CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on December 4th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Mountain West Round-Up
- It was a big week for the conference, with the Big Three (New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV) each further establishing their credentials, Colorado State pushing for recognition in the national polls, and Boise State and Wyoming each knocking off nationally-ranked teams and displaying the depth of the conference. Through three weeks and change of the season, the conference as a whole has a record of 53-11 (best record for a conference in the nation) and has firmly established itself as not only clearly the best conference outside of the traditional power conferences (and I mean clearly – it ain’t even close), but also likely the best conference in the west – again – surpassing the Pac-12 for at least the third consecutive season. It is early and there is a ton of basketball still to be played, but projecting way into the future, the MW looks like a lock to get four teams into the NCAA Tournament and, if the Cowboys and Broncos continue their push, could find a way to sneak a fifth and, if absolutely everything happens to fall perfectly, a sixth into the conversation. But, again, we’re getting far ahead of ourselves and will more reasonably reprise this conversation sometime around the end of January.
- The other big story around the conference, and one that I skipped over last week out of fatigue with the whole story line, is the effect of continued conference realignment on the future of the conference. The expectation has been that beginning next season, San Diego State and Boise State will leave in order to play football in the Big East and the rest of its sports in the Big West (yeah, I’ll go ahead and call the whole thing stupid, regardless of the economics behind it). But, with the long, slow and painful dissolution of the Big East as a nationally-relevant football conference now in the terminal stages, there remains a possibility that SDSU and BSU will reconsider and remain in the Mountain West in all sports. Both schools deny any change of heart, and the fact that the MW television contract still won’t net these schools as much money as what the Big East can promise puts the odds in favor of their departure, but the athletic departments at both schools have to weigh the possibility of more defections from their new conference and the possibility of a football league that is similar in strength to the league they would be leaving. Are games against Memphis, Temple and SMU, for instance, really all that preferable to games against Colorado State, Nevada and Fresno State? The final answer remains to be seen, but at least the potential of keeping the league together remains.
Team of the Week
Boise State – There are several potential winners here this week, but the finalists came down to the Broncos and Wyoming. Rather than cop out and name co-winners, I made the hard choice and opted to give Boise the nod on the strength of a pair of road wins, including a win over a Top 25 Creighton team that could end up being the deciding game in the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge (the MW currently leads 4-3 with a pair of relatively even games remaining). The win in Omaha was highlighted by our MW Player of the Week (who you’ll see below), but was really a complete team effort, with the Broncos dominating the Bluejays on the glass, running up a 70.8% eFG and generally playing with poise while limiting good looks for Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott. And, the fact that BSU avoided an obvious letdown situation and came back four nights later to knock off Seattle on the road is more proof that this team has grown up in a hurry.
Player of the Week
Derrick Marks, Sophomore, Boise State – Marks was the key cog in the Broncos’ upset of Creighton Wednesday night, repeatedly exposing a Bluejay defense with plenty of doubters. Marks repeatedly beat his defender off the bounce, got into the lane and scored in a variety of ways, at one point in the middle of the second half, scoring 18 straight points for his team as they pulled away from the home team. All told he scored 28 points in the second half and carried his team home with a total of 35 on the night. Marks followed up that game with a 14-point six-steal effort against Seattle and wound up shooting at 76.9 eFG% for the week.
Newcomer of the Week
Katin Reinhardt, Freshman, UNLV – This could have gone to either Reinhardt’s teammate Anthony Bennett or CSU’s Colton Iverson, but given the feeling that those two are going to show up in this spot plenty of times this season, it is time to introduce another excellent UNLV freshman. Reinhardt has had more explosive scoring games in his brief time in Vegas, but this week he probably put together his most efficient pair of games as a Rebel, averaging 11.5 points and five assists while playing within the offense and taking good shots on his way to a 66.7% eFG. As pure of a shooter as there is in the country, Reinhardt did have one thing go wrong this week for him: he missed a free throw against UC Irvine, his first of the year, dropping him to just 17-of-18 on the season.
Game of the Week
Nevada 84, UC Davis 83 – The Wolf Pack are definitely having their struggles in their first year in the Mountain West, but on the plus side for their fans, at least they are playing some really exciting games. And, were it not for junior guard Deonte Burton, it is possible that their already disappointing record could be much worse. You see, against UC Davis on Wednesday night, Burton hit the game-winning jumper with three seconds left to give the Wolf Pack the win. What makes that all the more spectacular is that this is the third time this season that Burton has hit the game-winning basket in the waning seconds of a close game. While Nevada may not be good enough to blow out middling teams, when it comes down to crunch time, Burton has proven he is good enough to bail his team out.
