Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on November 19th, 2013
Last year about this time, the Mountain West’s record as a collective was 27-3. Sure, there wasn’t a large number of top shelf wins among those 27, but they were wins. This year the teams are a combined 19-12. UNLV lost by 21 at home to UC Santa Barbara. Colorado State got drilled by 32 at Gonzaga. Nevada lost at home to Pacific. Fresno State lost by 21 at Pitt. Air Force has lost to Jackson State and VMI. And newcomer San Jose State has lost to everybody it has faced, and that certainly hasn’t been a murderer’s row. Last year, the conference as a whole rode its strong RPI numbers, built up by a collection of a mostly good teams, to a best-ever five NCAA Tournament bids. This year, it remains to be seen just how good teams the teams at the top are, while the middle of the conference seems significantly weaker than it was last year, and the bottom of the conference even worse. Too long, didn’t read? The takeaway is there isn’t a chance in a million that the Mountain West sends five teams dancing this year.
Team of the Week
Utah State – The Aggies are one of the newcomers in the conference, but they’re off to a fine start, having won all three of their games including one over USC and another over that UCSB team that beat up on MW heavyweight UNLV. Behind veteran trio Spencer Butterfield, Preston Medlin and Jarred Shaw, Utah State looks like it will have an easy transition to its new conference.
Player of the Week
Cameron Bairstow, Sr, New Mexico – There may not be a player in the country who has improved as much as Bairstow in his four years in Albuquerque. As a freshman, he was notable only for his below-the-rim, scrappy style, as he averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game and fewer than three points per outing. But thus far this season, the 6’9” Aussie has been almost unstoppable, averaging 25.5 points, eight rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game, all while shooting 78.3 percent from the field. Oh, and not to be outdone, his frontcourt mate Alex Kirk has double-doubled in both his games on the way to 20 points and 12 rebounds per game averages.
Newcomer of the Week
Paul Watson, Fr, Fresno State – The 6’6” freshman out of Phoenix doesn’t have the type of body yet to lead you to believe he would succeed playing up front in major college basketball. But out of necessity, Watson has been forced to play the role of a big man for the Bulldogs. And, so far so good, as he’s averaged five rebounds a night, has scored both around the basket and from deep, and has eaten up minutes. There’s a big future for this Dog.
1. New Mexico (2-0) – The Lobos haven’t missed a beat under new head coach Craig Neal, displaying one of the nation’s most potent offenses. But, they haven’t played much competition yet. We will get a better idea about New Mexico this week as they compete in the Charleston Classic, opening against UAB and with potential games against teams like UMass, Nebraska, Temple, and Davidson.
2. Boise State (2-0) – Much like New Mexico, the Broncos have looked great offensively against lacking competition. Unlike the Lobos, Boise’s level of competition isn’t going to bump up much until December.
3. Utah State (3-0) – The Aggies are the third of three Mountain West teams ranked in KenPom’s top 20 teams in offensive efficiency. One difference between the Aggies and the two teams above is that Utah State is going to play at a much slower pace.
4. San Diego State (1-1) – The Aztecs dropped a home game to Arizona, but in doing so they probably proved themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Tulane transfer Josh Davis has struggled mightily in his first couple games out west, but if Steve Fisher can find somebody to make some jump shots (easier said than done), the Aztecs have enough athleticism that they should be a rugged defensive team come conference play.
5. Wyoming (2-1) – Despite a loss to Colorado last Wednesday (breaking Wyoming’s six-game winning streak in that series), the Cowboys look much like they have looked the last two years under head coach Larry Shyatt: a down-tempo team that gets good shots and keep their opponents from doing the same. These guys will overachieve.
6. UNLV (2-1) – A loss to UC Santa Barbara can be forgiven somewhat, because that’s a good team. But a 21-point home loss? And then following that up by being taken to the limit by Nebraska-Omaha? No, the Runnin’ Rebels are lucky to be ranked this high. Roscoe Smith (13 PPG, 14.7 RPG) has looked great out of the gate for Dave Rice, and Khem Birch (10 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 4.7 BPG) is at times dominant, but the backcourt is a mess, with rampant turnovers, bad shot selection and nobody really capable of regularly making shots.
7. Colorado State (2-1) – You knew the Rams were going to have to adjust to life without, well, almost everybody from last year, so you expected a loss on the road to Gonzaga in the second game of the season. And Gonzaga was insanely on first that night (or at least Gary Bell was) so we can forget the 32-point margin of victory for now. The good news is that junior point guard Jon Octeus has looked just great, Daniel Bejarano is doing everything, and the frontcourt trio of Gerson Santo, J.J. Avila, and Marcus Holt has been a pleasant surprise. Larry Eustachy will have this team winning games you wouldn’t expect.
8. Fresno State (2-1) – Cezar Guerrero is now eligible for the Bulldogs and he’s become their floor general immediately, freeing up senior wing Tyler Johnson to do just about everything else. Johnson has twice notched double-doubles, and even led the team with eight assists in their thrilling opening night overtime buzzer-beating win against UC Irvine.
9. Nevada (2-1) – The Wolf Pack have won a pair of games, but over the course of three, they have notched just 23 assists on 78 field goals made, good for #342 in the country (out of 351). Now, I get that Deonte Burton is way more talented than anybody else on this team, but for the Pack to have any chance to move up the standings, this team has to start sharing the ball more.
10. Air Force (2-2) – After getting the season underway with a good performance in an 11-point win over Army, the Falcons have backtracked, dropping a couple games to bad low-major schools. While they are occasionally showing flashes of some of the offensive rhythm that made them fun to watch last year, this team has thus far shown a complete inability to stop anyone defensively. And junior wing Kamryn Williams has missed the last couple games with a hamstring injury.
11. San Jose State (0-4) – The bad news: four losses. The good news: well, none. But the bright side of the bad news is that there were a couple near misses in there. And this team is playing six freshmen. And, things can only get better. And, freshman Rashad Muhammad (this is the last time I’ll mention that, yes, he is Shabazz’s brother) has looked good, showing that the scoring gene runs in the family. He’s got a 15.3 PPG average, has handed out a grand total of three assists in four games and hasn’t blocked a shot. Those types of numbers seem awful familiar, no?