CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 9th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
It was a pretty quiet week on the hardwood around the conference, with just nine total games played by conference teams, eight of which resulted in wins, with six of those wins decided by an average of 27.3 points. Air Force absorbed the lone loss by getting drilled at Richmond, while Wyoming completed its perfect pre-conference slate by squeaking past SMU in Dallas. Elsewhere, Colorado State notched a couple of solid home wins by taking care of UTEP and St. Bonaventure.
The most intrigue in the conference over the past week came again in the court of conference realignment as the possibility of San Diego State remaining in the conference after this season is still up in the air. Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune has the most comprehensive rundown of the decision facing SDSU and the Mountain West, and after reading that, I’d put the odds somewhere south of 50% that the Aztecs will be playing in the MW come 2013-14. But, the odds are still higher than they were before Boise State opted to remain in the conference. Regardless of which way the Aztecs decide, it is probably a pretty good bet that if the Mountain West exists in some form a decade from now, it will look much, much different than it does now. Regardless of whether the conference’s giving in to Boise’s demands for special treatment turns out to be a good decision or bad, the odds are strong that it will cause some problems down the road. The Mountain West was formed when the 16-team WAC proved unsavory to some of the conference’s elite teams; it’s possible that somewhere in the future, further upheaval spawns a new home for many of the current MW teams.
Putting all of that aside for now, good times await for the Mountain West. Conference play tips off tonight and with six teams eyeing potential NCAA Tournament consideration, we’re in for yet another great season. Further down, we’ll take a look at what each team has accomplished in the non-conference slate, and what they need to improve upon from here on out.
Team of the Week
Wyoming – The Cowboys only played one game this week, and that one game was against an SMU team that has a 22-point loss to Rhode Island and a 13-point neutral-site loss to Arkansas-Little Rock on its resume. But in going to Dallas and emerging with a hard-fought three-point win, the Cowboys put the finishing touches on a perfect 13-0 non-conference slate, good for the best start in the history of the program. Just how good the Cowboys are in relation to the rest of the conference, let alone the rest of the nation, remains to be seen. A home win over Colorado and a road win at Illinois State are nice pieces, but more significant tests await.
Player of the Week
Jeff Elorriaga, Junior, Boise State – Let’s get this part out of the way right out of the gate: The recent Broncos schedule hasn’t exactly been the college basketball equivalent of the 1927 Yankees. In the past three games, Boise has hosted Corban and Walla Walla (I assume those are both college basketball teams) and traveled to Texas-Arlington. Yawnsville. I’m sort of disappointed in myself for even looking at the box scores. But, Elorriaga has been phenomenal over that stretch. Sure, including the Corban game in there is technically cheating, since that game came two Sundays ago, one day prior to the week to which we are designating this player, but disregard that for now. In those three games, Elorriaga has averaged 22 points per game and he has hit 20 three-pointers. Even more impressive, those 20 threes have come in just 32 attempts. Over that stretch, his effective field goal percentage is 91.7%. I don’t care if you’re playing Sister Mary’s School For the Mentally Infirm, that’s pretty good. Heck, shooting 91.7% from the field is pretty decent if you’re playing against a set of five folding chairs. Although, I’ll admit, I’d sure like to see Elorriaga continue his streak against more challenging competition.
Newcomer of the Week
Anthony Bennett, Freshman, UNLV – Sorry if this is getting to be redundant, but it is awfully hard to get around the fact that Bennett has not only been one of the best newcomers in the Mountain West (how’s that for understatement?), he’s been one of the best in the nation. The Bennett train kept rolling this week to the tune of 25 PPG, 10.5 RPG and an 81.3 eFG%.
Anthony Bennett YouTube of the Week
This week’s Anthony Bennett lovefest rolls on with this relatively benign unchallenged throw down against Cal State Bakersfield. Still, you gottta feel sorry for that poor rim.
