Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa on February 25th, 2014
This week in the Mountain West conference had it all: a much-awaited Top 25 match-up between the two teams remaining in the race for the conference title; an epic (game of the year?) overtime battle between what appears to be the third- and fourth-best teams in the conference that went down to, literally, the final split second before some postgame controversy; and straight heartbreak, when an all-conference performer had his season abruptly ended by injury. Let’s get right to it.
Team of the Week
New Mexico – A little patience, plenty of hard work and steady improvement, and the Lobos are back where their fans expected them to be all along – in first place in the conference. After going on the road and handling the Runnin’ Rebels with relative ease, Craig Neal and company returned home and, in front of a raucous home crowd, showed San Diego State that there is at least another team in the conference capable of some lockdown defense on occasion. Inside the Top 25 and tied atop the conference standings, the Lobos seem to be peaking at just the right time.
Player of the Week
Cameron Bairstow, Senior, New Mexico – Prior to today, we had awarded the Mountain West Player of the Week 11 different times this season. Four players had earned our award twice – Xavier Thames, Larry Nance and Khem Birch. That tie has now been broken, and at precisely the time when the senior Aussie big man first inched ahead of Thames in the Player of the Year race. There is plenty of work left to be done, but with Bairstow’s averages this week of 22.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, and 3.0 BPG in two huge conference games, his inclusion here can hardly be argued with.Newcomer of the Week
Deshawn Delaney, Junior, New Mexico – This is a first, believe me. We are giving a weekly honor to a guy who averaged 2.5 points per game this week, over guys like Roscoe Smith (12.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG), J.J. Avila (12.0 PPG, 6.0 APG, 4.0 RPG), Nick Duncan (10.0 PPG, 71.4% eFG) and Jalen James (game-winner vs. Nevada). Why in God’s name would we do that? Well, basketball isn’t always about the numbers and Delaney does a lot of great things for this Lobos team. This isn’t a squad that really needs a ton of help scoring the ball, and certainly doesn’t need a fifth offensive option – which, let’s face it, is what Delaney is most of the time – forcing things. Earlier this season, Delaney did just that every time he was fortunate enough to earn minutes. But now, he’s content to defend like crazy, help out on the glass, swing the ball on offense, get out in transition, and just generally be the most athletic presence on the team. His numbers aren’t going to wow you most nights, in part because he knows his role, but five points on three field goal attempts while playing great defense and making a ton of little plays for his Top 25 team is something all basketball fans can get behind.
- San Diego State (23-3, 12-2) – No need to jump ship on the Aztecs yet. Yeah, that loss at The Pit wasn’t pretty, but losses at The Pit aren’t uncommon. And those Lobos gotta come back to Viejas Arena in two weeks. But the Aztecs have plenty of others reasons to be concerned. They won the battle of the glass; they held New Mexico to less than a point per possession; and, they limited the Lobos to just six free throw attempts. They still lost by 14 in a game that wasn’t really even that close. New Mexico played the Aztecs’ game by limiting them to just three free throw attempts, eight field goal attempts in transition (in a 59-possession game), and forcing them into contested shots in the half-court. All year long we’ve harped on the fact that the Aztecs have very limited outside shooting and that when Xavier Thames struggles to score, so do the Aztecs. Well, over the last four games, Thames is now 10-of-50 from the field for a 23% eFG. In that same span, San Diego State is averaging 96 points per 100 possessions. Not a coincidence. Here’s another insane stat. The Aztecs attempted 57 shots against New Mexico with 25 or fewer seconds left on the shot clock and they scored a grand total of 30 points on those attempts (data per hoop-math.com).
