Checking In On… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on February 21st, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
If you were to sum up the past week of the Mountain West in a slightly altered movie title, “How The (Mountain) West Was Won” would be the slam dunk choice. We’ve still got two weeks of conference play left, and the conference race is yet to be officially decided, but New Mexico went a long way towards sewing up the regular season title this week by getting revenge on both San Diego State and UNLV, going into Montezuma Mesa and knocking off the Aztecs, then returning home and putting a hurting on the Rebels on Saturday morning. Those wins, coupled with a pair of losses by SDSU and UNLV to lower-tier MW teams (Air Force and TCU) leaves the Lobos with a two-game conference lead with four games remaining. Prior to this week, the Lobos appeared to be in the NCAA Tournament, but certainly in the back half of the rankings. Now they’re all but guaranteed a spot in the field and are looking at a pretty solid seed.
Meanwhile, SDSU and UNLV still sport solid NCAA Tournament resumes and should have no trouble getting into the field, barring a complete collapse down the stretch (and even with a complete collapse, they’d still both be at least in the discussion), while Colorado State and Wyoming, who had been angling for their own at-large spot in the field, seem to be tailing off. Wyoming lost both of its games this weekend in particularly unappealing fashion, while Colorado State fell at Boise State on Wednesday before handing the Cowboys one of their losses this week. CSU still boasts an RPI of #30, but has little else in the positive column aside from a home win against SDSU. Still, these days when you look at the bubble, teams like North Carolina State, Arizona, Oregon and South Florida are all among either the last four teams in or first four out (according to Zach Hayes’ bracketology this week) and none of those teams have either the RPI or the quality win that CSU has.
It is also interesting to note that with the sudden resurgence of cellar dwellers Boise State and Air Force (who are a combined 5-1 over the last two weeks), there are again no teams in the Mountain West with losing records on the season.
Team of the Week
New Mexico – No need to think about this decision at all this week: UNM knocked off the two other teams in the top tier of the conference, opened up a commanding two-game lead in the race for the regular season title and in doing so also put themselves in the driver’s seat for the #1 seed in the MW Tournament in March. If the final standings are at all similar to what we’ve got right now, that means that UNLV and SDSU will be on the same side of the bracket, potentially meeting in the semifinal, while the Lobos will get a far easier (though still potentially dangerous) opponent in their semifinal matchup. We’ll get to Drew Gordon’s big week shortly, but also wanted to highlight sophomore guard Kendall Williams for a bit here too. Williams hasn’t made that big leap forward that was perhaps unreasonably expected of him in his second year, but he was certainly big in the win over SDSU on Wednesday, hitting five increasingly difficult three-pointers on his way to tying his career-high of 21 points.
Player of the Week
Drew Gordon, Sr, New Mexico – The traditional stats are pretty impressive: two double-doubles against ranked teams, averages of 22 points and 18.5 rebounds per game, 20-of-35 from the field. The rebounding numbers jump out, and they’re even more impressive when you look at them as a percentage. On the offensive glass, there were 61 total opportunities for Gordon to grab a rebound last week; he grabbed 10 of them, or 16.4%, a figure that would put him in the top ten nationally if carried out over the course of a season. Defensively he was even better. There were 65 opportunities for him to grab a defensive board last week; he grabbed 27 of them, or 41.5% an astronomical number that is almost ten percentage points ahead of Thomas Robinson, the best defensive rebounder in the land. Gordon almost single-handedly controlled the glass for the Lobos this weekend, as no other player on his team grabbed more than four rebounds in the past two games. Without a doubt, Gordon is playing his best basketball of his career as his final year plays out.
Newcomer of the Week
Kenny Buckner, Jr, Boise State – The JuCo transfer out of Denver has been solid all season for the Broncos, averaging nine points and almost five rebounds per game so far, but this week he turned it up a notch, averaging 16 points and five rebounds while shooting 78.9% from the field as the Broncos knocked off a couple middle-of-the-pack MW teams.
