Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on February 11th, 2014
We’re in the back stretch of conference play and, as we have expected for the past couple months, we now have clear separation between the top two teams in the conference – San Diego State and New Mexico, which have combined for only one conference loss – and the rest of the pack. Nevada dropped a pair of road games; UNLV lost on the road; and Wyoming dropped a pair as well, giving the second place Lobos a three-game lead in the loss column over the third-place team. Even more clearly, this looks like a two-bid league come March, barring a big surprise in the conference tournament. The third highest-rated team in the RPI is Boise State, checking in at #68 following a heartbreaker against the Aztecs.
Let’s play a fun game of “let’s pretend” and say that the Broncos catch fire, win out in conference play and get to the championship game in Vegas before bowing out to either San Diego State or New Mexico. Never mind that this team hasn’t shown any indication that its capable of that type of streak, but that would put them at 24-10 with a win over New Mexico in the regular season and a win over the Lobos again (although possibly San Diego State) in the MW Tournament semifinal. That would give them two wins over New Mexico as by far their best wins of the season, with Utah – currently ranked #103 in RPI – ranks as their next best win. Not exactly the resume of an NCAA Tournament team.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – In a week where three conference schools scored a road win as part of a 2-0 week, the Aztecs had the most impressive road win by going to Boise State, roaring back from a 13-point deficit in the middle of the second half, then getting a big go-ahead three-pointer from Dwayne Polee with five seconds left to break the Broncos’ spirit. The Aztecs followed that up by coming home and handing it to Nevada in workmanlike fashion while in the process tying a school-record 20-game winning streak.
Player of the Week
Cezar Guerrero, Sophomore, Fresno State – The Bulldogs were another conference team that not only swept the week but earned a road win (over Air Force) along the way. And it was their point guard transfer who led the way, averaging 20.5 points per game, throwing in seven threes for the week, and shooting a robust 70% eFG for the week. While he doesn’t earn our week’s top individual honor, Guerrero’s teammate Tyler Johnson deserves a nod as well for his weekly averages of 17.5 PPG, 9.0 RPG, and a 63.4% eFG.
Newcomer of the Week
J.J. Avila, Junior, Colorado State – While Guerrero is a newcomer and thus equally deserving of this recognition, the theme of the week for these honors is mentioning the teams that went 2-0 on the week with a road win, and the Rams count among that number as well. Avila was rock steady as usual, bordering on brilliant in the win at Air Force, when he double-doubled with 20 points and 13 boards.
- San Diego State (21-1, 8-0) – No need for an SDSU blurb, as this piece, alternately titled “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love This Aztec Team” should suffice for the week.
- New Mexico (18-4, 9-1) – The Lobos played just one game this week and RTC’s Bennet Hayes has that one covered, so I won’t add much more. But winning a game against a solid Wyoming team when Kendall Williams goes 2-of-13 from the field and doesn’t register an assist has got to be a good sign. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back in a tough game tomorrow night at Boise State.
- Boise State (15-9, 5-6) – The San Diego State loss was devastating. After Polee his his big shot with five seconds left, Derrick Marks received the ball in the backcourt, charged up court, never made any pretense of looking for a teammate with a better opportunity, and launched a deep, fall-away contested three that never had a chance. The scene a moment later, as the Aztecs ran back to their bench to celebrate, was poignant. Ryan Watkins walked off the court in disgust, Anthony Drmic stood on the other wing with his hands on his head in exasperation, while Mikey Thompson and Thomas Bropleh stood beyond the three-point arc at the top of the key with their hands on their knees and their heads down in disappointment. There are now six conference losses by a total of 26 points and repeated frustratingly bad bits of basketball in waning moments of very winnable games. Yes, this is still probably the third-best team in the conference, but this is a veteran squad that probably deserves every bit of those six losses.
- Nevada (12-12, 7-4) – The Wolf Pack came back to reality this week with a couple of road losses, but I for one come away from the week fairly impressed by the squad. Credit to David Carter (who I placed next-to-last in my ranking of Mountain West coaches), but he has got this team competing and has helped some players significantly improve. For instance, sophomore Cole Huff, who was forced into playing far too often at the four in his first season and a half in Reno, has now been shifted out to his more natural wing position with the eligibility of big man A.J. West, and while he’s still a work in progress, man does he have a lot of upside. Against San Diego State, yes, he struggled from the field, but he aided the guards in helping to bring the ball up the court against the Aztec press, he had a couple impressive slashes to the hoop and is now knocking in 38.1% of his 97 three-point attempts on the season. Maybe I’m late to the Huff party, but this guy has future all-conference performer written all over him.