- New Mexico (21-5, 12-2) – So, let’s bring the Lobos back down to earth a second. They took care of business in their own lair, but in order to wind up winning this conference, they’ll likely need to do the same on the Aztecs’ home court. And there are a couple of things that could be of concern. First, Alex Kirk struggled with the athleticism and physicality of the Aztecs’ frontcourt. Secondly, Hugh Greenwood made some uncharacteristic mistakes against SDSU’s pressure. And lastly, despite eight points on five attempts from freshman Cullen Neal, this New Mexico team seems destined to be getting limited production out of its bench. More to the the point, this way probably far and away the best the Lobos have played defensively this season. Coupled with the Aztecs’ absolutely inept display of offense, they “only” won by 14 at home. Let’s say SDSU plays offense about at their average back home in Viejas, then let’s go ahead and give the benefit of the doubt to the Lobos and say that their defense is slightly improved. Factor in the home court advantage and we’re still talking a coin-flip game at Montezuma Mesa.
- Boise State (18-9, 8-6) – Two weeks we led off talking about the dream scenario for the Broncos that would lead them to NCAA at-large consideration. It wasn’t a complicated plan, really; it boiled down to something along the lines of : “win every game remaining if possible, and maybe try to schedule a couple more and win those also.” Real technical and all. But, here’s the thing, since then, Boise State has won three in a row: home games over New Mexico and UNLV and a road win at Colorado State. Now, they’ve still got three of their four remaining games on the road (at Fresno State, Wyoming and Air Force – with home against Nevada mixed in there), but every game on their schedule from here to the Mountain West tournament is very winnable. Okay, enough talk about the big picture. Let’s spend five hundred words or so on Saturday’s game against UNLV. Let’s jump to the very end first: Boise head coach Leon Rice and UNLV head coach Dave Rice are standing at midcourt, listening to the referee explain his decision on whether the final shot by Rebel point guard Deville Smith was going to count or not. Game in the balance, if it’s good, UNLV wins; if not, another heartbreak for the Broncos. Ref lets it be known that the shot is not going to count and Leon Rice, god bless his heart, immediately reacts like a kid on Christmas morning opening the present he’s been pining for since September. Only after his mini-celebration, does he turn to Dave Rice – the heartbroken kid that got naught but coal in his stocking – to offer his condolences. Let’s get out of the way the fact that I wish the sequence of those actions was reversed and get down to brass tacks – you can’t kill Leon Rice for this. It wasn’t great, but the magnitude of this victory and the circumstances of this game sort of dictated this response. His whole team, the entire Taco Bell Arena crowd, is waiting on any kind of reaction from any of the participants in that mid-court discussion to figure out the result of the game hanging in the balance. And Leon Rice gave them all what they wanted. And full credit to Dave Rice, he reacted not with disdain but with acceptance; if the same situation had played out in reverse in front of the Thomas & Mack crowd, can we say that he would have done much differently? Next, Derrick Marks. After a bone-headed play late in regulation (that actually didn’t wind up costing his team all that much), he takes over in the extra period, scoring all 13 of his team’s points post-regulation, including a beautiful, driving step-back jumper with just over three seconds remaining for what would wind up being the game winner. It hasn’t been an easy season for the junior guard, but when his team needed him the most, he came through big. And then there’s senior forward Ryan Watkins, the unsung hero of the bunch. As just about the only useful player of any significant size to earn big minutes for this squad, he’s bound to get plenty of rebounds just by default. But did you know this guy is the leading offensive rebounder (by OR%) in the nation? And the number 3o in the country in defensive rebounder percentage? He’s relentless on the glass and willing to, time and again, sacrifice his body for the greater good. Late in regulation, as a driving Deville Smith layup attempt went wanting and a pair of UNLV rebounders were in hot pursuit of the offensive rebound with just enough time for a put-back or two remaining on the clock, it was Watkins who dove out of nowhere to knock away the ball and assure that the Broncos would have five more minutes of play to confirm their supremacy. We’ve talked an awful lot this season ’round about these parts regarding what the Broncos are not, that it is enjoyable to spend probably too much time talking about the great fun that this team is. And, here, as of late February, this team is, believe it or not, alive for NCAA at-large consideration. All they gotta do is, you know, win almost every remaining game.
