Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 14th, 2014
Go home Mountain West, you’re drunk! How else to explain looking at the standings two weeks in and seeing Nevada – they of the eight non-conference losses, including to such luminaries as Pacific, Cal State Bakersfield, Morehead State, and New Orleans – alone atop the conference standings? How about Boise State and UNLV, two teams expected to contend for NCAA Tournament bids prior to the season, sitting back at 1-2? How about the worst team in the conference, San Jose State, giving New Mexico everything the Lobos can handle? How about the conference, home of terrific home court advantages up and down the West, sporting just a combined 10-9 record in league play so far? How about a San Diego State team in a rebuilding year with a work-in-progress offense carrying the banner for the conference with a top 15 ranking in the most recent RTC Top 25? Face it. Not a lot in this conference makes a ton of sense this year. And it is fascinating.
Team of the Week
Nevada – This team was – not to put too fine a point on it – awful in the non-conference. They didn’t share they ball, they couldn’t rebound, they couldn’t defend. Less patient athletic directors may have begun their next coaching searches before Christmas. Now, while we’ve still no reason to suspect that the Wolf Pack are actually going to challenge for the conference title, much less an NCAA Tournament bid, these guys have turned into a real team. You actually want to find a way to watch them just to see what’s going on. They’ve got an NBA talent in Deonte Burton; they’ve got newcomer A.J. West providing some toughness up front; and they’ve got a handful of talented ancillary parts. And with sophomore Marqueze Coleman now back from injury, they’re starting to get back to whole. And – get this – they’re actually allowing less than a point per possession in four conference games. Maybe you can believe in this team, at least for a little while.
Player of the Week
Deonte Burton, Senior, Nevada – We’ve doubted Burton on occasion here this season, but he’s definitely turned a corner since the start of conference play. In the non-conference, he was too quick on the trigger, taking bad shots and not trusting his teammates – the latter of which may have been defensible. But, on a team where he needs to score some in order for the team to achieve its goals, he has balanced getting his own with setting up his teammates perfectly since conference play started. This week it was 21.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 63.8% eFG, but the numbers for both weeks of conference play are nearly as good.
Newcomer of the Week
Deshawn Delaney, Junior, New Mexico – We saw the first spark just before Christmas in a win over Marquette, and although his numbers are not out of the world, Delaney’s ascendance is clear. Where once he would try to force the action any time he saw the floor, Delaney is now becoming used to earning double-figure minutes on the regular and he’s beginning to let the offense come to him while he keeping up energy on the defensive end. He’s still got plenty of upside, but Craig Neal will take something like the 10.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.5 SPG and solid defense he got out of the JuCo transfer last week. Oh, and that 95% eFG that he posted with his five three-pointers in six attempts? That’s pure bonus.
- San Diego State (14-1, 3-0) – You know all about their defense – it’s awesome. You know about some of the offensive concerns – three-point shooting and free-throw shooting. But this is still a team that is ranked 52nd in the nation in offensive efficiency (per KenPom.com, as always). They’ve got to be doing some things right with the ball in their hands, so what is it? Well, to begin with, they force plenty of turnovers on defense and are able to get out in transition and let their athletes do what they do best. Secondly, with the unexpected emergence of junior Ageel Quinn (he’s come out of nowhere to average better than 20 minutes per game over the last seven games), the Aztecs now have three guys (Quinn, Xavier Thames, and Matt Shrigley) who are shooting better than 39 percent from three on at least three threes per game. Throw in minimal turnovers, the ability to get to the line on the regular (even if they don’t shoot ‘em so good once they’re there) and a devotion to offensive rebounding, and the Aztecs are going to be able to manufacture points, even if their halfcourt offense isn’t always that pretty.
- New Mexico (12-3, 3-0) – Here’s how difficult road games are in this conference: The Lobos played at Wyoming and San Jose State this week — two teams that are probably going to wind up in the back half of the conference standings — and won by a combined total of seven points, including one overtime affair, and nobody really thinks the worse of the Lobos as a result. Hugh Greenwood is back (and hit a big late three against San Jose) and the Lobos have a long season ahead of them, but at this point, we really just want to see them play SDSU. But we’ll have to wait quite awhile — their first of two match-ups isn’t until February 22.
- Boise State (11-5, 1-2) – In an ideal world, we leave spots three through five empty and resume the countdown a ways down; there is that much of a gap between the top two teams and the rest of the conference. And, yeah, despite their two losses (and 1-2 start to conference play), we still think the Broncos are the third-best team in the conference. But after they came up short against SDSU, I’m hard-pressed to think of a way they’re in the conversation come Selection Sunday as an at-large team. And, time for a rant: you’re down a point on the road, you grab a defensive rebound with 35 seconds on the clock and the world is your oyster. Why, why, why, why, why are you going to have your point guard wait until there are six seconds remaining on the clock and jack up a bad jumper of an isolation play? Hell, if you want to have your point guard do that, have him do it when there are 20 seconds left on the clock, that way when your opponent grabs the rebound and gets fouled, even if they make both you’re still alive in some small way. So, let’s be an optimist and say your point guard makes that iso jumper with 20 seconds left; great! You’ve got the lead with 20 seconds left and you’ve just got to play D against a team that isn’t great offensively in the halfcourt. And then, let’s just say that for whatever reason, you are absolutely committed to playing for the final shot. Okay, I disagree, but whatever. But, if you’re going to do that, how about running some offense instead of having Derrick Marks – who is a fine player and all, but perhaps not the greatest breakdown offensive player on the planet – try to take create his own offense against an elite defensive team with great individual defenders and terrific, long help defenders. In short, the final offensive possession for the Broncos against San Diego State last weekend was, simply put, awful.