Game of the Week
TCU 102, UNLV 97 (OT) – There was no shortage of great games around the conference this past week, but the TCU upset of UNLV on Tuesday night takes the cake for a number of reason. More than halfway through the second half, UNLV was up 77-62 and seemed to be absolutely cruising. But Jim Christian had his Horned Frogs still fighting, although they seemed to be up against superior competition. Senior point guard Hank Thorns was an extension of the coach on the court, and he was not about to end his career without beating the Rebels. Over the final ten minutes of regulation plus overtime, Thorns led his team back with 16 points, three three-pointers, three boards, three assists and a steal, along with plenty of hustle and harassing defense. It was his back-to-back threes in the span of 26 seconds just under the final media timeout that announced that TCU would not be going away, but everybody got in on the action for the Frogs. All nine players who saw action scored and five scored in double figures, but it was Thorns’ 32 points – including eight threes – that sent the home “crowd” stumbling onto the floor.
Game of the Upcoming Week
New Mexico at Colorado State, February 21, 8PM MST, The Mtn. – The Lobos may have a two-game lead in the conference, but they’ve also got two road games this week, and if we’ve learned anything in the MW, we know that it is as tough a league as any in which to go on the road and come away with wins. Their trip to TCU on Saturday evening is also dangerous, but the trip to Fort Collins tonight is not only key to the Lobos championship hopes, but it is also nearly imperative for the Rams to win, if they hope to maintain their NCAA Tournament dreams.
- New Mexico (22-4, 8-2) – This Lobo team is built, first and foremost, upon defense. While their defense deserted them in the first go-round with SDSU and UNLV (they allowed 1.25 PPP in those two games), it was out in the forefront this past weekend. The Lobos held SDSU just under a point per possession, then absolutely smothered UNLV on Saturday, limiting them to just 0.7 points per possession. It was even worse for the Rebels in the second half as New Mexico held them scoreless for four different stretches of at least 2:30. On the year, the Lobos have the seventh rated defense in terms of adjusted efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy, and they seem to be ready to dial it up another notch down the stretch. A look ahead: Trips to Colorado State and TCU may not seem like much, but both teams are undefeated at home in conference play this season, with wins over SDSU and UNLV, respectively, mixed in there.
- UNLV (22-6, 6-4) – Back at the end of January, we talked about the fact that the last two seasons, the Runnin’ Rebels played their best basketball of the season in November and December and never again really approached that level of play on a consistent basis. In both seasons, they headed into an 8-9 game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after losing to SDSU in the conference tournament and ended the season on a two-game slide and with nine losses on the year. It’s not a stretch to see the same type of scenario playing out this year, given that UNLV/SDSU appear to be on a collision course for a Friday night semifinal meeting at the MW Tourney in Las Vegas, and a loss there could send this Rebel team right back to the NCAA with an eight or nine seed. A look ahead: But the good news for Dave Rice’s team is that they’ve got a favorable schedule down the stretch, with three of their final four games in the friendly confines of the Thomas & Mack, where they haven’t lost this season. There’s still time for the Rebels to right the ship, but they need to start strong this week with home wins against Boise State and Air Force, two resurgent MW teams.
- San Diego State (20-6, 6-4) – While the Rebels are reeling with two straight losses, SDSU has dropped three straight, by a total of 14 points. The home loss to New Mexico last Wednesday night was one thing, but the road loss to a last-place Air Force team? That bordered on unforgivable for a top 25 team. Still, the Aztecs at least had some excuses, with a pair of ankle injuries chief among them. Already a team that does not benefit from a deep bench, SDSU played Saturday’s game without Jamaal Franklin, who sprained an ankle in the closing moments of the loss to New Mexico. And, big man Garrett Green sprained an ankle of his own in the middle of the second half against Air Force and did not return down the stretch. A look ahead: Franklin appears to be on track for Wednesday’s home game against Wyoming, although he may not be 100%. However, Green is unlikely to play on Wednesday and may not be ready to return for Saturday’s visit from Colorado State.
