CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 16th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
One week of conference play is in the books and, yeah, we pretty much got confirmation that this season is going to be just about as interesting as we expected it to be. A couple of overtime games, a buzzer-beater and top 25-caliber match-ups filled the schedule with only a few snoozers (not coincidentally, all featuring at least one of the new conference teams) mixed in for variety. There were amazing plays that had the entire college basketball world buzzing, there were headscratching performances, and there were exhilarating games. And, we’ve still got eight full weeks of conference play remaining.
Team of the Week
Boise State – Beating out its more celebrated brethren San Diego State and New Mexico, the Broncos take the honor this week on the strength of the best road win in the conference this week, a buzzer-beating win over previously undefeated Wyoming on Wednesday night. Playing without four players who were suspended prior to the game, the Broncos fought, scraped and clawed, coming back from a 10-point second-half deficit to build up a seven-point lead with under three minutes to play, only to see that lead disappear again with just eight seconds left on the clock. And then, arguably the hottest player in the nation, Jeff Elorriaga, drilled a three-pointer from the left corner as time expired (his second three in the final 30 seconds, sixth on the night and 30th in his last 50 attempts over five games) to end Wyoming’s unbeaten streak and propel BSU to a thrilling opening night win.
Player of the Week
Mike Fitzgerald, Senior, Air Force – Apologies to Alex Kirk (21 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 61.5% eFG), but sometimes tough decisions need to be made. And, in spots like this, the tie goes to the senior, and certainly the underdog. Fitzgerald started the week strong for the Falcons, posting a career high 30 points (including 23 after the break) in helping the Academy come back from a three-point halftime deficit to earn a conference-opening win over Nevada. Saturday, while the outcome wasn’t quite as enjoyable for Falcons fans, Fitzgerald helped keep his team in it against UNLV for 45 minutes, adding another 22 points in an overtime loss. For the week, Fitzgerald made 14 of 20 shots from the field, including seven three-pointers (good for an 87.5% eFG) and hit 17-of-18 from the charity stripe while chipping in six rebounds per night.
Newcomer of the Week
Colton Iverson, Senior, Colorado State – In his first MW conference game, Iverson was a force inside for the Rams, grabbing 11 boards and scoring 18 points in helping to drag his team back from an 18-point halftime deficit to force overtime against San Diego State. While CSU eventually came up short, Iverson and his frontcourt partners proved their ability to make a big impact on the conference race.
Anthony Bennett YouTube of the Week
It’s a no brainer, as Jamaal Franklin’s self-assisted off-the-backboard slam against Fresno State earns not only our honor for the week, but vaults right up there near the top of the best plays of the season.
San Diego State 79, Colorado State 72 (OT) – We mentioned the Boise win over Wyoming above, and while that was certainly a contender, we’ll take this one as the game of the week for sheer wall-to-wall awesomeness. The Aztecs got things started strong, hitting nothing but three-pointers on their first nine field goal makes, until J.J. O’Brien converted an old-fashioned three-point play more than 16 minutes into the game. All told, the hot shooting helped SDSU jump out to an 18-point lead at the break. But CSU wasn’t about to give up. They pounded the glass and exploited their advantage inside to fight back from a 13-point deficit with less than seven minutes left to force overtime. Once there, however, it was senior time, as Chase Tapley, despite being held out of a pregame shootaround due to the dreaded “flu-like symptoms,” fought off near exhaustion and willed his team over the finish line, scoring 12 of his 19 points in the game’s extra period as the Aztecs pulled away.
Game of the Upcoming Week
UNLV at San Diego State, January 16th, 7 PM PST, CBS Sports Network – Any way you go in this conference, there are going to be plenty of choice games to take in. This week we’ve got New Mexico traveling to Boise, San Diego State heading to Laramie and UNLV visiting CSU, among others. But, fresh on the heels of last year’s pair of epic games in this series and with the future of this series in doubt, whenever the Rebels and the Aztecs are getting together this year, it is must-see TV. For reference, here’s just the final play of the team’s first meeting last season. One single play not good enough to whet your appetite? Check out the entirety of UNLV’s 65-63 win in the second match-up here. With Anthony Bennett around to add a to the possibility of spectacular play, make sure you pencil in a couple hours of television time on Wednesday night.
