CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on February 19th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
As we look forward to the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas in just three weeks from now, we can also begin to look forward to future MW tourneys there, as this past week the conference announced that it approved a deal to keep the conference tourney in the Thomas & Mack Center for at least three more years after this March. And while the conference, fans, and media are all pleased, there are plenty of Mountain West coaches who, though unsurprised, are not happy with this arrangement. Steve Alford and Larry Shyatt are just two of the coaches who have gone on record opposing having to play for the league’s automatic bid on the home court of league rival UNLV, but with the MW Tourney having previously flopped in Denver and now an unmitigated success in Las Vegas (for example, this year the conference reports record ticket sales), odds are strong that the tournament location won’t be changing anytime soon.
As for this year’s tourney, now that we finally have some separation at the top of the conference, it looks like a two team race for the #1 seed in Vegas come March. With San Diego State dropping a pair of games and UNLV getting bitten by Air Force on the road, New Mexico and Colorado State now sit atop the conference standings, three games in the loss column ahead of UNLV, SDSU and Air Force. While this weekend’s game between those two at Fort Collins will go a long way towards determining that winner, we’ve still got a lot of basketball to play.
Team of the Week
Colorado State – The Rams got a big final minute from Dorian Green on Wednesday night to knock off San Diego State in Fort Collins, then went on the road Saturday and held on for a rare road win over Air Force. Larry Eustachy’s bunch is still making its hay by dominating teams on the glass; they haven’t had an offensive rebound percentage lower than 35% since January 2, and they’re regularly turning those second chance opportunities into points, putting the Rams in the top 10 nationally in offensive efficiency. And yet, despite perhaps the best rebounding team in memory, a rotation loaded with experienced seniors, and a six-game winning streak (as well as 27 home wins in a row), for some reason people are still a little leery about this team. Nevertheless, if they can extend that home winning streak to 28 on Saturday night against New Mexico, regardless of what happens tomorrow night at UNLV, the Rams should be the conference favorite.
Player of the Week
Michael Lyons, Senior, Air Force – The easiest choice I’ve ever had – all the other candidates this week have conceded. Lyons averaged 36 points per game and shot a spectacular 69.6% eFG this week in leading his Falcons to a home win over UNLV and getting them to within shouting distance of Colorado State at the buzzer. In fact, Mountain West Player of the Week? That’s aiming low; this guy should be the National Player of the Week. And, along the way, he vaulted himself right back into the conversation for Mountain West Player of the Year, a race he had lost ground in last week when the Falcons dropped a pair of road games.
Newcomer of the Week
J.J. O’Brien, Sophomore, San Diego State – It wasn’t a great week to be an Aztecs fan, what with two road losses to top-tier MW teams by a total of eight points. But there is still plenty of reason to be hopeful for the future, and point forward J.J. O’Brien is a big part of that reason. O’Brien double-doubled for just the second time this season on Saturday against UNLV, going for 15/11 against the talented Rebels frontline. For the week, O’Brien averaged 13.5 points and eight rebounds per game, while knocking in 15-of-25 attempts from the field and providing a solid defensive presence and a play-making offensive force.
Game of the Week
UNLV 72, San Diego State 70 – At this point, there may be no better rivalry in the nation than the twice-yearly (at least) battle between these two. Following UNLV’s two-point win over the Aztecs on Saturday night, the last seven matchups between these two have been absolute classics. Oh, and the eighth one back? The one that wasn’t a classic? That was just for the Mountain West conference championship in 2010. Given that backdrop, Saturday night was just another edge-of-your-seat battle between two elite Mountain West programs. The Rebels used a 14-0 run in the middle of the second half to build an eight-point lead, but the Aztecs rallied back as Chase Tapley went nuts, scoring the last 10 points for SDSU, getting his team back to within a one-point deficit with a three with 20 seconds left. And then, as the Rebels attempted to inbound the ball after that three, J.J. O’Brien tied up Bryce Dejean-Jones, earning his team possession of the ball. But, on the final possession, Jamaal Franklin held the ball for slightly too long, then was called for a travel when he finally attacked the hoop, sewing up the game for the Rebels and earning them a season sweep of their rival.