- Colorado State (16-9, 5-5) – Last week we talked about how the Rams are a Jekyll and Hyde, depending on where they’re playing, and they played true to form this week, losing on the road at Boise State on Wednesday before taking care of business at home against Wyoming on Saturday. If there is reason for hope, it is that the Rams were at least very much in the game against Boise, falling on a length-of-the-court drive and bucket with less than a second remaining in regulation. A look ahead: A huge week for CSU lies ahead, with a visit from New Mexico tonight and a trip to San Diego State on Saturday. It is possible that the Lobos will come into tonight’s game with a bit of a hangover from their success last week, and given how well the Rams play at home, they’ve got a big chance to score an additional resume win. But, we’d also sure like to see this team play well on the road, and they’ve certainly got a chance against a limping SDSU team.
- Wyoming (18-8, 4-6) – They’ve been a great story all season, overachieving and keeping an NCAA Tournament berth within view. That ended this past week, with a pair of losses. The first, on Wednesday night at home against Air Force, was the most damaging, as the Cowboys just couldn’t get into the swing of things and had nobody who could handle Michael Lyons. The loss at CSU on Saturday was a little more understandable, but on the heels of the Wednesday loss, no more helpful. Leonard Washington has been a key cog for Larry Shyatt’s club all year, but he was largely absent this week, attempting just 11 total field goal attempts, scoring just 14 points and grabbing just 11 rebounds. He needs to play a bigger role in the Wyoming offense for this team to play its best. A look ahead: The NCAA Tournament is a significant longshot for the Cowboys now, but we can expect Shyatt to keep this team going. They’ve got a tough trip to San Diego State tomorrow night, then they get a chance to host Boise State on Saturday. We’d like to see this team finish strong and take down an NIT bid.
- TCU (15-11, 5-5) – The Horned Frogs were this close to pulling off a sweep of their games this week, holding a one-point lead with six second left and senior forward Craig Williams going to the line. But Williams, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the game against Boise State, missed the front end of a one-and-one. Anthony Drmic grabbed the board and took it the length of the court and drew a foul with less than a second left, and made both free throws to send TCU back home with ashes in the mouth. Still, when the players look back at this week when the season is over, they’ll likely remember the euphoria of the UNLV game as one of the highlights of their college careers. A look ahead: Not an easy week for the Frogs, with a trip to Air Force tomorrow night and a visit from New Mexico on Saturday.
- Air Force (13-11, 3-7) – About three weeks ago in this spot, I was trying to tell you all how this was a good Air Force team, and the best team the Academy had seen in five years or more. That was when they were in the midst of a four-game losing streak, and when that streak turned to 0-7, I was starting to reconsider that stance. It got bad enough that head coach Jeff Reynolds was fired midseason and Dave Pilipovich was hired as interim coach. While Pilipovich lost his first game as the head man, his team took a big step forward this week by stringing together a couple of wins, including a big upset win over San Diego State on Saturday. Junior guard Michael Lyons is now obviously back to 100% after an ankle injury kept him out for almost a month, as over the last three games since the coaching change, he has averaged 25 points and shot a 76.1 eFG%. When he’s going that good, the Falcons can stick with a lot of teams in this league. A look ahead: A visit from TCU tonight gives the Falcons a chance at earning their third straight win, while the trip to UNLV on Saturday is much tougher. However, AFA proved earlier in the year that they could play with the Rebs, taking them to OT at the end of January before eventually losing by two.
- Boise State (13-12, 3-7) – Are the Broncos the best worst-team-in-a-conference? Right now, I’d take BSU over teams like Boston College, Utah, Texas Tech, DePaul, Penn State and South Carolina – all teams who are arguably the worst teams in the respective BCS conference. Still, certainly two weeks ago I wouldn’t have made that claim, but the Broncos have pulled out three straight games, with the final two coming on clutch plays with under a second remaining. Freshman guard Derrick Marks was the hero on Wednesday against Colorado State, taking the ball coast-to-coast with under six seconds left and scoring with under a second left to give the Broncos a one-point win. Then Anthony Drmic, who fought through a brutal midseason slump and is now at least contributing (even if his perimeter jumper is still on the back of a milk carton), took a turn as the hero on Saturday night, coolly knocking down two free throws with under a second on the clock to turn a one-point deficit into a one-point win. A look ahead: The Broncos will need to turn into road warriors this week in order to extend their winning streak, with trips to UNLV and Wyoming on the horizon.