Game of the Week
Wyoming 59, SMU 56 – As this game drifted into crunch time, it became apparent that Wyoming’s undefeated record was very much in peril. Down 46-42 with just over six minutes remaining, the Cowboys were playing without second-leading scorer Luke Martinez (more on that later) and their leading scorer, Leonard Washington, had been held to just six points on 2-of-10 shooting. But the senior leader was not to be denied, and he turned up the juice down the stretch, hitting four of his last five shots (including a couple threes) and pouring in 13 points in the interim. The final bucket was not only the clincher, but it was quintessential Washington. With the shot clock off and SMU down just one and looking for the go-ahead bucket, Washington jumped a pass near midcourt and threw down a slam at the other end to extend the Cowboy lead and break the Mustangs’ spirit.
Game of the Upcoming Week
Boise State at Wyoming, January 9, 8PM MST, ROOT Sports – In a week where UNLV travels to New Mexico and Colorado State visits San Diego State (yes, all four of those teams made the NCAA Tournament last season and are looking like strong bets to do so again), the fact that the Broncos and Cowboys are even in the discussion for game of the week tells a whole lot about the state of the MW. In years past, while there have been some tremendous teams at the top of the conference, the middle and bottom of the league was at times lacking. This year, BSU and Wyoming may well be the fifth and sixth best teams in the league, but they’re also both very good and completely entertaining. Can the Cowboys keep their undefeated season alive a bit longer? Can the offensive firepower of the Broncos break through the slow-it-down and grind-it-out Larry Shyatt special? I’m dying to know. And, unfortunately, for the first time this season, I’ll be bemoaning the fate of The Mtn., because I don’t get ROOT Sports.
1. San Diego State 12-2. Non-conference resume: The Aztecs’ sole losses in the non-conference come against Syracuse (in a game on a boat with environmental factors that render the outcome meaningless) and a one-point loss on a neutral floor to Arizona in a game that was about as dead-even as any played anywhere this season. That’s a pair of losses against two top-ten teams, neither of which can be seriously counted against the Aztecs. On the other hands, while the losses are no problem, the only true quality win on the schedule is a nine-point neutral-site win over UCLA, albeit on that is looking better by the day. But, at the end of the day, a non-conference RPI of 42 isn’t going to do them a ton of favors. Back to school: While the backcourt of Xavier Thames, Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin is excellent, there is room for improvement, specifically in regards to shooting the rock. Franklin’s three-point percentage has gone the wrong way from a seriously pedestrian number last year, and designated shooter James Rahon remains mired in this second year of a ghastly shooting slump. Also, Franklin’s propensity for turning the ball over is something that head coach Steve Fisher has been riding him about curtailing, but the mistakes keep on coming. As a result, while SDSU’s pack-it-in defense remains excellent, for the second straight season, the offense has plenty of room for growth.
2. UNLV 13-2. Non-conference resume: Let the record show a home win over Iowa State, a road win over California and, hmmm, yup, that’s about it. And given that neither of those two teams has beaten anybody of significance, there’s not a lot of meat on the non-conference bones. Still, as far as the selection committee is concerned, the Runnin’ Rebels have an RPI of 24. Mission accomplished? Back to school: Looking up and down that Vegas roster, there is a lot to like. From Bennett, Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall down to role players like Quintrell Thomas and Bryce Dejean-Jones, there’s a lot of talent. But, they haven’t put it all together yet, something which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The last three years, the Rebs have played their best basketball in November and December, only to fade later in the year. This year, they have the potential to grow into a team on top of its game in March – an ideal situation. What will they need to do to get there? Well, getting Moser healthy and Khem Birch assimilated is a good start, but the biggest room for growth comes in the backcourt. Marshall has actually done a very good job transitioning to the point guard role full time, but he still turns it over too much. If he can cut down those turnovers and if Dejean-Jones can grow a conscience and pass on a halfway decent look every now and then, that just means more looks on the offensive end for guys like Bennett, Moser and Katin Reinhardt.
