CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 29th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
The dream around the Mountain West is six conference teams making the NCAA Tournament. But, in order for that to realistically happen, the top six teams here need to separate from the bottom three, with the teams at the back end of that first six earning at least a win or two over the upper-echelon teams. This week, that plan did not come to fruition. Boise State took care of Fresno State at home (good!) but then lost to Nevada on the road (bad). Wyoming lost on the road to UNLV (not good, but not unexpected), but then went back home and lost to Air Force (bad). In fact, Air Force has now knocked off a pair of MW teams dreaming of sneaking through that NCAA bubble (they knocked off Boise State the previous week) and, crazy as it may seem, they have their own devious designs on sneaking into the bracket come Selection Sunday. We’re now exactly one-third of the way through the conference schedule and one game in the standings is the difference between first and fifth place. Just two games separate first and seventh. And that team that started 13-0 and was among the last undefeated teams in the nation? Yeah, um, Wyoming is in eighth place and in need of 50 cc’s of an offensive injection, stat!
Team of the Week
San Diego State – Two weeks ago, the Aztecs lost on their home court in convincing fashion to their biggest rival in the league, UNLV, then followed that up with a lackluster performance in a loss at Wyoming, sinking them back to .500 in the conference and causing some to reevaluate just how strong this team was. Well, Steve Fisher and company had an answer for those questions this week, first tearing through Nevada in Reno on Wednesday night, then coming home and absolutely locking up New Mexico in front of The Show. Their smothering defense held the previously unbeaten Lobos to a field goal percentage in the 20s and just 34 total points (UNM’s lowest total of the year), helping them to overcome their own relatively unimpressive offensive performance. With point guard Xavier Thames just starting to work his way back into playing shape after a back injury, and with freshman Skylar Spencer seemingly improving by the game, the Aztecs seem to be a team that has hit their nadir and is on its way to bouncing back up.
Player of the Week
Allen Huddleston, Junior, Fresno State – Handing out the POTW honors to a guy whose team just went 0-2 for the week is not a precedent I’m thrilled to set, but in a week without a bunch of great options, rewarding a guy for keeping a positive attitude and finding a way to help his team out seems like as good a way as any to go. You see, after transferring in from Pacific and starting the first 11 games of the season (while averaging a hair under 30 minutes a game), Huddleston lost his starting spot to freshman Aaron Anderson and saw his minutes slashed (down to about 12 minutes a game over the next six games). When he did get into the game, he seemed to force the action in an effort to regain his coaches’ trust, but the low point came in a couple of oh-fer performances in extremely limited minutes against Sonoma State and Nevada. But rather than pout or quit on his team or transfer again (although, certainly, he did have some low moments in the interim), Huddleston kept working and was rewarded by head coach Rodney Terry with 55 total minutes of run this week. And he responded with his best two back-to-back performances of the year, averaging 17.5 points, three assists and two steals while knocking down seven three-pointers over the course of the week (and shooting a 64.6% eFG). While his play didn’t wind up earning his team a win, you can be sure he did his best to give his team chances to win those two games.
Newcomer of the Week
Skylar Spencer, Freshman, San Diego State – Yeah, Huddleston is a newcomer, so he could just as easily be here too, but Spencer deserves some pub too. You see, the freshman big man hasn’t missed a shot from the field since January 12 — four games ago. For the year he’s made better than 76% of his shots. As you might expect, Spencer’s range is basically a dunk (or closer), but give credit to the guy for knowing his strengths, accepting his limits and doing the things his coaching staff wants him to do. Yeah, that basically comes down to stuffing home point-blank opportunities, grabbing rebounds and playing defense, but he’s done all of that well. He blocks nearly 10 percent of his opponents’ two-point field goal attempts, has quick enough hands to dislodge a ball on the floor and is a beast on the offensive glass. While the SDSU rotation is crowded, Spencer has carved out a nice 20-minute-per-game spot for himself. Oh yeah, and the “of-the-week” part of this: try on 5-of-5 from the field, 10 points, five boards, three blocks and four steals.
Anthony Bennett YouTube of the Week
All the angles you could ever possibly need of Tony Snell breaking down Wes Eikmeier and then throwing down a dunk over Pierce Hornung:
Boise State 74, Fresno State 67 – With just over a minute left in this game, the score was tied at 66. Then Anthony Drmic made a layup (his 22nd and 23rd points of the night), country-mate Igor Hadziomerovic blocked a shot that Drmic rebounded, Derrick Marks knocked down four free throws (nudging him up to 30 points for the night) and Ryan Watkins grabbed three rebounds of missed FSU shots (taking his rebound total to 18 for the night, a career high) while making a pair of free throws of his own. In the process, Boise earned a road win that they absolutely needed to have and kept their name in the hat for NCAA at-large consideration.
