CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on March 5th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
It started out way back when with three teams – UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico – the teams expected to compete for the conference title. It quickly became apparent that Colorado State deserved to be among that group as well, while a few other teams – Wyoming, Boise State and even Air Force – had their moments in the sun. At one point or another in the season, seven different Mountain West teams could have reasonably dreamed of NCAA Tournament bids to come. And now, with a week remaining in conference play, many of our questions have been answered. New Mexico’s the conference champ, there will be at least four teams dancing (and probably a fifth), and it will be a disappointment if the conference doesn’t advance at least one team to the Sweet Sixteen. All told, it is without a doubt the deepest this conference has ever been. It may not have the elite teams that the conference had in 2011 when both San Diego State and BYU advanced to the Sweet Sixteen (and each were just a shot away from the Elite Eight), but there is still a strong opportunity for one of these teams to make a big run over the next month.
Team of the Week
Boise State – While it was New Mexico that clinched the conference title outright this week, we’re going to give the nod to the Broncos, a team that went a long way towards securing an invitation to the Big Dance with wins over Nevada and Colorado State. Boise clamped down defensively this week and got big scoring outputs from Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks to ensure themselves a .500 conference record. They’d still be wise not to let up quite yet, but Leon Rice’s club has put itself in good position to earn just its sixth NCAA Tournament invitation in its history.
Player of the Week
Derrick Marks, Sophomore, Boise State – Way back in late November, Marks scored 18 straight points for his team in the second half of an upset at Creighton. This past week, with his team in need of another big win, Marks again went nuts in the second half, scoring 24 in a row for the Broncos and making all 11 of his shots from the field on his way to a career high 38 points in a big win over Colorado State. For the week, Marks averaged 22 points, six rebounds, 5.5 assists per game and shot a 68% eFG.
Newcomer of the Week
Colton Iverson, Senior, Colorado State – It wasn’t his most impressive week of the year, but Iverson’s the man here for the fourth time this season, averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds per game this week. And really, the fact that the guy averaged a double-double for the week and it was a somewhat disappointing performance probably goes a long way towards showing just how good he’s been.
Game of the Week
Air Force 72, Wyoming 66 – In a week where just two of the eight games in the conference were decided by single digits, this was the closest game. And it featured some interesting story lines. First, the Falcons’ sophomore guard and star-in-waiting Kamryn Williams went for career highs in both points and rebounds and threw down a pair of dunks in the closing minutes to help his team over the top. Meanwhile, Wyoming junior college transfer Nathan Sobey had the game of his career as well, making all seven of his shots, including six from deep, on his way to a career-high 22 points; only one other time had he reached as much as 10 points.
Game of the Upcoming Week
San Diego State at Boise State, March 9th, 1:30PM MST, NBC Sports Network – The Broncos have two massive games this week, starting with their trip to UNLV tonight, but the game against the Aztecs may be big for both teams. Presently, both teams are tied for four in the conference at 8-6, just a game back of both Colorado State and UNLV and a game ahead of Air Force. If somehow the Aztecs spit the bit against Air Force tomorrow night and the Broncos are unable to win in Vegas, both teams could be in dire need of an additional win in order to secure their spot in the field of 68. And, what’s more, if the standings hold as they are, this could be a preview of the quarterfinal round of the Mountain West tournament.
- New Mexico (25-4, 12-2): With everything good going on inside the Lobo program (a conference title, a #12 ranking in the AP and talk beginning to percolate about the team deserving a #1 seed), it is a shame that a negative story had to creep out of Albuquerque on Monday. But, in a way it is indicative of the state of the program that head coach Steve Alford felt the need to indefinitely suspend junior guard Demetrius Walker, with an explanation of “violation of team rules”. Walker’s minutes have dropped precipitously in recent weeks as his production has been sporadic at best this season. In the past four games, in fact, Walker hasn’t even left the bench and Alford acknowledged over the weekend that freshman Cleveland Thomas had passed him in the rotation. Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal commented that he didn’t expect that Walker would be reinstated this season, while Phillip Lopez of Albuquerque Sports Magazine expects that he’s played his last for the Lobos. A look ahead: That buzzkill aside, the Lobos wrap up their conference play with a trip to Reno to face a Nevada team that is already on spring break, then a visit to Colorado Springs to face a dangerous Air Force team.
