Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa on February 4th, 2014
It’s the first week in February, and we’re basically halfway through the conference season (believe it or not). So for the most part this week, our Mountain West check-in will be a review of the season to this point combined with look forward, while just touching on a handful of stories from this past week.
First, the conference race. San Diego State remains atop the standings without a blemish in conference play. They’re ranked fifth in the nation and in the RTC25 and in strong contention for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But New Mexico has just one conference loss and still has two games with the Aztecs remaining on its schedule. A game back of those two, you’ll find the surprise team of conference play – Nevada – sitting at 7-2. How this makes any sense is still unclear as the Wolf Pack were terrible in non-conference play and have looked every bit of their record in conference; they can no longer be regarded as fluky. Despite Nevada’s successful run in conference play, the line for serious contention for at-large consideration in this conference is drawn right between the Lobos and the Wolf Pack. Right now New Mexico looks like a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team; whereas everybody south of the #2 spot in the conference probably needs to win the Mountain West Tournament to get a bid.
As for awards, Coach of the Year is the easy one – Steve Fisher is not only the heavy favorite to win the MW Coach of the Year award, but he’s probably the favorite nationally as well. Despite a less than favorable finish in our ranking of Mountain West coaches last week, Nevada’s David Carter really does deserve at least some consideration.
Player of the Year is likely a three-man race with Xavier Thames in the lead by a healthy margin. With Deonte Burton leading the conference in scoring and carrying the team on his back, the Nevada point guard is in the conversation as well. Meanwhile, New Mexico senior Cameron Bairstow and his 20-points-per-game average will also earn consideration. Oddly enough, Bairstow’s teammate and classmate Kendall Williams, who also happens to be the reigning MW Player of the Year and is probably having a significantly better year than last year, seems to be off the radar a bit right now.
If we were going to name a Freshman of the Year in the conference, it appears that San Jose State’s Rashad Muhammad is running unopposed, while Newcomer of the Year would appear to be the most wide open of the major categories, with Colorado State’s J.J. Avila, San Diego State’s Josh Davis, UNLV’s Roscoe Smith and Fresno State’s Cezar Guerrero all with an argument. Going deeper, if we wanted to hand out Most Improved, Cameron Bairstow appears to be the slam dunk choice, but Larry Nance Jr. at least deserves some consideration. And lastly, Defensive Player of the Year? While Khem Birch has been a terrific individual defender, it would seem odd to ignore the Aztecs and their elite team defense when selecting this honor. The problem with this notion, however, is picking just one player to the exclusion of the rest. Winston Shepard? Josh Davis? Skylar Spencer (who really deserves to be in the discussion with Birch for best rim-protector in the league)? Or even Thames? Birch probably will wind up winning it, but all of those Aztecs at least need to be considered.
Lastly, let’s go out on a limb and pick the 10 guys from whom the All-Mountain-West first team will be made. To be clear, this is not an all-conference team (if you’ve followed RTC, you know we’re on a crusade to limit all-conference teams to five – and only five – players); this is just the watch-list for all-conference consideration.
- Cameron Bairstow, Senior, New Mexico (20.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 56.1 FG%)
- Deonte Burton, Senior, Nevada (21.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.0 APG)
- Tyler Johnson, Senior, Fresno State (15.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.1 APG, 55.2 TS%)
- Xavier Thames, Senior, San Diego State (18.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.7 APG. 1.8 SPG, 43.3 3P%)
- Ryan Watkins, Senior, Boise State (11.4 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 53.1 FG%)
- Kendall Williams, Senior, New Mexico (17.6 PPG, 5.3 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 63.7 TS%)
- Khem Birch, Junior, UNLV (11.4 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.8 BPG, 50.3 FG%)
- Anthony Drmic, Junior, Boise State (17.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 52.8 eFG%)
- Alex Kirk, Junior, New Mexico (13.9 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.8 BPG)
- Larry Nance, Jr., Junior, Wyoming (16.2 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 57.1 eFG%)
Team of the Week
Nevada – The Wolf Pack finished off a great first half of the season with a pair of home wins over Colorado State and Air Force (in overtime). There simply aren’t many better turnaround stories this year than what is happening in Reno. And it is not just Deonte Burton getting the job done; he played great, yes, but in both games the Wolf Pack had four players score in double figures.
Player of the Week
Khem Birch, Junior, UNLV – All too often these types of recognitions just go to the flashy guys knocking in deep jumpers and throwing down crazy dunks en route to 20 points a night. But defense is half of the game and Birch is among the best in the nation at dissuading shot attempts in the paint. This week, he blocked six shots in each of the Runnin’ Rebels’ two games and helped deter opponents from venturing into the key.
Newcomer of the Week
A.J. West, Junior, Nevada – In the same spirit as our POTW award, our Newcomer award goes to a guy who has helped to completely flip his squad’s defensive toughness since he became eligible over winter break. This week, the JuCo transfer averaged 11 points and 10.5 rebounds per game on 8-of-10 shooting, but the biggest thing he brings to the Pack is his ability to be nasty in the paint. Just witness his four blocks per game this week.
- San Diego State (19-1, 8-0) – The Aztecs knocked off Colorado State this weekend to earn their 18th consecutive victory and they look great. But, of some concern for SDSU is the right knee of Josh Davis. The senior power forward sat out Saturday night’s game with a bone bruise. Expectations are that this is a minor injury and he could be back in time for the start of a tough week when the Aztecs travel to Boise State on Wednesday, but any time a basketball player has the phrase knee injury associated with him, it isn’t great. He’ll be greatly needed as SDSU has now wrapped up the easiest portion of its conference schedule (they’ve face the easiest conference schedule so far per KenPom).
