Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on February 18th, 2014
It’s February 18. Valentine’s Day has come and gone, as has President’s Day. We’ll flip the calendar to March in less than two weeks. There are exactly three weeks of conference play remaining. In other words: In case you haven’t noticed, another season has almost entirely slipped past us. But, over these final three weeks there is a lot still to be decided. Our twosome at the top of the conference – San Diego State (11-1) and New Mexico (10-2) — each dropped a game this week, but with their first of two remaining regular season battles on Saturday and with both schools yet to visit third-place UNLV, there could be a lot of movement atop the leader board. The other big spot to look at in the standings is fifth place. Why? Because the top five seeds will all get first-round byes at the Mountain West Tournament, while the other six teams will be competing an extra day for a chance to get to Thursday’s quarterfinals. Right now, Wyoming and Nevada are in the fourth and fifth spots, but Boise State and Fresno State lurk just behind. And speaking of those Broncos, last week we talked about the climb they face if they are going to get back in the conversation for an at-large NCAA bid. Give them credit because they got off on the right foot, knocking off New Mexico by a point in Boise last Wednesday night, bringing their record in games decided by two possessions or fewer since Christmas to 2-6.
Team of the Week
Wyoming – When you welcome a top five team into your arena and come away with a solid win, as the Cowboys did last Tuesday night against San Diego State, you’ve got a strong head start in the race for my Team of the Week. Wyoming turned on the offense against a great Aztecs defense and got big nights out of just about everyone who saw the floor, with Riley Grabau in particular coming up big when most needed. The Cowboys followed that up by going on the road and uglying one out over a bad San Jose State team to improve to 7-5 in conference play. And once again, head coach Larry Shyatt has his team overachieving.
Player of the Week
Khem Birch, Junior, UNLV – He only played once, but what a game it was, as the junior big man fell just one additional blocked shot short of a triple-double against Utah State on Saturday as he helped his Runnin’ Rebels win their sixth game in seven outings. Birch dominated the middle with 10 defensive boards (and a couple on the offensive end) and nine blocks in helping to limit the Aggies inside while also jump-starting UNLV’s transition game.
Newcomer of the Week
Kevin Olekaibe, Senior, UNLV – Olekaibe’s eligibility in this category is up for debate, because while he is a newcomer to his own team, he is not a newcomer in the conference (having played his previous years at Fresno State). Regardless, he was instrumental in helping his Rebels win at Logan, knocking in four threes on the way to a season-high 21-point outburst to help nail down the win.
- San Diego State (22-2, 11-1) – Last week after knocking off Nevada, Steve Fisher was asked to contemplate how far he thought the Aztecs would fall in the national polls if and when they happened to lose a game. Well, they lost at Wyoming on Tuesday and yesterday we got a chance to find out the answer to that question. Turns out, respect for the Aztecs nationally is real, as they only slipped one spot in the AP poll, down to #6. Now, certainly some of that has to do with teams in that general vicinity (Villanova, Kansas, Michigan State) also losing games this week, but still, credit national writers for not writing off the Aztecs for a road loss at one of the toughest places to play in the nation. The next question is how worried should Aztecs fans be about that one loss? Well, what happened there? They couldn’t shoot the ball from deep (5-of-21, 23.8%); they couldn’t shoot the ball from close (45.9% from two); and they couldn’t make their free throws (13-of-22, 59.1%). The fact that this is not a great shooting team is no surprise, but really this is just the first time that particular weakness has hurt them. Throw in the fact that they had some other things that went very wrong (they allowed Wyoming to get to the line 26 times for a free throw rate of 68.4 percent, more than double their season rate – holy serious statistical outlier, Batman) and then consider that they only lost by six at Laramie? You could actually come away from that loss being more impressed by the Aztecs.
- New Mexico (19-5, 10-2) – A day after the Lobos slid up to a loss-column tie with the Aztecs, they had their own road struggles in a northern state. The old bugaboo from back in December and January about bad perimeter defense reared its ugly head again as Boise State knocked in 11 threes at a 44 percent clip to earn the win. Oh, and that issue where the Lobos were once overly reliant on their big three to score? Well, Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk combined for 55 of the team’s 70 points on Wednesday and the New Mexico bench combined for two points on 0-of-6 shooting in 41 minutes of action. And an entirely new weakness reared its head as well as the Lobos were dominated on the glass, grabbing just two over their 21 missed field goals for an 8% offensive rebounding rate. Of those three issues, the perimeter defense and mediocre offensive rebounding carried over to the Nevada game on Saturday, but the bench did bounce back in a big way with Cleveland Thomas, Cullen Neal and Obij Aget combining for 24 points in that 18-point win.