Game of the Upcoming Week
UNLV at Boise State, February 2, 6PM PST, Time Warner SportsNet – At some point here in conference play, the Broncos are going to need to steal some games against the upper echelon teams in order to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, which really only features a win at Creighton and a win at Wyoming (TBD, just how valuable that last one will be). The good news is, they still host the Rebels, as well as Colorado State and San Diego State later in the season. But, rather than put off until later what they can do this week, I suggest the Broncos go ahead and beat the Rebs this week. Certainly far more easier said than done, to be sure, but expect the Boise frontcourt to do a very good job keeping UNLV off the offensive glass. The key to the game will be whether the Rebels, who are holding teams to just 42.7% shooting (in terms of eFG%, good for 13th in the nation), can cool down the hot Boise shooters. If guys like Anthony Drmic and Jeff Elorriaga (whose status for this game is still up in the air after returning from a concussion and promptly hitting his head against the floor and sustaining another one) can knock down shots and spread the floor for Derrick Marks, the Broncos could turn this game into a shootout.
- UNLV (16-4, 3-2): I’ve still got the Rebels atop my list, more for what they can be than for what they are. As it is, I think the difference between the top four teams in the conference is negligible, and if one were to make a case for any of the four to be regarded as the best team, I would listen and perhaps be persuaded. But I think the idea that the Rebs have the highest ceiling of any of the teams in the conference is beyond debate. Nevertheless, it is also beyond debate that quite a few things need to be sorted out between now and that potential ceiling. To break it down into a phrase, roles need to be defined and accepted. We know Anthony Marshall is the point guard, and a defensive catalyst; but is he a scoring point guard, as he was last week against SDSU and CSU, or is he a distributor, as he regularly was against Wyoming and previously against Air Force. We know Anthony Bennett is the insanely talented scoring forward that fills the lane on the break as well as anyone in the country; but how does he adapt his game in order to allow both Mike Moser (averaging less than seven points and six rebounds per game since his return from injury) and Khem Birch to thrive in the frontcourt. Those are the big questions, but there’s enough talent here for other rotational questions to abound (Justin Hawkins doesn’t have the scoring ability of Katin Reinhardt or Bryce Dejean-Jones, but has intangibles through the roof; which of the reserve frontcourt guys – Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez-Sosa the best options – will snatch the backup big role; is there any role for Daquan Cook, the team’s sole true point, this season?). How effectively those are answered will determine just how far this Rebel team can go.
A look ahead: Way back in the middle part of the last century, there was only one state university in Nevada – the one up in Reno. UNLV began life as an extension division of the University of Nevada, before eventually becoming Nevada Southern University. In 1969, the school was officially rebranded as the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, but the nickname Rebels actually outdates that transition, as the school adopted the name (along with a wolf mascot dressed in the grays of the Confederates) a year earlier. The tie to the Confederacy disappeared a few years later (thankfully), and Hey Reb was born a few years after that. But, the point is, the name “Rebels” dates back to the time when UNLV “rebelled” against their home institution to the north and “seceded” from the University of Nevada to form its own distinct institution. Ever since, those two schools have enjoyed a healthy rivalry on the playing fields. And, tonight, that rivalry is renewed, for the first time as joint members of the Mountain West Conference. And, for what it’s worth, UNLV is a huge favorite over their elder brethren. Later in the week, the Rebels travel to Boise for a big road game against the Broncos.
- New Mexico (17-3, 4-1): In this space last week we talked about how important it would be for the Lobos to get some offensive production out of perimeter guys like Hugh Greenwood, Demetrius Walker and, primarly, Tony Snell. Wow, did things start out good on that front on Wednesday, when Snell scored in double figures for the fourth straight time and had perhaps his best game since the middle of November, scoring 23 points, being aggressive not just with his jumper, but also attacking the rim, and supplying some smothering defense. Snell has 14 first-half points, highlighted by this play on which he secured a defensive rebounder, brought the ball up court, paused briefly and then exploded past Wes Eikmeier for a dunk. His ability to finish that play set up this play early in the second half where he blew by Pierce Hornung, got into the lane, drawing three Colorado State defenders, then kicked it into the corner to Chad Adams for a three. These are the kinds of plays that make Snell, at 6’7” and with one of the sweetest three-point jumpers in the conference, perhaps the toughest matchup in the conference. But, consistency remains a problem; against San Diego State, Snell turned it over six times, only found room for seven field goal attempts, making just two of those, and grabbed just two rebounds. If and when that light clicks on permanently for Snell, he’s a conference player-of-the-year type talent (regardless of who is in the conference) with an NBA future. But for the time being, he remains an enigma. A look ahead: If you’re looking to bounce back from a 34-point effort, you’d probably rather that the next game on the schedule was anything other than Wyoming. No such luck for the Lobos, though; they’ll be in Laramie tomorrow night facing a team that is seventh in the nation in the slowest adjusted tempo and 26th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Hell, you could have a pretty good game against the Cowboys and still not break 50 points. If you like pretty basketball, steer well clear of this one. The Lobos back that up by hosting Nevada in The Pit on Saturday.