- UNLV (22-7, 9-5): In a short week last week, the Rebels took advantage of some rest and blew out Nevada in Reno, their fourth straight win. Mixed in there are a pair of home wins over a couple very good teams (San Diego State and Colorado State) and a couple of blowout wins on the road against a couple of teams no longer completely interested in this season (Wyoming and Nevada). But, it is starting to appear like the Rebels will be, for once, peaking in March, rather than in November. However, still of significant concern is the health of Anthony Bennett and the ability for he and Mike Moser to coexist. Bennett came back from his freak shoulder injury and played 17 minutes against Nevada but failed to make a basket from the field and scored just one point.
Moser, however, thrived in the absence of Bennett, scoring 20 points, grabbing eight boards and looking confident. That second part is certainly reason for optimism, but it sure would be nice for head coach Dave Rice to see that talented twosome play well at the same time; only five times all season have both Bennett and Moser scored in double figures in the same game and the last time was January 12. A look ahead: The Rebels don’t have to leave home again until they find out where they’re playing in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll host Boise State tomorrow night, then Fresno State on Saturday, before hosting the Mountain West tournament at the Thomas & Mack next week.
- Colorado State (22-7, 9-5): Two Saturdays ago, Michael Lyons went for a career-high 45 points against the Rams. At the time it seemed like little more than a blip on the radar, easily forgotten because they still won the game, and fairly easily (despite a three-point final margin). Then last Saturday, Kendall Williams went for 46 against the Rams. Still, I was able to write it off somewhat because a lot of those shots Williams made were insanely good shots made in the face of tremendous defense. Still, a warning flag had been raised. This past Saturday alarms and sirens and flashing lights and grave concern was the response when Derrick Marks went for a career-high 38 points, including as we mentioned above, 24 straight points in the second half. I mean, clearly after like t10 straight points out of the guy, somebody was clued into the fact that Boise State was riding Marks and that the kid was hot, but nothing could be done to slow him. Then there’s this little nugget: on Wednesday night against Fresno State, Kevin Olekaibe scored 15 points in the first half (all on threes), then added another three at the start of the second half, but Larry Eustachy made a defensive adjustment and shifted Daniel Bejarano and/or Jon Octeus onto Olekaibe and, not only did he not score again, he didn’t attempt another shot.
However, for some reason on Saturday night at Boise, Bejarano and Octeus combined to play just 23 minutes and, for the most part, Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green were tasked with slowing Derrick Mark, something they did very poorly at. While Eikmeier and Green are clearly the more polished offensive players, Eustachy may have to toy with giving Bejarano and Octeus more run off the bench against high-powered guards. A look ahead: While Eustachy and company likely aren’t going to run into a guard tomorrow night on the Wyoming team that scares them a whole lot, on Saturday night they host Nevada. While the Wolf Pack are a disaster, guards Deonte Burton and Malik Story can fill it up in a big way. This is actually a really fortunate final regular season game for the Rams because, with a tourney bid likely wrapped up, they’ll have a chance to reassess their defense against elite scoring guards prior to the Mountain West tourney.
- San Diego State (20-8, 8-6): The Aztecs had one game last week and it was a tough one, a road trip to New Mexico. And, as has been the case anytime a Mountain West team has gone to The Pit this season, it ended in a loss for the road team. Of concern for the Aztecs is the fact that they haven’t won a game when they’ve shot a lower than 50 eFG% since January 26 (when they held those self-same Lobos to 34 points in Viejas). And given the fact that they’ve been seriously struggling to make open looks, that could spell danger. Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames are the team’s two best three-point shooters this season (39.2% and 38.8%, respectively), but Thames has made just 12 of his last 42 shots from the field (and five of 18 from deep), leaving Tapley alone as the sole bomber to count on. Maybe as Thames and James Rahon each bounce back from their nagging injuries, those two will come along, but in the meantime, this is a team with serious struggles with their jumpshots. A look ahead: The Aztecs finish with a tough pair: home against Air Force and then a trip to Boise for our Game of the Week. While the assumption is that the Aztecs are going to the NCAA Tournament, they’ve still got some work to do in order to insure that.
