CIO…the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 2nd, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
It’s been two weeks since we last caught up with the teams of the Mountain West, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on. All three of our favorites in the conference (San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico) have taken losses since we last did this, but at the same time, each of them has a quality win mixed in there as well. Meanwhile, the next tier of teams – Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State – have all been blemish-free over the past two weeks. It still appears there is a drop-off between the top three and the next three, but it remains to be seen just how far that drop is. We’ve got one more week of some pretty uninspiring non-conference games before conference play tips off and we start to get some answers to our outstanding questions.
We’ve also been keeping our eye on a situation off the court, as the conference realignment shuffle continues. On New Year’s Eve, it was reported that Boise State would wisely back out of its agreement to join the rapidly dwindling football Big East and remain in the Mountain West. With Boise sticking around, suddenly San Diego State, which had been steadfast in its intentions to stick with the move to the Big East, decided it too wanted to stick around, but the Mountain West, apparently fed up with SDSU’s foot-dragging prior to that, isn’t exactly jumping back into the relationship. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reports that the MW is poking around to see if there are other schools who would be a better fit with the conference. In the end, perhaps the only thing that would keep SDSU out of the conference would be if the MW is able to persuade BYU to rejoin. In an ideal world from a basketball perspective, both of those schools would rejoin, which would bring the conference up to 12 basketball teams next year, but that would also bring the football total to 13, probably one too many. If it is a choice between BYU and SDSU, though, the Cougars are the slam dunk choice.
All of this was made possible when CBS allowed the conference to restructure its television agreement, allowing the conference to sell games to other national networks. It should be noted that the MW did have to cave to a pretty significant request wherein Boise State’s home football games will not be a part of the conference’s television rights contracts, allowing the school to sell those games themselves. Further, Boise will still owe some sort of buyout to the Big East for their change of heart (provided such an entity still exists to pay that buyout) and the Mountain West has agreed to chip in some amount to help Boise make that payment (rest assured that such an arrangement will not be made with SDSU). While this works out for the time being in keeping the conference together and perhaps even persuading BYU to rejoin, this sort of concession to one school at the exclusion of others is the exact type of thing that drove Nebraska and Texas A&M out of the Big 12. It remains to be seen if this type of move is sustainable, but, if everything works out for the best, we could be heading back to a MW basketball slate that still features SDSU, UNLV, BYU and New Mexico as its flagship programs. It the realm of unintended consequences, is quite possible that the Big East’s Catholic Seven defection could go a long ways towards rescuing another great basketball conference.
Team of the Week
Colorado State – The Rams swept to an impressive win in the Las Vegas Classic tournament just in advance of Christmas, winning four games in a week and capping that run off with a 36-point blowout of Virginia Tech in the championship game. They backed that up with a workmanlike 25-point win against Adams State this past weekend. We still don’t know just how good this team is after they’ve been completely remade from a guard-dominated team to one that relies on crashing the boards, and they still haven’t been tested much, but CSU fans have good reason to suspect that this iteration of the Rams is even better than last year’s tournament team.
Player of the Week
Chase Tapley, Senior, San Diego State – Odds are the typical college basketball fan remembers one shot that Tapley took over the past couple weeks, a shot that was unceremoniously and spectacularly sent back by Arizona’s Nick Johnson. But what the discerning fan recognizes is that San Diego State wouldn’t have been in any position to even be in a single-possession game with Arizona were it not for Tapley’s play. After a big 33-point performance in the opening round game of the Diamond Head Classic, Tapley was everywhere in the championship game, not only chipping in 19 points, three boards, two assists and a couple blocks, but regularly harassing Mark Lyons into an ineffective game. While Jamaal Franklin regularly gets the headlines for the Aztecs, Tapley may well be just as important to his team’s overall ambitions.