- San Diego State (16-4, 4-2): J.J. O’Brien is emerging as one of the most versatile players in the conference. In the past week, in the midst of Xavier Thames reemerging from his lower back injury (he played in both games this week, after missing the previous game against Wyoming, though only played an average of 21.5 minutes, down quite a bit from his normal run), O’Brien has not only spent time banging away on the lower block with bigger foes, he’s also spent his share of time initiating the offense. Against New Mexico, he grabbed seven offensive rebounds (and a total of ten boards on the day), blocked a couple of shots, handed out a couple assists and swiped a steal, while also scoring a dozen points and landing his first double-double in an Aztec uniform (he had two in his freshman campaign at Utah). While Thames, Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley and an emerging Winston Shepard will create most of the “wow” plays for SDSU, O’Brien is carving out his territory as a do-everything glue guy for Steve Fisher. A look ahead: The Aztecs get the mid-week bye this time around, making their trip to a suddenly streaking Air Force team a bit more palatable. Still, overlooking the Falcons is not an option.
- Colorado State (16-4, 3-2): The final score in the Rams’ trip to The Pit looks respectable. A five-point loss in Albuquerque? Not bad, right? Well, when you take into account the fact that the Lobos were up 20 with ten minutes left and were still down eight with forty seconds left makes it clear that the Rams never seriously challenged in this game. But, if you want to look for extenuating circumstances, the fact that Greg Smith picked up two fouls in the first four minutes and a third with six minutes left in the half, Dorian Green had two fouls in the first ten minutes of the game and Pierce Hornung picked up four fouls in a span of three minutes early in the second half, indicates that foul trouble had quite a bit to do with this outcome. But, the fact is, when you’re giving the vast majority of all of your minutes to seven guys, there are nights when you’re going to run into problems getting quality minutes from your depth. Whether the cause of that is foul trouble or, god forbid, injury problems, at some point over the course of the year, your decision to stick with a seven-man rotation is going to make you, at least temporarily, rethink the wisdom of that decision. That point was Wednesday night for Larry Eustachy. I suppose better in the middle of January, than in the middle of March, though those two points aren’t mutually exclusive. A look ahead: Nothing but home cooking this week for the Rams as they host the two schools right below them in my power rankings: Boise State and Wyoming. If there really is a break in the tiers in this conference right after the #4 team, we should see if this week.
- Boise State (14-5, 2-3): This week, the Broncos hosted Fresno State at home and took care of business on Wednesday night (although in much tighter fashion than I’m sure anybody in the BSU program hoped). Then they went on the against one of the two teams that pretty clearly make up the bottom floor of this conference: Nevada. Sure, road games are tough. Sure, conference road games are really tough. But at some point if you want to make the NCAA Tournament, you’ve got to win your share of those games. And with a road loss to New Mexico already on the books, and trips to UNLV, CSU and SDSU looking no more palatable, stealing those road games against the dregs are pretty important. Instead, Boise shot less than 40% from the floor, allowed Nevada to shoot better than 55% and got blown out of the joint in the second half. Coupled with the loss to Air Force on the previous Saturday, the Broncos have now blown two-thirds of their road chances against the bottom third of the conference. But fortunately, they do have the win over Wyoming on their resume. On to the Jeff Elorriaga issue, which is, to be blunt a “fill-in-your-choice-of-expletive-here” bummer. Last year I don’t know that anybody (outside of the Elorriaga family) ever thought this guy could be a serious difference-maker on an NCAA Tournament-contending team; “slow, small and just a shooter” was the scouting report. This year the scouting report may not be a whole lot different except for the addition of a few exclamation marks around the word “shooter”; he’s hit just shy of 50% of his prodigious amount of bombs from deep and leads the nation in offensive efficiency. But, after two concussions in the span of a week, he may be out for a while now. Here’s hoping he’s recovering well and that his teammates can pick up the slack for him while he takes his time recuperating.
A look ahead: Let it be very clear, I hope Elorriaga’s return is in no way rushed, but man, could the Broncos sure use him over the next stretch of game. Try this on for size: at Colorado State tomorrow night, home against UNLV on Saturday, at San Diego State next Wednesday, then back home for Wyoming the following Saturday. Oh yeah, and a little icing on the top of that monster of a cake: after a midweek bye, a trip to Albuquerque to face the Lobos. I’ll bet my lunch money (and yours) that there ain’t a tougher five-game stretch outside of the Big Ten anywhere in the nation.