3. New Mexico 13-2. Non-conference resume: After a 12-0 start, the Lobos dropped two of their last three, in questionable fashion. At first glance, the loss to South Dakota State didn’t seem so bad, but the Jackrabbits now have losses to Hofstra (#323 in the nation according to KenPom.com), North Dakota State and South Dakota on their resume. And while a loss to Saint Louis isn’t terrible, the way the Lobos looked in it was. However, with wins over Davidson, Connecticut and Cincinnati in the bag, accomplishments were made in the non-conference, as an RPI of 11 will attest. Back to school: While Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk (not to mention senior Chad Adams) have gone a long way towards answering the questions about the UNM frontcourt, and Kendall Williams has been his typically excellent self, guys like Tony Snell, Demetrius Walker and even Hugh Greenwood have been lacking at times. Those guys are going to need to score more and do so in a more efficient way for the Lobos to have a chance at winning the conference.
4. Colorado State 13-2. Non-conference resume: Despite all the 13 wins, including six straight to start the year and seven straight now, the Rams’ only top-100 RPI wins are Washington and UTEP. The losses to Colorado and Illinois-Chicago are easily overlooked, but the fact remains that CSU has a lot of work to do in conference play in order to bolster their thin resume. Still, despite a blah schedule, they’re got an RPI of 20 – more proof that the metric the NCAA selection committee uses is a flawed one. Back to school: Larry Eustachy has done a good job remaking the Rams in the image of a big, tough, physical basketball team. But for all their rebounding prowess up front, they’re just not a particularly good defensive team. As good as Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green are offensively, neither is particularly adept at keeping guys out of the lane. And while Colton Iverson is a significant upgrade in terms of protecting the rim, the Rams will run into plenty of big guys in the conference who will pull him away from the lane. If the CSU defense doesn’t shape up, they made need to up the ante offensively in order to keep up.
5. Boise State 12-2. Non-conference resume: The Broncos road win over Creighton should certainly be the gift that keeps on giving throughout the year for Boise. The Bluejays currently have an RPI of 12 and figure to be on the road to plenty of future wins in a solid MVC. Beyond that, the win over LSU is another top 100 RPI win. And beyond that, there be dragons. And not much else. Unless you count a close loss to Michigan State as a positive. Still, the combination of a win over Creighton, a win over LSU and then wins over the dregs of Division I and then the dregs of the NAIA are apparently good enough for an RPI of 32. And you can bet the Broncos are kicking themselves for their absolute failure to show up on a road trip to Utah. Back to school: The Broncos have proven they can play with – and beat – upper echelon teams. Now, however, they need to prove that they can do that on an almost nightly basis. Instead of playing one good team every couple weeks or so, they’re going to be facing quality teams every time out. Offensively, they’re good enough to give people problems. Defensively, however, there are still questions. We highlighted Elorriaga’s shooting ability above, but as good as he is stroking it from deep, he’s equally bad trying to stay in front of his man on offense. Anthony Drmic and Igor Hadziomerovic are versatile offensive wings, but either can be outquicked or overpowered on defense. And then, up front, they are slightly undersized. Like the Rams above, if the Broncos can’t tighten up on defense, they may be forced to win games mostly on the offensive end, a recipe for a handful of bad losses when the shots stop falling.
6. Wyoming 13-0. Non-conference resume: As we discussed above, the big Cowboy wins on the year are over Colorado and Illinois State, somehow good enough to earn them an RPI of 25. With no bad losses (because of the whole, you know, no losses at all thing), Wyoming is set up pretty well to ride a .500 conference record to an NCAA Tournament appearance. Now it’s just a matter of somehow piecing together eight conference wins. Start by winning say five of six against the bottom third of the league, then find a way to get three home wins against the likes of SDSU, UNLV, UNM, CSU and BSU. Possible, but still tough. Back to school: So what does Wyoming need to do in order to pull that plan off? First, getting Luke Martinez back from injury (he broke his right hand in a bar fight in Casper at 2:30am on December 30) is a good start. While Washington is the straw that stirs the drink for Larry Shyatt’s club, Martinez’s highly efficient three-point shooting and solid perimeter defense are a necessary ingredient in UW’s success. In his stead, freshman Josh Adams is due for a bump in minutes, and while he looks to have a good future ahead of him, he’s a significant downgrade from Martinez. If, Martinez misses, say, one month, he’ll miss the entire first half of the conference schedule. And, it is likely that he’ll take a few games to round back into shape. Right to the point, Martinez’s putting himself in the wrong place at the wrong time could go a long way towards sinking the promising Cowboy season.