Newcomer of the Week
Anthony Bennett, Freshman, UNLV – Since we last did this, UNLV has gotten Khem Birch eligible and, most recently, Mike Moser back from injury. But, no matter the logjam in the frontcourt, Bennett keeps on producing. In the last three games he has averaged 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, while seemingly accounting for at least one, if not multiple, “wow” moments per game.
“Anthony Bennett” YouTube of the Week
Just as one example to the above comment, we offer this week’s You Tube moment of the week and we’ve renamed this section of our roundup in his honor. We won’t always have Anthony Bennett highlights here, but you can bet his appearances will far outnumber anyone else in the conference.
Game of the Week
Arizona 68, San Diego State 67 – It goes down as a loss for the Mountain West team, but in the process, the Aztecs showed themselves to be very much the equal of the Wildcats, a team currently ranked in the top five in the nation. What’s more, they did it with Jamaal Franklin playing about as poorly as he’s been known to play. Aztec fans surely regard this outcome as a disappointment and a win that got away, but looking at the big picture, this game painted a picture of a team ready to compete on a national level.
Game of the Upcoming Week
UTEP at Colorado State, January 2, 8 PM MST, CBS Sports Network – It’s an exceedingly slow week as we wait for conference play to start, but the Rams get one last chance against a decent opponent when they face the Miners, who have won five of their last six games, with the lone loss a two-point decision at UNLV. In other words, CSU cannot afford to overlook this game.
- San Diego State (11-2): In three games in Honolulu, Jamaal Franklin averaged just 13 points and eight field goal attempts per game, numbers that pale in comparison to his usual output. Yet, the Aztecs coasted through the opening round game, scrapped one out against an improving Indiana State team and then took Arizona to the wire, in large part because senior Chase Tapley had his best set of games this season. In fact, since the end of SDSU’s finals, Tapley has averaged 19 points per game while shooting a better than 68 eFG%. Between he and Franklin, that’s a pretty good one-two punch and almost inarguably the best pair of perimeter players in a very good conference. With newcomers like Winston Shepard (11 assists against four turnovers since the end of finals – although he still can find the bottom of the net) and Skylar Spencer (blocking 10% of opponents’ two-point field goals this year) getting more comfortable in their surroundings, while the Aztecs are already very good, they’re still a ways from their ceiling. A look ahead: The Aztecs wrap up their non-conference slate by hosting Cal State Bakersfield on Wednesday, then kick off their Mountain West play with a perhaps their easiest road game on the schedule, a short jaunt up the state to face Fresno next Wednesday.
- UNLV (11-2): After a dominating first half led to a easy win over Northern Iowa and a hot shooting night dispatched Canisius, the Rebels rolled into Chapel Hill on Saturday and were feeling confident, especially considering they would be getting Mike Moser back from his dislocated elbow less than three weeks from the injury. But the Tar Heels took out some of their frustrations on Vegas early, running out to as much as a 15-point lead in the first half and exposing some of their opponents’ flaws. For instance, as we talked about before the start of the year, Anthony Marshall, for all that he is, just isn’t a point guard yet. Despite the eight assists compared to just one turnover in that game (admittedly, the numbers do little to bear out his deficiencies), all too often Marshall brought the ball up, handed the ball off to a teammate and got out of the way while that guy went one-on-one. Now, there are plenty of good one-on-one guys on that roster, but against a quality opponents, that won’t get it done. As for Moser, he was nowhere near back to normal, left a step slow by the time off, leading to five personal fouls in just 12 minutes of action and not a lot else. A look ahead: The Rebels will get a couple more chances to fold Moser back into the loop prior to conference action with Chicago State on Thursday and Cal State Bakersfield on Saturday, prior to opening conference play with a whopper of a road trip to New Mexico on January 9.