- UNLV (17-8, 8-4) – In defense of UNLV: I’ve been killing this team all year (and most of last year) for their reliance on guys like Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith to create offense – often for themselves – off of the bounce. But, really, what choice do they have? Khem Birch (who, let me take a second to mention is just incredible defensively) and Roscoe Smith are not the type of frontcourt player to whom you can just throw the ball in the post and expect to make things happen. Likewise, a guy like Kevin Olekaibe is mostly reliant on other guys to create spot-up opportunities for him. At this late date, I’ve come around and see what Dave Rice is trying to build around here. And, full credit to Smith; he was awful early – especially on defense, but also with the ball in his hands. But under Rice’s tutelage, he has been mighty impressive since, say, the middle of January against New Mexico when he regained a 30-plus minute per night role. He’s the fastest guard in the conference and frankly I’d love to see him and Jahii Carson engage in a best-of-seven end-to-end dribble-dash for the title of fastest-guard-in-the-west. And, he’s begun playing under control and his upside is through the roof. He has, no doubt, improved under Rice. And in the process, the whole team has improved. They came out behind in heartbreaking fashion this weekend, but the Rebels are going to be a seriously tough out come the Mountain West tournament.
- Wyoming (17-10, 8-6) – Just under 15 minutes to play on Tuesday night, with the Cowboys holding on to a slim lead over visiting Fresno State, junior forward Larry Nance, Jr., took an awkward step near his own team’s free throw line, then crumpled to the ground in pain. Maybe it’s just a cramp? Maybe he turned his ankle? But when he was finally helped from the floor, he was aided to the trainer’s table behind the Wyoming bench without putting any weight on his right knee. He remained on that trainer’s table, often with a towel over his head, for much of the rest of the second half, only to be helped to the end of the Cowboys’ bench in the waning moments of their win over the Bulldogs. The following day, an MRI confirmed the worst fears: torn ACL. While we hope for a quick recovery and a return in time for a dominant senior season, let’s recap the highlights of what will be a breakout all-Mountain West season for Nance: 15.4 PPG (for a team that only averages 65 PPG), 8.6 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 1.6 APG (honestly, Nance has such good court vision, it is surprising this number isn’t higher), 24.6 DR% (good for 38th in the nation), 58.8 FG% (including an 81.3 FG% at the rim), 76.4 FT%, blocking 7.4% of opponents two-point field goal attempts… I could go on. That’s the on-the-court stuff, and that is bad enough. What makes this even worse is just how good of a kid Nance is and how important he’s been to a program in transition. There are a ton of great nights throughout any college basketball season, but a night like Tuesday night when a player of Nance’s caliber goes down like this, I’d just as soon forget. Maybe the only positive on the night is that Nance’s teammates stepped up and, in his absence, were able to come together to withhold Fresno State’s late charge.
- Fresno State (14-14, 7-8) – Not going to spend a lot of time from here down. Fresno bounced back from that loss at Wyoming with a great win at Utah State. They’ve got two of their last three at home, but with those games coming against Boise State and San Diego State, it is going to take a heck of an effort to finish the season at .500 in conference.
- Colorado State (15-13, 6-9) – The Rams bounced back from a tough home loss to Boise State to take advantage of a diminished Wyoming team on Saturday at home, pouring in 1.39 points per possession.
- 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 6/26 from the field.
- Nevada (13-15, 8-7) – The Wolf Pack lost at home to San Jose State. What more can be said. After optimism early in the year, they lost to San Jose State. At home.
- Air Force (10-15, 4-10) – And Air Force? After a week off, and after their opponent just lost to the worst team in the league at their home arena, the Falcons go out and lose to that team in their own home by 19. Yikes, the bottom of this league is just awful.
- San Jose State (7-19, 1-13) – I’ll be honest, after their loss to Air Force a week ago, I didn’t think this was going to happen. I thought the Spartans were going to go through their inaugural Mountain West season without a win. But, Tuesday night, freshman guard Jalen James hit a jumper just in advance of the final buzzer to give the Spartans their first ever win in their new league. All nine players who hit the court for head coach Dave Wojcik scored and now this program can head into the home stretch of the season with a big accomplishment to build on. In honor of their achievement, we’re going to skip the Rashad Muhammad watch for a week.