a newly named conference, beginning as early as the 2013-14 season. So, here we are in the middle of yet another great Mountain West basketball season, and we’re faced with the eventuality of the MW going away.
We’ve known (but tried to forget, at least temporarily) that Boise State’s stopover in the conference was a short-term thing, as they would be headed to the Big East, but the fact that San Diego State would be sending its football team with them (because, you know, San Diego just screams East!) and sending its other sports to the Big West was a low blow. TCU already had plans to head to the Big East (Texas, frontier of the wild, wild East!), but reneged on that and chose a more suitable landing spot in the Big 12. But, with Nevada and Fresno State set to move to the conference next season, it looked like the MW was well on its way to guaranteeing survival in pretty solid shape. Now, however, we’re looking at a future where teams like UNLV and New Mexico are going to be shoehorned into a new conference with teams like Rice and Marshall (not to be confused with Dave Rice and Anthony Marshall).
In short, it has been an extremely fun ride in the MW, specifically over the last five years or so, but that wild ride is coming to an end. Maybe the next ride will be even more fun and exciting than this one has been, but it is hard to imagine a mid-major basketball conference that can survive the subtraction of such great rivalries as SDSU/UNLV, Utah/BYU, and UNLV/BYU and not skip a beat.
But, let’s put all that behind us for the next month or so. Right now we’ve got high quality basketball to salve those wounds. First and foremost, this past weekend marked the start of the second half of the MW schedule, and we were treated to another excellent battle between the two teams at the top of the conference. You can read more about UNLV’s win over SDSU below.
Elsewhere, New Mexico won its fifth straight in an absolute slugfest (and some would say abomination) with Wyoming, while Colorado State’s NCAA Tournament chances took a huge hit in a loss at TCU and their RPI continues its downward spiral; two weeks ago they had an RPI of #18, last week it dropped to #24 and today it sits at #30. Couple that with a rather unimpressive schedule that features only an upset of SDSU as any kind of quality win and I’m considerably less bullish on their NCAA chances today that I was two weeks ago.
Lastly, Boise State won its first conference game of the year, knocking off an Air Force team that had quite a shakeup, as head coach Jeff Reynolds was fired last Wednesday and replaced by assistant coach Dave Pilipovich. We’ll have more on this below, but this marks the second time in as many seasons that a MW coach was let go in the middle of the season, a trend is not particularly appealing.
Team of the Week
UNLV – In a short week like this, when each team only played one conference game, it is easy to just pick the team that beat the best team as Team of the Week. And that honor goes to the Rebels, who knocked off San Diego State and created a three-way tie at the top of the conference. Aside from the goal of winning the regular season title, there is a significant benefit to being the #1 seed in the MW Tournament in March, as they will likely (barring a serious shakeup in the standings) get to avoid a semifinal matchup with whichever of the top three teams finish second and third. A semifinal matchup with perhaps the winner of Wyoming/Colorado State is a much easier path than having to knock off one of the triumvirate at the top of the standings on Friday before the afternoon championship game on Saturday, and the Rebels’ win over the Aztecs keeps them very much in the hunt for the #1 seed.
Of course, things aren’t going to get a whole lot easier in the short term, however, as a visit to New Mexico awaits next weekend.
Player and Newcomer of the Week
Mike Moser, Soph, UNLV – Moser stuffed the stat sheet on Saturday afternoon against San Diego State, leading his team in at least four different categories with 19 points, nine rebounds, six steals and four blocked shots. And, given that one of those steals began with less than a minute left and the Rebels trailing and resulted in one of Moser’s two assists on the day as Anthony Marshall laid in the game-winning bucket on the other end, it wasn’t just mere numbers that Moser provided. When the Rebels needed stops at the end of a hard-fought game, he was there time and time again, grabbing rebounds, shutting the door on driving defenders and eventually grabbing that decisive steal.
Game of the Week
UNLV 65 San Diego State 63 – There’s no doubt that this is a budding rivalry, for at least as long as these two teams remain conference rivals. But, for a rivalry to really be considered a great one, both teams need to have a bit of success, and up until Saturday, this was largely a one-sided battle in recent years. These two teams have now played eight times in the last three seasons, and UNLV’s two-point win over the Aztecs marks their first win after six straight defeats. In their last eleven meetings, the Rebels are now just 2-9 against the Aztecs.
Still, immediacy means everything, and if and when these two teams meet again in the Mountain West Tournament, it will be the Rebels with a winning streak (assuming you can have a streak of one). After a close game most of the first half, the Rebels put together a run to close the opening stanza in style, taking an eight-point lead into the half. They retained a lead of around 10 points for the first 15 minutes of the half, until SDSU’s Chase Tapley caught fire and scored 10 straight points, setting up a nailbiting finish. But down the stretch, both teams struggled a bit: UNLV went about five and a half minutes without scoring, while the Aztecs turned it over on their final three possessions and also failed to secure a defensive rebound with just 10 seconds left and UNLV up only one.
