Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on December 3rd, 2013
Hooray! The Mountain West has its hero. November is in the books and the conference finally has a victory worth crowing about under its collective belt. In fact, San Diego State scored a couple really meaningful wins this week at the Wooden Legacy, knocking off both Creighton and Marquette to earn the tournament title. Still, I for one have yet to put a MW team in my weekly national Top 25. I’ve considered New Mexico previously and have kept them just on the outside looking in. Boise State also remains in the back of my mind, where they’ll stay until they play anybody of note. And the Aztecs were among my final cuts this week. So what leaves SDSU still needing to prove itself? I know they’re going to defend like nuts all year long and stay in games that way, but I just don’t believe that Xavier Thames is going to be able to knock down shots at his current rate forever, and aside from him, there aren’t a whole lot of polished offensive players on this team. Still, there is no denying that the Aztecs have looked awfully good so far this year and are beginning to earn the benefit of my doubt.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – We’ll get to Thames shortly, but there have been a lot of guys stepping up for this squad who deserve attention. J.J. O’Brien has been the most regular second option for the Aztecs, averaging nearly 14 points per game before a hand injury limited his production on Sunday. Matt Shrigley has emerged from his redshirt year to display not only a nice shooting touch but a good game off the bounce. Winston Shepard has clearly worked on his body and his game in the offseason, and he’s well on his way to becoming a great college player. And true freshman Dakarai Allen is out of the gates with a strong start to his college career. Even if Thames does slow down a bit, there are some options here who could pick up the slack.
Player of the Week
Xavier Thames, Sr, San Diego State – After the game Sunday night, head coach Steve Fisher said that Thames was playing as well as anyone in the country. And it is hard to argue with his point. Late in the Aztecs’ win over Marquette, with SDSU nursing a four-point lead and the shot clock running down, he pulled up from three and… He missed? Huh? Such was the week for Thames were such a thing as a missed shot seemed impossible. For the tournament, he made 11 of 15 shots from deep and averaged 22 points per game, including 27.5 PPG against the Aztecs’ two ranked opponents.
Newcomer of the Week
J.J. Avila, Jr, Colorado State – Prior to the season we talked about how Avila, among others, was going to need to produce in a big way for an undersized Rams’ front line. He has come through, averaging 19 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game this season. For the week, he put up just 25 points and five boards per game on 67.2% eFG.
- San Diego State (5-1) – We mentioned a lot of good things about the Aztecs above, so let’s briefly address a couple question marks. First, Tulane transfer Josh Davis looked a little overmatched early in the year, but, happily, he has turned things around and is beginning to look comfortable. He’s clearly a phenomenal athlete – he threw down a putback dunk against Marquette where his hold head was well above the rim – but he is only now beginning to find his spot in the offense. The good news is that he’s got a relatively easy schedule from here until conference play in which to really get comfortable. The other one is outside shooting – is this going to be an Achilles’ heel for the Aztecs? Well, while there are clearly not a lot of guys on this squad with polished jumpers, Thames and Shrigley are both really good shooters, shooting it at a 58% rate from deep between the two of them. Sure, that number is going to regress some, but with either of them in the game, SDSU is going to have a significant deep threat. It remains to be seen, however, whether they may be a shooter or two short of a really balanced roster.
- New Mexico (5-0) – The Lobos got a solid win this week over San Diego behind balanced scoring. Kendall Williams got to 28 points, behind a perfect 16/16 from the line, while the frontcourt duo of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow combined to score 37 points and grab 14 boards.
- Boise State (6-0) – Even the Broncos are apparently getting bored with their schedule. On Wednesday, they eked out a nine-point win over a bad Idaho team, but we did have a Derrick Marks eruption, as he hit 21-of-23 free throws to score 39 points in that game.
- Utah State (5-1) – Here’s the price for only scheduling one decent non-conference game: when you lose that game, like the Aggies did Saturday night against BYU, you’re doomed to head into conference play with nothing on your resume.
- UNLV (3-3) – The Rebels hosted Illinois in what was almost a must-win game last week. And, well, they didn’t win. While Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith combined for 18 points, 23 boards and six blocked shots, once again they had struggles in their backcourt on both ends of the floor, as the allowed Rayvonte Rice to physically dominate, while wings like Kevin Olekaibe and Bryce Dejean-Jones were just average. If there is good news, it is that freshman point guard Kendall Smith looks a little bit better every game out. The bad news is, the losses keep piling up while he learns on the job.
- Colorado State (6-2) – A couple wins this week, including a pretty good one Saturday over a game New Mexico State team. The Rams dominated the glass in a way that surely made Larry Eustachy proud, and got terrific offensive performances by frontcourt guys Marcus Holt and J.J. Avila. But, let’s mention Daniel Bejarano for a minute. This is a 6’4” wing who is averaging 8.6 boards per game, including the 15 he grabbed against the Aggies on Saturday. Throw in the fact that he’s the team’s best perimeter defender, a solid ballhandler and a way better shooter than his 9-of-38 shooting from deep early on would suggest, and he’s a guy that could potentially sneak onto the all-conference team if his shot starts falling. You knew Eustachy wouldn’t let the mere fact that he lost, well, basically everybody from last year deter him from having this team compete hard every night.
- Wyoming (5-2) – The Cowboys beat Montana State bad this weekend. Which is good, because Wyoming should beat Montana State bad. We’ll check back in with this team later in December when they play somebody worthwhile.
- Fresno State (6-3) – The Fresno State Classic was the site for three of the Bulldogs’ four games last week, and they were all three very exciting ones. A pair of overtime wins capped the round robin tournament, but a Friday night loss to Drake kept Rodney Terry’s squad from winning the tournament. While the Bulldogs got balanced scoring, sophomore Marvelle Harris has emerged as the team’s go-to guy, as he averaged 22.3 points per game in the tournament.
- San Jose State (2-6) – I’ve had the Spartans in the basement all year long without a second glance. But this week, despite a pair of 17-point losses to middling teams like Portland and Weber State, I’m going to bump ‘em up a couple slots? Why? Mostly because I just can’t abide having the two dumpster fires remaining to be above this team which at least has some entertaining young talent. Oh, and, our weekly “Eye on Rashad Muhammad” feature: in two games, 20 PPG, 59.3 eFG%, four total rebounds, one assist, one steal, no blocks and eight turnovers. That’s on a total of 27 field goal attempts, good for a bit over 27% of his team’s FGAs when he’s on the court. Hey, did you hear why Asia Muhammad decided to play tennis? Well, that way she was assured of getting to take about half of all shots.
- Nevada (3-5) – Have I mentioned how bad Nevada is? Well, they are. But hey, Deonte Burton got his 20 points per game this week, despite losing by an average of 17. Oh, and we’ve been keeping an eye on how little this team passes the ball, so let’s update that; this week they were actually a little better, with 19 assists on 47 made field goals, good for 40.4%, which would put them at 321st in the country, instead of the 340th place their season long assist percentage of 35.8% checks them in at. But, to be fair, and to blow your mind a little, San Diego State is actually lower, assisting on just 35.3% of all made field goals. Huh?
- Air Force (3-4) – The Falcons played a couple real good teams this week in Richmond and Colorado. Unfortunately, that’s a real bad idea since the Falcons aren’t remotely good right now. As such, a pair of losses by an average of 23.5 points per game is not a surprise. But man, don’t you wish the Academy could trade those two games to Boise State in exchange for their trip to New Orleans and a home game against Portland State? Those would be much more appropriate opponents for these two programs right now.