CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on February 13th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Another week down the drain and we’re now officially four weeks away from the start of the Mountain West Tournament (well, three weeks and six days by the time this gets published). And, as time passes, some things are becoming more clear and some things are just as confusing as they were weeks ago. For instance: quick, who’s the best team in the conference?
New Mexico’s got a claim on first place as of now, but they’re coming off a season-series-evening loss to UNLV and they’ve already put up a horrendous 34-point offensive (in more than one way) output against San Diego State. The Rebels, for their part, have looked really good in their home win against New Mexico and their road win at San Diego State, but this is a team that just this week lost at Fresno State, the worst team in the conference. The Aztecs? Their backcourt is beat up and their still facing road trips to Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico and Boise State. Oh, and they’re entering that stretch already a game back of the Lobos and a half-game behind Colorado State. And as for the Rams, despite the fact that they made the AP Top 25 for the first time in just under 60 years, they’ve still got plenty to prove themselves, with a history of struggling away from home, especially against quality opponents. But, for now, I’m going to go out on a limb and put CSU at the top of the pack, based on a whim. But hey, give me credit at least for not taking the easy way out and declaring this a four-way tie for first atop my power rankings.
So, that’s the clear as mud part. What parts of this conference are starting to round into understandable shape? Well, that pipe dream back a few weeks ago about six teams making the NCAA Tournament? Yeah, well, that’s not gonna happen. Wyoming and head coach Larry Shyatt have done great things over the past two seasons in Laramie, but they’re getting eaten alive in conference play (2-7 so far) and it would take a complete 180 for them to have a prayer of NCAA consideration come March. Meanwhile, Air Force, which had been so hot the last time we talked, just got done dropping a couple of road games, most damningly to Nevada on Saturday. They needed a lot of stuff to break their way, and while they’re certainly not completely dead yet, I’ve got to see them make some serious noise, especially on the road, in order to think they belong even on the periphery of the conversation. And that leaves Boise State as the potential fifth Mountain West team. There isn’t a lot of room for error for the Broncos, but I, for one, have a hard time believing they won’t be among the field of 68 when the brackets get announced.
Elsewhere, you can start engraving Anthony Bennett’s name on the Freshman of the Year trophy, if you want to get a head start. And the list of serious Player of the Year candidates are limited as well; right now Jamaal Franklin has to be the odds on favorite to defend his title, with Bennett maybe his strongest competitor. As for Coach of the Year, that one is still wide open and will likely be determined in part by how the race at the top of the conference shakes out.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – The Aztecs didn’t leave Viejas Arena this week, but they also didn’t lose, something that only one other Mountain West team (Colorado State, who played just one game) can say. The Aztecs dodged a bullet against Boise State, but then came out and put away Fresno State with a dominating second-half performance. While still not back to full-strength (Xavier Thames, for one, remains limited, although Chase Tapley nears 100%), the Aztecs find themselves just a game back of first place with a chance this week to take a couple huge steps towards a conference title. Of course, those huge steps include going on the road to Colorado State and UNLV, but let’s put it this way: if SDSU wins these games, they’re in very good shape.
Player of the Week
Greg Smith, Senior, Colorado State – It was only one game, as the Rams had the weekend bye this week, but what a game it was for Smith. Smith got off to a great start, scoring CSU’s first eight points, 16 of their first 21 and a grand total of 28 (to go along with 12 boards) in their four-point win at Nevada on Wednesday. It was a career-high for the senior out of Omaha who had only once before in 109 games with the Rams scored as many as 20 points. Better yet, Smith did it in a highly efficient manner, making 11 of his 17 attempts from the field, including a couple three-pointers.
Newcomer of the Week
Anthony Bennett, Freshman, UNLV – The last couple of weeks we’ve gotten away from giving this award to Bennett, more out of a search for variety than anything Bennett has done wrong. This week, it is time to get back on the Bennett train, giving the Canadian his fifth Mountain West Newcomer of the Week award. After a brief dip against San Diego State and Colorado State – the only two games this season when he has failed to score at least 10 points – Bennett is back in the swing of things offensively, and he averaged 16 points per night this week. But what earns Bennett this award is his production elsewhere this week; he averaged 10.5 rebounds this week and in the Rebels big win against New Mexico, did a little bit of everything, double-doubling alongside three blocks and two steals.
