Checking in on… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 21st, 2014
With New Mexico taking a home loss to UNLV this week and Nevada slipping back to reality a bit, San Diego State is all alone in the driver’s seat, the last remaining undefeated team in conference play. Now with a 15-game winning streak, the Aztecs have earned their way into the #11 spot in the latest RTC Top 25. Beyond Steve Fisher’s club, however, there are a lot of question marks. The Lobos are the clear #2 team in the conference, but questions remain about their long-term NCAA Tournament aspirations. Our resident bracketologist has them firmly in the field, but future home losses to middling teams are not recommended.
Team of the Week
Boise State – The Broncos bounced back from a pair of losses with a very good week. They went on the road and handed Nevada its first loss of the season, and anytime you can get a road win in conference play – no matter what conference you’re in, but especially in this one – you’re doing something right. Then on Saturday they handled Utah State and have seemingly righted the ship, at least for now. Derrick Marks led the way with 20 points per game this week, but it was a full-team affair, with Ryan Watkins helping the Broncos control the paint and Anthony Drmic being his usual solid self. And there was even one more Bronco who made a big and surprising contribution this week, who we’ll get to shortly.
Player of the Week
Daniel Bejarano, Junior, Colorado State – Despite a disappointing loss at Utah State, the junior wing out of Phoenix had a great week, knocking in a total of nine threes on the way to weekly averages of 23.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.5 BPG, 1.5 SPG and a 54.2% eFG. He’s been terrific all year for the Rams, and along with running mate J.J. Avila, the duo provides a versatile one-two punch for Larry Eustachy.
Newcomer of the Week
Nick Duncan, Freshman, Boise State – The latest Australian sensation in Boise had his best pair of games in a Broncos’ uniform this week, averaging 13.5 PPG and 5.5 RPG while knocking in seven of his 11 three-point attempts and earning an average of better than 27 minutes per game. While this type of production may not be sustainable, if he can chip in from time to time, the Broncos become even more dangerous offensively.
- San Diego State (16-1, 5-0) – Josh Davis got off to a rough start in an Aztecs uniform. In his second game this season, he looked lost and overmatched against the big and talented Arizona front line. The commonly heard line was something along the lines of “This is what happens when you step up in competition.” Since then, he has found his mojo and has reeled off 11 straight double-figure rebounding games. He’s in the top 50 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages and is another in a long line of long and athletic bigs with tireless work ethic rolling through Montezuma Mesa. And, perhaps best of all for the future of this team, he’s found a way to contribute to a team that is at times offensively challenged. Aside from pounding the offensive glass, he’s also displayed a keen ability to take his man off the bounce out of the high post in quick, bursty drives. He may not always finish, but just getting the ball on the rim gives his team a chance to go up and get it back. And lest you think his improvement is solely due to beating up on undersized Mountain West teams, this is a guy who also had 10 points and 14 boards against Kansas’ athletic front line.
- New Mexico (13-4,3-1) – Last year, the Lobos were 18th in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing basically 90 points per every 100 possessions. This year, 137th in the nation and allowing 102 points per every 100 possessions. What changed? Well, head coach Steve Alford is gone, replaced by his long-time assistant Craig Neal, and they basically use the same defensive principles, so let’s assume that’s not the difference. The only other significant difference is that long, 6’7” wing Tony Snell — a guy who may have seemed offensively passive but was a serious defensive threat — is no longer around to challenge perimeter shots and limit defensive penetration. We always knew Snell was a very good defender; now we’re beginning to see just how good he was.
- Boise State (13-5, 3-2) – The Broncos may have a nice winning streak going, but they’ve also got a serious challenge ahead of them as they head to New Mexico tonight to face a Lobos team that had its home court advantage sullied the last time they played in Albuquerque. You can bet they’ll be ready for the Broncos.
- Colorado State (12-7, 3-3) – Maybe the biggest news this week involving the Rams had to do with a player that isn’t even on the team: Chane Behanan, formerly of Louisville. As you know, Behanan was dismissed from Rick Pitino’s team last month for a violation of team rules and is currently in search of a landing spot. Last weekend he visited Colorado State and is reportedly seriously considering a move to Fort Collins as his next home. He would be a big boon for Larry Eustachy’s program, and word is that even Pitino thinks Colorado State would be a good spot for him. He would have one semester of eligibility remaining.
