Thoughts on the First Session of the Mountain West QuarterfinalsPosted by AMurawa on March 13th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference. He filed this report from The MW Tournament in Las Vegas Wednesday afternoon.
Despite a Thomas & Mack Arena that would have been optimistically called half-full at the opening tip, there was plenty of buzz in the arena for a much-anticipated event. However, just two minutes into the first game between UNLV and Air Force, we were hit smack in the face with a low to match the high of tip-off. After grabbing a defensive rebound, Michael Lyons turned to head up court, had his pocket picked from behind by Bryce Dejean-Jones, and then collided with Katin Reinhardt at midcourt. He crumpled to the floor, immediately grabbed for his knee and did not get up. Several minutes later he was helped off the court by the trainers and was unable to put any weight on his leg, leaving little doubt that the Falcons would have to fight an uphill battle without their best player. The unfortunate injury to a team’s senior leader called immediately to mind the 2011 semifinals where, in the same game that Jimmer Fredette went off for 52, New Mexico’s senior point guard Dairese Gary tore his ACL early in the second half with his team having played BYU to a draw to that point. While Dave Pilipovich tried many different combinations of players from the Lyons injury forward (he played 12 different players in the first half), there was little doubt about the outcome.
However, as UNLV continues to try to figure out their roles in anticipation of the NCAA Tournament, the Rebels got to spend the rest of the game in a glorified scrimmage working on stuff. One of the biggest changes was a new starting lineup featuring both Mike Moser (at the four) and Anthony Bennett (at the five). For the Rebels to live up to their vast potential, Dave Rice has to find a way to get production out of both of these guys – and preferably at the same time. Bennett’s first half minutes were limited by foul trouble (and stupid fouls, at that), but if UNLV is going to come up with a last-minute solution for these two, it probably involves that combination. They’ve tried Moser at the three plenty of times and his inability to consistently knock down the long jumper, take anyone off the dribble or rebound effectively out there has basically put an end to that experiment. But today there were promising signs, albeit against a seriously outmanned opponent. Against an Air Force team that only played one guy taller than 6’6″ in the second half, Bennett scored 19 points after the break and was spectacular at times, while Moser grabbed 10 defensive boards and looked as comfortable as he has all season with Bennett. The primary strategy in the half-court seemed to be starting with Moser and Bennett on opposite blocks, allowing them to set screens for each other and both be in position to crash the glass. Occasionally, one would float out to the three-point line – Bennett up top, where he hit a couple, and Moser to the corner, where he hit one – but against a smaller team, each was able to work effectively inside. Bigger tests await, but the Rebels continue to work on ironing out their offense. Also credit sophomore center Khem Birch for taking to his new role – coming off the bench – without missing a beat. In 19 minutes, Birch made all four of his field goal attempts, grabbed eight boards and blocked three shots.
The day’s second quarterfinal featured a couple teams – Colorado State and Fresno State – each playing without key players. For the second-seeded Rams, point guard Dorian Green was out with an ankle injury, his first missed game in a four-year career. But freshman point guard Jon Octeus stepped in and was solid, playing every minute and doing so with composure. His reputation coming into the game was of a guy who needs a lot of work on his shot but is a strong defensive athlete. And nothing he did today changed that consensus, as he missed six of the eight shots he took from the field (although he did knock down a couple jumpers), but was a good defensive presence. Where Octeus surprised was in the little things; in 40 minutes he had zero turnovers and three assists and at times looked like more of a veteran in his decision-making than senior guard Wes Eikmeier. If nothing else, CSU fans should be pretty comfortable with Octeus taking on a hefty backcourt role (along with Jesse Carr and Dwight Smith returning from injury) next season. Still, despite his nice performance, the fact that Green is quite unlikely to play against UNLV on Friday night (“99.9% chance that he won’t,” according to CSU head coach Larry Eustachy) leaves the Rams with quite a hill to climb.
As for Fresno State, they played without freshman center Robert Upshaw, who was suspended indefinitely on Monday for an unspecified violation of team rules, the second suspension Upshaw has earned this season. The rumor around the Thomas & Mack is that Upshaw has already left school and will not return for the Bulldogs. Given that he turned in his best performance of his young career in his final game last weekend in the upset at UNLV, this is a disappointing turn of events. Regardless, as Fresno State showed this afternoon, they’re going to compete hard under head coach Rodney Terry, regardless of who they run out there. Against the nation’s best rebounding team, the Bulldogs fought tooth and nail to a respectable outcome on the glass; they uglied the game up, slowed things down and made things difficult for the higher seed. With just one senior departing this season, and plenty of talented youngsters, this team that improved throughout the year can be expected to be a factor in the conference next season.