Still, if recent history is any judge, we may be in for another go-round at the Thomas & Mack in March, and another chance to add another layer to the growing grudge between these two programs.
Games of the Upcoming Week
- New Mexico at San Diego State, February 15, 7:15 p.m. PST, CBS Sports Network
- UNLV at New Mexico, February 18, 11 a.m. MST, CBS
By the end of the week, we’ll at least have a good idea who the frontrunner is for the conference title. The Lobos were outclassed by both teams earlier in the year (they lost by five at home to SDSU before getting blown out in Vegas by 17 three days later), but they’ve at least taken care of business against the rest of the conference, putting them in prime position to establish itself as the conference favorite this week. And, given that SDSU is coming off of an emotional trip to UNLV, it is possible that UNM could catch them in a bit of a lull. The Lobos certainly can’t count on that though, as they are 2-9 against both SDSU and UNLV in the last three seasons. If they want to be taken seriously, they’ve got to win at least one of these games this week, otherwise they get thrown in the pile with all the other teams who will have to sweat out life on the bubble in March.
- UNLV (22-4, 6-2): Back and forth, back and forth. Two weeks ago, UNLV was in this #1 spot after SDSU dropped a game to Colorado State, before their own loss to Wyoming sent them back down to #2. Now they’re back on top of the power rankings after evening the season series with the Aztecs. We already mentioned Moser above, but three other Rebels who played a major part in the win on Saturday were Brice Massamba, Oscar Bellfield and Justin Hawkins. Massamba kick-started the Rebels in the second half, scoring their first 10 points (with three assists from Anthony Marshall helping out) before handing off to Bellfield, who scored seven points and added a couple assists before the team went quiet. And, when things got tight at the end, Hawkins came up with a couple of huge plays down the stretch, grabbing an offensive rebound with 10 seconds left to generate another opportunity for the Rebels, then icing the game in the final seconds by picking the pocket of SDSU point guard Xavier Thames. A look ahead: Prior to Saturday’s trip to The Pit, the Rebels have to deal with a trip to TCU, a team that could cause trouble if overlooked.
- San Diego State (20-4, 6-2): The Aztecs proved themselves to be a gritty team, unwilling to go down without a fight, capable of hanging with a bigger and more athletic squad. Seriously, just looking at those two squads warming up prior to the game, you’d think there’s no way the Aztecs are supposed to stick with the Rebels for 40 minutes. And yet, in both games they’ve played this year, SDSU was there at the end of the game with a chance to win it. The first time around they made the most of that opportunity; the last time, they let it slip away. Saturday, the culprit was obvious: the Aztecs turned the ball over 17 times (Jamaal Franklin, the hero in round one, accounted for five of them) and forced just eight Reb turnovers. On the season, the Aztecs haven’t been great on either end of the floor in the turnover battle, but have found ways to make up for it, such as cleaning the defensive glass. But on Saturday, even that was not to be, as UNLV used its size and athleticism to win the rebounding battle by a smidge. A look ahead:Still, the Aztecs are right there in the conference race, and the next step for them comes Wednesday night when they host New Mexico. A win there goes a long way towards putting some space between SDSU and UNM. Not only will an Aztec win give them a one-game lead in the standings, they’ll also have the tiebreaker, essentially putting them up a game and a half over the Lobos.
- New Mexico (20-4, 6-2): The Lobos’ win over Wyoming on Saturday afternoon was not a thing of beauty. The two teams combined to score just 0.74 points per possession, UNM’s 42.7 eFG% was 12 points better than the Cowboys and there were turnovers on over 24% of all possessions. Still, a win is a win is a win, and Steve Alford has his team, somewhat surprisingly, given previous losses to SDSU and UNLV, tied atop the conference standings. It’s hard to pick out one standout performer from Saturday’s game, but freshman point guard Hugh Greenwood is as good a choice as any. He looks to be back to full strength after a sprained ankle had him laid up for a couple weeks at the start of the year and made a couple big hustle plays down the stretch, such as grabbing tough defensive rebounds on successive possessions late, then hitting four straight free throws to help seal the deal. Much like the game Saturday night, he doesn’t always look all that great, but he gets the job done. A look ahead: The defining week of the 2011-12 New Mexico regular season schedule: at San Diego State on Wednesday, home against UNLV on Saturday. Two wins and the Lobos are in the driver’s seat in the conference and a sure-fire top 25 team next week; two losses and they’re relegated to the bubble discussion; a split and we’ll spend the next three weeks still trying to iron out the situation at the top of the Mountain.
