CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on November 20th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
A Look Back
Let’s be honest. There hasn’t been a whole heck of a lot of worthwhile games on the Mountain West schedule thus far. New Mexico got a piece of Davidson during ESPN’s 24-Hour Marathon, then got three solid games in the Virgin Islands at the Paradise Jam (much more on that below), but beyond that, the only real primo television game was San Diego State and Syracuse playing in slightly better conditions than I play on most days during the summer. Still, we got our first look at some new freshmen (Anthony Bennett – good, Winston Shepard – interesting, Cameron Michael – surprising), some new transfers (Colton Iverson – good, Bryce Dejean-Jones – interesting, Allen Huddleston – surprising) and a couple of new teams (Fresno State and Nevada, who happen to have the only two losses in the conference aside from that immediately discounted SDSU game).
Team of the Week
New Mexico – While everybody nationally has been talking about UNLV and San Diego State, the Lobos – the defending regular season and tournament champions in the conference – have flown under the radar. Yet, here they are with a 4-0 record, a Paradise Jam championship and arguably the conference’s best wins in the bag. Replacing Drew Gordon is going to be a collective effort as the season goes on, but not only are big guys Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and freshman Nick Banyard ready to chip in any way possible, but perimeter guys like Hugh Greenwood and Kendall Williams will lend a hand on the glass as well. They certainly haven’t been pretty wins so far, but this is just a group of winners with a knack for getting things done, one way or another.
Player of the Week
Tony Snell, Junior, New Mexico – Last year, Tony Snell’s offensive game was little more than three-point attempts either in spot-up situations or running off of a screen. Almost 70% of his field goal attempts came from behind the arc. Thus far this year, Snell has shown a much more varied attack, even taking his man off the dribble from time to time. While he’s not exactly hitting shots at an exceptionally high rate early on (46.2 eFG% through four games), he’s leading the team with 17.5 points per game, has shown a good ability to find open teammates and continues to use his length to be a frustrating defensive opponent. Oh, and he’s hit a big shot or two, as we’ll get to shortly.
Newcomer of the Week
Colton Iverson, Sr, Colorado State – His age and experience may give him an advantage of most other qualifiers in this category, but Iverson’s first two outings with his new team have got to please new head coach Larry Eustachy. Iverson led the way in each of CSU’s two wins, scoring 18 points both nights and chipping in heavily on the glass, forming a tough duo with fellow senior Pierce Hornung. The quality of competition picks up, so the production will likely dip, but out of the gates it looks like Iverson will provide a major boost to the Ram frontline.
Game of the Week
New Mexico 70, George Mason 69 – It was a hard-fought game throughout, with no team ever holding a lead larger than seven points. After some offensive struggles in the first half, both teams picked up the pace in the second half and treated the festive tropical crowd to plenty of second half highlights. But when George Mason’s Sherrod Wright knocked down his 21st and 22nd points with 17 seconds left to give the Colonials a five-point lead, Lobo fans in attendance were beginning to plan for their post-game activities. But then Kendall Williams hit a quick 30-foot three-pointer. Then, following a timeout, he baited the inbounds passer into a bad throw and, like an NFL free safety, snagged the ball out of the air with ten second remaining. The Lobos didn’t rush things, worked the ball into the corner to freshman wing Cleveland Thomas, who drove baseline, drew a GMU double-team, elevated over them and found Snell on the far side of the court, where he stepped into a three-pointer and drilled it over the outreached arms of a diving defender for the game-winner.
Games of the Upcoming Week
Oregon at UNLV, November 23, 6PM PST, CBS Sports Network – While the other top-tier teams in the Mountain West have already faced legitimate challenges, the Running Rebels will likely get their first look at adversity (aside from, you know, Dixie State) on the day after Thanksgiving when they host Oregon as a semifinal game in the Global Sports Classic. The Ducks may not have quite the athleticism up front that UNLV has, but their frontline boasts plenty of size and talent sure to give Mike Moser, Anthony Bennett and company a serious test.
