Checking In On… The Mountain WestPosted by AMurawa on February 28th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
A week ago, we were all but ready to hand New Mexico the regular season title and the #1 seed in the Mountain West tournament. Two road losses later, the Lobos have given back their two-game lead and with two conference games remaining on everybody’s schedule, we have five teams within two games of the first place. But, primarily, we are back to where we were after the first run through the conference: three teams (New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV) tied atop the conference standings, each looking like a good team, but none looking great.
Still, despite the tumult at the top of the conference, all three of those teams look like absolute locks to earn an invitation to the NCAA Tournament (and pretty good seeds at that). UNLV leads the way with an RPI of 11, while SDSU and UNM are among a bunch of MW teams with RPIs in the late 20s or early 30s. The big question in the conference revolves around the third of those teams, Colorado State, which sits ahead of the other two with an RPI of 27 (SDSU is at 28, UNM at 34).
However, a closer look at the Rams find them sitting squarely on the bubble. They have a couple really good wins over SDSU and UNM, but those two games are the entirety of their positives. Beyond that they have some middling wins over RPI 51-100 teams and an unfortunate last second loss to Boise State (RPI 166) dragging them down. However, compare them to say, BYU, South Florida, Washington, or Arizona – all teams with whom the Rams are ostensibly competing for a spot, and CSU’s got a slightly better set of numbers going for them. See below, where we compare CSU to other bubble teams in record, RPI, strength of schedule, and record against various subsets of the RPI (with the best numbers in each column in bold). In RPI and SOS, the Rams have clearly better numbers than anybody else on this list, while their record against top-50 RPI teams is behind only Dayton and Saint Joseph’s here.
|Team||Record||RPI||SOS||vs. RPI 1-25||vs. RPI 1-50||vs. RPI +100|
As for TCU, the team that is almost the hottest team in the conference, having won four of five including wins over Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico, with only a last-second loss to Boise State as a recent blemish … they’re a good story, but even with four wins against top-50 RPI teams, they need to win the Mountain West Tournament to have a chance to go dancing.
Team of the Week
TCU – As mentioned above, the Horned Frogs are 4-1 in their last five games, with only a heartbreaking last-second loss to Boise State a week ago as a strike against them. This week, Jim Christian’s club went to Colorado Springs and, using an Amric Fields three-pointer with 18 seconds left, knocked off Air Force at Clune Arena. They followed that up by welcoming New Mexico into Fort Worth on Saturday and outfighting and outshooting the Lobos. Six different Frogs hit three-pointers, J.R. Cadot outworked Drew Gordon on the offensive glass and Hank Thorns dished out nine assists as TCU battled New Mexico to a draw on the boards and outgunned them from the field (they had a true shooting percentage of 63.1%). As a result, TCU sits just a game back of the three leaders in the conference and with a visit from SDSU scheduled for Saturday, they have a fighting chance of moving up the leaderboard even further.
Player of the Week
Jamaal Franklin, Sophomore, San Diego State – With apologies to TCU’s J.R. Cadot (15.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG), we are going to reward Franklin for his transcendent game while willing his Aztecs over CSU on Saturday night. In that game, Franklin went off for 31 points and 16 rebounds (the latter a new career high, the former tying a career high) and scored 13 of his team’s last 16 points, including going 8-of-8 from the free-throw line after the final media timeout. Coupled with a solid game earlier in the week when coming back from an ankle injury against Wyoming, Franklin, who averaged 21.5 points and 10.5 rebounds, earned the honor.
Newcomer of the Week
Kyan Anderson, Freshman, TCU – Several newcomers had a hand in TCU’s 2-0 record this week, but it was the freshman point guard out of Fort Worth who made the biggest splash, knocking down five threes on his was to 23 points for the week while handing out nine assists to boot. Anderson has been up and down all season, but his minutes have skyrocketed as we have gotten closer to March. And with current point guard Hank Thorns set to wrap up his college eligibility in the coming weeks, Jim Christian’s program seems to be in good hands with Anderson at the helm.
Game of the Week
San Diego State 67, Wyoming 58 (OT) – With two Aztecs left as game-time decisions due to ankle injuries, SDSU figured to be in for a battle with the pesky Cowboys last Wednesday night. Fortunately for Steve Fisher and company, both of those game-time decisions turned out to be positives for them, as Jamaal Franklin scored the first five points in overtime and Garrett Green contributed a game-high 14 points on a perfect 6-of-6 night from the field as the Aztecs dodged several bullets down the stretch of regulation before pulling away in overtime.
