CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on December 11th, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
A week ago at this time, we were singing the praises of this conference, penciling four teams into the NCAA Tournament bracket and dreaming of a scenario where six teams get in. A week later, while the Mountain West is still just one of three conferences in the nation without a team with a losing record among its ranks (the Big 12 and the Big East are the other two), a couple of middle-of-the-pack teams suffered some losses that will leave pundits questioning their long-term strength. First it was Boise State, hot off a win over Creighton, slipping up on the road against Utah. On the same night, Colorado State got drilled by in-state rival Colorado, then followed that up with a stinker of a loss on the road against Illinois-Chicago. Neither team can feel particularly good about the past week, but perhaps the Rams took the worst of it. Now they’ll need to come up big in the Las Vegas Classic just prior to Christmas, hopefully getting a chance to knock off Virginia Tech in the championship of that event. Otherwise, they’ll leave non-conference play without a halfway decent win to point to.
Team of the Week
UNLV – The Runnin’ Rebels ran into some bumps along the road this week, but came out of it with a pair of road wins, including their best win of the year in Sunday afternoon’s battle with California. The bumps came in the form of injuries to junior forward Mike Moser, who missed his Tuesday night homecoming against Portland with a hip injury, then suffered a gruesome elbow dislocation against the Golden Bears and will be expected to miss a month. Still, the Rebs shook off that bit of bad news, got contributions from up and down the roster and look ready to rip off a run down the back stretch of non-conference play. Plenty more about UNLV down the page.
Player of the Week
Deonte Burton, Junior, Nevada – There haven’t been many positives in Reno this year, but Burton has been pretty amazing offensively. On Tuesday night against Pacific and despite his 25 points and four assists, he was unable to again will his Wolf Pack to victory in a close game. But on Saturday at Washington, Burton sent Abdul Gaddy to the bench early with foul trouble, snatched a career-high six steals, scored his team’s last nine points, and helped Nevada outlast the Huskies. For the week, Burton averaged 27 points, three assists, and four steals per game.
Newcomer of the Week
Anthony Bennett, Freshman, UNLV – He could have very easily taken our player of the week award, but because we know Bennett is going to have many chances at these this year, we’ve chosen to spread the love around a little bit to an equally deserving player. Bennett has been phenomenal all season long, even if Sunday was his national unveiling. He has scored in double figures in each of his seven collegiate games and has never failed to make better than 50% of his shots from the field (or the free throw line, for that matter). This week it was averages of 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and a couple steals per game that earned him this recognition.
YouTube Clip of the Week
We’re not quite done with Bennett yet. Check out this monster dunk at the end of the Cal game. Scary thing is, this probably wasn’t even his most wow-worthy moment of the game. I’d take his steal that led to him leading the breakaway with some deft dribbling, finding his teammate running the lane and then getting back the pass in time to throw down a monster jam over this one. But, this is the one I found.
Game of the Week
UNLV 76, California 75 – Aside from Moser’s injury, this game had to be a joy to watch for Rebels fans. Bennett put all of his copious gifts on display, Bryce Dejean-Jones showed the good side of his boundless energy and enthusiasm, Anthony Marshall ran the offense well and Quintrell Thomas, aside from headily finding Marshalls’ airball and putting it back in for the game-winner, was an effective force on the glass and on the defensive end. There are still reasons for concern, which we’ll detail even further down the page, but coming out of Haas Pavilion with a win is certainly a good sign.
Games of the Upcoming Week
New Mexico State at New Mexico, December 15, 4 PM MST, CBS Sports Network – Things slow down everywhere across the country this week, and the Mountain West is no exception, as there are just ten games between today and next Monday. But, this first edition of the battle for the Land of Enchantment (the teams will play again on December 19) should be interesting. After the Lobos reeled off seven straight victories in the series, the two schools split the series last year, with each team winning on the opposing teams’ home floor. This matchup will be a battle of teams who love to get to the line – the Lobos are fourth in the nation in free throw rate, while the Aggies are fifth – although both teams do a solid job of keeping their opponents off the line. But if NMSU is going to have a chance, they’ll have to take advantage of the relatively thin UNM frontcourt and pound the Lobos on the glass.