- UNLV (16-8, 7-4) – Just when you start to believe this team has turned the page, something like their embarrassing loss at Colorado State happens. It wasn’t so much the road loss that should bother Rebel fans, but the fact that the team looked so disinterested en route to that road loss. Deville Smith has been really good over the past three weeks or so offensively at the point, but he’s still a disaster defensively.
- Wyoming (14-7, 5-3) – The Cowboys had chances to win both of their games this week, but instead, as two different Larry Nance attempts at the buzzers in each contest were left wanting, they wrap up the week with nothing more than two ridiculously close road losses. The good news is, five of their last eight games are in Laramie, including tonight’s game with San Diego State. Can the Cowboys actually beat the Aztecs tonight? Sure, they did hold last year’s SDSU squad to nine points in the first half in Laramie. They’ll need Riley Grabau and Jerron Granberry to knock down some threes, they’ll need Nathan Sobey and Josh Adams to make some plays off penetration and they’ll need Nance and Derek Cooke to dominate the defensive glass like they usually do. It also wouldn’t hurt if this game was played in the 40s, as it very well might. There probably wouldn’t be many who would be surprised by Wyoming trailing something like 49-48 with 10 seconds left and the ball in Nance’s hands with a chance to win it.
- Colorado State (14-10, 5-6) – Last we left the Rams, Daniel Bejarano had just watched for the final 35 minutes as his teammates battled San Diego State. After getting into an on-court disagreement with head coach Larry Eustachy, his mentor sat him for the remainder of the game. But Eustachy didn’t hold a grudge, got Bejarano back into his normal role against UNLV and the junior showed his ability in helping to run his team past the Rebels with 24 points, ten boards and seven assists. This is the kind of thing we like to see in college sports: a younger guy, making a mistake, learning from the mistake and coming back better for the incident. It may be embarrassing for the player and the program at the time (think Marcus Smart, or any number of other college athletes making mistakes), but if the player is able to learn from the situation, everybody comes out better on the other side. And, never mind that one-of-nine, five turnover performance against Air Force over the weekend.
- Utah State (14-9, 4-7) – It’s been a bumpy first Mountain West season for the Aggies, with the Jarred Shaw distraction and losses piling up early on. But by the time we get to Vegas in March, this is still a team that could be in the conversation for something like the third- or fourth-best team in the league. Certainly, home cooking like the squad enjoyed this week helps, but wins over Nevada and Boise State, even if they did come in Logan, are still quality wins. And now, they get a chance to go on the road tonight to face a Colorado State team that should give them a heck of a fight. We’ll see how far the Aztecs have come.
- Fresno State (11-13, 4-7) – Break up the Bulldogs. Three wins in a row, including a row win at Air Force. Digging into those numbers a little bit with the help of Ken Pomeroy, last weekend the Bulldogs turned in the most efficient offensive performance that Wyoming has surrendered this season. This weekend, they turned in the second-best offensive night that San Jose State has suffered. Mixed in the middle there, the Bulldogs held Air Force to their second least-efficient offensive night of the year last Wednesday. In other words, this squad is starting to click.
- Air Force (9-13, 3-8) – There was a time – I’m sure of it – where we were excited about the offensive upside of this Falcon team. Now, they’ve gone six games without winning, five games without scoring better than a point per possession and – to cherry-pick some stats a bit – six games without scoring better than 1.015 points per possession. Part of that is due to Tre Coggins’ absence, and the fact that he returned on Saturday against Colorado State provides hope, but here’s the other thing: this is a really terrible defensive team.
- San Jose State (6-17, 0-11) – Chances of a winless season are now 14.2%. If they don’t win tomorrow night at home against Air Force, expect those chances to skyrocket. This team just lost to Fresno State by 26. It was a 25-point loss before that, 24 points the game before, 21 the game prior. Sensing a theme? The last time this team lost by single digits was exactly one month ago in an inexplicably good performance against New Mexico. Since then, they’re losing games by an average of three touchdowns.