- San Diego State (14-2, 2-0): Jamaal Franklin is certainly spectacular, a singular talent that is capable of being a difference-maker at crunch-time. But is anybody else besides me slightly concerned about his decision-making? Despite his ability to take plenty of people off the bounce with great effectiveness and a corresponding mediocrity at shooting the ball from deep, he still launches almost 40% of his shots from behind the arc. And, when he does attack the paint, many times, rather than pull up for a floater or a midrange jumper, he charges into the lane to draw offensive fouls. As a result, his turnover numbers remain too high (only twice all season has he turned the ball over less than three times), his field goal percentage remains too low and, at times, he gets himself into foul trouble. Now, again, this is only a slight concern in regards to Franklin not maximizing his ability, because frankly, he’s a phenomenal player that any coach would love to have. And it is not like Franklin isn’t putting in the work to shore up delinquent facets of his game (his assist numbers this year are through the roof, for instance). But, I’d like to see him exchange some of those threes for pull up jumpers, and likewise turn in a handful of those charges for pull-ups as well. Not too much to take away all of the aggressiveness, but enough to squeeze a bit more efficiency out of a hyper-talented star. A look ahead: Big week for the Aztecs as they’ll follow up a super emotional home game against UNLV with the toughest road trip in the league – a visit to Laramie on Saturday. If they get two wins this week, they will certainly have earned them.
- UNLV (14-3, 1-1): I thought about dropping the Rebels down to third and moving the Lobos up here, but after deciding a five-point loss in a terrific game in The Pit wasn’t anything to overreact about, I left my power rankings untouched this week. If anything, the Rebels uninspired performance back at home, where they were taken to overtime by a mediocre Air Force team, was more concerning. Turnovers continue to be a major problem for the Rebs, as they consistently not only give the ball up but fail to force the other team to reciprocate, one of the less well-regarded trends in the Dave Rice era. Part of the problem is, of course, Anthony Marshall – a two-guard being shoehorned into a point guard spot. But for the most part, Marshall has been pretty good at making more positive plays for his team than negative plays. However, with other playmakers like Bryce Dejean-Jones (he of the game-winner in that AFA game), Katin Reinhardt and the turnover-prone Mike Moser having the ball in their hands on a regular basis, a handful of turnovers from everyone can turn into a boatload for the whole team. A look ahead: Much like the Aztecs above, things don’t get much easier for the Rebels after their meeting at Montezuma Mesa on Wednesday. On Saturday, the Rebs have to travel up north to face Colorado State on the road. An 0-2 week is not out of the question. And it wouldn’t even necessarily be all that damning.
- New Mexico (15-2, 2-0): The win over the Rebels to open conference play is the good news – a well-played, hard-fought game from start to finish that saw Alex Kirk put his hat officially in the ring as a potential all-conference type of guy. Kirk’s ability to pull guys like Khem Birch or Colton Iverson away from the rim and clear out the paint for the Lobos’ perimeter players to exploit will be a crucial component to the conference picture this season. But, more ominously for the program, junior guard Kendall Williams was suspended for UNM’s second game of the week (a 27-point win over Fresno State) for being late to a team meeting. It marks the third time this season Williams has been suspended for a similar offense. While it may not seem like a huge transgression, Steve Alford ain’t the kind of guy who is going to put up with that for very long. Williams better find a babysitter before his tardiness threatens the Lobos’ season. A look ahead: With a bye looming over the weekend, the Lobos can put all their effort into Wednesday night’s road trip to Boise State. The Broncos will have their full complement of players back, meaning we should have a great matchup of perimeter oriented teams on our hands. If Kirk and Cameron Bairstow can get the best of BSU’s bigs, the Lobos have a chance to enjoy their day off with a 3-0 record.
- Colorado State (13-3, 0-1): The Rams were the squad that had the first scheduled bye of the conference schedule, so the only game under their belt was the overtime loss at San Diego State. While the slow start is concerning, Larry Eustachy has to be pleased with his team’s response to earn its way back into the game in the second half. And, certainly the CSU rebounding looks capable maintaining the stellar reputation it set for itself in the non-conference, as three different Rams grabbed double-digit boards on Saturday in a dominating rebounding performance. CSU grabbed 40% of its own misses and 82.5% of the Aztecs’ misses, a number that almost made up for getting outshot by nearly ten percentage points from the field and outscored by six points from the line. A look ahead: The Rams host their in-state rival Air Force tomorrow night, then get a visit from UNLV on Saturday.
- Boise State (13-2, 1-0): So, first, the win. A back and forth affair in which both teams shot the ball exceedingly well, the conference opener against Wyoming very much lived up to its GOTW status, right down to the last beautiful (well, maybe Wyoming fans wouldn’t agree with that adjective) shot by Jeff Elorriaga. Second, the suspensions. Starting point guard (and leading scorer) Derrick Marks, backup point guard Mikey Thompson, and backup big guys Kenny Buckner and Darrious Hamilton were all left behind on the trip to Laramie following the violation of team rules. So, yeah, not only did the Broncos knock off undefeated Wyoming, they did so with sophomore Joe Hanstad – a guy best suited to playing the two – manning the point. The good news is, three of those four guys are reinstated (Buckner will serve a three-game suspension) and will play this week. A look ahead: The Broncos host New Mexico tonight with a chance to prove, just in case no one believed in them after wins over Creighton and Wyoming, that they’re really for real. Regardless of the outcome, you can bet that the trip to Air Force on Saturday will be a rough come-down; the Falcons aren’t one to be taken lightly, especially at home.