- New Mexico (10-0): A couple solid victories for the Lobos this week in which they looked flat early but turned it on late. Against USC, they generously spotted the their visitors a ten-point first half lead, then poured on a half-closing 25-6 run to take control of the game. Then, against Valparaiso over the weekend, they used balanced scoring, 31 trips to the free throw line and 22 forced turnovers to eventually subdue their opponent. So, ten straight wins, but you get the feeling that the Lobos haven’t really run into a great test yet. And honestly, I considered dropping these guys to second or even third in the conference this week. In the end, I decided it is splitting hairs between the three teams at the top of the MW and the undefeated record is enough, for now at least, to give UNM the benefit of the doubt. A look ahead: The Lobos next two games will be a home-and-home series with New Mexico State, with a visit from South Dakota State following before things get real serious directly after Christmas.
- UNLV (7-1): So the Rebels will be without Moser for a month. And that sucks. But, ideally that means he’s back when the team travels to Albuquerque to open the conference season against New Mexico. And, in between now and then, even with a visit from Northern Iowa and a trip to North Carolina on the schedule, the Rebels can handle life, and even thrive, sans Moser. The interesting part is going to come when they try to fold him back in. As it is, this team has largely become most reliant on Bennett up front. And with Moser sliding to the three (not really his strength currently), he could find himself somewhat lost when he returns. And, with Khem Birch just about ready to go up front as well (he’ll play his first game for Vegas next Monday at UTEP), Moser could be looking at stepping back into a repurposed frontcourt when he comes back. One other interesting topic in Vegas is the potential that Dave Rice is going to burn freshman point guard Daquan Cook’s redshirt. He still hasn’t played in a game, but the talk is that he’ll give the Rebs their lone true point. This move would not be so much in reaction to Anthony Marshall’s play as lead guard, but more as a means of shoring up the bench and allowing Katin Reinhardt to spend all of his time playing off of the ball. Stay tuned. A look ahead: The Rebels host Division III La Verne on Thursday before much more interesting games next week when they head to UTEP on December 17 and then get a visit from Northern Iowa two days later.
- San Diego State (7-1): It’s that time of the year when the Aztec schedule hits a major lull. They hosted UC Santa Barbara on Thursday and sleepwalked through a 14-point win in which five different players scored in double figures. Really, nothing to see here this week. We’ll check back in with SDSU when they travel to Hawai’i for the Diamond Head Classic around Christmas. A look ahead: After a week off for exams, the Aztecs host San Diego on Saturday, then host Point Loma Nazarene a week from today.
- Wyoming (10-0): The Cowboys added a couple more wins to their ledger this week, extending their streak to ten straight wins, their best record to start the season since they won 11 straight in 1987-88. The big win came Tuesday night when they went on the road to Illinois State and got out of there with a 14-point victory, but they had to do it the hard way. The Cowboys spotted the Redbirds a 14-point half time lead, went on to trail by as many as 19, and then went on to finish the game on a 50-17 run. All told, Wyoming scored 52 points on their final 32 possessions (1.63 PPP) and had only six empty possessions over that stretch. Oh, and meanwhile they held a pretty good offensive team to 0.53 points per possession over that span as well. A look ahead: After time off for finals, if Wyoming can take care of home games against Denver and UC Santa Barbara (December 18 and 21, respectively), they’ll have a chance on January 2 (after another long stretch of time away from hoop) to set a school record with a 13-0 start to the season if they can take care of SMU in Dallas.