- New Mexico (13-2): In the past couple weeks, the Lobos have handed Cincinnati their first loss (on the Bearcats’ home floor, no less) and dropped drowsy games to South Dakota State and Saint Louis. Along the way, they’ve averaged 0.85 points per possession against a couple very good defenses and one very bad defense. Last night’s debacle against Saint Louis was the low point and a cause for concern. Where prior to the season, it was generally accepted that their perimeter guys were golden and their bigs a question mark, that perception has been somewhat flipped. Against SLU, for instance, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow combined to make six of 12 shots, score 17 points (out of a total of 46) and grab 14 boards. The rest of the team scored 29 points on eight of 32 from the field. Subtract the always active Kendall Williams from the mix and Hugh Greenwood, Tony Snell, Demetrius Walker et al. went for 14 points on three of 18 shooting. Snell, in particular, has been silent, hitting just eight of 28 shots (averaging less than ten points per game) since we last spoke. Greenwood doesn’t necessarily need to be a scorer to be effective, but at some point Steve Alford is going to need to get some scoring out of Snell and, to a lesser degree, Walker. A look ahead: There are no more warm-ups for the Lobos. Their next game is a conference game, and very much for real. If they can’t defend their homecourt against UNLV come January 9, they’ll start out conference play behind the eight ball a bit. That said, don’t count out an Alford-coached team with more than a week to prepare for an opponent in a game at The Pit
- Wyoming (12-0): Believe it or not, the Cowboys haven’t played since December 21. That game was a 16-point win over UC Santa Barbara that pushed their record out to 12-0 and tied the 1950-51 team for the most consecutive wins to start the regular season. Leonard Washington went for 17 and 11 in notching his fifth double-double of the season. Otherwise, nothing much has changed on the Mountain West’s northeastern front. A look ahead: Wyoming hopes to wrap up a perfect non-conference slate when they go to SMU on Wednesday. Their conference opener comes a week later when they host Boise State.
- Colorado State (11-2): Above we mentioned how first-year head coach Larry Eustachy has completely remade this CSU team. Returnees like Wes Eikmeier, Dorian Green, Pierce Hornung and Greg Smith have been melded seamlessly with a couple of transfers (Colton Iverson and Daniel Bejarano) signed under previous head coach Tim Miles, while the team’s depth (primarily Jonathan Octeus and Gerson Santo) was mined from the junior college ranks in the spring after the coaching transition was made. Eikmeier and Green are still shooting a high percentage of their shots from behind the arc, but with the addition of Iverson finally giving CSU some height (last year’s team was among the smallest in the nation) and allowing Smith and Hornung to play at more comfortable positions, their interior play has gone from a weakness to a strength. Last year, the Rams were a decent defensive rebounding team if only because Miles sent everybody to the glass in lieu of any type of transition offense, while on the offensive end, outside of Hornung, nobody ever went to the offensive glass other than by sheer accident. This season, the Rams dominate on the glass; they’re third in the nation in rebounding percentage on both ends of the court with Hornung and Iverson both regularly grabbing double digit rebounds. As a result of keeping their opponents off the offensive glass and their ability to have their bigs guard guys roughly their own size, their defensive efficiency is improved, while their offensive efficiency is in the top 15 nationally. Those numbers will all take a hit as their level of competition improves, but while last year the Rams were a paper tiger that snuck into the tourney on the basis of a pair of late-season home conference wins over New Mexico and UNLV and little else, there is a possibility that this year’s team could actually compete for a conference title. A look ahead: The non-conference slate wraps up with a pair of decent opponents that should only help their already strong RPI (currently #24) in UTEP (Wednesday) and St. Bonaventure (Saturday). Then, they’ll be the last Mountain West team to tip off their season when they travel to San Diego State on January 12.
- Boise State (10-2): The lone recent contest for the Broncos was no contest at all. They hosted something called Corban University and just dominated that team in every way imaginable. BSU shot an effective field goal percentage near 65%, then grabbed nearly 60% of the handful of shots they did miss. They turned the ball over just eight times, limited their opponents’ shooting and grabbed almost all of their misses. The result was a 56-point win that was little more than target practice. But, Jeff Elorriaga highlighted the target practice, nailing 10 threes along the way to a career-high 30 points. I’ve already spent too much time detailing this mismatch. A look ahead: Boise wraps up non-conference action with a sneaky-tough trip to Texas Arlington tomorrow, then a visit from Walla Walla on Saturday. Their conference opener is at Wyoming in perhaps the most interesting of the opening night’s slate of games.