- Colorado State (11-6, 2-2) – I’ve gone long already, so the Rams are among the teams that get short shrift this week – two wins over San Jose State and Fresno State don’t really deserve a ton of print. Things will get more difficult tomorrow evening with a roadie to Utah State.
- Utah State (11-4, 1-2) – Last week at this time it was “Yay! Jarred Shaw is back! Everything is okay now!” Then Shaw went 7-of-20 from the field at Nevada and Preston Medlin and Spencer Butterfield combined to shoot 1-of-10 from three-point land. Welcome to the Mountain West Aggies. It’s tough up here.
- Nevada (9-8, 4-0) – Is the Wolf Pack really the sixth-best team in the conference? Probably not. Does anybody else in the conference deserve consideration for this spot? Nope. Wolf Pack it is. To pick just one key for Nevada’s conference turn-around, let’s spotlight the frontcourt. After being awful for much of the non-conference season, they’ve now got a solid rotation up front with senior Jerry Evans, sophomore Cole Huff, newly eligible JuCo transfer A.J. West and senior defender and rebounder Cheikh Fall providing depth. This week that foursome was solid: 56 points, 43 rebounds, 14 blocks in 219 total minutes between them. All told, it doesn’t sound like much, but these are big strides for a frontcourt that was anemic early.
- Wyoming (10-6, 1-2) – After losses to Nevada and New Mexico to begin the season, the Cowboys got off the schneid with a two-point road win over Boise State. Dig into the stats of that win over Boise and things get weird though. As Andy Glockner noted, the Cowboys took just 39 field goals, grabbed just one offensive rebound, turned it over 17 times and averaged just 0.83 points per possession. And won. How does that even happen? Well, the Cowboys largely eschew the offensive glass, get back and make things tough for their opponent in the halfcourt. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that the Broncos went just 3-of-17 from deep.
- UNLV (10-6, 1-2) – We keep waiting for this team to turn it around. They’re not far away (after that first blowout loss to UC Santa Barbara, their last five losses have been by a total of 21 points), but until point guard questions get answered, no dice. This week, Kendall Smith got 31 minutes against Nevada, went 2-of-8 from the field, had just two assists, but no turnovers. The sad thing is, he was by far the most effective of the three Rebel point guards who saw time. Still, this team has enough talent to be #4 in this conference.
- Fresno State (8-9, 1-3) – A six-point home win over Air Force; a 19-point road loss to Colorado State. Seems about right. Tyler Johnson had a hell of a week (23 PPG, 5.5 RPG. 3 APG) and was on the short-list for POTW honors.
- Air Force (8-6, 2-2) – The offense is coming around, the defense is still often overmatched. Road loss to Fresno State and a hard-fought game against San Diego State that inevitably ended in a seven-point loss this week. Tre’ Coggins is in the middle of a ridiculously hot stretch offensively (25 PPG, 76.8 eFG% this week) and the Falcons probably deserve to be higher than tenth in this conference, but I just can’t pinpoint a team that they deserve to be higher than.
- San Jose State (6-10) – So, now for a 400-word treatise on a last-place team in maybe the tenth-best conference in the nation. When you’re the worst team in a new conference, struggling to remake your program under a brand new head coach with an almost completely remade roster usually in front of just a handful of people in a glorified high school gym, a week with two home losses against a pair of upper-division teams by a combined six points probably counts as a good week. We’ve given short shrift to the Spartans this season while focusing on freshman Rashad Muhammad’s fun stats (this week: 22 PPG, 50 eFG%, one assist, one steal), but there’s no doubt that Doug Wojcik has this team headed in the right direction. Muhammad is doing the things that he’s being asked to do in efficient style (46.8 3P%). Junior Jaleel Williams has turned into a tough matchup, capable of using his size and athleticism to bang with opposing big guys on defense, while pulling them away from the hoop on the other end of the court. And freshmen Isaac Thornton and Matt Pollard are beginning to look like guys who could be solid contributors in this program in the future. But, the big question remains freshman point guard Jalen James. There’s no doubt he’s talented, but he’s struggled to adjust to the pressure of running this team. While he’s handing out 3.6 assists per game, he’s also turning it over almost three times a night and on more than 30% of possessions. Throw in the fact that the Spartans will clear out at times for guys like Muhammad and Williams to create (and creating shots for themselves and others are not great strengths yet for either of them) and it is no surprise that the Spartans as a team have more turnovers on the year than they do assists. James has shown his big-time potential (witness 12 points, 13 boards and 10 dimes in an upset win at Houston back in early December), but until he establishes his credentials as this team’s floor general, the Spartans remain the worst team in the conference. But assuming Wojcik can keep the young guys around and continue to bring in additional talent (something that will be tough in a program with the worst facilities in the conference), San Jose State is beginning to take some baby steps towards improvement.