- Colorado State (6-2): The Rams didn’t do a whole lot well in the past week. Against Colorado, they were down 15-2 seemingly before they even got their warm-ups off, then only got within nine as a final margin when the Buffaloes missed a ton of free throws down the stretch. Against UIC, they were right there on the road at the under-eight timeout, but then got outscored 19-9 over the final 5:45 to drop their second straight. And, really, for a team that shot a 53 eFG% last season, their downfall has been their inability to make shots. They posted a 38.8 eFG% in their two losses and are now 218th in the country by that metric. Sometimes basketball really is that simple. They did a good job of controlling the boards, got to the line well enough, turned it over some but not a ton, and lost a pair of games basically because they didn’t hit enough shots. A look ahead: The rest of the non-conference schedule is a vast wasteland. After a week off, they’ll host North Florida and CS Bakersfield on December 17 and 19 as part of the Las Vegas Classic. Then they’ll get Portland in the semifinal round of that tournament with the hopes of getting Virginia Tech in the championship game. Regardless, CSU would probably do well to get into conference play at 13-2 and then make some noise against the top three teams if they want to sleep well on Selection Sunday Eve.
- Boise State (6-2): Was it overconfidence? Coming off a win over Creighton and a 23-point blowout of Seattle, did the Broncos expect to go into Salt Lake City and walk all over a Utah team that was terrible last year? Or was the ghost of Rick Majerus really watching out for the Utes last Wednesday night? Because, really, when was the last time the Utes shot a 78.8 eFG% in a game? I’m willing to bet that there were times last year when the Utes didn’t shoot that well practicing against folding chairs. Couple that with one of Boise’s worst offensive games of the year and all of a sudden a team that was the talk of the town is now just another middle-of-the-road Mountain West team. Good and all, but those thoughts about potential NCAA Tournament invites will have to wait until the Broncos score some solid conference wins. A look ahead: The Broncos host LSU on Friday in their last halfway reasonable non-conference game.
- Air Force (7-2): The Falcons lone game this past week was a 16-point win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff spurred on by an 18-0 second half run. Michael Lyons was strong again (26 points, three threes, five boards, three steals, a couple assists), but really, we’ll check back in with the Falcons after Christmas when they go to Gainesville to face Florida. If they can stick around at all in that game, we’ll be impressed. A look ahead: In the meantime, AFA will take a couple weeks off before heading to UC Riverside on December 22.
- Fresno State (5-4): The Bulldogs split the week with a win over San Diego Christian followed by a fade down the stretch against Washington State on Sunday en route to a nine-point loss. But, that WSU game was notable for one thing: the first time in the starting lineup for freshman center Robert Upshaw. In his sixth game as a Bulldog, he got his most run (28 minutes) and did not disappoint. He scored ten points on ten field goal attempts (although his inability to get to the free throw line – just four attempts in 107 minutes now – is of concern), grabbed seven boards and swatted six shots. In other words, while he is definitely a work in progress, he is showing signs of that progress already. Elsewhere on this roster, however, things remain very unsettled, as Allen Huddleston has been up and down at the point and Kevin Olekaibe still doesn’t look like himself out there. A look ahead: Things are about to get rough for the Bulldogs, as they’ll host Colorado tomorrow night and UC Irvine on Saturday before heading to UCLA next Saturday. They’ll be favored in that middle game against UCI, but 0-3 is a possibility in that stretch. However, if things go well, perhaps an upset and a 2-1 run could be a springboard to bigger things.
- Nevada (5-4): Nothing much has changed for the Wolf Pack. Deonte Burton and Malik Story are very good, especially offensively, but this team can’t do anything right defensively. Their guards don’t stop penetration and usually don’t generate turnovers. Their frontcourt can’t rebound on either end of the court, and there are too many guys here who think fouling the opposition is some sort of achievement or display of physical defense. Burton and Story will continue to entertain, but there are too many gaps, especially in the frontcourt, with no obvious plan for plugging them. A look ahead: The Wolf Pack host Cal Poly and San Francisco at the Lawlor Events Center this week. Emblematic of just how bad this team has been is the fact that both of those games are toss-ups.