Anthony Bennett YouTube of the Week
It came in the middle of an embarrassing loss, but just as we’re getting back to recognizing Anthony Bennett for his exploits as a freshman, we’re getting back to showcasing his highlight-reel ability. In this one, near the end of the second half against Fresno State, with his team trailing by eight, Bennett finds himself matched up against point guard Allen Huddleston after a switch. As Huddleston tries to beat the bigger defender off the dribble, Bennett stays in touch and rejects Huddleston’s layup attempt, then turns and hightails it downcourt, burning past a pair of FSU defenders on his rim-run and he is rewarded with a pass in the lane, where he changes direction nicely on his way to an acrobatic lay-in. I’m not sure there are 10 other guys in the college basketball who can make that play.
San Diego State 63, Boise State 62 – I remain unsure just how good the Broncos are (although, for what it is worth, I think they’re very much an NCAA Tournament-quality team), but they’re a phenomenally fun team to watch. And, matched up against the Aztecs in Viejas Arena in a game that would have been a huge score for the Broncos, they did not disappoint. After digging themselves a 15-point first-half deficit and a 10-point halftime hole, the Broncos fought back in spectacular fashion, taking the lead back at the five-minute mark and never trailing again until… this. Almost by accident, Chase Tapley found himself with the ball at the three-point line and he stepped into the jumper and gave the Aztecs the lead with 2.8 seconds left. But Boise didn’t panic and freshman Mikey Thompson found himself a look that Ben Brust thinks was a darn good look, only to have the ball bank off the backboard, hit the inside of the rim and then bounce away. The Broncos sure would have liked to have that game, but I come away from that battle even more impressed by a team I already think highly of.
Game of the Upcoming Week
San Diego State at UNLV, February 16, 6:00 PM PST, NBC Sports Network – The first iteration of this growing rivalry this season didn’t have quite the level of drama that last year’s two meetings had, but it was still quite a fine battle and perhaps the most impressive performance of the year for the Rebels, as they went into Viejas Arena and finished strong down the stretch. But UNLV has slipped up elsewhere. For them to have any prayer at earning a portion of the conference title, this is a game they’ll likely need to win. For the Aztecs, however, they’d like to earn revenge while stealing back a road win to make up for their earlier home loss.
- Colorado State (19-4, 6-2): I’m pretty sure I haven’t had the Rams anywhere other than the four spot at any time in my power rankings since early last year. But in this crazy, mixed-up and entirely thrilling iteration of the Mountain West, I’ve got to give them the not right now. They’ve still got plenty of tough games remaining on their schedule, but this is a team that has blown out Air Force, handled UNLV in Fort Collins, where they’ve also taken care of Wyoming and Boise State. And they’ve even done the thing that any of these teams at the top of the conference should plan on doing: they’ve gone into Fresno State and Nevada and come away with wins. Even their losses – a seven-point overtime loss at San Diego State and a five-point loss at New Mexico – are entirely respectable. In a conference that is hard to make heads or tails of, I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to Larry Eustachy and company. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind a handful of times before we do this again next week. A look ahead: The Rams have a relatively manageable schedule this week, but there are still a pair of chances for slip-ups. Tonight they get to invite the Aztecs into Moby Arena for an “orange out” as they bust out their “pumpkin orange and alfalfa green” uniforms, celebrating their heritage as an Ag school. Then on Saturday, they get to hop on a bus and visit Air Force. Obviously SDSU is always a threat, but the Rams will not want to overlook the Academy, who has only lost one home game, to Wichita State, this season.