- Utah State (12-5, 2-3) – The Aggies have played three conference road games – all were losses. They’ve played two games at home – both were wins. That sorta tells you all you need to know about the Aggies. Great home court advantage; getting used to life on the road in a new conference. Solid talent, but not overwhelming. Utah State appears headed for a 9-9 year, but the Aggies will have to prove they can defend their home court against programs like San Diego State, New Mexico and Boise State, and maybe steal a game or two on the road.
- UNLV (11-7, 2-3) – Who has any idea where to rank these Rebels? They’re bad enough to lose to any team in the conference (they’ve already lost at home to Nevada and Air Force), and they’re good enough to pick up some of the toughest wins in the conference (they just got done beating New Mexico at The Pit). But there is never going to be any consistency here, in part because there is no coherence coming from either the point guard position or apparently even the coach. Dave Rice gets these guys to play hard — don’t get me wrong — but just about the only thing you’ll ever see on the offensive end of the court for these guys is one-on-one stuff. You’ll see more precise offensive sets any weekend in the summer AAU circuit. Whoever winds up with the ball in the half-court, go ahead and try to beat your man. If you can get to the hoop, great; if not, launch a step-back jumper. Who cares? And, after much back and forth, it appears that Deville Smith now has the claim on the point guard spot this week. One problem – he’s not got much in the way of actual point guard skills. More of his possessions wind up in a turnover than they do in an assist. And, really, he’s most comfortable as a chucker — witness his 5-of-19 and 0-of-6 from three performance against San Diego State on Saturday. Even if the Rebels had a slightly below-average point guard in that game, they’d have probably wound up with a dogfight in the end. Instead, with downright awful point guard play, they lost by 11.
- Wyoming (11-6, 2-2) – Remember back to the Heath Schroyer days? Some talented players; some non-existent offense (oh wait, Schroyer’s now an assistant coach at UNLV – I knew I had seen that offense somewhere else before); some atrocious effort defensively. Schroyer left after 2011, Larry Shyatt came in, and with roughly the same talent level (really, even a step back, depth-wise), a 10-21 team flipped its record and goes from the bottom half of the nation defensively to a top 30 defensive team. Those defensive numbers have wavered since then, but they’ve always been in the top 75 in the nation, in part because they forgo opportunities for offensive rebounds in favor of getting back and playing halfcourt defense. And that strategy has worked, but man, have the Cowboys been hard to watch. But credit where credit is due; the offensive numbers are starting to creep up despite a roster without a ton of offensive talent. Larry Nance Jr. has developed into a great Mountain West player; Riley Grabau can really stroke the three; and Derek Cooke is a good junkyard dog; but there aren’t a lot of players who can go get their own shot and there is no great play-maker on this team. None of this is to rip the players here, but more to point out just how great a job Shyatt does with what he has. Really. Nobody wants to play this team, especially in Laramie. They’re the Mountain West equivalent of going to the dentist.
- Nevada (9-9, 4-1) – The four-game winning streak is gone, but a late-game fade against Boise State isn’t the biggest crime, especially when Deonte Burton (ranked by Chris Murray of the Reno-Gazette Journal as the best player in the Mountain West, an honor that is hard to argue with) had his worst game in a couple years (1-of-8 from field, 0-of-4 from deep). Honestly, this is probably encouraging. Even with Burton laying an egg, the Wolf Pack were right there at the end with a chance to win the game. Still, in order to get things turned around, they’ll need to turn into road warriors this week, what with Fresno State and then that dentist’s office appointment at Wyoming due up this week.
- Air Force (9-8, 3-3) – The Falcons did what they were supposed to do to San Jose State at home this week, then went to Colorado State and hung tough for the better part of 40 minutes before tripping up in the final minute. Much like Nevada and Burton, the Falcons got an oh-fer performance out of their best player, Tre’ Coggins, meaning they were very close as well. This team is coming around.
- Fresno State (8-11, 1-5) – They fight as hard as any team in the conference, and the future still seems bright in Fresno. But it may take awhile. This is the lowest they’ve been in these power rankings this season.
- San Jose State (6-12, 0-6) – We spent plenty of time on the Spartans last week, but it’s still worth checking in on the Rashad Muhammad watch. This week he threw up his first real dog of a game, going 0-of-7 against Wyoming en route to a two-point outing. But, the dude is beginning to contribute beyond just the scoring column. He had six boards against Wyoming and a total of three steals and three assists this week. Progress!