Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa on January 28th, 2014
The Mountain West clearly isn’t as good as it was last year. Two teams receiving invitations to the NCAA Tournament in March seems likely. While there are some future pros in this conference, there is nobody even on the radar for an overall #1 pick like Anthony Bennett was last season. We could spend the next thousand words or so telling you all the things that the Mountain West is not, but let’s focus on this indisputable fact: It remains a pretty darn exciting league. This week, in 10 conference games, there were a total of five different overtime periods; three games were decided by just two points; and five were decided by less than two possessions. And yet, inexplicably, in a conference almost defined by the strength of its home court advantages, the road warriors once again rose up, with fully half of this week’s games won by road teams; for the year, home teams are just 21-18 in conference play.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – When you win two road conference games in one week, you’ve got good credentials for having had the best week in the conference. When you do it in the same week that you get bumped up to #5 in the AP poll, then you’re a lock. Sure, going to San Jose State and getting a win isn’t exactly going to raise many eyebrows, but the Aztecs did what they were supposed to do there: They blew out the Spartans. And then to go from San Jose and beat Utah State in one of the toughest road environments in the country — the first ever home loss in Utah State’s long (ahem) and illustrious history in the Mountain West? That’s a serious accomplishment.
Player of the Week
Larry Nance Jr., Junior, Wyoming – The Cowboys were a strong candidate for Team of the Week, but they’ll have to accept this consolation prize because they certainly wouldn’t have scored their seven-point road win over Air Force and their two-point overtime win over Nevada without the big junior’s contributions. For the week, Nance averaged 19.5 PPG, 10 RPG, 2.5 BPG, and a 58.3% eFG. And, to top things off, he hit the game-winner with three seconds left in overtime to lift the Cowboys over Nevada and into fourth place in the conference standings.
Newcomer of the Week
Michael Perez, Junior, Nevada – The UTEP transfer has been a solid player all season for the Wolf Pack and was an important part of their two games this week, which featured three overtimes between them. Perez averaged better than 40 minutes per game this week with a line of 10 PPG, 4.5 APG, 4.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG and 50% eFG. While senior Deonte Burton draws a ton of attention, Perez is able to make opposing defenses pay when they lose their focus.
- San Diego State (18-1, 7-0) – So, about that #5 ranking in the AP poll. Does anybody not either a coach, player or unabashed homer for the Aztecs really believe that this team is the fifth-best team in the nation? Even in the latest RTC top 25, the Aztecs are checking in at #8, which is better but still a little shaky. Me? I’ve got the Aztecs #14 in the nation, a spot behind undefeated Wichita State and a spot above the #1 defensive team in the nation (per KenPom), Saint Louis. Depending on your criteria for putting together your poll, this seems like a far more worthy spot for them. Their defense is good enough that it is going to keep them in a lot of games and give them chances to pull out wins, but there are some very real problems offensively here, namely shooting the ball – from anywhere on the court. The Aztecs have earned their ranking on the backs of a tough loss against Arizona, a solid neutral-court win over Creighton, and their wildly impressive win at Kansas, but they’ve had their fair share of luck too. KenPom ranks them as the 15th luckiest team in the nation this year. They’re 6-0 in games decided by two possessions or less and 9-1 in games decided by three or fewer possessions. Some of this has to do with their ability to get stops when needed, but let’s not pretend that the Aztecs really deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the cream of the crop this season. Throw in the fact that Mountain West fans probably don’t want to see SDSU’s ride into the Tournament as a #2 seed and get bounced before the first weekend is out, and you can count this as a plea for more reasonable expectations for the Aztecs. What would it take to actually consider the Aztecs as a legitimate Final Four contender? Their free throw shooting is probably unfixable at this late stage, but if they can get the combination of Ageel Quinn and Matt Shrigley productive minutes on the floor as additional threats (aside from Xavier Thames) from beyond the arc, maybe that’s enough to open up the interior a bit more for guys like Josh Davis and Winston Shepard to score more freely around the paint.
- New Mexico (15-4,6-1) – New Mexico got a couple solid wins this week – home against Boise State and on the road at Colorado State – but also suffered a loss of sorts, as junior big man Alex Kirk sat out the latter game with a lower leg injury. The injury doesn’t appear to be a long-term danger, but given that Kirk has already missed an entire season in his career, and given his importance to the Lobos, this was an unpleasant surprise. But, in the short term, Hugh Greenwood rode to the rescue late in the Colorado State game, hitting the go-ahead three with under a minute left to help the Lobos win.
- Boise State (14-6, 4-3) – Well, it is about that time for the Broncos, time to consider that barring a big run through the back half of conference play, the only thing that is going to get this team dancing come Selection Sunday is a conference tournament win. The Broncos got off to a slow start at New Mexico last Tuesday and, despite playing the Lobos to a draw for the final 30 minutes were never really able to get back in it. Nick Duncan had his third consecutive strong game there, and Ryan Watkins was unbelievable with 22 rebounds on the night (for the week he averaged 16.5 points and 19 rebounds), but the offense just hasn’t clicked the same way it did last year. There are still home games against New Mexico and San Diego State remaining, but beyond that, six of their final nine games in conference are on the road.
