The Other 26: The Mountain West Enters the SpotlightPosted by IRenko on December 29th, 2012
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
The action was light during this past holiday week, but the Mountain West’s finest took advantage of the lull to thrust themselves into the spotlight with two exciting contests, a pair of one-point games against top 10 teams decided by last-second blocks. In the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, San Diego State fell just short against third-ranked Arizona, losing 68-67 when Xavier Thames’ potential winning shot was blocked by Arizona’s Nick Johnson as time expired. Two days later, New Mexico visited eighth-ranked Cincinnati and emerged with a hard-fought 55-54 victory that was sealed by a last-second block from sophomore Alex Kirk. What was most impressive about these hard-fought contests is how both teams showed that even if you take away some of their key weapons, they are deep and versatile enough to compete.
The Lobos distinguished themselves not just with a victory, but the way they earned it. They are accustomed to racking up points at the free throw line, but reached the charity stripe at only a 20 percent rate, far below their season average and good enough for just six points. But they gritted out the win by patiently moving the ball against Cincy’s high-pressure halfcourt defense to find open shooters and cutters. Junior point guard Kendall Williams turned in a performance befitting of a team leader, stepping up to hit several big three-pointers and finishing the game with a team-high 16 points. But it was Kirk who set the tone with his lunch bucket performance, fearlessly hurling himself into battle against Cincinnati’s imposing frontline and surviving with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, and three blocks, including a game-clinching rejection of a Sean Kilpatrick three-point shot.
The Aztecs, too, can be proud of the fight they showed in Honolulu despite coming up short. Leading scorer Jamaal Franklin was held to just nine points, his lowest output of the season. But Franklin found other ways to contribute, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out six assists. And San Diego State found other players to carry the scoring load. Chase Tapley, who had already poured in 46 points in the first two games of the tournament, dropped 19 against Arizona to push his season scoring average to 15.8 PPG. And the Aztecs showed how strong their defense is, holding the Wildcats to 37.3 percent shooting.
This Saturday, UNLV will have a chance to intensify this week’s spotlight on the Mountain West when they travel to North Carolina. In a year when the conference seems as deep as any in the country, the only lingering doubt heading into this past week was whether they had the heavyweights to compete with the nation’s best teams. But as the final week of non-conference play comes to a close, the conference’s top teams are leaving little doubt that they can.
Top Ten Rankings
Looking Forward: Conference Tipoffs
Across the land, many TO26 teams will be kicking off conference play this week, and there are a host of match-ups between top contenders to look forward to.
- South Dakota State at North Dakota State (12/29) — South Dakota State is fresh off a big 70-65 win over New Mexico at the Pit. Most encouraging for the Jackrabbits was Nate Wolters’ performance. After scoring 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting in a 27-point loss to Belmont the previous week, Wolters finally seemed to shake off the ankle injury that had been slowing him, racking up 28 points on 9-of-15 shooting to lead the Jackrabbits over New Mexico. But SDSU will have its hands full against a young and emerging North Dakota State squad. The Jackrabbits came into the year as the Summit League’s clear favorite, but NDSU has arguably been the conference’s most consistent team. Behind a stout defense and a strong three-point attack, the Bison have earned top 60 Pomeroy and Sagarin ratings — well above any other Summit League team. The Bison are led by junior forward Taylor Braun, who averages 15.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Complementing Braun are a host of young, capable players (no senior averages more than nine minutes per game), including sophomore guard Lawrence Alexander and junior big man Marshall Bjorkland.
- Denver at Louisiana Tech (12/29) — Although Denver has had a rocky non-conference season that has produced only a 4-6 mark, that’s in part because of the stiff competition they’ve faced, and they remain slight conference favorites in their debut season in the WAC. But they’ll have their hands full against Louisiana Tech. Second-year coach Michael White has put together the best team the Bulldogs have had in about seven years. The game should be a fascinating clash of styles between Denver’s deliberate Princeton offense and Tech’s uptempo game. The players to watch for Denver are 6’5″ guard and three-point marksman Royce O’Neale and versatile 6’7″ forward Chris Udofia. Tech is led by 6’3″ guard Raheem Appleby, last year’s WAC freshman of the year, now averaging 17.8 points per game.