- UNLV (17-6, 5-4): Just last week we were talking about how the back stretch of this conference schedule shaped up perfectly for the Rebels, what with New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State and Boise State all having to visit the Thomas & Mack. Then they head to Fresno State and get blown off the court (only slight overstatement there) by the Bulldogs. Just to keep everybody’s head spinning, they then come out on Saturday and deliver one of their best performances of the year in knocking off New Mexico. I still continue to think that all of this can still be seen as a good thing. This is a team still in the process of finding itself, figuring out who fits in where and, again, unlike recent Rebel teams, they certainly haven’t peaked in November or December. And, perhaps progress is being made. We’ve had questions all year about how Mike Moser fits in on a team with Anthony Bennett, how those two can coexist and whether Moser would be more interested in showing NBA scouts that he can play the three (his most likely NBA position) rather than make a big impact in whatever role his team needed him to play. Interestingly enough, against the Lobos, Dave Rice’s response was to play the guy a grand total of two minutes. Hey, you can’t argue with results like a 64-55 win over a top 20 team, but ideally Rice would be able to find a way to get good production out of a guy who earned all-conference honors last season. Stay tuned. A look ahead: The Rebels have the same opponents on their schedule as Colorado State does this week, with just the dates inverted. Tonight they travel to Air Force, then Saturday they return home to renew their rivalry with San Diego State.
- New Mexico (20-4, 7-2): So, a pair of road conference losses are the only blemishes on the conference slate for the Lobos. Meanwhile they’ve taken care of business at home against Colorado State and UNLV. In other words, despite the disappointing performance against Vegas, Steve Alford’s got his squad in pretty good shape. But, as we’ve talked about in recent week, the Lobos need to get better and more consistent offensive performances out of their trio of starting guards. On Saturday, Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Hugh Greenwood combined to make just seven out of their combined 26 field goal attempts for 18 points. That just won’t cut it, as that trio is far more capable than they’ve regularly shown this year. The good news is, the bigs, the team’s biggest area of concern back before the season, have been rock solid all year. Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow’s combined effort of 30 points and 22 boards against UNLV is the type of hard-nosed effort Alford has been able to rely on regularly from that duo. A look ahead: Aside from the loss UNLV handed to New Mexico last week, they did do Alford one teeny-tiny little favor, when they lost at Fresno State prior to that game. Now Alford certainly doesn’t have to do a whole lot to convince his squad that the Bulldogs need to be taken seriously. “You know that squad that just beat you up on Saturday night? Yeah, they lost to this team exactly one week ago.” UNM follows that game up with a visit from Boise State on Saturday.
- San Diego State (18-5, 6-3): Somehow I have the Aztecs down here in fourth place in my power rankings, yet I put them higher than any other Mountain West team when I submitted my top 25 on Sunday – yet more evidence that my opinion on the ordering of these top four teams changes on an almost daily basis, even when teams haven’t played for a few days. A look ahead: But, Steve Fisher and company have a big chance to make a big splash this week, with road games against two of the “Big Four” in the conference. Tonight they travel to Colorado State, then Saturday they face UNLV at the Thomas & Mack. They can win either or both of those games (in which case, you can bet they’ll be #1 in my rankings next week), although they’re just as likely to lose them both, a scenario which would put an end to any hopes they had of winning the regular season conference title.
- Boise State (16-7, 4-5): When Selection Sunday rolls around, the Broncos’ loss at San Diego State on Wednesday night will be counted, more or less, as just a loss. Just as their overtime home loss to New Mexico will. And if somehow Boise winds up hosting an NIT opening round game, there’s a good chance one or both of those games will be to blame. But, give credit to the Broncos for shaking off that heartbreaker to SDSU and getting the job done Saturday, as they completed their season sweep of Wyoming by racing out to a big early lead and then holding on in the second half. Interesting to note: Boise has had a serious dearth of close games this season. They’ve only played ten games that have been decided by ten points or less and only three games decided by one possession (and, for what it’s worth, I’m including that five-point overtime loss to New Mexico in that group), with a record of 1-2 in those games. A look ahead: The Broncos get the mid-week bye this time around, so they get a chance to rest up in advance of Saturday’s game at New Mexico. For the Broncos to have a chance, they’ll need to get Igor Hadziomerovic (who missed a couple games with a foot injury and an illness and hasn’t scored in double figures since the opening game of the MW schedule) and Jeff Elorriaga (who scored two total points last week on zero-for-five shooting) back into the swing of things.
