Mountain West Quarterfinal RoundupPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 14th, 2014
Wednesday was a busy day at the Thomas and Mack, with eight quarterfinalists battling for Friday reservations in the MW Tournament semis. Like they have all season, San Diego State and New Mexico found a way to distance themselves from the rest of the league on Thursday, but UNLV and Boise State were forced to work a little harder for their spot in the semifinals. Here are a few thoughts from each of the four MW quarterfinals:
San Diego State-Utah State
No surprises in the opener today. Five days after securing the conference regular season title, San Diego State made clear their intentions to double-dip with a MW Tournament crown, waxing Utah State 73-39. Balance and unselfishness were the themes of the day for the Aztecs, as SDSU had seven different players contribute six or more points, while 19 of their 24 field goals were assisted. Xavier Thames’ season high seven assists paced SDSU in that category. It was a solid day for the Mountain West Player of the Year (who also chipped in 15 points), who also added a season-high seven assists. Steve Fisher obviously hasn’t invented the concept of a scoring point guard here, but the tidbit is a subtle reminder of just how reliant the Aztecs are on their point guard to score the ball. San Diego State’s slow-tempo offense is also built around offensive rebounding and opportunistic finishing, and only three teams assist on a fewer percentage of field goals than the Aztecs. It’s an unconventional offensive formula, but at least on this day, Steve Fisher’s offense kept pace with their spirit-crushing defense.
Utah State wasn’t supposed to beat San Diego State, but they also weren’t supposed to lose by 33. It’s been that kind of season for Stew Morrill’s club, who has underachieved significantly in their first go-around in the Mountain West. Unfortunately for the folks up in Logan, the departure of four senior starters means that things may get worse before they get better, but the decades of consistency under Morrill should eventually translate into Mountain West success. As for the possible continuation of this season, the CBI or CIT may come calling for the 18-14 Aggies, but there is no guarantee that the man in charge is ready to accept a bid. When asked about postseason plans after today’s demolition, Morrill’s rhetorical question said it all about this Utah State season — “who the hell are we to think we might go to the postseason?”
UNLV survived the latest edition of “late-game free-throw adventures with the Rebels” to down Wyoming, 71-67. The Cowboys trailed by eight with a minute to play, but four UNLV missed free throws later, and they had the ball down three with twenty seconds to go. Nathan Sobey would miss a tying effort from distance, Khem Birch snatched the board, sealed it on the other end with two free throws, and Dave Rice walked back to the locker room a winning coach, albeit with a life expectancy a bit shorter than it was two hours earlier. Bottom line: the Rebels found a way to win, and now have a chance to avenge two regular season losses at the hands of San Diego State. Not everything is rainbows and unicorns for UNLV, however. Khem Birch, who was questionable to play, played 34 minutes but looked extremely hobbled throughout, wincing often while playing through a hip injury. There are no guarantees Birch will be in the Rebel lineup tomorrow, and despite a busy and effective return from Roscoe Smith (18 points, 13 rebounds), no Birch would make life awfully difficult for Rice’s team. Another, more minor point of concern for UNLV: it felt like Wyoming had more support here than the Rebels did. Not sure where Vegas locals were for this matinee game, but hopefully they will be ready tomorrow night to supply a homecourt advantage that UNLV could desperately use.
It was a valiant effort from the Larry Nance-less Cowboys, who should see their season continue in some form of postseason tournament. The sizable Wyoming contingent that made the trip here to Vegas was unexpected but fun, as was this Josh Adams dunk. A healthy Nance could have made Wyoming a nightmare here in Vegas this week – potentially as the #3 seed – but the Cowboys still would have been NIT bound at best, anyways. Either way, in doing the impossible and showing that a Larry Shyatt coached team can actually be fun to watch, this Wyoming team was one of the revelations of the 2014 Mountain West. Never was it more apparent than on a February night in Laramie, when the Cowboys dunked (and defended, of course) their way past eventual league champion San Diego State. Good run, Pokes.
New Mexico-Fresno State
The Pit West was alive for the second session of quarterfinal games, as the New Mexico faithful made the championship week pilgrimage in force once again. With their Lobos running by Fresno State for an easy victory, the support was rendered fairly superfluous on this night, but a virtual home-court advantage should exist for the Lobos moving forward, even if they somehow meet UNLV on Saturday. Every New Mexico player that took to the floor Thursday posted an offensive rating of at least 109 (Alex Kirk really struggled in posting that team-low rating, too, going 7-of-11 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the line…), and the bruising frontcourt of Bairstow and Kirk were a big reason why the Lobos shot 68% from two-point range in between their 38 trips to the free throw stripe. A burst of offense out of UNM isn’t as unusual as that which we saw from SDSU today, but both MW front-runners posted insanely efficient offensive numbers on quarterfinal Thursday.
Fresno State missed too many shots early to stay in this game, but there was little despondence to be found in Bulldog camp afterwards. Rodney Terry and his team are well aware of exactly how good their vanquishers are, and he said that he believes the Lobos are “the kind of team you see in the Sweet 16.” As for his own group, Terry seemed genuinely proud of what they accomplished this season. Fresno concluded the season by winning nine of their final 12 games, a run that will earn them their first postseason appearance since 2007. Bright spots were many but none brighter than MW Freshman of the Year Paul Watson, whose silky smooth game should make him a regular on future all-conference teams. Terry summed up the season by saying that “we may have gotten out-manned a few times, but we never got outplayed when it came to working hard and competing – this team grew.”
Boise State didn’t submit their sharpest offensive performance in the nightcap against Nevada, but may have come up with their best defensive effort of the season in beating the Pack and extending their MW Tournament run. Nevada’s struggles from the field — 36% from two-point range and 25% from three – offset similarly inaccurate nights from Boise leading scorers Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic, who combined to go just 7-of-21 from the field. Survive and advance, certainly, but you wonder if Boise has enough in the tank to take down New Mexico on Friday night. It’s been a long season up in Boise, and despite the win tonight, I think you saw signs of fatigue in an effort that probably wouldn’t be characterized as sharp. Perhaps my eyes are playing tricks on me, but I think a rested, confident New Mexico team may prove overwhelming to a team that has to be reaching the outer limits of emotional exhaustion.
The higher seed may have lost this game, but there was no upset here. Heck, just ask the local sports books, who pegged Nevada as a six and a half point underdog. This game played out much like the Nevada season has unfolded, with the occasional spurt of brilliance interrupting otherwise uninspiring stretches of basketball. Even in this down MW, Nevada should get credit for earning the #3 seed, but they could have helped the conference out by actually winning games in the non-conference season. It’s just not the best look for a league when their third place finisher owns five losses to teams outside the top-150 and only wins one non-conference game in regulation by more than two points. Given that, it’s no surprise this is a two-bid MW. Also of interest will be David Carter’s job security, despite the Pack revival in conference play. The leash cannot be long at this point. All in all, it was a bizarre season in Reno, but they did supply us with Deonte Burton. For that, we will be forever grateful. Fantastic season for a senior who will likely be the first MW player drafted in 2014.