The RTC Mountain West SuperlativesPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 10th, 2014
Not only did the Mountain West regular season title come down to the final moments of the season, but the Player of the Year race was held in the balance until late Saturday night. Below, one man’s opinion on the best in the Mountain West.
Player of the Year
Xavier Thames, Senior, San Diego State – With 12 minutes left in the conference regular season and New Mexico up 16 at Viejas Arena, Cameron Bairstow looked like he had a hammer-lock on the POY award. A 26-7 run later, the Aztecs were conference champions and now Thames is the pick as the league’s MVP. But don’t believe for a second that this is a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision based largely on recentness; this was just a race that was neck and neck all season long, and Thames was the one to nose the finish. Bairstow winds up leading the conference in scoring, averaging better than three points a game more than Thames, but the Aztec point guard was not only his team’s leading scorer (16.9 PPG), but he was also their lead playmaker (3.0 APG), their most important defender on a top-ten defense nationally, and their rock down the stretch of close games. Down the stretch Saturday night, as Bairstow was held to a single point over the final 12 minutes of the game, Thames scored 10 points, as well as collecting two steals, two assists and a rebound in leading his team to a win. Bairstow had an excellent year, and the improvement in his game deserves plenty of recognition, but he also played with two other guys who deserve strong consideration for a first-team all-conference spot. For Thames, he was the Aztecs’ main guy and the one most responsible for their regular season conference title.
Coach of the Year
Steve Fisher, San Diego State – This one doesn’t require nearly as much of an explanation. Fisher took a team that was picked by the media to finish fourth in the conference (full disclosure, RTC picked them 2nd), a team that had to replace four of its six leading scorers, including all-conference types Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, and turned this Aztec team into a national top ten team. At times it seemed like he was doing it with smoke and mirrors, but facts remain: 27-3; losses only at home to Arizona and on the road to Wyoming and New Mexico; regular season conference championship; and a likely top-four protected seed in the NCAA Tournament. Sounds like a Coach of the Year to me.
- G Xavier Thames, Sr, San Diego State (16.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.7 SPG) – If you’re Player of the Year, you’re on the all-conference team, right?
- G Kendall Williams, Sr, New Mexico (16.4 PPG, 5.0 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.6 SPG) – Last year’s conference Player of the Year was even better this year, but so was the competition for the POY.
- F Cameron Bairstow, Sr, New Mexico (20.3 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 56.6 eFG%) – If others make the argument that Bairstow is the CPOY, it is hard to argue with them.
- F Larry Nance Jr., Jr, Wyoming (15.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 2.1 BPG, 1.4 SPG, 55.8 eFG%) – His spectacular junior season was cut short by a cruel injury, but he’s on the short list of the biggest difference-makers in the conference.
- C Khem Birch, Jr, UNLV (11.8 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 3.8 BPG) – That enormous blocked shot average is one thing, but Birch’s defensive impact goes beyond even what that number indicates.
- G Deonte Burton, Sr, Nevada (20.0 PPG, 4.5 APG, 4.4 RPG. 1.5 SPG) – The conference’s second-leading scorer helped will his team into an unexpected third-place finish.
- G Tyler Johnson, Sr, Fresno State (16.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 3.1 APG, 43 3P%) – An underrated star on an improving team, Johnson was key to the Bulldogs’ late-season charge.
- F J.J. Avila, Jr, Colorado State (16.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.5 APG) – A versatile threat, the transfer from Navy did a little of everything for the Rams this season.
- F Ryan Watkins, Sr, Boise State (11.9 PPG, 10.9 RPG) – The conference’s second-leading rebounder and the best offensive rebounder in the nation.
- C Alex Kirk, Jr, New Mexico (13.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.9 BPG) – Paired with Bairstow, the two Lobo bigs made one of the best frontcourt tandems in recent conference history.
Defensive Player of the Year
Khem Birch, Junior, UNLV – With apologies to San Diego State (their defensive prowess was more of a function of team; not one player stood out), the nod here goes to the most fearsome rim protector in the league. But not only was Birch there to challenge and often block – he swatted 11% of all opponents two-point attempts when he was on the court – the shots of opponents who regularly got penetration against their weak perimeter defense, he teamed with Roscoe Smith to help corral missed shots.
Most Improved Player
Cameron Bairstow, Senior, New Mexico – Bairstow was often described as earthbound and a below-the-rim grinder in his first three seasons at Albuquerque. After a great off-season of work, this year he was an explosive athlete who surprised early with some thunderous dunks, until we got used to them, that is. Throw in a quick first step on the drive, a terrific eye for the pass and improved touch on his mid-range jumper and he was almost a completely different player this season.
Newcomer of the Year
J.J. Avila, Junior, Colorado State – The transfer from Navy joined a Colorado State team that was losing its five most important players and would be returning just one player taller than 6’4”. So, rather than just do one thing for the Rams, Avila needed to help out on several fronts. And he did, checking in as the team’s best passer and best offensive rebounder, along with being a solid defender and a solid scoring threat.
Freshman of the Year
Paul Watson, Fresno State – In a year lacking many impact freshmen in the conference, Watson is the winner here, averaging 30 minutes a game for the Bulldogs, 10 points per night, 4.7 boards and bringing a ton of frontcourt energy to a team loaded with wings.