Game of the Upcoming Week
New Mexico at Colorado State, February 23, 2:00 PM MST, NBC Sports Network – Prior to this battle on Saturday afternoon for the conference lead, the Rams have to travel to Vegas and face UNLV tomorrow night. Meanwhile, New Mexico gets to sit at home and enjoy a mid-week bye. Advantage Lobos. Of course, Colorado State hasn’t lost at home since November 19, 2011 (ironically, to a Larry Eustachy-coached Southern Mississippi team). Advantage Rams. In the first game these teams played at The Pit in late January, the Lobos built a 20-point second half lead and appeared to be cruising to an easy win. However, Colorado State made a late run to tighten the final margin up to five, although the game was never seriously in doubt. The Rams dominated the Lobos on the glass, grabbing better than 43% of their own misses, but New Mexico could be the one team in the conference that could legitimately challenge CSU’s dominance on the boards; while the Rams are the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country, New Mexico is ninth in the nation in defensive rebounding.
- Colorado State (21-4, 8-2): I’m not exactly unveiling a huge secret when I’ll tell you that it is a lot easier to win basketball games when you shoot the ball well than when you don’t. But, that’s the unifying theme in the Colorado State’s four losses this season. Five times this season have the Rams had an effective field goal percentage lower than 43%. They’ve lost four of those games, with the lone exception being the season-opening seven-point win over Montana. Given the number of second chances the Rams earn for themselves on the offensive glass, if they can get efficient shooting nights from guys like Wes Eikmeier, Dorian Green and Greg Smith, this team is going to be awful tough to beat. A look ahead: Massive week for the Rams, with the trip to UNLV tomorrow night and then a visit from New Mexico over the weekend. We already know that this is a good team; this week the Rams have a chance to put in their claim for greatness.
- New Mexico (22-4, 9-2): There are a lot of things to like about this Lobo team. They defend like mad, they rebound the ball well, they get to the free throw line regularly and they do a great job of coming away with wins in tight games. But, all that being said, this is a team that is rated 123rd in the nation in offensive efficiency. This is a team shooting an effective field goal percentage of 46.9%, good for 245th in the nation. There are only five guys on this team with offensive ratings better than 100, and nobody with an ORtg better than 107. It is perfectly within the realm of possibility that this team will fight and scrap and claw and somehow come away with a Mountain West regular season title. That said, any type of deep run in the NCAA Tournament would be quite a surprise. A look ahead: With the mid-week bye on their side this week, it is all eyes on the battle with Colorado State on Saturday afternoon.
- UNLV (18-7, 6-5): The Rebels are 15-1 at home this season; away from the Thomas & Mack they are 4-6, with losses to teams like Fresno State, Air Force and North Carolina mixed in there. Given that UNLV will not be playing any NCAA Tournament games in the city limits of Las Vegas, they need to figure out how to get the job done away from home. One suggestion: focus on defense. In their big road win against San Diego State, Khem Birch blocked five shots and helped control the glass on both ends of the floor as the Rebels held the Aztecs to a 41 eFG%. While the offense has come and gone from game to game for the young Rebs, if they can build off the foundation of solid defensive basketball, this team can still be a force in March. A look ahead: The Rebels host Colorado State tomorrow night, then travel to Wyoming on Saturday. While scoring a big home win over the Rams would be much appreciated, that Rebels will have to be careful about not giving it back in Laramie.
- San Diego State (18-7, 6-5): A pair of road losses this week leave the Aztecs on the outside looking in when it comes to the race for the conference title, but this is still a team that can make some noise this year. But, in order for that to happen, task one is to get healthy. Chase Tapley appears to be well on his way back to full strength (he averaged 19 points and three steals this week while knocking down seven threes), but just as we’re about ready to take him off the injury report, James Rahon goes on. Rahon, who had been turning the corner in recent weeks, knocking down seven of his last 13 three-point attempts, sprained his shoulder in the opening minutes of the loss to UNLV. Meanwhile, Xavier Thames continues to struggle with a back injury that has caused him to miss four of the last nine games and see a dip in his minutes. A look ahead: Nothing is ever easy in the Mountain West, but this week’s schedule for the Aztecs is about as kind as it could get: they don’t leave home and they host Wyoming and Nevada, two of the bottom three teams in the conference. A relatively easy 2-0 week is a possibility.
- Boise State (16-8, 4-6): A 4-6 record with six games remaining in conference play is not a great thing for a team on the bubble. But, there is both good news and bad news for the Broncos in regards to the remainder of the schedule. The good news? They’ve got four of their remaining six at home and one of those two road games is at Fresno State, the worst team in the conference. The bad news is the close the regular season with this triumvirate: home against Colorado State, at UNLV, home against San Diego State. There’s a chance Boise could be in the bubble conversation with a sub-.500 conference record, but that’s better not left to chance. In order to get to an 8-8 conference record, BSU needs to win four of their remaining six games. A look ahead: First things first for Boise. With Air Force coming to town and a trip to Fresno planned for Saturday, now would be a very good time for the start of a winning streak.
- Air Force (15-9, 6-5): The win over UNLV last Wednesday was a big one for Air Force’s at-large hopes. Given UNLV’s RPI of 19, it immediately goes down as a very good win for the Falcons, with home wins over Boise State and San Diego State and a road win over Wyoming the only other meat on these bones. Five games remain on the Falcons conference slate, and a 3-2 record over that stretch is probably the minimum requirement for continued at-large consideration. Winning at Fresno State on March 2 is imperative to avoid a black mark on their resume, while it would sure be nice if they could knock off New Mexico on the final day of the regular season to earn another excellent resume win. A look ahead: The Falcons have the weekend bye this week, but this is still a big week for them. Tomorrow night’s game at Boise State is probably bigger for the Broncos than the Falcons, but at this point, both teams could sure use that win.
- Wyoming (18-7, 4-7): Just when a little something starts to go right for the Cowboys, another big barrier falls right in their way. Give credit to Wyoming for what they did this week – they hosted the two worst teams in the conference and came away with a pair of much-needed wins. The highlight was a come-from-behind overtime miracle against Fresno State in which Leonard Washington willed his team to a victory. Alas, along the way, Washington injured an ankle and is now doubtful for tonight’s game at San Diego State. You never want to count out a Larry Shyatt-coached team, but Washington is nearly irreplaceable for the Cowboys. Last week he did just about everything, averaging 15 points, 12.5 boards, 3.5 steaks and three blocks per game. If it weren’t for Michael Lyons’ offensive explosion, there’s your MW Player of the Week. A look ahead: The Cowboys travel to SDSU tonight, then host UNLV over the weekend. If somehow they can find their way to 8-8 in conference play, they’ve got a very strong case for at-large inclusion. Unfortunately, the path to 8-8 is littered with road trips to San Diego State, Air Force and New Mexico and visits from UNLV and Colorado State. Consider getting to 8-8 means they can only lose one of those games and they expect to be without Washington for at least tonight’s game and there is almost no chance that Wyoming is going dancing this season.
- Nevada (12-12, 3-7): The Wolf Pack had four assists on 19 made field goals while turning the ball over on 27% of all of their possessions against Wyoming this week. Oh, and they let the Cowboys post a 60 eFG% against them. Given that this team is a year removed from a 28-7 campaign and a 13-1 conference season, you have to assume David Carter’s job is safe. But man, there isn’t a lot here to get excited about and this appears to be a roster in need of an almost complete overhaul. A look ahead: A win tonight over Fresno State likely ends the possibility that Nevada will finish in last place, but aside from that there’s not a lot to play for, other than playing the spoiler. The next episode in that story will take place Saturday when they travel to San Diego State.
- Fresno State (8-16, 2-9): Only seven times in 24 games have the Bulldogs posted a 50 or better eFG% and it has been more than three weeks since it last happened. Defensively, this team has the ability to make things very uncomfortable for their opponent, but there is very little offensive polish here. Yet. A look ahead: For the Bulldogs to avoid the basement, they need to score a win tonight at Nevada Beyond that, they host Boise State and Air Force in Fresno and wins in either of those games would at least go a long way towards spoiling the seasons of those teams.