Games of the Upcoming Week
UNLV at California, December 9, 3 PM PST, ESPNU – The trip to Berkeley will not be UNLV’s first road game of the year (they head to Portland tonight to face the Pilots), but it may be the team’s biggest challenge of the year to date. Especially with the Golden Bears coming off an embarrassing blowout at the hands of Wisconsin, the Rebels could be walking into an angry bunch. And the UNLV guards should expect to be in for a busy night chasing Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs around the floor. Guys like Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins and Bryce Dejean-Jones will likely relish the challenge to harass those guys, but against Oregon, they were unable to sufficiently contain the Ducks’ freshmen guards; Cal’s veteran guys are a big step up. Up front, however, the Rebels should have an advantage against an as-yet unproven Cal frontcourt; Mike Moser and Anthony Bennett (among others) could be the difference in the game.
- New Mexico (8-0): The Lobos stayed perfect by handling Mercer at home and then going on the road and knocking off Indiana State in overtime. However, they did blow an 19-point second half lead against the Sycamores that forced the extra period, some cause for concern for head coach Steve Alford. Nevertheless, coach-on-the-floor Hugh Greenwood rallied the troops and scored eight points in the overtime to seal the win for the Lobos. And, what is rapidly proving a serious strength of this team again shone through this week as UNM shot 63 more free throws this week in their two-game span. For the year, they’ve now been to the line 237 times and are fourth in the nation in their free throw rate (FTA/FGA), with Kendall Williams leading the way by getting to the line nearly seven times per game. Count this as playing to a strength, as not only do the Lobos get to the line with regularity, they also sink their shots when they get there; they’re shooting 79.3% from the charity stripe thus far, also good for fourth in the nation. A look ahead: The Lobos get tested again a couple times this week. They’ll host USC tomorrow night, then get a visit from a Valparaiso team expected to contend strongly for a Horizon League title.
- San Diego State (6-1): The big news for the Aztecs was their win over UCLA in the Wooden Classic on Saturday night, a win that allows the program to consider itself the King of California for the time being. Jamaal Franklin was his usual dynamic offensive self this whole week (23 PPG, 11 RPG), but it should be noted that this squad is really getting it done on the defensive end. None of the seven teams that the Aztecs have played this season have scored better than a point per possession against them and the frontline rotation of DeShawn Stephens, J.J. O’Brien and freshman Skylar Spencer (soon to be bolstered by the eligibility of transfer James Johnson) has done a solid job of cleaning the glass and causing problems for opposing bigs. A look ahead: Cal State San Diego gets a chance to add to its 26-game win streak over teams from California when they host UC Santa Barbara on Thursday night, with teams like San Diego, Point Loma Nazarene, San Francisco, and Cal State Bakersfield looming prior to conference play. By the time SDSU heads to Fresno State on January 9 to open MW conference play, their win streak over California schools could be at 31.
- UNLV (5-1): The competition wasn’t all that great, but the Rebels took care of business this week, winning by an average of 21 points per game against UC Irvine and Hawai’i. Anthony Marshall dished out a total of 17 assists over the course of the week and the entire team shared the ball exceedingly well, racking up 44 assists on 57 total field goals this week, but there remains some concern over Marshall’s ability to be the primary ballhandler all year long for the team. While his assists are up, and he’s shooting the ball well, he’s also turning over the ball on nearly 30% of all the possessions he uses and the team’s turnovers are up this year. But, at this point, that’s just picking nits. A look ahead: We’ll get a chance to learn a lot more about the Rebs this week as they go on the road for a pair. First up, Portland tonight, then California on Sunday afternoon.
- Colorado State (6-0): The Rams handled Evansville on Saturday night as part of the MW/MVC Challenge behind a quartet of players that scored 16 points or more. They dominated the glass, outscored the Aces 20-6 from the free throw line and shot a better than 54 eFG% for the game, and yet still only won by seven, largely because, for the first time since their season opener, they allowed their opponent to post a better than 50 eFG%. Defensively, it looks pretty clear that CSU is better than they were last year, but make no mistake about it: this is still a team that is more effective with the ball in its possession. But, the big strength of this team is on the glass. They’re fifth in the nation in the early going in rebound percentage on the offensive end and second on the defensive end with both Colton Iverson and Pierce Hornung (who has missed the last two games with concussion-like symptoms) among the national leaders. A look ahead: The Rams have a chance to do something tomorrow night that they’ve never done before: start a season 7-0. Standing in their way, however, is in-state rival Colorado, who is coming off of a disappointing loss to another MW team, Wyoming, last Saturday. Andre Roberson and Josh Scott, among others, will certainly help the Buffaloes challenge CSU’s rebounding authority, while the backcourt matchup should be just as entertaining. Saturday night, the Rams face Illinois-Chicago on the road, a game which could be a trap game (between the CU rivalry game and a week off for finals) if the Rams aren’t careful.