- Boise State (20-8, 8-6): Derrick Marks got all the pub above, but this is a complete team with a lot of players who can do a lot of different things. And for all of Marks’ explosiveness (he’s scored 23 or more seven times this season), he’s still not even the Broncos’ leading scorer. That designation falls to Anthony Drmic, who deserves strong consideration for a spot as a first-team all-conference player. This week Drmic carried the Broncos against Nevada with 26 points, and played Robin to Marks’ Batman on Saturday, chipping in 15 points along with six boards. The question about Drmic, and really the entire Boise team, is what can they do defensively. While there is no doubt that this team can efficiently and excitingly put the ball in the basket, they’re still ranked just 102nd in the nation in defensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy. A look ahead: The Broncos travel to Boise State and then host San Diego State. Just win, baby. Although a split would probably suffice.
- Air Force (16-11, 7-7): With Michael Lyons, Mike Fitzgerald, Todd Fletcher and Taylor Broekhuis all on the verge of graduating for the Falcons, and with their distant hopes of an at-large bid vanished, the question now for Dave Pilipovich and company is “what’s next?” On Tuesday night against Wyoming, the Falcons got the first glimpses of an answer when Kamryn Williams had a career-best night against Wyoming, making nine of 13 shots from the field for 25 points while also grabbing 10 boards – all of those numbers new career highs. For a guy averaging just 3.7 points and 2.6 rebounds this season, that kind of production is a clear outlier, but Williams has shown some punch in short bursts before. Whether he can step into a role as “the man” for the Falcons remains to be seen (and, frankly, the way the Academy plays, they don’t necessarily try to highlight one player), but there will be plenty of production that needs to be replaced next season. A look ahead: Barring an improbable run to the Mountain West tournament championship, the Falcons are an NIT team – at best. But, they’ll still have some chances to entertain their fans. They travel to San Diego State tomorrow night for a nationally televised game, then host New Mexico on Saturday in advance of the conference tourney.
- Fresno State (10-18, 4-11): We mentioned the possibility here last week, but it appears, unless Wyoming and/or Nevada somehow rise from the dead, the Bulldogs will avoid the 8/9 game and will be playing on Wednesday when the quarterfinals of the MW tourney tips off. And, while this is not a team that has a realistic chance of winning that tournament, Rodney Terry has this team playing its best ball of the season. This team defends like crazy, takes the air out of the ball and has a couple of shooters earning confidence, but the best days for this team lie in the not-too-distant future. Terry is going to have this team competing for its own NCAA Tournament bid by the time this current freshman class moves on from the Central Valley. A look ahead: The Bulldogs get the mid-week bye, then travel to UNLV on Saturday to face the Rebels. I wonder if they’ll just stick around until the tourney starts?
- Wyoming (18-11, 4-11): The Cowboys’ hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid effectively ended when Luke Martinez got stupid, but the details of the demise are mere evidence of the basketball gods’ desires to torture Wyoming fans. For the first six weeks or so of conference play, this shorthanded team proudly fought, scored a nice scalp with a win over San Diego State, but mostly came up on the short end of the stick. But in the past couple weeks things have gotten absurd. Leonard Washington went down with an ankle injury, only to briefly return for one game (Air Force) and then injure his back after ten minutes of action against New Mexico, never to return. There have been other nagging injuries along the way, but without Washington, this is a team clearly without a chance, evidenced by the better than 20-point margin of loss in the three games where he has been either out or limited by injury. A look ahead: The Cowboys close out their regular season tomorrow night with a visit from Colorado State. The status of Washington for the game is still up in the air.
- Nevada (12-14, 3-9): How’s this for a low point? In a 26-point loss at Boise State, the Wolf Pack allowed the Broncos to grab three more offensive rebounds (13) than the Wolf Pack made field goals (10). They turned the ball over seven times more than they put the ball in the hoop. They did get to the line 26 times (and made 23), but this looks for all the world to be a team whose two best players (Deonte Burton and Malik Story) don’t trust anybody else on the team (including each other) to do anything right. So Burton and Story try to go get their own, and when the opposition is able enough to gameplan to slow just two guys, the Wolf Pack are doomed. Not that they would stand much chance even if Story and Burton were sharing the ball, because they’re probably right that there is nobody else on this team capable of scoring consistently. A look ahead: The Wolf Pack host New Mexico and then travel to Colorado State, just prior to a bad Wyoming team putting them out of their misery in the 8/9 game of the Mountain West tourney. Looking even further ahead, while I have no expectation that David Carter’s job is in immediate jeopardy, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Nevada job will be open in March of 2014. Start polishing those resumes.