- New Mexico (17-4,8-1) – Alex Kirk returned from his lower leg injury on Saturday night with a quick 19-minute effort against San Jose State and he looked good. But what has been exciting about the Lobos of late has been the emergence of guys outside their big three. Deshawn Delaney has been an absolute revelation of late, playing great defense, rarely forcing the offense and then being supremely efficient when he has an opportunity with the ball. Hugh Greenwood is now playing his best ball of the season, while Cullen Neal is finally getting back to full strength and getting to show Lobo fans what all the fuss was about. Cleveland Thomas is contributing regularly. And even 7’1” freshman Obij Aget, though offensively raw, can now be counted on for ten or so good minutes a night. It’s been a growing process, but one would not need to be a New Mexico homer to think this group is slowly turning into a real good basketball team. These two New Mexico/San Diego State games coming up (February 22 in Albuquerque, March 8 in San Diego) could be epic.
- Nevada (12-10, 7-2) – I’ve been hesitant to buy all the way in, but most of the other teams I would consider for this spot have already been beaten by the Wolf Pack: Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado State. But, exercise extreme caution. The Wolf Pack have earned their gaudy conference record on the back of a kind schedule. Still to come, among others: at Utah State, at San Diego State, at New Mexico, at Air Force, at Boise State and home against New Mexico and UNLV. Still, while the Wolf Pack may not be quite as good as a 7-2 conference record suggests, they are significantly better than they were in the non-conference.
- Boise State (15-7, 5-4) – The Broncos may be disappointing, but they’re still probably in the conversation for the third-best team in the conference. Would anybody be shocked if they knocked off San Diego State at Taco Bell Arena tomorrow night? Heck, they’re even talented enough that they could back that up with a win at Utah State on Saturday. If they do that, we’ll start to take the Broncos very seriously again, won’t we.
- UNLV (15-7, 6-3) – And, don’t look now, but the Runnin’ Rebels are on a four-game winning streak and maybe Dave Rice isn’t really the worst coach in the conference. Deville Smith is starting to get comfortable as a scoring point (he’s averaged 14.5 points per game since regaining control of his starting job six games ago) and as a result there are signs of life offensive, such as a 1.13 points per possession over the last four games.
- Wyoming (14-7, 5-3) – A disappointing loss at Fresno State notwithstanding, the Cowboys are playing pretty good ball these days, with five wins in six contests. But things are about to get a whole lot tougher, with road trips to New Mexico and UNLV this week followed up by a visit from San Diego State next Tuesday. To make matters worse, the Cowboys will be without sophomore guard Josh Adams for the New Mexico game after he was suspended by the conference for one game for “striking an opponent.” If the Cowboys are still above .500 by the final whistle of that game next week, it will have been a good stretch for Larry Shyatt’s boys.
- Colorado State (12-10, 3-6) – The Rams played San Diego State tight on Saturday night and did so without arguably their best player in junior wing Daniel Bejarano who had a temper tantrum during an early timeout and began yelling at head coach Larry Eustachy. Needless to say, Bejarano spent the remainder of the game watching from the sidelines as his teammates fought back to as close as six late in the game. Bejarano practiced in full on Monday and we’ll see if his playing time if altered at all going forward. In the meantime, we’re reduced to wondering if the Rams would have had any chance against the Aztecs if Bejarano hadn’t had his meltdown.
- Utah State (12-9, 2-7) – Nevada 2011-12 as a member of the WAC (28-7, 13-1) is to Nevada 2012-13 as a member of the Mountain West (12-19, 3-13) as Utah State 2012-13 as a member of the WAC (21-10, 11-7) is to Utah State 2013-14 as a member of the Mountain West (12-9, 2-7). “It’s Different Up Here.”
- Air Force (9-11, 3-6) – Sure, there are four straight losses on the books, six in the last seven. But check this out: those six losses came in four road games, plus home games against San Diego State and Wyoming. Four of those six losses came by seven points or less and a fifth was an overtime loss where the wheels came completely off in the extra period. In other words, the Falcons are competing on a regular basis. And the schedule gets a bit easier down the stretch.
- Fresno State (9-13, 2-7) – Good win for the Bulldogs over Wyoming this week to break a six-game losing streak. The back half of the schedule features just one game against San Diego State, one against Boise State (both at home) and a trip to Nevada, interspersed with games in which this team can compete. Expect more than two wins in the back half of this schedule.
- San Jose State (6-16, 0-10) –Chances of a winless conference record now up to better than 10% according to Ken Pomeroy. Sure, the margin of defeat over the last four games has been better than 23 points per night, but that has been against a ridiculous stretch of opponents (SDSU, at Boise, UNLV, at New Mexico). But let’s go out on a limb and say by the time we post our Mountain West check-in on February 18, the Spartans have a win in the books. The three games between now and then: at Fresno, home against Air Force, home against Wyoming. Weekly Rashad Muhammad check-in: 28 points for the week on 50 eFG%, six boards and four assists, all good numbers. But no blocks and no steals after four straight games with at least one of those? I thought we had something going here kid. So, with at least nine games remaining in the younger Muhammad’s freshman campaign, he still trails his older brother’s numbers in those defensive stats by 10 steals and three blocks. Oh, and about those assists: Shabazz still has a 10-assist lead on his younger kin. Come on, we can do this Rashad!