Checking in on… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on December 11th, 2013
We’ve talked about it a lot around these parts this year, since before the season even began — so many Mountain West teams putting all their eggs in a very small scheduling basket. For instance, Utah State’s only really quality non-conference game was its rivalry game with BYU. After losing that one, it was assured that their best win prior to the calendar flipping over to conference play would be at UC Santa Barbara – a good victory for sure, but not one to pin your NCAA Tournament hopes on. To make matters worse, Utah State backed up that BYU loss with a home loss to Pacific. So now the Aggies sit at 5-2; they’re lucky to have an RPI in the low 40s; and they face the prospect of needing a very strong run through the Mountain West on their first go-round in order to get themselves in the NCAA Tournament talk later this year.
Likewise, Boise State went out and put together a schedule not befitting for a squad with borderline Top 25 talent and arguably the best team in school history. Certainly, they’re in the midst of the toughest stretch of their non-conference schedule, what with a trip to Kentucky on Tuesday night followed by a visit from an undefeated Saint Mary’s team on Saturday. But, as could have been expected, the Broncos struck out against the talented Wildcats, getting killed on the glass and at the rim and not being able to find enough good clean looks from deep against their long and athletic guards. Now all their hopes for a quality non-conference win get pinned on Saturday’s game against the Gaels. Again, on the basis of six wins in seven games, the Broncos are fortunate to have an RPI of #40, but with no resume wins in the non-conference, those four conference games against New Mexico and San Diego State in conference will loom large.
You see, it is only the Aztecs and the Lobos who have succeeded in coming away with some quality wins in the non-conference. SDSU has scalps from Creighton and Marquette, while New Mexico’s got UAB and Cincinnati on the wall already, with Kansas in Kansas City looming on Saturday and Marquette up the following Saturday. None of the victims of the Lobos or Aztecs are elite teams, but they’ve at least helped their teams to RPIs of #11 and #17, respectively. At the quarter-pole of the year, those two squads are alone among Mountain West teams on the good side of the resume ledger.
Team of the Week
New Mexico – Since last we did this, the Lobos scored not only a road win against in-state rival New Mexico State, but also a strong win in The Pit against Cincinnati. With Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams forming a terrific veteran trio, the Lobos have a real shot at knocking off the Jayhawks this weekend.
Player of the Week
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico – It’s not always pretty, but the Aussie senior just keeps producing at an elite rate. He averaged 22 PPG, 10.5 RPG, a couple blocks and hit 16-of-17 free throws this week in helping the Lobos to their two wins.
Newcomer of the Week
Paul Watson, Freshman, Fresno State – On a Bulldogs team ravaged by injury and bad luck, Watson has been a bright spot. Sure, he’s had his ups and downs, as should be expected of any first-year guy, but he’s played more than 24 minutes in every game, scored in double figures eight times, and been a highly efficient role player on a team lacking a lot of great offensive efficiency. This week, it was his 20 points on 7-of-9 from the field, with three three-pointers mixed in, in a loss at Utah.
- San Diego State (7-1) – The Aztecs scored a win in a very entertaining game across town at San Diego this week, then got a win over a visiting Washington squad on Sunday. But, to poke a hole in this team, those two wins against middling-at-best opponents came by a combined eight points. Xavier Thames’ three-point shooting has dropped back into the stratosphere (just 2-8 from deep this week) and the other shooting numbers from deep at not encouraging. Matt Shrigley is the next best shooter on the squad, but he managed just four field goal attempts this week, all from behind the arc. He made two of those four, but the Aztecs need to find a way to get him some more looks. The other two guys who shot threes this week were Winston Shepard (1-of-4) and Dwayne Polee (3-of-8). While they had a modicum of success this week, if those guys are your numbers three and four options from deep, you’ve got a problem. The question going forward is if Steve Fisher can help this team successfully mitigate that problem throughout the year
- New Mexico (7-1) – Kansas has lost three of its last four, but all three of those losses were to teams in the top 35 according to KenPom, and by an aggregate of 13 points. And with four freshmen starting, there is definitely a learning curve for the Jayhawks. But, this is still an insanely talented team and one that will give the Lobos quite a test on Saturday. So what does New Mexico need to do to win that game? To begin with, Bairstow, Kirk and Williams need to stay out of foul trouble; play solid defense, no reaching, make opponents score over them. This is not a deep Lobo team, so they’ve got to have their stars ready. Second, because the Jayhawks are superior athletically, this is probably not a game that the Lobos want to play in transition. Sure, they’re going to pound the offensive glass with the two bigs and Cleveland Thomas, but Williams and Hugh Greenwood need to make sure to get back defensively and not give up easy hoops. Likewise, since the Jayhawks don’t have a lot of accomplished three-point shooters, the Lobos will again pack it in on defense and try to make Kansas hit jumpers over them. There is no great matchup for Wiggins on the Lobo roster (Williams, Thomas, Nick Banyard and Deshawn Delaney are probably the most likely options), but ideally you deny him the ball and try your best to get a hand in his face. Lastly, the one place where the Lobos have the potential to make some hay on offense against the Jayhawks is by getting to the line. Williams is terrific at drawing fouls, as is Bairstow, while Kansas can be prone to fouling on defense. If Bairstow and Williams can get to the stripe on the regular, the Lobos could have a chance. Otherwise, it could be a long day.