Games of the Upcoming Week
UNLV at Colorado State, Wednesday, February 29, 8 PM MST, CBS College Sports Network – Both teams will have a lot to play for tomorrow night. For the Runnin’ Rebels, they need a road win to keep pace with New Mexico and San Diego State, both of whom face teams currently tied for last place in the conference on the same night. For Colorado State, this is their last regular season chance to score a resume win. If they can add a Rebel scalp to their haul which already includes wins over SDSU and UNM, that may be just enough to put them on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday. For the Rams to get that done, they will need to slow the game down, keep the Rebels from getting out on the break and clean the defensive glass with abandon.
- UNLV (24-6, 8-4) – In this conference, the different between team #1 and team #3 is negligible. We are a week away from the conference tournament, and I still have no idea who the best team is. But, that’s my job here, at least today. I gotta pick one team among three very similar teams as my favorite in the conference, and I’m siding with the Rebels for now. Why? Balance. I look at New Mexico and I see a pretty excellent defensive team (most of the time, at least), but an offense that still doesn’t know what to make of itself. I look at San Diego State and I see a solid but unspectacular defense and an offense that doesn’t do any one thing particularly well. And then I look at the Rebels and I see a team that has the best offense of the three teams, and a defense that is solid and that has shown itself to pick up its game against its best opponents. Throwing out the Wichita State game as an anomaly, in the Rebels non-conference games against North Carolina, Wisconsin, California, and their conference series against New Mexico and San Diego State, the Rebs are allowing just 0.96 points per possession, a good number against quality opponents. Their road letdowns in the past month are concerning, as is the fact that this doesn’t look like a team that has improved a whole lot since November, but all things being equal, these Rebels are the MW team most capable of making a significant March run. A look ahead: The Rebels have the toughest remaining single game of any of the big three in the conference when they go to Colorado State tomorrow night. Throw in a visit from Wyoming, who proved their ability to beat the Rebels earlier in the year, and if the Rebels come away from this week with a 10-4 record, they will have very much earned at least a piece of the conference title.
- New Mexico (22-6, 8-4) – The Lobos earn my #2 spot largely on the strength of their defense, although they did allow 1.09 points per possession in last week’s backslide. Still, when all is said and done, if I had to pick one MW team to go out and get me one stop on one possession, I’d take the Lobos. They’re athletic, they’re long, they’re relentless and most importantly, they are well-coached. Of greater concern, however, is the offensive side of the ball. The defensive PPP number from last week was bad, but the offensive number was horrendous: 0.9 points per possession against two teams in the bottom half of Division I in defensive efficiency. So, what are the problems offensively? Let’s start with Demetrius Walker, the sole player on the team to use more than 25% of the team’s possessions when he is on the court. Walker is definitely an athletic player capable of making a difference, and he often does make spectacular plays for the Lobos, but far too often you see wild three-point attempts or ridiculously out-of-control drives. His shot selection needs to tighten up considerably, something that is possible. Another major area of concern for Steve Alford has to be Tony Snell’s tendency to disappear: in his last five games, he is just 7-of-24 from the field (37.5 eFG%) for an average of just four points a night. Snell has shown some ability to get his own shot, but he mostly relies on others to create looks for him around the perimeter, and when Drew Gordon is not passing well out of the double team and Kendall Williams is not slashing to the rim and drawing defenders to him, the frequency and quality of Snell’s good looks do drop. Both of those issues can be fixed, but perhaps the biggest hindrance to the Lobos being a quality offensive team is the lack of a go-to player in crunch time. Seriously, if the Lobos need a hoop in a tie-game with under two-minutes left and a dwindling shot clock, who do they go to? Williams? Gordon? I like both of those players, but neither guy has yet shown the consistent ability to get a good shot for himself or a teammate. A look ahead: For all the sky-is-falling rhetoric above, the Lobos still are in good shape to gain at least a share of the regular season title. They don’t leave Albuquerque until they head to the MW Tournament, and they host the two worst teams in the league – Air Force tomorrow night and Boise State on Saturday – in their final two games.
- San Diego State (22-6, 8-4) – I’m back to where I was on the Aztecs about a month ago, thinking they are a good team that is just a shade behind the other two teams at the top. They’re getting it done despite some very average offensive metrics: they’re in the bottom half of Division I in offensive rebounding and free throw rate, while being not particularly good at taking care of the ball or shooting it. But they get it done by uglying things up defensively, defending the three-point line, packing the lane and cleaning the defensive glass. Then, down the stretch, they’ve got two of the better clutch offensive players not only in the conference, but in the entire country. I’d love to have the duo of Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley with the ball in their hands down the stretch. And really, of the three big teams in the MW, the Aztecs may have the lowest ceiling, but they have the highest floor. For the most part, you know what you’re going to get from this team – they’re going to play a tight game and look to beat you in the end. There may not be as much upside on this roster, but they do have one of the more consistent teams in the country. A look ahead: The Aztecs are done with home games for the season, but they’ve got a manageable schedule down the stretch: at Boise State tomorrow night, then at TCU on Saturday. While the Horned Frogs are going good right now, that’s a game SDSU can and should win, especially with a conference title on the line.