- Air Force (14-8, 5-4): That five game winning streak was sure exciting and all, but what we saw last week out of the Falcons was more on par with their talent level. This is a good, veteran team that is well-coached, runs some good offense and knows exactly what it wants to do. But there is still very little in the way of an inside presence on either end of the court, and while the team can forgo offensive rebounds and trips to the free throw line on offense, on defense, this is a team that doesn’t force turnovers, doesn’t do a particularly good job cleaning the glass, doesn’t keep its opponents from getting good looks at the hoop, and also sends its opponents to the charity stripe on a regular basis. I don’t care how good you may look offensively, there’s not a team in America that can earn an at-large NCAA bid doing all of those things defensively. A look ahead: Still, on a good night when the three-point shots are falling and the opponents may be less than their best, the Falcons can sneak up on teams, especially at Clune Arena. This week, the Academy welcomes both UNLV and Colorado State in and there’s a good chance they’ll get a scalp in at least one of those games.
- Wyoming (16-7, 2-7): The Cowboys have hit a rough patch for sure and look like a team that will be in a dogfight to stay out of the conference cellar this season. And that’s a shame because this is still a good story. When Larry Shyatt took over this team last season, they were coming off consecutive 10-21 seasons and, with a roster missing due to transfer a couple of the team’s most dynamic players, he rebuilt the program as a defense-first, hard-nosed ball club, who took advantage of a weak non-conference schedule to build momentum and put together a decent conference stretch. Shyatt lost three big-time contributors from that team and then this year, improved upon last year’s performance even with a much tougher non-conference slate built in. In fact, as you may remember, even though it was so long ago, the Cowboys got off to the best start in the history of their program and scored solid wins over teams like Colorado, Illinois State and Denver. But, since about Christmas, little has gone right. Injuries, self-afflicted and otherwise, have hurt an already thin ballclub, and there have been some close losses along the way. Still, despite just two wins in nine conference games, make no mistake, Shyatt’s got this program headed in the right direction. A look ahead: And, despite the fact that an NCAA bid is a significant long shot, there should be a postseason invitation of some kind awaiting the Cowboys. To make sure that they’ll be included, it would be awful nice if they could grab a couple home wins this week over Nevada and Fresno State.
- Nevada (12-11, 3-6): Against Colorado State, the nation’s best rebounding team, the Wolf Pack got dominated on the glass, allowing the Rams to grab better than 50% of their own misses. And somehow (well, mostly the fact that they only turned the ball over nine times and got an epic night out of Malik Story), they were right there at the end, losing by just four. Against Air Force three nights later, the Wolf Pack turned the tables, dominating the glass (albeit against one of the worst rebounding teams in the nation) and yet still needing a 23-8 run over the final five and a half minutes to secure a five-point win at home over the Falcons. In other words, you should have no idea what to expect from Nevada. A look ahead: The Wolf Pack host Wyoming tonight, then get the weekend off.
- Fresno State (8-14, 2-7): Braeden Anderson checks in for the Bulldogs, just as freshman big Robert Upshaw (temporarily) checks out. Anderson got his long awaited start to his freshman campaign this week and, even in a debut performance where he tallied two rebounds and zero points in 12 minutes, looked impressive. His numbers caught up to his appearance on Saturday against SDSU when he went for 12 points and six boards in 21 minutes and you can envision a day when he is going to be a serious force in this conference. As for Upshaw, he was suspended for three games for an undisclosed violation of athletic department policy (ahem), so he has missed both of FSU’s games with Anderson. A look ahead: However, at some point on Saturday night when the Bulldogs travel to Wyoming, expect Upshaw (in his first game back from suspension) and Anderson to share the frontcourt for the Bulldogs, a glimpse into a tantalizing possible future for the Bulldogs. If I gaze into my crystal ball long enough, and with eyes squinted just so, I see a FSU team circa February 2015 featuring a starting lineup of something like Cezar Guerrero, Aaron Anderson, Marvelle Harris, Braeden Anderson and Robert Upshaw sitting right up there near the top of the Mountain West standings. Oh. And the Bulldogs also host New Mexico tonight.