- Wyoming (14-1, 1-1): Well, you knew it was going to happen at some point. Despite an unblemished non-conference schedule, there would come a time where the Cowboys would lose a game. The question would be, how would they respond. Well, suffice it to say that they did just find, riding another phenomenal Leonard Washington all-around game to an 11-point road win over Nevada. Washington was the definition of a stat-sheet stuffer on Saturday, scoring 16 points, grabbing 13 boards, handing out six assists, blocking four shots and swiping three steals in helping the Cowboys bounce back from a lackluster first half that saw them trailing 20-17 at the break. Washington’s going to have to continue to be the man for the ‘Pokes, as Luke Martinez’s status with the team remains in doubt. As you recall, he broke a bone in his right hand in a bar fight on December 30, but since then he has been charged with aggravated assault and suspended indefinitely from the team. While “indefinite suspension” has come to mean little more than two or three games, the fact that there are legal charges associated with this could mean something more. That said, given that Martinez is still some time away from being able to play, it is quite possible this suspension could expire roughly around the time that his cast comes off. A look ahead: The Cowboys travel to Fresno State on Wednesday, then get a visit from the Aztecs on Saturday. A road game and a visit from a top 25 team always makes for a tough week, but circumstances align to make these both winnable games for UW.
- Air Force (9-5, 1-1): In mentioning Fitzgerald above as our Player of the Week, what we failed to mention is that he also had the game-winning three-pointer against UNLV rim out at the buzzer at the end of regulation. In fact, in that game, the Falcons were up two with a minute to go in regulation, and also up a point with 30 seconds to go in overtime, and yet came away with the loss. In other words, they had their chances against the Rebels, but just couldn’t pull it out. What remains to be seen is whether that outcome was more an indication of UNLV either being overrated or under-interested in that particular opponent, or whether the Falcons are prepared to be a thorn in the side of more highly regarded conference foes on a regular basis. Very little that they did in the non-conference would indicate the latter to be particularly likely, but with plenty of talented veterans on their roster and a highly capable offense, you gotta figure the Falcons are going to earn a couple scalps somewhere along the line. A look ahead: The Falcons travel to Colorado State tomorrow, then host Boise State over the weekend.
- Nevada (9-7, 0-2): For much of the non-conference season, we’ve been harping on Nevada’s inability to make an impact up front, especially on the glass, as a main reason for their poor start. Well, this week the Wolf Pack were actually really good on the glass. So, Exhibit A that winning the rebounding battle doesn’t necessarily have a whole lot to do with winning the game: Nevada’s 13-point loss to Air Force, wherein the Pack grabbed 90% of AFA’s misses and 23.3% of their own, but still weren’t particularly competitive because they couldn’t keep the Falcons from getting good looks. Exhibit B in the same case is UNR’s loss to Wyoming on Saturday, where they took it one step further, grabbing 92% of UW’s misses and 40% of their own misses en route to an 111-point home loss. More discouraging is the fact that Nevada led at the halves of both games. And, Malik Story, who we’ve taken to ripping on a regular basis around these parts, was back at it this week, launching 21 shots this week, including 11 from behind the arc, making just three shots (one from deep), turning the ball over seven times, and grabbing just five boards. A look ahead: Nevada gets the midweek bye this week, so their next game is a battle for the basement, as they travel to Fresno State on Saturday.
- Fresno State (6-9, 0-2): If the week had ended on Thursday, or even Friday, the Bulldogs would have probably been pleased with the week, despite coming away winless. You see, in their first ever Mountain West conference game, FSU hosted San Diego State and played the top 25 Aztecs to a near draw before finally coming up three points short. They defended like mad, took care of the ball (just five turnovers on the game) and got to the foul line in an effort that head coach Rodney Terry had to be pleased with. But, then Saturday came and all the good the Bulldogs did on Saturday seemed like a distant memory. They got absolutely smoked on the boards by New Mexico, they turned the ball over, they took bad shots and generally looked completely outclassed in a 27-point loss in Albuquerque. There’s little question that FSU is the least talented team in the conference, but Terry at least wants to see his team play hard, something that didn’t happen over the weekend. A look ahead: The Bulldogs don’t have to leave home this week, and they’ve actually got a couple of games that they can win, against Wyoming on Wednesday and then Nevada on Saturday, the latter of which may be the team’s best chance to get a conference win in front of the home folks this year.