Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on March 4th, 2014
As we head into the final week of the season, the regular season conference championship remains very much up for grabs San Diego State and New Mexico are tied atop the standings at 14-2, four games ahead of third-place UNLV, each with one game to go prior to their showdown at Viejas Arena on Saturday evening for what figures to be a battle for the outright conference title. The Aztecs have a bit more precarious mid-week exam ahead of them, as they’ll travel to those previously mentioned Runnin’ Rebels tomorrow to renew what has become one of the better rivalries in the conference in recent years.
Team of the Week
UNLV – The Rebels bounced back from an 0-for-2 previous week to score a solid win over Colorado State and a blowout of Air Force this week, securing their credentials, at least for the time being, as the third-best team in the conference. And, there’s little doubt that this Rebel team is significantly improved from the squad that was stinking up the Thomas & Mack in a home loss to those Falcons back in the early days of 2014. Dave Rice and company are probably still in a position where their only chance at an invitation to the Big Dance involves a Mountain West Tournament win in a week’s time, but at least such a possibility is no longer just a punch line to a bad joke.
Player of the Week
Bryce Dejean-Jones, Junior, UNLV – His teammate Khem Birch won the official conference player of the week, but we’re going to go with the team’s most consistent offensive performer, who turned in a solid week of 14.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per night while knocking in shots at an efficient 54.7% eFG clip this week. Dejean-Jones has been maddening at time with erratic shot selection early in his career, but on a team without a ton of other guys capable of creating for themselves, he has been a high-volume shooter who has also significantly increased his capacity to separate a good shot from a bad one.
Newcomer of the Week
Deville Smith, Junior, UNLV – Let’s take the Rebels for a clean sweep this week. Here’s another Dave Rice player who where he was once maddening has now become an intriguing player. Perhaps the fastest player with the ball in his hands I’ve seen this season, Smith has increased his control and has minimized his turnover issues and learned how to balance an ability to create for himself with his need to create for others. He’ll never be the type of point guard who dishes out a dozen assists in a game, but he’s become the Rebels’ transition engine.
- San Diego State (25-3, 14-2) – It was back to business this week for the Aztecs, blowing out San Jose State and then handling a tricky trip to a hot Fresno State team with aplomb. And now where they are, looking down the final stretch and needing two wins against their two biggest rivals in the conference to secure an outright conference title in what was meant to be a rebuilding year. This team isn’t reinventing the wheel for these games. They need to get to the free throw line on offense, keep their opponents off the free throw line on the defensive end, challenge every shot, manage the rebounding battle and, well, it wouldn’t hurt if Xavier Thames knocked in some threes and then got some help from guys like Aqeel Quinn and Matt Shrigley from deep as well. Look, odds are good that this is not the type of team that is offensively polished enough to make a deep run in the NCAAs, but a regular season conference title is something the Aztecs could still hang their hat on.
- New Mexico (23-5, 14-2) – Meanwhile, the Lobos just keep plugging along. They’re nowhere near as good on one of the court as the Aztecs are on the defensive end, but they’re far more balanced. They started out the year as a pretty poor defensive team, but over the past month or so, they’ve been largely terrific. Take away what now appears to be an anomalous week against Boise State and Nevada, and only once since January 21 have the Lobos allowed more than a point per possession defensively. Meanwhile, only twice in all of conference play have they scored less than a point per possession in a game: against San Jose State (in the weirdest game of the year in the Mountain West and potentially in the nation), and against San Diego State a week back. The point is this team is absolutely clicking on both ends of the court and is playing its best ball of the season. They’ve worked through some kinks and Craig Neal appears to have done a phenomenal job in his first season as a head coach, regardless of what goes down in San Diego on Saturday.
- UNLV (19-10, 10-6) – San Diego State is coming to town. With all due respect to New Mexico, Rebels /Aztecs is the best rivalry in the conference, even if UNLV is down some this year. They’ve got the two most obnoxious student sections, they’re loaded with the most highly regarded recruits in the conference and there’s a history of great games between the two. The Aztecs wore down the Rebels at Viejas back in January, but as we’ve discussed above, this UNLV is vastly improved since that first meeting.