- New Mexico (4-0): So, anybody who read this spot last year knows how much I love Hugh Greenwood’s game. A year later, my love has only grown. Last year he was a relatively earthbound point guard, and while he certainly isn’t going to be mistaken for Allen Iverson or Nate Robinson, you can tell he’s worked hard to improve his athleticism and strength. Against UConn last night, dude was getting up to snatch down rebounds with authority and at one point he ran off a screen received a pass at the top of the key and drilled a three-pointer that, while it won’t give anyone flashbacks to J.J. Redick, was a significant improvement over last year’s form on the release. Meanwhile, the biggest question for the Lobos prior to the season was up front, as they had to replace Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman. It’s still early, but the combo of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow looks good. Between them they’re averaging 35 minutes, 17.8 points and 11 rebounds. Given that Steve Alford is more than happy to spend some time running four guards out t here at a time, he’ll gladly take that kind of production the rest of the way. A look ahead: The Lobos welcome Idaho and Portland to The Pit this weekend, a relative break after their first four games.
- San Diego State (2-1): First things first – after we get this paragraph out of the way, henceforth we shall not refer to that SDSU/Syracuse aircraft carrier abomination. It was awful basketball and there was no way to learn just about anything from that game, especially about the state of the Aztecs. One area, however, that those conditions may have shined a light on was the way in which SDSU, and especially reigning MW Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin, responded to adversity. Yes, they were tough conditions made worse by their opponent, but Franklin forced shots, was careless with the ball and whined and pouted throughout the second half. We’ll give him a pass for now, with the hope that such behavior doesn’t turn into a theme. One bit of off-the-court news, freshman forward Winston Shepard was suspended three games by the NCAA for violating an unspecified rule. A look ahead:After what should be little more than a scrimmage against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Wednesday, the Aztecs start the first half of their matchups with their bigger brothers up the way, as they head to USC on Sunday (when they’ll get Shepard back), six days prior to facing UCLA in Anaheim. By the time the first day of December is done, we’ll know a lot more about this SDSU team.
- UNLV (2-0): After a rough time of it in an exhibition game against Dixie State, the Rebels have taken care of business in their first two official games, hammering Northern Arizona by 38 in Anthony Bennett’s coming-out party (22 points, seven boards) and then handling the down-tempo Jacksonville State by 19. If there’s a concern thus far it is the high turnover rate (Bryce Dejean-Jones the primary offender, turning it over nine times in just 45 minutes of action), but it is pretty hard to take too much away from these early games. A look ahead: But, by next week we should have some solid data to work with, as the Rebels host Oregon and then either Cincinnati or Iowa State at the Global Sports Classic at the Thomas & Mack.
- Colorado State (2-0): Much like the Rebels, we ain’t got a ton to talk about with the Rams. Their opening seven-point win over Montana is a good solid win, but their follow-up, a 43-point win over Chadron State tells us nothing. But, of interest are the newcomers. We talked about Iverson above, but Arizona transfer Daniel Bejarano has also provided so nice punch, averaging 10.5 points and five rebounds thus far. Then there are the guys like Gerson Santo, Jonathan Octeus, Jordan Mason and Joe De Ciman who are getting some early run under Eustachy. It remains to be seen which of those guys stick in the rotation as competition levels increase, but Octeus, for one, looks like a good bet, having averaged 7.5 points and 2.5 assists in more than 20 minutes per night. A look ahead: Things get more interesting this week with a visit to a halfway decent Denver team followed by a trip west to face Washington in Seattle. It will be interesting to see just how tight Eustachy, who has a history of playing nine guys, takes this rotation.
- Wyoming (4-0): The Global Sports Classic – Laramie Edition (not to be confused with the Global Sports Classic that UNLV is hosting) rolled into town this week and the Cowboys walked away from three mediocre opponents with three solid wins. Paired with a 20-point drubbing of Western State in the opener, Larry Shyatt’s club has done just what it was supposed to. Leonard Washington is doing very Leonard Washington-like things (17 points, nine boards, three assists, two blocks and at least one headslapper of a three per outing), Luke Martinez is back to shooting almost exclusively from behind the arc and Larry Nance Jr. is rebounding at a rate similar to what we expected. But the most important guy on the team may be Derrious Gilmore, the senior point guard taking over for steady JayDee Luster. Gilmore went for a career-high 19 in the opener and has paired with sophomore Riley Grabau to make a steady backcourt duo. A look ahead: A trip to Northern Colorado and a visit from CS Bakersfield aren’t going to do a whole lot to put a serious scare into this team, but don’t worry – the Cowboys do have a pair of reasonable tests coming up the first week in December.