- Wyoming (31-6, 4-2) – The Cowboys are 4-2, have a couple winnable games this week (at Fresno State, home against Utah State), have a sure-fire all-conference performer in Larry Nance and one of the best tacticians at the head coaching spot in the conference in Larry Shyatt. Throw in the fact that they get to skip the trip to San Diego this season and the Cowboys are a very real threat to earn the three-seed in the conference tournament. It is doubtful that many saw that coming.
- UNLV (13-7, 4-3) – Home wins over Utah State and Fresno State this week: okay, fine. Deville Smith putting together back-to-back quality games: terrific. More than a handful of possessions in each game this week that featured marginally structured offense: encouraging. But this team hasn’t earned the right to get the benefit of the doubt yet.
- Nevada (10-10, 5-2) – I did not expect this to happen, but I’m beginning to drink the Nevada Flavor Aid. That Deonte Burton is a superstar is not a surprise (28.5 PPG, 72.8 eFG% this week), but, although it took awhile, head coach David Carter has found some additional players to contribute. Perez (our newcomer of the week) has been solid all season, but all of a sudden, that frontline of Cole Huff, A.J. West and Jerry Evans turns in good starts on a regular basis. We still need to see more (they haven’t played against New Mexico or San Diego State this year), but this is clearly a different team than that monstrosity from back in November.
- Colorado State (12-8, 3-4) – The Rams played New Mexico tight at home, but dropped back below .500 in conference. But the big news for Larry Eustachy’s program was the official news yesterday that Louisville transfer Chane Behanan had enrolled at the Fort Collins campus in time for the start of the spring semester. Barring some unforeseen setback, his final semester of collegiate eligibility will begin next December with the Rams.
- Utah State (12-7, 2-5) – Five losses in their first seven Mountain West games. Three losses in a row, including the indignity of a home overtime loss. A once promising season dissolving after the New Year. All of these things are inescapable facts now. But, with four talented seniors in Jarred Shaw, Preston Medlin, Spencer Butterfield and TeNale Roland in tow, there’s still a chance for a Vegas surprise come March. All that aside, however, one thing became abundantly clear Saturday as the Aggies were giving the Aztecs all they could handle: when those seniors graduate, Jalen Moore steps right into the role as the team’s next star. He’s a 6’7 freshman wing who can stroke the three, rebound well, run the floor and finish on the break, get some off the bounce and defend. He’s been up and down all year as freshmen very much have a right to be, but his future is very bright, enough so that considering him for a 2014-15 preseason all-conference slot is very much not out of the question.
- Air Force (9-9, 3-4) – While the Falcons are trending in the right direction, and Dave Pilipovich regularly proves his coaching acumen, this is still a team to sell right now. They simply don’t defend well and there should be no expectation for that trend to change. There’s always plenty of hustle here and this is a team that is not hard to root for, but they just don’t have the horses.
- Fresno State (8-13, 1-7) – Let’s jump straight ot the final possession of regulation against UNLV on Saturday night. Game tied, Fresno State coming out of a timeout with 24 seconds left. A couple weeks back, we killed Boise State for, in a similar situation (that game actually saw the Broncos down one on the final possession) allowing Derrick Marks to take the game clock down to six seconds and then launch a jumper. So, what do the Bulldogs do? Well, something very similar. Give the ball to Cezar Guerrero, have him wait until six seconds remaining, then penetrate off a pick. Guerrero got into the heart of the UNLV defense after forcing a switch that found him with Khem Kong in his face and was forced to retreat to the three-point line in order to launch a shot. Fresno even got a chance at a tip to win the game, but it was not to be and then they went on to lose in overtime. But, this end-game scenario was preferable to Boise State’s in a couple different ways. First, the game was tied – worst case scenario the way Rodney Terry and company played it out, was overtime. Second, instead of just having their guard launch a challenged jumper, they began by getting Guerrero into something of a quickness mismatch with Birch, something that also pulled UNLV’s best rebounder on the court at the time away from the hoop. So when Guerrero did launch his shot, the Bulldogs wound up with four different players in position to rebound the ball. In the end it didn’t work out for Fresno, and perhaps beginning that play two or three seconds earlier would have been preferable (let’s say Guerrero makes his initial shot, meaning UNLV is pulling the ball out of the bottom of the net with four seconds left – if you lose on a desperation half-court three-pointer, okay, you take your lumps and go home). But all things considered, Terry’s end-game decisions were solid.
- San Jose State (6-14, 0-8) – The Spartans are 44.4% of the way through their conference schedule and remain without a win. But, the good news is that their chances of wrapping up conference play without a win are just 4.9%, according to Ken Pomeroy. And they may even be slightly favored at home over Air Force in two weeks. We’re not even going to pick on Rashad Muhammad this week as the freshman had a real bad week. But, good news everybody! He had a blocked shot, his first on the year, pulling him to within three of older brother Shabazz’s career total.