- Boise State (19-10, 9-7) – The path for Boise State to at-large consideration included running the table on the final seven games of conference play; a loss at Fresno State last Wednesday ended those hopes. For the Broncos, just like everybody else in the conference not currently tied for first place, the challenge is clear: win the Mountain West tournament or forget about the NCAAs.
- Wyoming (17-12, 8-8) – The Cowboys have played 207 possessions since Larry Nance Jr. went down with a torn ACL. Offensively, they’re, surprisingly, just about as efficient in those possessions, scoring roughly the same number of points per possession since his injury as their adjusted KenPom efficiency indicated (1.048 PPP since the injury, 1.046 the season-long adjusted efficiency numbers). However, defensively there has been a huge step back, as the Cowboys have allowed 1.18 points per possession since Nance’s injury, quite a bump up from their 0.997 season-long adjusted defensive efficiency numbers.
- Fresno State (15-15, 8-9) – While Saturday night’s statement game against San Diego State never quite materialized, assuming the Bulldogs can go on the road to San Jose State on Saturday and come away with a win, they will have put together a .500 season in the conference, quite an accomplishment for a team that started the season 1-7 in conference play. This is a team that can upset a team or two in Vegas next week.
- Colorado State (15-14, 6-10) – It’s been a rough season in Fort Collins, with a losing conference record now official, but next year could be interesting, with a core of three returning seniors – Daniel Bejarano, J.J. Avila and Jon Octeus – joined by Louisville transfer Chase Behanan and three other transfers, all from mid-major schools.
- Utah State (16-13, 6-11) – The last time a Utah State team failed to win 20 games in a season was 1998-99. In order to keep that streak alive, here’s the path for the Aggies, beginning with an assumed home win tonight against Wyoming for #17. Barring a complete collapse out of Colorado State, that still leaves the Aggies with the #9 seed in the conference tournament, meaning they’ll probably play those Rams in the opening round of that tournament. Let’s say the Aggies win that for win #18. In the next round they’ll play the #1 seed – either New Mexico or San Diego State, a game that will, in all likelihood, end the Aggies’ run in the Mountain West tournament. Still, that will leave them at 18-14, good enough for an invitation to whatever the hell those other postseason tournaments that are not the NCAAs or the NIT are. Two wins there against inferior competition in games that may very well be played in one of college basketball’s best homecourt advantages would get to the Aggies to 20 wins, but more than being a major accomplishment for the Aggies would underscore the inanity of these lesser postseason tournaments.
- Nevada (13-16, 8-8) – The Wolf Pack stopped the bleeding by beating up on a bad Air Force team, then got brought back down to earth by New Mexico. And with games at Boise State and home against UNLV remaining, there’s a chance for them to earn one more solid win and a .500 conference record. And, of course, we’ve got a handful of chances remaining as Mountain West fans to watch Deonte Burton in the twilight of his college basketball career.
- Air Force (11-16, 5-11) – Remember when the Falcons started conference play 2-0? Wins over Utah State and at UNLV? Man, that seems like a long time ago, right? Since then, they’ve beaten San Jose State twice and took advantage of a depleted Wyoming team. And beyond that have lost every other conference game.
- San Jose State (7-21, 1-15) – They’ve got their one win; it’s all about Eye On Rashad Muhammad the rest of the way. To recap, we’re comparing the younger Muhammad’s freshman stats in a few key categories to those of his more-celebrated brother Shabazz in his lone year at UCLA. Shabazz, semi-famously, blocked four shots in his 987 on-court minutes as a Bruin, while also accounting for 23 steals and 27 assists. Little bro has only earned 793 minutes thus far for the Spartans but is right on the heels of big bro in the assists category, with 22 to his name. Steals and blocks? 14 thefts and but a single block for Rashad. Odds are good there are three games remaining in Rashad’s freshman campaign, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-85 minutes remaining. Barring being temporarily inhabited by the spirit of Dennis Rodman, those lofty defensive numbers standards aren’t going to be met. But just five assists in 80 minutes of action? If you cherry pick just the right 80 minutes of work, you can find two examples this season where Rashad has accomplished that feat. Let’s go, little bro!