CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on November 27th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West conference.
A Look Back
Mountain West teams have been involved in three high profile events thus far this season – the San Diego State/Syracuse aircraft carrier debacle, the New Mexico win at the Paradise Jam, and UNLV hosting Oregon, Cincinnati and Iowa State at the Global Sports Classic. In two of those three events, the MW team went home with a loss. So, here we are getting ready to head into December and the only two MW wins over teams in Ken Pomeroy’s present top 50 are UNLV’s win over Iowa State (#48) and UNM’s win over Connecticut (#49). Now, there are still some chances out there, but as of right now, there ain’t a whole lot of meat on the bones for the conference’s overall resume. I’m sure the same can be said at plenty of places around the country, but MW fans have sure got to be rooting for SDSU to take care of business against UCLA, and for teams like Boise State and Air Force to fare well against Creighton and Wichita State, respectively, this week as the meat of the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Conference Challenge takes place.
Team of the Week
Colorado State – The Rams get the nod on the strength of a pair of decent road wins, at Denver and at Washington, followed up by a win last night back in the cozy confines of Moby Arena over Northern Colorado. None of those count as spectacular wins, but the impressive thing is that CSU seems to go about winning their games in a different, and possibly more sustainable fashion this year than they did last year. Last year it was a perimeter-oriented attack with guys like Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green using the majority of possessions, en route to a offense-first, defense-when-we-get-around-to-it style. This year, though the offense is still quite efficient, the defense is much improved. And the particulars are drastically different. For example, last year, in part due to the seventh-smallest lineup in the nation, the team eschewed rebounding and focused on working their way to a good first shot. This year, they’re third in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and second in defensive rebounding percentage. Don’t expect those lofty rankings to hold – the competition will get better, especially come conference play – but it seems clear that Larry Eustachy is taking a much different approach to the Rams than the previous coach, Tim Miles, did. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but different. More down the page a bit.
Player of the Week
Michael Lyons, Senior, Air Force – Lyons has been excellent for the Falcons so far, scoring in double figures in all of their games and leading the team in scoring five out of six times. This past week he averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and four assists while hitting 18 of 33 from the field with five 3-pointers mixed in there (a 62.1 eFG%, if you’re wondering). And this week wasn’t all that exceptional compared with his previous performances, except for the fact that one of the games, Sunday’s loss to Colorado, came against better competition.
Newcomer of the Week
Anthony Bennett, Freshman, UNLV – The Friday night loss to Oregon may throw many off the scent, but the Runnin’ Rebels are still going to be a force to be reckoned with once they get all their ducks in a row. The big duck on this team is Bennett, who scored 22 in each of his team’s games this week, while also averaging nine boards per night. This is his first NOTW award, but you can rest assured this will not be his last. He’s shown an ability to play on the perimeter but a willingness to get inside and do the dirty work either in the post, on the glass or grinding on defense. And, even with some of his teammates more than willing to throw up the first halfway decent shot they find, Bennett is playing within himself and still getting all the good shots he can handle.
Game of the Week
Michigan State 74, Boise State 70 – It goes down in the books as a loss, and there’s the added asterisk of the shoulder injury to the Spartans’ freshman guard Gary Harris, but this game goes a long way towards proving that we’ve got a different Bronco team on our hands this year than last. Boise fought MSU roughly to a draw on the glass, was aggressive enough to earn 29 free throw attempts and, despite allowing the Spartans to shoot a better than 60 eFG%, were in the game into the final minutes. Ease up on the turnovers a bit and the Broncos could put a scare into Creighton in Omaha this week.
Games of the Upcoming Week
San Diego State vs. UCLA, December 1, 7:00 PM PST, ESPNU – The Aztecs already got one half of the Southern California major conference school two-step down, on Saturday night they meet the Bruins halfway in Anaheim for this year’s rendition of the Wooden Classic in their quest to prove their control of the Southland. On paper, UCLA has more talent than the Aztecs (who certainly aren’t hurting for players either), but Ben Howland has yet to gather his team into a cohesive unit. While Steve Fisher’s squad certainly isn’t at the top of its game yet either, as they try to meld in a couple transfers and some new recruits with their returnees, they’re certainly a lot more together than UCLA is at this point and now may be the ideal time for the Aztecs to assert their dominance.