- Northern Iowa at Wichita State (12/30) and Creighton at Illinois State (1/2) — The MVC kicks off the season by pitting its four best teams against each other. It’s the latter of these two games that is perhaps the most compelling. Both Creighton and Illinois State are in the top 10 nationally in effective field goal percentage, though the Bluejays are more reliant and effective from three-point land. You know about Doug McDermott, but get to know Illinois State’s senior forward Jackie Carmichael, whose 18.3 PPG and 8.0 RPG have led the Redbirds to a 9-3 start under first-year coach Doug Muller. The other game pits Northern Iowa, coming off its best win of the year, an 82-75 victory over St. Mary’s last weekend. Against Wichita State, they will try to do their damage from the two lines — the free throw line and three-point line. They’ll also have to contain the Shockers’ inside game, a task that will be much easier in the absence of Carl Hall, who is out until mid-January with a broken right thumb.
- North Texas at Middle Tennessee State (12/31) — North Texas has been somewhat disappointing this year, stumbling to a 5-7 start that includes losses against Louisiana Lafayette and UT-Arlington. A bit more was expected from a team that has the rare mid-major star power of a player like Tony Mitchell, who’s averaging 14.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. But they have a chance to turn the page in conference play against Middle Tennessee State, which is proving once again to be the class of the Sun Belt. Following the graduation of Laron Dendy, MTSU’s calling card this year has been balance. Only Marcos Knight averages double digits in scoring (a modest 11.9 PPG), and the team thrives off of its defense, which generates turnovers and chokes off the three-point line. They are susceptible, though, to fouling too much and are a so-so rebounding team. Those weaknesses could throw a lifeline to North Texas, whose offense has needed second chance points and trips to the free throw line to overcome its poor shooting percentage.
- Florida Gulf Coast at Mercer (1/2) — These A-Sun contenders have been somewhat inconsistent in non-conference play, but both have some wins to brag about: Florida Gulf Coast knocked off Miami early in the season, while Mercer recently defeated Florida State and Alabama. Both teams also like to generate turnovers, and both teams will have vulnerable targets in this game. FGCU point guard Brett Comer averages an impressive 6.1 assists per game, but also coughs up 3.9 miscues per game. Mercer’s turnover struggles are just one of the many problems plaguing their offense. Their highest-scoring player, Travis Smith, averages just 10.5 points per game, and no one else registers in double figures. The Bears have relied instead on a stout defense; they have held six of their last eight opponents — including Florida State and Alabama — to less than a point per possession. The victory here may go to whoever can better minimize their offensive sloppiness.
Looking Forward: Ringing in the New Year
New Year’s Eve has become a great day for college basketball fans, offering a bevy of intriguing inter-conference mid-major match-ups. Here are a few to watch before you count down to 2013.
- New Mexico at St. Louis — The Lobos toughness that they showed against Cincinnati when they head to St. Louis for a rematch of last year’s New Year’s Eve battle, which the Lobos won by four at home. What was most impressive about New Mexico’s win over Cincinnati is that they found a way to win without getting to the free throw line, their biggest offensive strength. They may need to do the same against the Bilikens’ disciplined defense. On the other end of the court, the Lobos will have to tighten their anemic three-point defense. Their big men, in particular, will need to be prepared to step out and contest jumpers from Bilikens’ big men Cody Ellis and Rob Loe.
- Harvard at St. Mary’s — Harvard’s season was upended when seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey withdrew for a year to avoid losing their remaining eligibility due to an academic cheating scandal. But freshman point guard Siyani Chambers has taken full advantage of the opportunity created by Curry’s absence, averaging almost 37.5 minutes per game — good for sixth in the country. Chambers sets the tone on offense, leading both a potent three-point attack and helping the Crimson get to the free throw line at a prodigious rate. St. Mary’s defense is vulnerable to both of those points of attack, but it’s not their defense that’s carried them to victory. It’s their highly efficient offense which is ranked in the top 10 in the country in both three-point and two-point FG shooting percentage. And however impressive Chambers has been as a freshman, he’ll have his hands full with the Gaels’ veteran point guard, Matthew Dellavedova.
- Saint Joseph’s at Drexel — Both of these intra-city rivals have had uneven starts, with Drexel stumbling to a 3-7 start before beating Davidson last week and St. Joe’s at 6-4 after recent losses to Villanova and Fairfield. So each team will have a lot to prove. Expect a slow, half-court oriented affair. St. Joe’s will make things difficult for Drexel inside, though the Dragons may be able to generate second-chance points against the Hawks’ mediocre rebounding defense. St. Joe’s takes lots of threes — perhaps too many — which plays into one of Drexel’s few defensive strengths this year, as they’ve held opponents to under 33 percent three-point FG shooting.