- Colorado State 17-10, 6-6 (15-1, 6-0 at home or neutral, 2-9, 0-6 on road)- Updating a table from a couple of weeks back, you will see that the difference between the Rams at home and on the road is quite pronounced.
Colorado State Points Per Possession Offense Defense Home 1.06 0.89 Away 0.95 1.16
Keep in mind, the spreads there have actually tightened somewhat over the recent weeks, but the fact remains that this is a very different team depending on where the games are being played. The MW is certainly a league where the home court advantage is quite pronounced (home teams have won 70.8% of the time in conference play this season), but the Rams’ record is pretty wild. A look ahead: Given their history this season and their status as a bubble team, the final two games on the schedule are crucial. They start by hosting UNLV tonight, and adding their thirteenth consecutive win at Moby Arena would go a long way towards boosting the Rams’ credentials. However, they could undo all of that on Saturday if they travel to Air Force and wrap up a road oh-fer in the conference. If CSU is to be taken seriously on Selection Sunday, they need to have an 8-6 conference record. You do the math.
- TCU (17-11, 7-5) – It had been pretty easy to just not take the Horned Frogs very seriously. You could write off that wildly surprising win over Virginia way back in mid-November as just an early-season blip from a Cavalier team that hadn’t really settled into the season yet. The 10-5 record prior to conference play was easily ignored as a byproduct of an easy schedule. The win over UNLV? Just a combination of the Rebels looking past the Frogs and Hank Thorns going wild. But, here we are on the doorstep of March and TCU has guaranteed itself a winning season – quite the accomplishment for a team that won one conference game last season. So, what is working for the Frogs? A little bit of everything, as Jim Christian is getting serious contributions from all nine players who regularly earn minutes. A good example came Saturday against New Mexico when six different players scored in double digits, while the three players who did not (Connell Crossland, Nate Butler and Adrick McKinney) all found ways to chip in: Crossland, five boards in 12 minutes; McKinney six points in ten minutes; and Butler consistent hard-nosed defensive effort. 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.
- Wyoming (19-9, 5-7) – It’s been as good of a season as Cowboy fans could have expected. This was a team that had won six conference games in the last two seasons combined, and here they sit needing one win in the final two games to equal that total this season. However, a four-game slide in the middle of February will be the culprit if Larry Shyatt’s team doesn’t get there. Road losses to New Mexico, Colorado State and San Diego State are all understandable (although the Cowboys had their chances in each of those games – especially the OT loss at SDSU), but a home loss to Air Force certainly looks like the one that got away for Wyoming. Still, Shyatt has turned around a team that was in the bottom half in Division I in defensive efficiency last year and turned them into a team in the top 10% in the nation this year, while taming a wild offense at the same time. This program is definitely headed in the right direction, and will certainly fight until the last possession in the MW Tourney. A look ahead: It’s a tough way to finish for Wyoming, hosting the hottest team in the conference, TCU, tonight, then traveling to UNLV on Saturday. But you can bet they’ll play ‘em both tough.
- Air Force (13-13, 3-9) – After an eye-opening pair of wins a couple weeks back, the Falcons dropped a couple tight ones this week to TCU and UNLV. But, even in the losses, there was some hope for the future. Against TCU on Wednesday, freshman wing Justin Hammonds broke out for 17 points, six boards and three assists, all while making eight of his nine field goal attempts. He then followed that up by filling most of the stat sheet against the Rebels, getting two blocks, two steals, two assists and three boards, but missing all three of his field goal attempts. Against the Rebs, however, a different unexpected hero stepped up, as junior guard Kyle Green, a guy who had earned more than ten minutes in a game just six times in three years at the Academy, broke out with five three-pointers on his way to 17 points in 22 minutes of action. There is a lot of young talent sitting on this roster, capable of turning this Falcon team into a force next season. A look ahead: Air Force wraps up the year with a trip to New Mexico tomorrow night and a visit from Colorado State on Saturday. Winning one of those games (obviously, the CSU game is more likely) and the Falcons salvage a .500 regular season record.
- Boise State (13-14, 3-9) – In a week with two more losses for the basketball program, the biggest news is the fact that the school will be staying in the Mountain West for one more year. BSU has agreed to join the Big East in football, with all of its other sports – save wrestling, which competes in the Pac-12 – moving to the WAC. However, the complications of the move, and perhaps more importantly, the cost, will keep the Broncs out west, where they belong, for another year. A look ahead: BSU wraps up its first year of MW basketball competition by hosting San Diego State tomorrow night, then traveling to New Mexico on Saturday. Have fun with that.