- New Mexico (6-0) – A Paradise Jam title wasn’t enough to get the Lobos into the Top 25, but a pair of home wins over Idaho and Portland (coupled with the carnage ahead of them in the polls), landed them in the rankings in both the AP (#25) and USA Today Coaches Poll (#23). Other than that, the only thing that changed a bit for UNM since the last time we checked in with them is that Kendall Williams and Demetrius Walker were late for a team meeting and held out of the starting lineup on Sunday night – hopefully just a minor blip. A look ahead: The Lobos are in a bit of a lull in their non-conference schedule; they’ll host Mercer tomorrow night before heading to Terre Haute this weekend to face Indiana State as part of the MW/MVC Challenge.
- San Diego State (4-1) – The Aztecs’ big challenge this week was their visit to the Galen Center to face USC, a game they had to play without senior guard Chase Tapley, who suffered a strained patella tendon, a relatively minor injury from which he is expected to return in time for the UCLA game next Saturday. Getting past the Trojans without one of their best players is a nice accomplishment for the Aztecs, who got a couple of good performances out of James Rahon (17 points and 3/3 from deep) and Skylar Spencer (11 boards, the first double-digit rebounding effort of his young career). A look ahead:It’s really just the UCLA game in the near future for the Aztecs. After that game, SDSU will be significant favorites in every game until Christmas Day, when they’re expected to play for the Diamond Head Classic title, possibly against Arizona.
- UNLV (3-1) – So, there’s the home loss to Oregon in the semifinal round of the Global Sports Classic, a rare loss for the Rebels at the Thomas & Mack (they lost just one game there last year, in the semis of the MW Tournament). And, while a loss to a good Oregon team is not a lot to worry about, it is pretty clear that Vegas has not yet found its footing. Doug Gottlieb had some fun with Bryce Jones’ shot selection this weekend, and Katin Reinhardt got thrown under the bus a bit too, but Mike Moser hasn’t exactly set the world on fire yet either (41.7 eFG%, including 2/12 from three). And head coach Dave Rice certainly isn’t at the top of his game yet as he tries to figure out his roster. Senior Justin Hawkins is coming off the pine, but is for my money, the best Robin to Anthony Marshall’s Batman. And up front, Rice still has yet to find big spots for producers like Carlos Lopez and Quintrell Thomas, with freshman Savon Goodman vying for minutes as well, poor indicators for the future for the vets since the countdown to Khem Birch’s eligibility (eta, 12/17 at UTEP) is underway. All of which is just fine. In fact, given that the Rebels of the last two seasons wound up playing their best basketball of the year in November, I find it pretty comforting that this year they’re definitely a work in progress at this time of year. Because if Rice can wind this thing into shape in time for March, there is definitely enough talent here for a significant NCAA Tournament run. A look ahead: The Rebels host UC Irvine and Hawai’i this week in Vegas, a couple games that should give them more opportunities to fine tune their rotation.
- Colorado State (5-0) – We talked above about the different approach the Rams are taking this season under their new head coach, pounding the glass and playing interior ball more. Certainly a big catalyst that has allowed Eustachy to shift strategies is 6’10” senior center Colton Iverson. Last year, with a 6’5” guy, Pierce Hornung, at center, Miles couldn’t have run this scheme. But with Iverson taking over in the middle and turning Hornung into a still-undersized but certainly not overmatched power forward, what was a weakness has become a strength. Likewise, 6’6” Greg Smith spends a lot less time facing true big guys, and wing Daniel Bejarano, a transfer from Arizona, has been quite good at helping out on the glass as well. As a result, guys like Eikmeier and Green are using fewer possessions, but they are of higher quality. And, with some actual size in the middle, the defensive efficiency makes this team a significant upgrade over the 2011-12 edition and one that should be able to earn an NCAA Tournament bid without nearly the drama we saw last year. A look ahead: The Rams host Evansville on Saturday in their MW/MVC Challenge contest. After a pair of season-opening losses, the Aces are on a three-game winning streak over some awful competition.
- Wyoming (6-0) – Six games, six teams ranked 200 or lower by Ken Pomeroy, little yet discovered about this team. But, that’s fine. Larry Shyatt needed to break in a new backcourt and replace a major contributor up front. So, the Cowboys took a few weeks to beat up on some patsies and work out the kinks. But don’t mistake that 6-0 record for a ton of accomplishment. A look ahead: Not to worry though, come next week we’ll have plenty to say about the ‘Pokes, as they travel to UC Santa Barbara tomorrow night (not exactly the toughest test ever, but a nice challenge), then return home to host Colorado on Saturday. If they’ve still got a zero on the right side of their record next week, then we’ll talk.