- Wyoming (15-4, 2-4): After a 12-0 start, things really started to go downhill from the Cowboys one night (or I suppose, early morning) in Laramie when second-leading scorer Luke Martinez broke his hand in a fight that also included the senior “leader” attempting to kick an unconscious man’s head “like it was a football.” Since then, the Cowboys are 3-4 and have lost three of their last four, including losses to Fresno State and a home loss to Air Force. In short, a team that once looked to be on the fast track to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than a decade is in need of stringing together a few victories. The Cowboys clearly miss Martinez on the offensive end, where they haven‘t posted an eFG% better than 50% in any of their last four games. But more surprisingly, they miss him on the defensive end. After allowing just three opponents in their first 13 games to post an eFG% better than 50%, they’ve allowed their opponents to do that in each of their four conference losses. With no word yet on if or when Martinez may return to the lineup (even if his broken hand heals fine, he will likely still face disciplinary action within the program, if not the state), Larry Shyatt needs to come up with some alternative. And quick. A look ahead: And quick, because the Cowboys face a tough trio of conference games themselves. Tomorrow night, they’ll host New Mexico at Arena Auditorium, then they’ve got three straight games on the road: at Colorado State on Saturday, at Cal State Bakersfield next Wednesday (nice random mid-season non-conference road game against a low-major program for you), then at Boise State to open round two of the MW schedule the following weekend
- Air Force (12-6, 3-2): Here’s how crazy this Mountain West season has gotten: our own bracket expert Daniel Evans unveiled his initial Bubble Watch a couple of days ago and he included Air Force among the teams in consideration for an at-large bid, something I personally never even considered for a second until I saw that. But, you know what? He’s right. Sure, the Falcons have a lot of work to do (and that phrase, “lot of work” is a significant understatement), but this is a team that has knocked off both Boise State and Wyoming (the latter on the road), two teams slightly higher up the pecking order than the Academy. They’ve dispatched of Nevada in workmanlike fashion. And they’ve taken both Wichita State and UNLV right down to the wire previously this season. Disregard that 39-point loss at Colorado State (let’s call that an aberration) and this is a solid if unspectacular resume that is only in need of a couple of top-50 RPI wins on the way to calling itself a bubble team. And, with two cracks at SDSU and UNM remaining on the schedule and home games against CSU and UNLV, well, let’s put it this way, stranger things have happened. A look ahead: If we’re going to entertain this dream for awhile longer (shall we get really crazy and start the seven Mountain West teams in the NCAA Tournament fantasy? Okay, sure, that’s going too far), the Falcons absolutely need to knock off Fresno State at home tomorrow night. After that, things get straight serious: hosting San Diego State on Saturday, then a trip to The Pit to wrap up the first half of the conference slate next Wednesday.
- Nevada (11-8, 2-3): I’ve taken my share of shots at Malik Story this season, and even backpedaled on a few prior to publication. But, don’t let it be said that I’m unfair; when somebody earns rave reviews, he gets then. Against SDSU on Wednesday night, when it looked like the Wolf Pack were dead in the water, Story dragged them back into the game with 15 points on nine shots in the span of ten minutes at the end of the half. But it wasn’t just Story’s ability to stroke it from deep; he played tough and aggressive defense, he put the ball on the floor and attacked his defender. In short, he played a complete game and was a significant asset on the floor for his ballclub. And, no coincidence, when Story began cramping up early in the second half and was reduced to a shell of his first-half self, the Pack folded and lost by 21. This is what has frustrated me about Story in the past; at 6’5”, 215 pounds, with that athletic ability and shooting stroke, he should never be an afterthought out there on the court. But when he floats around the perimeter and chucks up threes, he goes a long way towards doing the defense’s job for them. A look ahead: The Wolf Pack travel to UNLV tonight, then are rewarded for that ordeal with a trip to New Mexico over the weekend. There is just no letup in the MW schedule this season.
- Fresno State (7-12, 1-5): I’m closing in on 4000 words already and, frankly, don’t have a ton to say about the Bulldogs right now. So, um, Tyler Johnson? He good. Four straight games in double figures, playing a ton of minutes, averaged 19.5 points and three steals per game this week. The sole guy on his team playing any number of significant minutes with an offensive rating higher than 100 (and, in fact, well above 100). If the basketball gods are paying any attention, they give Johnson some much improved players to play around next year in his senior campaign so that maybe somebody outside of California’s Central Valley will notice. A look ahead: Fresno goes to Air Force tomorrow night, then gets the weekend bye.