The Other 26: Cowboy-ing UpPosted by IRenko on January 5th, 2013
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.
College basketball has just four undefeated teams left. You can likely recite the identity of the first three: Duke, Michigan, and Arizona, who occupy the top three spots in the AP rankings. But you may be surprised to learn that the fourth team is the Wyoming Cowboys. Larry Shyatt’s squad sits at 13-0 after a successful non-conference season that featured solid wins over Colorado, Illinois State, and Denver.
Last year, the Cowboys finished sixth in the MW. Then in the offseason, they graduated three of their five starters. So how have they managed to reel off 13 straight victories to start the year? Wyoming is very strong defensively, but they were just as good, if not better, last year. The biggest difference is a major improvement on offense, as their adjusted efficiency has gone from 0.99 points to 1.08 points per possession. That may not sound like a big difference, but when you realize that a single game is composed of dozens of possessions, it adds up to a substantially better offensive performance. This increased efficiency has been driven by the Cowboys’ ability to get to the free throw line and to convert on two-point opportunities. Senior forward Leonard Washington deserves the credit for leading the team in both respects. The 6’7″ tweener is shooting 63.7 percent on two-point field goals and draws 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes — one of the higher rates in the country.
The second significant factor in the Cowboys’ improvement is the offseason development of senior Derrious Gilmore and sophomore Larry Nance, Jr. (yes, the former NBA player’s son). Gilmore has rewarded Larry Shyatt’s decision to hand him the starting point guard spot by improving his per game averages from 3.1 points and 1.1 assists per contest to 11.8 points and 3.2 assists per game. He averages more than 32 minutes per game, second most to Washington. Nance, meanwhile, has gone from averaging 4.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per contest to 11.2 and 6.8, respectively. He shoots over 60 percent on two-point attempts and 84.2 percent from the free throw line. Add in the contributions of returning starter and senior guard Luke Martinez (14.5 points, 42.2% 3FG) , and the Cowboys have a feature a surprising amount firepower.
Despite their undefeated mark, it remains an open question as to how good the Cowboys really are. Last year, they got off to 14-2 start during non-conference play but crumpled to a 6-8 record in the Mountain West. This year’s record is even more impressive to be sure and, as noted above, features some solid if unspectacular wins. But the strength of schedule is about to kick into a higher gear, as they enter conference play against a very deep and talented Mountain West. If they can maintain their offensive improvement through the rest of the year and continue to get contributions from a range of players, they may be Dancing for the first time since 2002 and just the second time in 25 years.
Let’s move on to this week’s Top 10, the performances that caught our eye this past week, and the games to watch in the week ahead.
Top 10 Rankings
Looking Back: Performers of the Week
- Indiana State — As conference play began in the MVC, Indiana State looked like it might be on the outside looking in this year. Despite ending the conference season with overtime wins over Ole Miss and Miami (FL) (sandwiching a respectable seven-point loss to San Diego State), most of the attention in the Valley was focused on Creighton, Wichita State, Illinois State, and Northern Iowa. So much for that. The Sycamores spent the first week of the MVC season injecting themselves squarely into the title hunt with a two-point win over Illinois State at home and a four-point win over Northern Iowa on the road. While those two teams now sit at 0-2, the Sycamores are in a four-way tie atop the standings. They’ll have their toughest game of the year today when they visit Creighton.
- Marshall Bjorkland and North Dakota State — With a starting lineup devoid of seniors and a rotation that includes just one, the Bison took the week to assert themselves as at least co-favorites in the Summit League after beating South Dakota State by a score of 65-62 at home. They followed it up with a 26-point beat-down of South Dakota on the road. Leading the way has been Bjorkland, the 6’8″ junior whose last three games offers this remarkable combined stat line: 63 points on 27-of-29 shooting. Bjorklund, in fact, is the only player in the country to rank in the top 10 in effective FG percentage and true shooting percentage both last year and this year.
- Loyola (Chicago) – After a 7-23 record last year, Loyola (Chicago) was an afterthought coming into the season. But this year, they hit the seven-win mark just 10 games into the year, and this past week, they capped off their non-conference season with a win at intra-city rival DePaul and began conference play with a road victory over Horizon League favorites Valparaiso. You can chalk up at least some of the team’s renaissance to Iowa transfer Cully Payne, who led the way with 37 points and 11 assists over the two games. The Ramblers are a young team, and with Butler now gone from the Horizon League, this group may have a couple shots to earn an NCAA Tournament bid over the next couple years.
Looking Ahead: What We’re Watching
- Lehigh at VCU (1/5) and Bucknell at Missouri (1/5) — The non-conference season is coming to a close, but not before the Patriot League gets a chance to become a two-bid conference. Its top two teams will hit the road in search of signature wins that could give boost to their at-large hopes. Bucknell is the likelier of the two to get a nod from the Selection Committee, but today’s game will be a stern challenge for the Bison and star big man Mike Muscala. They’ll need to keep Missouri off the glass and look to get to the free throw line, albeit against a team that doesn’t foul much. C.J. McCollum and Lehigh, meanwhile, will have their hands full with VCU. The Hawks have done a good job of taking care of the ball this year, but they’ll need to maintain that strength in the face of fierce pressure.
- UNLV at New Mexico (1/9) and Boise State at Wyoming (1/9) — The Mountain West kicks off conference play with a bang. UNLV’s trip to The Pit is the heavyweight match-up that will draw the most attention, but the simultaneous undercard that will unfold in Laramie will be compelling in its own right. Surprisingly strong starts by the Broncos and Cowboys — incidentally, were there ever two teams whose nicknames were more perfectly suited to each other? — have made the Mountain West as strong top-to-bottom this year as it’s ever been.
- Butler at St. Joseph’s (1/9) – After a strong non-conference season punctuated by a win over top-ranked Indiana, Butler is primed and ready for its first run through the Atlantic 10. They’ll get thrown right into the fire with a trip to St. Joe’s. The Hawks have been up and down, but had a big early win over Notre Dame and are coming off solid victories over Iona and Drexel. Butler will be well-served by trying to exploit the Hawks’ vulnerability from the three-point line (think Rotnei Clarke) rather than attacking at the rim, where C.J. Aiken and company can make things difficult.
- St. Mary’s at Gonzaga (1/10) — This has become an annual mid-major delight. The WCC still features an old-school round robin schedule, which means that we’re sure to see these two mid-major powers lock horns twice a year in compact, loud arenas that for two hours will capture what the essence of college hoops is about. The two teams split last year’s series before the Gaels won the rubber match-up in the WCC Tournament final. Both teams are impressively efficient on offense, but the Gaels’ defense lags significantly. While senior point guard Matthew Dellavedova is the team’s unquestioned leader, the onus will be on Brad Waldow, Mitchell Young, and their frontcourt mates to contain Gonzaga’s potent frontcourt attack, led by the Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris.