CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on February 27th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
For weeks and weeks the constant talk around the conference was of confusion; who is the best team, where is the separation? Now, all of a sudden we look up with still a full two weeks remaining in conference play and, barring a collapse, New Mexico is going to take home at least a piece of the conference title (and a #1 seed in the conference tournament) and is a strong favorite to earn the regular season title outright. Along the way, Steve Alford has probably sealed up the MW Coach of the Year award, while teams like Colorado State, UNLV and San Diego State look locked into NCAA Tournament bids. In other words, what was once a confusing mess (and I mean that word in a good way) of a conference is now pretty much crystal clear. Yeah, we still have to settle who exactly gets what seeds, both in Las Vegas and in the NCAA Tournament bracket, but New Mexico has clearly separated itself from the pack.
Team of the Week
New Mexico – While it is not yet sealed, the Lobos went a long way towards earning themselves a Mountain West regular season title this week when they went into Fort Collins, interrupted Colorado State’s 27-game home winning streak and came away with an impressive road win. We’ve spent a lot of time this year talking about what the Lobos can’t do and where their weaknesses may lie, but this far along this much is apparent: These Lobos are tough and they know how to win ballgames.
Player of the Week
Kendall Williams, Junior, New Mexico – For the second consecutive week, there is no serious debate about the winner here as Williams went for 46 points, knocking down 10 increasingly improbable three-pointers while doing a little bit of everything for the Lobos in one of the greatest individual performances anywhere in the nation this season. For a guy who hadn’t scored more than 20 since December 22, it was also one of the most unlikely performances, but it is a glimpse into the type of ceiling this ridiculously talented junior has.
Newcomer of the Week
Colton Iverson, Senior, Colorado State – While the Rams came up on the short end of the stick in both of their games this week, it wasn’t due to lack of production from their senior transfer. Iverson was his typical efficient self, averaging 20 points, 12.5 boards and 34.5 minutes per game of action this week.
Game of the Week
UNLV 61, Colorado State 59 – Both Colorado State games this week were wildly entertaining. But while the outcome of the New Mexico game was hardly in doubt in the final minute, this battle in Vegas went down to the wire. After getting outscored by 11 in the first half, the Rams came out of the halftime locker room on fire, scoring 19 of the first 27 points in the second half to get back to even with still more than 13 minutes to play. When Dorian Green knocked down a pair of free throws with just under two minutes in the game, the Rams were up two and looked to be in good position to earn a big road win. But the Rams would never score again, while allowing a Bryce Dejean-Jones offensive rebound and putback to tie the game. And then an Anthony Marshall jumper with a waning shot and game clock sealed the deal and sent the home crowd home happy.
Game of the Upcoming Week
Colorado State at Boise State, March 2, 6:00 PM MST, No TV – Unfortunately there is no television broadcast for this one, but this is a huge game this weekend for many reasons. First and foremost, on the side of the home club, the Broncos are squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble and they need to add a couple good items in the plus column between now and Selection Sunday; a home win against a top-20 RPI team is a good opportunity to do just that. As for the Rams, however, following a pair of losses last week in which their hopes for a Mountain West regular season title likely went away, they need some good things to happen this week. A home win against Fresno State tonight is likely, but a road win against a good Bronco team would do a lot more to reestablish confidence in Fort Collins.
- New Mexico (23-4, 10-2): For most of the regular season here, we’ve talked about how Steve Alford needed one of his guards – either Kendall Williams, Tony Snell or Hugh Greenwood – to take on the role of a big-time scorer for an otherwise offensively-challenged team. Well, on a day when New Mexico’s top ten defensive team got torched to the tune of 1.19 points per possession (get this – the first time since their December 22 loss to South Dakota State that they’ve allowed more than one point per possession in a game), they got a once-in-a-career type performance out of Williams. It started out innocuously enough with a single made free throw a couple minutes into the game, but by the two-minute mark in the second half, Williams had just knocked down three consecutive threes with increasingly attentive defense in his face, preceded by a nice dish to Cameron Bairstow for a deuce and capped off with a dunk to put the Lobos up six. And while Williams’ outburst was fantastic and, in some ways, overdue (okay, I didn’t expect the guy to go for 46, but he’s a guy that is capable of averaging 20 rather than the 10 he had been averaging in his previous nine games), is counting on somebody to provide a career offensive day against major competition sustainable? Not a chance. But, for one day at least, Williams’ output overshadows the fact that Snell blows hot and cold when he’s capable of dominating and that, for all of Greenwood’s intangibles, he’s probably not a guy who should be expected to be a regular offensive contributor. One day of Williams being an all-league performer is better than none, but realistically, while the Lobos defense is going to keep them in most, if not all, of their games going forward, in order to live up to the hype surrounding this team (a two-seed? Really? Do you think this team looks anything like a two-seed?), they’ve got to spend the next three weeks honing their offense.
Otherwise, this turns into 2010 all over again where a gaudy conference record built on tons of close wins earns the Lobos a seed that overestimates their true ability and finds them washing out prior to the Sweet 16. All of which is a long-winded way of saying, congrats on the conference title, Lobos. A look ahead: A two-game conference lead with four to play means two more wins (home against San Diego State and Wyoming, followed by road games at Nevada and Air Force) earns New Mexico at least a share of the conference title. But with that schedule, the goal should certainly be three wins and an outright title. Either way, barring a complete collapse, the Lobos are your #1 seed in the Mountain West tournament.
- Colorado State (21-6, 8-4): So, yeah, the sky is falling for the Rams, right? After 25 really strong performances (okay, 24 – their opener against Montana was pretty weak), we can discount CSU because of a last-second two-point loss at UNLV and a home loss to New Mexico where they ran into an all-time, climb-aboard-my-back-and-I’ll-carry-you performance by an opposing player and yet were still within striking distance with a minute left. Sure, the fact that Michael Lyons and Kendall Williams have lit up the Rams for a combined 91 points in the last two weeks is concerning. But if anything, I come out of last week even more convinced of CSU’s legitimacy. Very few teams in the country were going to be able to slow Williams on Saturday, and even fewer teams were going to be able to take the hits that Williams kept delivering and yet remain in contact. No, while I can understand the disappointment around Fort Collins in response to losing that home game in front of that great of a crowd, I can’t bring myself to kill the Rams too much for those pair of losses. A look ahead: The remaining schedule for the Rams is exceedingly manageable: home against Fresno State, at Boise State and then Wyoming, then back home to host Nevada. The two road games will be tough (especially if the Cowboys gets Leonard Washington back), but the Rams should win at least three of those four, and nobody would be all that surprised if they rode into Vegas on a four-game winning streak.
- UNLV (21-7, 8-5): All season long I’ve been dismissing the Rebels’ struggles on the road with thoughts like (1) this is a young team that is still learning and (2) at least this isn’t like the last couple years where the team gets their best performances out of the way in November and December. And, here we are on the doorstep of March and UNLV is riding a three-game winning streak and is coming off an absolute scorched-earth win at Wyoming (albeit a Wyoming team that, due to injury and other factors, is presently one of the least talented teams in recent Mountain West history). Is this the year it all clicks into place at exactly the right time for the Rebels? Well, certainly some of that depends on how quickly Dave Rice can get freshman superstar Anthony Bennett back from a shoulder injury that was apparently sustained in his sleep?!?!
Bennett played just four minutes in the win at Wyoming and was apparently in so much pain the dressing and undressing was a significant hassle. While the injury allowed Mike Moser to get some extra run and put up his best numbers (11 points and seven boards) since early January, the Rebs need Bennett to be healthy. Oh, and let’s not overlook the fact that celebrating a Moser 11-point, seven-rebound performance as some sort of breakthrough represents a serious drop in production from a guy who was an all-conference performer last year and an All-American contender in the preseason. A look ahead: The good news on the Bennett front is that the Rebels get the midweek bye, so Bennett’s got a full week to rest himself in advance of a trip up north to face in-state rival Nevada.
- San Diego State (20-7, 8-5): The Aztecs coasted through a pair of home wins against lower-tier conference opponents this week, but did so in style, racking up a 28-point win against Wyoming and a 13-point win against Nevada. The health of point guard Xavier Thames is going to be a running theme for the rest of the season, but at this point it looks like the junior is committed to playing through pain as he averaged 28 minutes this week, but is clearly not his normal self – he made just 2-of-12 field goal attempts and averaged just two points. But, there was one really nice sign for Steve Fisher and company this week as sophomore transfer Dwayne Polee II had his best game as an Aztec, knocking down three threes on his way to 16 points in 18 minutes in the rout of Wyoming. Disregard the fact that Polee, a 22.9% three-point shooter in his career prior to that game, probably shouldn’t be shooting five three-pointers in 18 minutes and just consider it a nice breakout for a guy who had been expected to have a much bigger role this season. A look ahead: The last big collision between members of the conference’s “Big Four” comes tonight when the Aztecs travel to New Mexico. Maybe they catch the Lobos napping a bit after their big win, or maybe Kendall Williams is still smoldering, but either way, expect one heck of a battle. The Aztecs then get the weekend bye before preparing for a sneaky-tough final week with a visit from Air Force and a visit to Boise State.
- Boise State (18-8, 6-6): All the teams above this point are going to be invited to the NCAA Tournament, and will likely have pretty good seeds. All the teams below this point likely need to win the Mountain West tournament to get an invitation. That leaves Boise as the lone team on the bubble. And boy, on the bubble they are. Look at just about everybody who’s got a reputation as being knowledgeable about this kind of stuff and just about all of them have Boise either among the last four in or the first four out. Jerry Palm has them on the good side, Joe Lunardi seems to have them a bit lower than most everybody else, putting them as the sixth team out (behind Indiana State, Southern Miss, Kentucky and St. John’s, among others, I’m not sure how), while our own Daniel Evans has them the first team out. All of which is to say that these last couple weeks are absolutely crucial for the Broncos. And there is good news and bad news in the remaining schedule. A look ahead: The good news? The Broncos have three of their last four at home, and they’ve got plenty of chances to score good wins against teams among the top four in the conference. The bad news is they’ve got to play three of those last four games against three of the top teams in the conference. It all starts tonight with a must-win game against league doormat Nevada, but then the Broncos have to gets wins somewhere here: home against Colorado State, at UNLV, home against San Diego State. As a bonus, the Broncos, regardless of what happens, will be nicely positioned to get another chance to get a quality win against a good team in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West. All told, let’s say three wins in their next five games gets them in. That’s either a 3-1 finish to the regular season and a loss in the MW tourney quarterfinals, or a 2-2 finish to the regular season and a win in the MW tourney quarterfinals.
- Air Force (15-10, 6-6): The Falcons’ slim chances of an at-large big took a hit last Wednesday when they went to Boise and came away with a 12-point loss, dropping them back to .500 in the conference. Michael Lyons cooled off, the defense couldn’t stop anything in the second half and a one-point halftime deficit swelled. While, all things considered, it has been a good season for Falcon faithful, odds are it ends in an NIT bid. A look ahead: Unless. The scenario by which Air Force has a prayer likely includes a pair of wins this week (at home against Wyoming, on the road at Fresno) and then wins in two of their next three games (at San Diego State, home against New Mexico, then a quarterfinal matchup against somebody like UNLV or San Diego State in the Mountain West tourney). Even that 4-1 stretch only gets Air Force right up to the bubble. If things break wrong during championship week, even that improbable run leaves them on the outside looking in.
- Wyoming (18-9, 4-9): The cumulative score at halftime of Wyoming’s two games this week was: Opponent 69, Wyoming 25. With Leonard Washington out with an ankle injury and Luke Martinez still sidelined by immaturity, it was little more than open auditions for playing time in 2013-14 in the second halves of both games. For what it’s worth, sophomore Derek Cooke Jr. had 15 points and nine rebounds against UNLV, while sophomore Matt Sellers went for 10 points in nine minutes against San Diego State. A look ahead: The Cowboys travel to Air Force and New Mexico this week before wrapping up their season early next week by host Colorado State.
- Fresno State (9-17, 3-10): The Bulldogs won the battle of the basement last Tuesday by storming back from a 10-point half-time deficit to force overtime on a Kevin Foster three-pointer in the final seconds of regulation. From there, they controlled the extra period and earned themselves a shot at improbably escaping the 8/9 game in the Mountain West tournament. While teams like Wyoming and Nevada are on autopilot as they play out the string, Rodney Terry should be credited for keeping his team competing. A look ahead: The Bulldogs have gotten to this point, but actually winning another game and avoiding the 8/9 game is another question entirely, as their remaining schedule is, shall we say, unpleasant: at Colorado State, home against Air Force, then at UNLV after a mid-week bye.
- Nevada (12-14, 3-9): Head coach David Carter was not pleased with his team following their collapse at the end of the Fresno State game. He called the game a low point in his 14 years (both as an assistant and as the head man) at Nevada and promised big changes next year. And then he got to work implementing those changes as he cut ties with senior guard Patrick Nyeko. While I won’t comment on the circumstances surrounding the Nyeko decision, Carter’s promised changes are a necessity as there isn’t enough talent projected back next season to have any chance of competing in this conference. While I don’t think we’ll see something akin to Larry Krystkowiak’s complete tear-down and rebuild of the Utah roster, there are more pieces here that need to leave than there are that should stay. A look ahead: Let’s go ahead and call it right now: a 3-13 conference record for the Wolf Pack. The remaining schedule? At Boise State, home against UNLV and New Mexico, at Colorado State. There is enough firepower between Malik Story and Deonte Burton to spring an upset somewhere along the line, but I get the feeling this team has packed it in.