7. Air Force 8-4. Non-conference resume: The drop off from the top six teams down to the clear #7 is steep not only in quality of play, but in quality of resume. While none of the Falcons’ losses are killers by themselves, they struck out on chances against Colorado, Wichita State, Florida and Richmond, leaving them with their best non-conference win over, who, Army? Montana State? Yuck. Suffice it to say, barring some type of miraculous run through the MW that features multiple wins over teams UNLV, SDSU and New Mexico, AFA will need a similarly miraculous run through the MW Tournament come March in order to earn an NCAA bid. A CBI bid, however, is a possibility, should the Academy be interested, and should they earn a couple quality conference wins while staying within shouting distance of .500 – all more easily written than accomplished. Back to school: In non-conference play, head coach Dave Pilipovich has cast about amongst his youngsters for future contributors, and in the process, taken some minutes away from his proven players. Come conference play I would recommend trimming the rotation (Michael Lyons, Todd Fletcher, Mike Fitzgerald, Kyle Green and Taylor Broekhuis earning starter’s minutes, while some combination of Kammryn Williams, DeLovell Earls, Max Yon and Marek Olesinski combine to form a nice seven-and-a-half man rotation) while slowing the pace slightly to keep the horses fresh. There’s more athleticism on this AFA team than most editions of the Falcons, but still, limiting possessions is definitely on the recipe to maxing out this team’s record.
8. Nevada 9-5. Non-conference resume: If the top three teams in the conference are in a tier to themselves and the next three comprise another, I would argue that Air Force is in a little mini-tier by itself, before the drop-off to the newest MW members. And Nevada earns the non-conference all-disappointment team. Girded by veteran guards Deonte Burton and Malik Story, the expectation was that the Wolf Pack could be a sleeper for an NCAA Tournament bid. That expectation went out the window somewhere around the second night of the season, when they got pushed around by UC Irvine. Throw in additional losses to Marshall, Drake, Pacific and Oregon (the latter, nothing to be ashamed of) and Nevada has struggled this season. Even an RPI top 100 win over Washington does little to leave Nevada with any chance of an NCAA Tournament bid, barring a sudden change of fortune. Back to school: The primary area of focus for the Wolf Pack in conference play should be toughness; it was severely lacking in non-conference play. Aside from Burton, who showed great leadership and moxie, just about every other single player on this team could have his heart question. The frontcourt, certainly not lacking in size, repeatedly gets dominated on the glass. Story, the 6’6” senior guard with the body of an NFL linebacker prefers to spend his time chucking up threes from deep rather than get his hands dirty. And almost to a man, the defensive effort is lacking. Fourteen games in, it is too much to expect a cheetah to change its spots, but we’d like to see at least a shift towards the positive for this underachieving squad.
9. Fresno State 6-7. Non-conference resume: The sole MW team with a losing non-conference record, Fresno, much like our last two squads, doesn’t have a whole lot thus far to point to. They are 4-2 against Big West competition, however, so, well, there’s that. Back to school: In just his second season, and with some talented players beginning to come to town, head coach Rodney Terry is already drawing criticism from some Bulldog fans on the message boards, as should be expected. But while FSU may be hard to watch offensively, Terry certainly got his guys competing hard on the defensive end, a good sign. At the very least, such effort should be able to keep FSU in some games. In order to win those games, not only this year, but in future years, Terry needs to build up the youngsters, starting with prized freshman Robert Upshaw. Classmates like Aaron Anderson and Marvelle Harris have begin to show their potential, and with long-awaited freshman Braeden Anderson finally eligible in early February, Terry can start to piece together players who can be the stepping stones to future success in the Central Valley.