Mountain West Season Wrap-Up and Tournament PreviewPosted by AMurawa on March 12th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
- New Mexico (26-5, 13-3)
- Colorado State (24-7, 11-5)
- UNLV (23-8, 10-6)
- San Diego State (21-9, 9-7)
- Boise State (21-9, 9-7)
- Air Force (17-12, 8-8)
- Fresno State (11-18, 5-11)
- Wyoming (18-12, 4-12)
- Nevada (12-18, 3-13)
Player of the Year. Jamaal Franklin, Junior, San Diego State. The fact that the Aztecs finished four games out of first place and just a game above .500 in conference play could rightfully give one pause in selecting the reigning MW Player of the Year to repeat, but with several teammates slowed by injury, Franklin stepped up his numbers almost across the board. With his minutes ticking up just slightly, his point total took a minor dip, while his rebound numbers jumped and, most impressively with point guard Xavier Thames dealing with injuries all year long, his assist averaged doubled. No, he’s nowhere near a finished product – he turns it over too much and actually got worse shooting from range – but in a conference with no dominant players, Franklin’s consistent production (he’s scored in double figures in all but one game) earns the nod. Kendall Williams and Colton Iverson were considered as well, in part due to their impact on their team’s successes, but both New Mexico and Colorado State earned their superior records on the strength of team efforts.
Coach of the Year. Steve Alford, New Mexico. At the start of the year, while the Lobos were considered one of three teams as favorites in the conference, they were largely seen as trailing UNLV and San Diego State. And when all is said and done, they come away with a conference title by two games. Behind a lock-down defense and a patchwork offense, the Lobos won 11 games by two possessions or less. He’s done a great job developing Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow along the frontline and got solid production out of his backcourt. And we can’t discount the job he and his staff did in putting together a schedule that earned New Mexico the fourth-ranked strength of schedule and an RPI of #2.
Freshman of the Year. Anthony Bennett, Freshman, UNLV. During non-conference play, Bennett was regularly a double-double threat and a constant presence on the highlight reels. His numbers dipped in conference play, in part due to a late injury (he only scored in double figures in conference play nine times in 16 games) and he still hasn’t figured out how to play effectively with Mike Moser, but despite those late dips, he’s still the runaway winner of our Freshman of the Year award.
Newcomer of the Year, Colton Iverson, Senior, Colorado State. Entering conference play, Bennett was the favorite for the conference’s best newcomer. But while Bennett’s performance dipped, Iverson’s never did. With 13 double-doubles to his name, not only is Iverson the clear choice here, he was a strong contender for Player of the Year.
Defensive Player of the Year. Anthony Marshall, Senior, UNLV. As you’ll see below, I left Marshall off of two teams worth of all-conference players. And frankly, I feel really bad about this. So, consider this a consolation prize – and one well-deserved. Aside from taking over point guard duties for the first time in his career, Marshall has again been a defensive catalyst for the Rebels, who have displayed their best defense in years, giving up an adjusted 0.88 points per possession. Backed by shotblockers in the back line like Khem Birch and Anthony Bennett, and with fellow senior ballhawk Justin Hawkins, Marshall harassment of opposing point guards helps makes the Rebs the best defense in a conference with plenty of great defenses.
Most Improved Player: Alex Kirk, Sophomore, New Mexico. To say that Kirk has improved from last season ain’t saying much, as the seven-footer took a medical redshirt last season due to a back injury. But not only was it amazing how Kirk shook off that injury without so much as a hint of a problem, he showed tremendous improvement over the game he flashed as a freshman. Nearly doubling his minutes from two seasons back, Kirk displayed a good inside-out offensive punch, but a great rebounding and shotblocking presence inside.
All-Mountain West Teams
- G Kendall Williams, Jr, New Mexico (14.0 PPG, 5.0 APG, 3.6 RPG)
- G Michael Lyons, Sr, Air Force (18.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.4 APG)
- F Jamaal Franklin, Jr, San Diego State (17.0 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 3.1 APG)
- F Anthony Drmic, So, Boise State (17.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.4 APG)
- C Colton Iverson, Sr, Colorado State (14.6 PPG, 9.7 RPG)
- G Dorian Green, Sr, Colorado State (13.1 PPG, 3.9 APG, 2.6 RPG)
- G Chase Tapley, Sr, San Diego State (13.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.8 APG)
- G Derrick Marks, So, Boise State (16.4 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.7 RPG)
- F Anthony Bennett, Fr, UNLV (15.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG)
- C Alex Kirk, So, New Mexico (12.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG)
Power Rankings and Tournament Preview
While it has been another great season of conference play, the real brilliance of the Mountain West occurs in March in Las Vegas when the conference tournament begins. With the deepest set of teams this conference has ever seen, we’ve probably got five teams locked in to NCAA Tournament bids, but Boise State and San Diego State, who open tournament play against each other, probably each want to win that game, just to make sure.