- Air Force (8-3): The sole recent Falcon game was a 17-point loss against the Gators in Florida. And, while Air Force never stood a chance in that game (despite playing UF tight for a half), you had to come away pretty impressed with them. For a team that, athletically, doesn’t even belong on the same floor as Patric Young, Kenny Boynton and company, Air Force basically played the Gators pretty even. They were more or less unfazed by the Florida pressure, they stuck got to the line pretty effectively and they did as good of a job as they could have been expected to do on the glass. The one area where the Falcons got beat up was shooting the ball inside the three-point arc; while Florida made 63.6% of their two-point attempts, Air Force just made 37%, a testament to UF’s size and athleticism. This bodes well for AFA’s ability to play with teams like Boise, Wyoming and Colorado State in conference, while the top end of the conference (UNM, SDSU and UNLV) will likely still overpower them athletically. A look ahead: The Falcons last game before the conference schedule is a trip to Richmond tomorrow, although they still have a non-conference visit from New Orleans scheduled on January 23. They’ll open Mountain West play on January 9 by hosting Nevada.
- Nevada (9-5): Prior to Monday night’s debacle against Oregon, I was all ready to slap a Mountain West Player of the Week title on Malik Story, mostly for his performance against Yale, when he covered for his foul-ridden backcourt-mate Deonte Burton by going for 35 points in 35 minutes, while adding four steals, rebounds and assists. Then I watched the 6’5”, well-built senior float around the perimeter to the tune of four-of-16 shooting, while chucking up ten three-pointers and passing the ball (I think I have this number right) exactly twice over the course of 37 minutes. There isn’t enough talent elsewhere on this Wolf Pack team for Story to be so one-dimensional, and there’s no excuse for a fifth-year senior to be quite so clueless. This squad was picked fifth in the conference prior to the season and several people, including myself, had them as potential sleepers for an NCAA Tournament bid. At this stage, I cannot predict a ceiling any higher than seventh in the conference for this squad, and frankly, I’d take Air Force’s senior leadership as a significant advantage over the Wolf Pack’s underachieving ways. Unless David Carter can coax more out of Story than hanging around the perimeter and launching threes, they’ll be neck-and-neck with Fresno State in an attempt to stay out of the cellar. A look ahead: I’m actually really interested in watching the Air Force/Nevada MW opener on January 9 to see if, as I suspect, there is a bit of a break between the Falcons and the Wolf Pack in the conference. I think there’s a tier of three at the top, a tier of three below, then a mini-tier of Air Force by their lonesome, then the two new WAC refugees battling it out for eighth place.
- Fresno State (6-7): I wrote quite a bit about Fresno after their loss to UCLA just before Christmas as head coach Rodney Terry was tinkering with his rotation. Since that game, the Bulldogs have only played once – a blowout win against Sonoma State – but that game showed that the changes that arrived against the Bruins were not a blip on the radar. In Allen Huddleston’s second game out of the starting lineup, he earned just four minutes, put up four shots, missed them all, turned the ball over once and picked up a couple of fouls. In other words, he has not responded well to the change in his role. Also in that game, Robert Upshaw got shifted back to the bench, but responded well against an overmatched opponent, scoring nine points, grabbing eight boards and blocking five shots. And, freshman Marvelle Harris posted his second straight career-high, besting the 19 points he put up against UCLA by scoring 20 against Sonoma on just nine field goal attempts; it appears he’s making a big push for the sixth-man position. A look ahead: The Bulldogs are done with non-conference play and kick off their stay in the Mountain West on January 9 by hosting San Diego State.