- Nevada (3-1): After opening the season with a 14-point loss to UC Irvine, I had no expectation that I would be ranking the Wolf Pack even this high. But, since we’ve seen that score we’ve come to suspect that UCI might be a bit better than we expected. Still, Nevada didn’t do a whole lot in the three-game Global Vision Classic round robin, played in their own Lawler Events Center, to inspire a ton of confidence. The Wolf Pack needed a last-minute three-point play from Deonte Burton to get past Cal State Fullerton in the first game of that tournament, then needed Burton to go even bigger in the second game, when he hit a last-second three-pointer to give them a win over Wisconsin-Green Bay. While Burton has been big on the heroics so far, the overall numbers haven’t been mindblowing, as he’s averaging 15 points and under two assists per game while shooting a sub-.500 eFG%. Freshman forward Cole Huff leads the way in an effort to replace departed frontcourt production, averaging ten points and six boards in about 20 minutes per game so far. Still, competition for minutes is still ongoing. A look ahead: Things slow down a bit after a harried start, but a trip to Huntington, West Virginia on Thanksgiving Saturday does not make for a restful holiday weekend.
- Air Force (4-0): The Falcons opened the season with a workmanlike one-two run through the All-Military Classic in Charleston, knocking off Army and Citadel by a combined 18 points, before returning to Colorado Springs and smothering a couple of scrubs by an average of 37 points. The Michael Lyons we’ve seen so far has been the Michael Lyons we expected to see last year, as he set a new career high of 33 points in the win over Citadel and has averaged 20.5 efficient points while also leading the team with five rebounds per game. If you’re looking for the next Falcon to step into the rotation, freshman Cameron Michael has thrown his name into the ring, averaging better than nine points per game while earning just 13 minutes per game. Given that he’s knocking down threes at a 54.5% clip and has an absurd 86.1 eFG%, you can’t expect that type of production to continue, but if that type of shooting is a sign of things to come, he might see his run increase. A look ahead: Montana State visits the Academy on Wednesday, then a trip to Boulder is in store for Sunday. If the Falcons are going to have any chance against the Buffaloes, they’ll need Lyons to have a big game while senior center Taylor Broekhuis does his best to keep CU’s Andre Roberson and Josh Scott under control on the glass.
- Boise State (3-0): It hasn’t exactly been a murderer’s row that the Broncos have faced, but they’ve done what they were supposed to do in those three games, handling Texas Southern, Oakland and Louisiana-Lafayette behind balanced scoring. Seven BSU players are averaging more than seven points per game, with last year’s returning scorers, Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic leading the way. If there’s been a surprise, it has been the production of junior guard Jeff Elorriaga. Generally considered “just a shooter”, Elorriaga has been a versatile contributor thus far, scoring 17 in the Oakland game (behind four three-pointers), then leading the team with ten boards against ULL, while also chipping in a pair of three-steal games. A look ahead: If those first three games were against reasonable competition, tonight the Bronco basketball team goes to get paid – they’ll face Michigan State in Lansing. Saturday they’ll host UC Santa Barbara as they get back more towards their level of foe.
- Fresno State (3-1): Given that the Bulldogs are opening their season without arguably their two most talented players – freshman center Robert Upshaw, who is due back any day now from a leg injury, and freshman Braeden Anderson, who is expected to earn academic eligibility at the end of the fall semester – their start is promising. They took Texas, albeit their own best player, point guard Myck Kabongo, right down to the wire before losing on a pair of late free throws, then out-uglied UC Riverside before getting past Pacific. The latter win was particularly sweet for FSU’s new point guard, Allen Huddleston, who is newly eligible after transferring over from the Stockton university. In his first three games as a Bulldog, Huddleston has led the team in scoring twice and has given head coach Rodney Terry a good second option in the backcourt alongside Kevin Olekaibe. The other revelation for FSU has been senior forward Kevin Foster who, after averaging eight points and five rebounds last year, has been averaging 13 points and nine boards, including a career-high 28 on Monday night against Cal Poly. A look ahead: The Bulldogs get most of Thanksgiving weekend off, before hosting Long Beach State in the first of a pair of matchups between the two teams, on Sunday.