1. New Mexico 26-5, 13-3 (Projected NCAA Seed Range: #2-4)
Season Review: All year long, people on the outside looking in, including myself, have been waiting for the Lobos to falter. Twelve straight wins to start the season were nice, but a home loss to South Dakota State just prior to Christmas seem to indicate this was a team overachieving, and a 14-point loss at Saint Louis on New Year’s Eve felt like further justification for doubting this team. And you can even point to certain isolated incidents in MW conference play (for instance, that 34-point abomination at San Diego State) to further batter this team with. But, that’s just it – those are isolated incidents. And, over the course of 31 games to this point, the Lobos have proven time and again their toughness and their ability to win pretty games just as well as ugly ones.
Tournament Preview: Still, this is always going to be a team in constant need of proving itself. If, like in 2009-10 when the Lobos lost just three regular season games, then were promptly sent home in the semis of the MW Tournament and then in the round of 32 (as a three seed) in the Big Dance, the Lobos succumb to early exits in the next couple events, all their hard work will be written off. Back in 2010, it was San Diego State who ended UNM’s MW Tourney run in the semis, and it is quite possible that should the Lobos hope to get to the championship game on Saturday afternoon, they’ll need to beat the Aztecs in the semis on Friday evening.
2. Colorado State 24-7, 11-5 (Projected NCAA Seed Range: #4-6)
Season Review: Larry Eustachy’s first season in Fort Collins goes down as an astonishing success, as the team put together their best regular season in recent memory. The team was remade as a dominant rebounding team, and they’re much more efficient on either end of the court than they were last season when they were bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the first round. But the basic facts remain: this is a team that is much better on the offensive end than they are defensively. In recent weeks they’ve been regularly lit up by opposing guards and, while they’ve got the offense to stick around in shootouts, they’ll need to tighten up their perimeter defense in order to reach their potential.
Tournament Preview: The last couple of years, the Rams came to Las Vegas needing to make a splash in order to secure an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. That isn’t an issue this season – the Rams will certainly hear their name called on Selection Sunday – but in order to win their first Mountain West Tournament title since 2003, they’ll need to withstand a tough Fresno State team, potentially get past UNLV in the semis on the Rebels home court and then take care of business against the survivor of the other side of the bracket.
3. UNLV 23-8, 10-6 (Projected NCAA Seed Range: #5-7)
Season Review: Just when we thought the Rebels were on their way to playing their best basketball of the season, they had their five-game winning streak snapped in the final game of the regular season against Fresno State in front of their own Thomas & Mack crowd. Last week in this spot we noted how Mike Moser and Anthony Bennett have only scored in double figures in the same game five times this year, and going into the tournament, that number remains the same. And against FSU, despite both players earning plenty of minutes, they combined for 6-of-19 shooting. There is more than enough talent on this team, but even now more than 31 games into the season, those two players are unsure what their roles are and how to peacefully coexist with each other. And time is running out for that to change.
Tournament Preview: Despite that bad loss to Fresno State, let’s chalk that up to a mere case of Rebel three-pointers not connecting (19% on 21 attempts), while the Bulldogs were on fire from deep (47.4% on 19 attempts). This team really is playing its best hoops of the season just in time for March. The last time the Rebels allowed an opponent to score better than one point per possession in a game was the day before Valentine’s Day and, even if the Bennett/Moser conundrum never gets solved, this is a UNLV team that can make some noise just on defense alone. If, somehow, Dave Rice is able to conjure up some March magic and get his team cooking offensively, the sky is the limit.
4. San Diego State 21-9, 9-7 (Projected NCAA Seed Range: #7-11)
Season Review: The Aztecs have been limited by injuries all season long and they’ve struggled folding in newcomers to their solid returning core. But they’ve got 21 wins, no bad losses and a smothering defense – this should be an NCAA Tournament team even if they do somehow lose to Boise State for the second time in a week. And with point guard Xavier Thames slowly but surely seeming to put his back injury behind me, Steve Fisher’s team could be ready to come together at just the right time.