- Wyoming (8-0): In front of the largest home crowd since 2005, the Cowboys scored a major win on Saturday night, emerging from a border war with Colorado with an 8-0 record, the fourth-best start in the history of the program. Behind Leonard Washington’s 22 points, seven boards, four assists, three blocks and three drawn charges, the Cowboys outhustled, outmuscled and eventually outdueled the more highly regarded Buffaloes. Between Washington and sophomore forward Larry Nance Jr., the Cowboys feature one of the most athletic frontlines in the conference and are generally good for a handful of “wow”-worthy plays per game. While Larry Shyatt still has this team playing at a snail’s pace, between the frontcourt guys and Luke Martinez’s three-point shooting prowess, there is plenty of entertainment to go around on this squad. A look ahead: The Cowboys are on the road to Normal to face Illinois State as their last really big test in the non-conference slate. A win tonight and it is very possible that Wyoming heads into conference play with a 13-0 record. Imagine that.
- Boise State (6-1): We’ve talked a lot about the Broncos above, but mostly focused on Derrick Marks. Down here we’ll take about four different wings who have been absolutely shooting the lights out for Leon Rice: Anthony Drmic, Jeff Elorriaga, Mikey Thompson and Igor Hadziomerovic. Between the four of them, they’ve made 53 three pointers at a 43.1% clip. That’s good. And as a team, they’re shooting just a hair above 40% from deep, largely because of those four guys. That’s real good. And while freshman Mikey Thompson is almost certain not to keep up his 60% rate, the other three could very well maintain their current paces throughout the season. Coupled with Marks’ ability to penetrate and guys like Kenny Buckner and Ryan Watkins’ ability to get second chances for their shooters, this could be a very dangerous team. A look ahead: Boise State heads to Utah tomorrow for a crack at a Pac-12 team. Thus far this season, the MW is 4-2 against Pac-12 teams, but the conferences square off five different times this week.
- Air Force (6-2): After blowing out Jackson State by 29 points on Wednesday night, the Falcons ran into a much higher quality team on Sunday, hosting Wichita State at Clune Arena. And, in many areas of the game, the Falcons significantly outplayed the Shockers. They got to the line 11 more times than the visitors, they actually eked out a win in the rebounding battle (grabbing 82.2% of defensive rebound opportunities), they forced 19 turnovers while committing only nine, and they posted a 50 eFG%. But, despite all those accomplishments, they lost the game by three because they missed 11 of their 25 free throws from the line. And, it didn’t help matters that they didn’t have much of an answer up front for athletic WSU forward Carl Hall, who had 21 points and 10 boards on 9-of-10 shooting. A look ahead: Perhaps like Boise State’s close loss to Michigan State, this loss can serve as a stepping stone for the Academy, but unfortunately, the next big game on their schedule, December 29 at Florida, appears to be out of their reach. The Falcons will host Arkansas-Pine Bluff and travel to UC Riverside prior to that visit to the Gators.
- Fresno State (4-3): The Bulldogs split a pair of road games this week, dropping a heartbreaker to Southern Illinois on a late-game three-pointer by Desmar Jackson on Wednesday, but bouncing back nicely last night with a five-point win at Long Beach State to get revenge on the 49ers for delivering a home loss last week. And frankly, unlike last week where FSU fought LBSU more or less even on the boards, the Bulldogs were outrebounded by the Niners, but were the beneficiaries of a cold-shooting night from the home team. Still, for Rodney Terry’s club, it is a matter of getting wins while getting their team together. Last year’s leading scorer Kevin Olekaibe is just rounding back into shape after missing much of early practices with an elbow injury. This year’s monster recruit Robert Upshaw just played in his fourth game after missing time with a knee injury. And the team is still waiting to hear if transfer Braeden Anderson will be eligible at the semester break. So, peeling off a win here or there when the team doesn’t exactly bring its “A” game bodes well for the future as the team approaches full strength. A look ahead: The Bulldogs get what is essentially a scrimmage (that counts in the standings) on Thursday against San Diego Christian before heading up to Eastern Washington for a visit to Washington State on Sunday. The Cougars will be a nice test for FSU: ostensibly a major-conference team, but one that the Bulldogs can definitely play with.
- Nevada (4-3): There are no two ways around it: the Wolf Pack have been a major disappointment so far. Despite playing a very manageable schedule (they’ve yet to play anyone ranked better than 120th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings), they’re out to just a 4-3 start. And, were it not for the heroics of Deonte Burton, that record could easily be 1-6. They’re atrocious defensively, they’re getting zero production from their frontcourt and, once they get past this laughable early schedule and get into the meat of a brutal new league, this thing could turn ugly quick unless David Carter is able to find some sort of answer up front. And Luke Babbitt and Olek Czyz ain’t walking through that door. A look ahead: The Wolf Pack travel to Pacific tonight, then head up to Washington for a Saturday game. It isn’t hard to imagine Nevada checking in at 4-5 next week at this time.