- Wyoming (18-6, 4-4): Give credit to the Cowboys for their defense. After being in the bottom half of Division I last season in defensive efficiency, they’re 21st this season, putting them in the 93rd percentile. But, while they’ve also done quite a bit to improve offensively (they were 238th in the nation in offensive efficiency last year; they’ve improved to 129th this season), they’ve still got a ways to go. Their shooting numbers are through the roof and they’ve cut way back on turnovers, but they need to improve further in both of those areas and they sacrifice any thoughts of offensive rebounding in order to get back on defense. But, they’ve got room for improvement. Junior Leonard Washington has come on of late, showing a toughness in and around the rim paired with a solid handle for a big guy and even a bit of a jumper (although he’d be better off putting away the three-pointer for the year). Then there’s freshman Larry Nance Jr., an athletic freak who is a major rebounding and defensive presence with significant upside. There doesn’t really appear to be enough in the cupboard for a real run at an at-large bid this season, but no doubt, head coach Larry Shyatt has got this team headed in the right direction. Maybe he could continue to mine the same vein he found with Washington and that Fred Hoiberg is digging at Iowa State: use solid Division I transfers to build a reputation, then use that reputation to increase the talent level in the program. A look ahead: The Cowboys host Air Force tomorrow night before traveling to Colorado State on Saturday for a big fight in the middle of the conference. If there is any chance for a fourth MW team to get into the NCAA Tournament (and I’m not saying there is), it will be one of those two teams. The loser Saturday is NIT-bound at best. And, it would behoove the Cowboys to not look past the Academy on the way to that game.
- Colorado State (15-8, 4-4): It’s a tale of two Ram teams. At home in conference, CSU is 4-0 with a big win over San Diego State. At home thus far, they’ve been an above-average team on both ends of the court. On the road, however, they’ve been atrocious defensively, and not a whole lot better with the ball in their hands, as the chart below shows:
Colorado State Points Per Possession Offense Defense Home 1.08 0.89 Away 0.90 1.18
Now, they don’t have to turn into a band of road warriors overnight, but if they’re to have any hope of turning around the trajectory of their RPI numbers and earn themselves a list of accomplishments with which they can earn at-large consideration, they need to start winning some road games. A look ahead: A good opportunity to start with baby steps comes tomorrow night when they visit Boise State. That is an absolute must-win game. And, really, as bad as they’ve been on the road, they’ve also got to continue to protect their home court, making the game against Wyoming a must-win as well. And, really, since we’re on a roll, the Rams are going to be coming up against all sorts of must-win games down the stretch. They don’t have a lot of leeway for losses.
- TCU (14-10, 4-4): I’m really impressed with what Jim Christian has done with his Horned Frogs this season. There hasn’t been a whole lot of improvement talent-wise over last year’s 11-22 team, but here they are, in the middle of February, four games over .500 and tied for fourth in the Mountain West. That’s a serious accomplishment, and one that should earn Christian the right to continue coaching this team as it moves to the Big 12 next season. This week, however, they let one slip away in a cross-town battle with SMU on Wednesday. They led 59-58 with just over two minutes left, but were outscored 10-2 over the remaining time, made sloppy plays on both ends of the court and failed to rebound, letting a game slip away. With UNLV, SDSU and UNM all remaining on the home slate and road games against Boise, Air Force and Wyoming, that slip-up against the Mustangs could be the difference between a winning record and a .500 or worse number. A look ahead: Its UNLV tonight in Fort Worth, with a trip to Boise scheduled for Saturday. A split goes a long way towards sealing a winning season.
- Boise State (11-12, 1-7): The Broncos scored their first ever Mountain West Conference win, if nothing else, ensuring that their time here will not pass with an 0-fer. After an eight-game losing streak, head coach Leon Rice still has his team giving it their all, and he’s getting production out of his entire roster. Against Air Force, it was freshman guard Joe Hanstad breaking out with just his second-ever double-digit performance, knocking down four threes on his way to 19 points for the game. Classmate Anthony Drmic played well also, notching his first double-double of his career with 12 points and 10 rebounds. A look ahead:The Broncos will try to make winning a habit when they host Colorado State and TCU this week. It is not out of the question that they could have a three-game winning streak the next time we speak.
- Air Force (11-11, 1-7): And then there are the Falcons. Athletic director Hans Mueh made the decision in the middle of last week that it was time for a change, firing head coach Jeff Reynolds and promoting assistant Dave Pilipovich to interim coach. Mueh cited Reynolds’ taskmaster style as the reason for the change, saying that Reynolds had sapped the fun from the game for his team. Reynolds’ overcoaching and abrasive manner were no secret, but the question of the mid-season fire is still an undecided one. SDSU’s Steve Fisher was just one member of the coaching fraternity who came out against Wyoming’s decision to fire Heath Schroyer in the middle of the season last year, and Fisher resubmitted his sentiment in this case as well. Still, the fact remains that this Falcon team was underachieving; it’s not a great bunch, but there’s simply no reason this team should be in last place in this league. If nothing else, the midseason change gives the kids on this team a chance for a fresh start. And maybe the turn it around a bit and sneak out a couple wins in the back half of the schedule. A look ahead: However, it won’t get off to an easy start, with a trip to Laramie to face the Cowboys tomorrow night, then a visit from San Diego State on Saturday. Welcome to the big time, Pilipovich.