Tournament Preview: The Aztecs haven’t won three-straight games in conference play all season long; I’m not sure why we should trust them to do so all of a sudden. But then again, this is a team that has won two of the last three MW tourney titles, and with vets like Tapley, Franklin and Thames, anything is possible.
5. Boise State 21-9, 9-7 (Projected NCAA Seed Range: #7-11)
Season Review: Last season, the Broncos were decimated by injury on their way to a last-place finish, but they got enough experience for a group of talented youngsters that you could see the potential for special things down the road. This season, sophomores Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic each took a big step forward, with both earning all-conference consideration, and under Leon Rice, the Broncos turned into a very good offensive team. Defensively, they’re still a work in progress, but their defense has made considerable progress as the season has gone on.
Tournament Preview: With an RPI of 37, a good non-conference win at Creighton and home wins against UNLV and Colorado State already in the bag, this should very much be an NCAA Tournament team. But for this team to make noise in Las Vegas this week, they’ll need to pair their strong offense with their best defensive performance. The last three times the Broncos have played the Aztecs, including last year’s MW quarterfinal heartbreak loss to a Jamaal Franklin buzzer-beating shot, the games have been decided by a grand total of eight points. In other words, strap on your seat belt for that one.
6. Air Force 17-12, 8-8 (Projected: NIT)
Season Review: The Falcons are 25th in the nation in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Defensively, however, not so much. Still, they’ve locked in their first winning season since 2007-08 and they’ve provided their dedicated group of fans with an exciting season to remember. With wins over New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State and Boise State, they’ve shown their ability to beat just about anybody in this conference, but it’s been more than a month since they’ve last won back-to-back games.
Tournament Preview: Their results show their ability to go out and get anybody in this conference. And they’ve certainly played UNLV – their quarterfinal opponent – very well this season, beating them by 15 at Clune and taking the Rebels to overtime back in mid-January. But winning multiple games against the best of the best in this conference over the course of a couple days? That seems like too much to expect. Still, this is a team that could turn in some exciting performances in the NIT.
7. Fresno State 11-18, 5-11
Season Review: Poor Rodney Terry. Dude’s been coaching his butt off. And, on Saturday night, it looked like he had really gotten through to highly regarded freshman center Robert Upshaw, who contributed six points, 11 boards, two blocks and a ton of positive energy in 21 minutes of play in the win at UNLV. Then, yesterday, word came down that Upshaw had been suspended indefinitely – for the second time this season – for a “violation of athletic department policy.” Yup. If Upshaw can get his act together, both he and this Bulldog team have a bright future ahead of them. If he continues to “violate athletic department policy,” his career may go up in smoke.
Tournament Preview: The way the Bulldogs slow the game down and defend like their shorts are on fire, they’ve got the ability to play with anybody in this conference. But ironically, the Bulldogs’ defeat of UNLV on Saturday night ensured that they would not be playing the Rebels – a team they swept in the regular season – in the quarterfinals. Instead, they’ll face a Colorado State team that has dominated them on the boards in their two meetings.
8. Wyoming 18-12, 4-12
Season Review: Pre-Luke Martinez bar fight Wyoming was an undefeated team with balanced offense (they had scored 62 points or better in 11 of their 12 wins) and tough defense (they had allowed more than 62 points just twice). Post-Luke Martinez bar fight Wyoming has gone 6-12 and has only reached that 62-point mark twice, while allowing that total or more in nine different games.
Tournament Preview: Really, all that awaits the Cowboys in Las Vegas is the chance for Leonard Washington to sneak another game or two into a very good, if convoluted, college career.
9. Nevada 12-18, 3-13
Season Review: Last year Nevada went 28-7 while playing in the WAC. A year later, in a new conference, sans a pair of talented frontcourt players, the Wolf Pack rarely played defense, seemed allergic to rebounding and seemingly quit on the year sometime in mid-February. For a program with four straight NCAA Tournament appearances (and three NCAA wins over that stretch) in the middle of the last decade, this sure looks like a program in need of a complete reboot.
Tournament Preview: Between Malik Story and Deonte Burton, the Wolf Pack have the ability to outscore Wyoming in the 8/9 game tonight. But, then again, this team might actually have to care to actually pull that off.