- Boise State (4-1) – So, as we discussed in the Game of the Week section above, BSU fans should be somewhat heartened by a close loss at Michigan State last week. There’s no such thing as moral victories and all, but I’ll admit I came away modestly impressed. And the Broncos backed that up by returning home and handling UC Santa Barbara in impressive fashion, destroying the Gauchos on the glass. Offensively, the Broncos have been really very good. They showed flashes at the start of last season of having the potential to be explosive offensively, and while “explosive” may be going too far, they’ve been quite effective all year. Put it this way: Michigan State is rated as the seventh best defense in the country and BSU scored better than a point per possession against them. And defensively, while certainly not world beaters, this team has patched some of the numerous holes they displayed last year. A lot of it starts with the combination of Kenny Buckner and Ryan Watkins up front, a pair of upperclassmen who have taken control of the Bronco front court, cleaned the glass with authority (especially on the offensive end) and protected the rim. A look ahead: Somehow, instead of the conference commissioners pairing Creighton with, say, UNLV or New Mexico or San Diego State, somehow BSU wound up on the receiving end; Blue Jays vs. Blue Turf, I suppose. Creighton’s hyper-efficient offense will definitely provide a stiff test to determine just how improved that Bronco defense is, while their iffy defense may give BSU a chance to stick around, provided guys like Anthony Drmic, Jeff Elorriaga and Igor Hadziomeroviccan knock down some threes. Creighton could get pushed in that one. After that, the Broncos head out west to take on Seattle University on Sunday night.
- Air Force (5-1) – Much like Wyoming above, the Falcons got their season underway with five cupcakes. In their first five contests, they played two teams from outside of Division-I and three D-I teams, the best of which is ranked #269 out of 347 teams by Ken Pomeroy. And then Sunday night, they ran into Colorado. And, frankly, they acquitted themselves pretty well for about 30 minutes in Boulder before the shots stopped falling and the Buffs ran away from them. Still, AFA posted a nice 55 eFG% for the night, but their main problem was their inability to do anything to slow CU. The Falcons aren’t even going to attempt to go after offensive rebounds for the most part, but they have to avoid getting killed on the defensive glass like they did in that game (CU grabbed more of their own misses than AFA did). When that kind of thing happens, it is no wonder that you look up and see the Buffs connecting at a 63.2 eFG%. But, considering how bad those pair of numbers were for the Falcons, they were in the game in the middle of the second half. In other words, there is room for improvement there and maybe come conference play, these Falcons can clean up some of those areas a bit. A look ahead: After a visit from Jackson State, the Falcons host Wichita State as their portion of the MW/MVC Challenge. This will be a significant challenge for Air Force, but unlike the Colorado game, at least the athletic difference between the two teams isn’t quite so vast.
- Fresno State (3-2) – A new era in Bulldog basketball got underway Sunday night when prized hometown recruit Robert Upshaw got his first action following a leg injury. The big center was still somewhat limited – in 18 minutes of action he scored eight points and collected six boards – but Rodney Terry is slowly getting closer to fielding a complete roster. Unfortunately, that debut of Upshaw was spoiled somewhat as Long Beach State handed FSU its second loss. A look ahead: FSU is off to Southern Illinois for their MW/MWC matchup tomorrow night, then they head back to California for a rematch with LBSU, this time down in Long Beach.
- Nevada (3-2) – Prior to the season, it was hip to pick Nevada as a sleeper for NCAA Tournament consideration, despite the fact that the Wolf Pack lost their two best big guys to graduation. Now, after five games, it has become apparent that head coach David Carter doesn’t really have an answer up front quite yet. The team is one of the worst defensive rebounding team’s in the nation, they send their opponents to the line with alarming regularity and, no matter how good Deonte Burton and Malik Story have been in the backcourt, there’s a big hole up front. Guys like Devonte Elliott, Kevin Panzer and Jerry Evans, juniors who it was hoped would take a big step forward, have not been up to the challenge, so expect to see freshman Cole Huff and JuCo transfer Cheikh Fall get their chances up front. Fall is exceedingly raw offensively, but can defend and rebound, while Huff has been a promising figure in the frontcourt, proving himself to be already the best rebounder in the squad. A look ahead: The Pack host UC Davis and Drake this week in Reno and have a chance to get some momentum going, but both teams will press them a bit on the glass.