- Boise State (8-1) – I waited an extra day to write this week’s check-in so I could include thoughts on the Broncos’ visit to Rupp Arena. And, well, to quote a phrase, the Broncos are who we thought they were: undersized, underathletic, need to knock down threes and get to the rim in order to be successful offensively. The good news is that the Broncos were able to regularly attack the rim against some questionable Kentucky perimeter defense; the bad news is that the Wildcats had Willie Cauley-Stein back there to send back all but the most aggressive takes at the rim. The Broncos are still plenty fun to watch and they’ll have their moments come conference play, but they’re hard to take seriously as a legitimate conference championship contender.
- UNLV (3-4) – I guess I’m looking for any excuse to begin believing in the Rebels, and a five-point loss to the #1 team in the country is going to fit the bill this week, in part because I’m also having a hard time trusting some of the other teams in this league. But, freshman point guard Kendall Smith is beginning to come around, and were it not for some ill-timed cramping against Arizona that limited him to 23 minutes, maybe the Rebels have enough to win that game. There are no questions about this team up front, Bryce Dejean-Jones is beginning to recognize the difference between a good shot and a bad shot and the team is undeniably playing defense well. So if Smith can continue to improve, there is no reason this squad wouldn’t be considered the fourth-best in the MW.
- Utah State (5-2) – The BYU loss is one thing; losing to your smug in-state rival is never going to sit well with a fan base. But a home loss to Pacific to back up that rivalry loss? That is unacceptable. So, what happened? Easy: Preston Medlin and Spencer Butterfield combined to shoot just six-of-19 from the field (and three-of-11 from deep), with the Pacific frontline fought the Aggies to a draw.
- Colorado State (7-3) – The Rams hosted Colorado last Tuesday, made things real difficult for the Buffaloes frontline, and yet still lost by five in a game in which the two teams combined to make just six of 33 shots from behind the arc. At the start of the year, we thought CSU’s lack of a proven interior presence would be their downfall. Now it is beginning to look like the absence of a shooter on the perimeter is the biggest concern.
- Wyoming (7-2) – It took the Cowboys 45 minutes to knock off a 3-6 South Dakota team last Saturday. Despite Derek Cooke grabbing 14 boards and Larry Nance adding nine, Wyoming actually got owned on the glass, grabbing just 68% of defensive boards and, per usual, 16% on the offensive end. Sure, Larry Shyatt’s club isn’t much interested in grabbing offensive rebounder, preferring instead to get all their guys back to play defense, but you know that defensive rebounding number against a poor rebounding team did not make him happy.
- Fresno State (6-4) – Every time I watch Fresno State play this year, I just feel bad for Rodney Terry. This was supposed to be the year that the Bulldogs, behind a fearsome frontline featuring Robert Upshaw and Braeden Anderson shot up the standings in the conference. Instead, Upshaw is matriculating at Washington while Anderson is mending from a scary car accident. So now the Bulldogs are playing this season with one of the smallest rosters in the nation. Hopefully the folks in Fresno remain patient, because Terry is the right guy there; he just needs to catch a couple breaks. For what it’s worth, the freshman trio of Watson, Karachi Edo and Emmanuel Owootoah looks promising.
- San Jose State (3-6) – I’m going to give up any pretense of talking about San Jose State as a team the rest of the year; this spot will just be reserved for the Rashad Muhammad watch. This week in Rashad: 21 points on 12 field goal attempts, including five three pointers in a good win at Houston. Elsewhere on the stat sheet for Muhammad: um, hmmm, oh yeah, there’s that one rebound. And, well, okay, yeah, a couple turnovers. And, hmm. That’s it. Season averages: 0.9 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.0 BPG. And I guarantee you Dave Wojcik is thrilled to have him.
- Nevada (4-6) – Likewise, the only thing we’re going to do this year in regards to Nevada is check out their assist numbers. This week it was 24 assists on 61 made field goals for a rate of 39.3, significantly better than their season-long number. It is probably no coincidence that in the game Saturday night against a bad UC Davis team, Nevada had 13 assists on 29 field goals, got four players in double figures and won the game. Sure, UC Davis is not a good team, but the Wolf Pack shared the ball and shared some success.
- Air Force (5-4) – The Falcons are riding a two-game winning streak with home wins over South Dakota and Western State. That South Dakota team is ranked 257th in the nation in offensive efficiency, but still scored 1.26 points per possession against a terrible Air Force defense.