- Boise State (16-9, 6-6) – I’m only going to talk about one thing regarding the Broncos this week, because I think it is that important. If you read this space previously this year, I’ve ripped Boise State and head coach Leon Rice for inept end-game strategy. On Wednesday night against New Mexico, they flipped the script and had success. Set the scene: New Mexico 70-69, 21 seconds, Boise State inbounding from the frontcourt sideline, shotclock off. Past history would indicate that Derrick Marks was going to dribble the clock down to five seconds and then launch a contorted, contested long-range jumper of some kind. But, on Wednesday night, they inbound the ball to Marks in the backcourt, he walks it into the frontcourt and then immediately explodes at his defender, Hugh Greenwood, taking him into the lane, spinning back away from pressure, and getting to the rim and drawing a foul with 13 seconds still remaining. Brilliant. So, the 82.6% free throw shooter goes to the line with the game in the balance and calmly knocks down the pair of free throws to give them the lead. Sure, now the Broncos still had to play 13 seconds of solid defense, but the pressure was off of their backs and onto the Lobos. And after those 13 seconds of solid defense resulted in a fall-away jumper from Greenwood going awry, the Broncos had actually earned a win in a close game. This type of strategy isn’t always going to work – sometimes the opponent will be able to make something happen in those final 13 seconds and you’ll come away with an equally heartbreaking loss. But to me, the combination of going early in the clock, attacking the defense instead of settling for a bad jumper and then relying on strong defense in a short clock scenario is infinitely more workable than the way the Broncos had been working late-game scenarios.
- UNLV (17-8, 8-4) – Going on the road and getting a win at Logan is no joke. Doing so to earn your sixth win in seven tries? Golden. And for a team that is playing well and racking up wins, there should be some measure of optimism about the future of this program, right? Now, that’s all fine and well, but let’s withhold judgment of the progress this Rebel team has made until after this week. New Mexico comes to the Thomas & Mack tomorrow night, then Saturday UNLV will visit Boise State. Impress this week and we can write the “UNLV is back” column next week.
- Wyoming (16-9, 7-5) – Hey, you. College basketball fan focused on the big national stories. Ever heard of Riley Grabau? Yeah, didn’t think so. But when you’re talking about the best shooters in the country, when you mention Ethan Wragge and Jason Calliste and Phil Forte and Jabari Brown the like, you probably need to be throwing Grabau into the mix. This week he was 7-of-16 from deep with an eFG of 65 percent and made eight of his 10 free throws. Well, that 65% eFG? That’s right in line with his rate for the year, and those two missed free throws helped drag his free throw percnetage on the year to a measly 90 percent (on 70 attempts).
- Fresno State (13-13, 6-7) – Five wins in a row. Their offensive efficiency numbers have been over 106 for eight straight games. Balanced scoring with four guys on the squad averaging better than ten points per game. We’re starting to see Rodney Terry mold this rag-tag bunch into something special. But, we’re going to hold off on the glowing assessment for one more week as there are two ridiculously tough road games awaiting: at Wyoming and at Utah State. If they get through these, we’ll write up the Bulldogs big time in advance of their homestand of the following week against Boise State and San Diego State.
- Colorado State (14-12, 5-8) – Not sure what to make of the Rams right now. They can’t defend even a little and aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders offensively either. Note that Daniel Bejarano had a big bounce-back week statistically (22.5 PPG, 6 RPG, 2.5 APG) and is the team’s best player, but clearly a work in progress when it comes to leadership.
- Nevada (12-14, 7-6) – We knew there was a rough stretch coming for the Wolf Pack, but losing at home to an improving Fresno State team did not help matters. Then, when they visited The Pit on Saturday, senior guard Deonte Burton tried to play through the stomach flu but wasn’t his usual self, attempting just seven field goals, his lowest output since the middle of last season. Bundle it all together and that’s a four-game losing streak for the Wolf Pack. They need to get well this week against San Jose State and at Air Force, because their final three conference games are brutal: New Mexico, at Boise State, UNLV.
- Utah State (15-10, 5-8) – Backwards week for the Aggies, with a road win at Colorado State followed by a home loss to UNLV. Why’d the lose to the Rebels? Spencer Butterfield and Preston Medlin – second- and third-leading scorers – combined for 6-of-26 from the field.
- Air Force (10-14, 4-9) – For any other team, a win at San Jose State wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. But for the Falcons, any road win is a good win. And, that’s enough about the Academy for the week.
- San Jose State (6-19, 0-13) – Chances of a winless season have skyrocketed from 14.2 percent to 43.2 percent this week after losing at home to Air Force and Wyoming last week. Back in early January when this team played New Mexico to the wire at home, I had no doubt that the Spartans would win a game somewhere. Now, their best chance (27 percent, per KenPom) at a win comes on the final day of the regular season when they host a Fresno State team that has reeled off five straight wins. And, continuing our season-long Eye on Rashad Muhammad series, he played just four minutes against Wyoming due to a coach’s decision. For the week: 35 minutes, 2-of-11 from the field, no assists, one steal.