Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 31st, 2014

It’s been awhile since we checked in on the Mountain West. But with conference play set to begin on New Year’s Eve, it is time we get all caught up with the state of the league. We can break the league into three broad tiers: the conference favorites (San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming, in some order); an intriguing group of talented teams with recent success in the middle (New Mexico, Boise State and UNLV); and everybody else.

San Diego State's Offense Has Been Awful, But They're Still A Force To Be Reckoned With In The Mountain West (Stephen Dunn)

San Diego State’s Offense Has Been Awful, But They’re Still A Force To Be Reckoned With In The Mountain West. (Stephen Dunn/AP)

The Championship Tier: San Diego State came into the season as the clear-cut favorite in the conference. Somewhere in the middle of an egregious display of offense in a 36-point outing at Washington, that prognosis changed somewhat. With Colorado State out to a 13-0 start, the Rams are making their case as a challenger to the returning champions, while Wyoming is trying to claim the name Dunk City on their way to a big role in the conference championship chase. But really, go back and look at who either of those last two teams have beaten. Both have wins over Colorado and New Mexico State as among their best wins. The Rams can throw in wins over Georgia State, UTEP and UC Santa Barbara for flavor, but the biggest accomplishment for both teams is really the absence of bad losses. Meanwhile, the Aztecs, despite those three losses and offensive issues, has wins over Utah and BYU, both of which are better than anything on Colorado State or Wyoming’s ledger. And, just realistically, we’ve seen Steve Fisher succeed with atrocious offense backed up by excellent defense; it has been their M.O. for the past two years at least. While this level of offensive ineptitude is concerning, and the Aztecs are no longer the prohibitive favorite in the league, smart money still puts San Diego State a notch above the competition.

The Middle Tier: UNLV’s win over Arizona during Christmas week cemented the Runnin’ Rebels credentials as the team that can beat anybody; or lose to anybody. This is a team with a 22-point loss to Arizona State on its resume, not to mention belly-scrapers over Morehead State, Sam Houston State and Portland. But, as they showed against the Wildcats, there is a lot of upside here. Boise State and New Mexico, while still quality teams that are going to beat teams in that top tier at some point this year, probably don’t have nearly the amount of upside talent that the Rebels have, have had some season-crushing injuries, and are just as prone to head-scratching performances, as evidenced by Boise State’s loss to Loyola Chicago and New Mexico’s loss to Grand Canyon last week. None of these three teams can afford to be overlooked by conference opponents, but of these three, only UNLV has a chance to earn NCAA Tournament at-large consideration.

Christian Wood's Double-Double Helped UNLV Spring An Upset Over Listless Arizona

Christian Wood’s Double-Double Helped UNLV Spring An Upset Over Listless Arizona. (AP)

The Bottom Tier: Really, we could divide this up even further. Utah State doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the rest of these teams. Then there’s Fresno State, who you keep hoping will turn the corner, even as inexplicable losses pile up. Air Force and Nevada have combined for three wins against KenPom’s top 300 teams in the nation, while Nevada also has four losses to teams ranked 200 or lower. And then, at the bottom of the conference all by their lonesome, sits San Jose State, ranked 342nd in the nation by KenPom, without a win over a Division I team this year, playing football players in the wake of five players being suspended indefinitely in mid-December. We can’t even bring ourselves to make fun of this team anymore right now. The bottom of this conference is really, really bad.

Team of the Non-Conference

Colorado State – A 13-0 record speaks for itself. The Rams are in the Top 25. They’ve got a collection of halfway-decent wins. Nevermind if those wins over Georgia State, UTEP, UCSB, Denver, New Mexico State and Colorado are by a combined 19 points (with the first in that bunch a relative blowout – a 10-point win). They play a fun style of basketball (namely, great offense, middling defense), they’re one of the most experienced teams in the country and they’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts. Larry Eustachy figures to have this squad in the mix for a conference title all season long.

J.J. Avila Is Part of A Dynamic Duo That Has Helped Colorado State Maintain An Undefeated Record (Isaac Brekken, AP)

J.J. Avila Is Part of A Dynamic Duo That Has Helped Colorado State Maintain An Undefeated Record. (Isaac Brekken, AP)

All-Mountain West Non-Conference Team

  • J.J. Avila, Sr, Colorado State (14.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.2 APG) – He does it all. Rebounds. He makes great outlet passes, and is an all-around excellent passer. He scores efficiently around the paint and earns his way to the free throw line. And, while not the fleetest of foot, he’s a scrappy and cunning defender.
  • Daniel Bejarano, Sr, Colorado State (11.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.7 APG) – Last year, Bejarano felt the need to try to take over every game with his scoring. This year, he picks his spots more and has embraced his role as this team’s coach on the floor.
  • Jalen Moore, So, Utah State (15.3 PPG, 7.2 RPG) – Hidden away in Logan, Moore has taken a big leap forward, upping his aggressiveness and usage while maintaining the efficient numbers he posted last season.
  • Larry Nance, Sr, Wyoming (14.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG) – Back from the torn ACL that ended his terrific junior campaign, Nance performed at a high level even while getting his legs back under him. Well, um, I think his legs are back now.
  • Christian Wood, So, UNLV (14.6 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 3.2 BPG) – The skilled 6’11” forward has begun to embrace playing on the interior, and his rebounding and blocked shot numbers have skyrocketed. Sure would like to see those couple of three-point attempts per game (at a 23% clip) disappear though.

Newcomer of the Non-Conference

  • Rashad Vaughn, Fr, UNLV – The consistency isn’t quite there yet, but Vaughn is an explosive scorer who is capable of getting hot in a hurry and scoring from deep, in the mid-range or at the rim. He’s definitely a volume shooter at times, but on a team without a ton of polished offensive players, he’s filling the role asked of him by head coach Dave Rice. And he’s filling it well.

Power Rankings

  1. San Diego State (10-3)So, let’s talk about offense. Is there any chance that this Aztec team can evolve beyond a, well, terrible offensive team? Put it this way, there are only three teams ranked in the KenPom top 100 who are worse offensive basketball teams so far: Wofford, New Mexico and Nebraska. Not exactly the kind of company that San Diego State wants to keep. So, what has to happen to change their fortunes? Well, first, aside from being a scary situation that is far more important than a simple basketball game, Dwayne Polee’s scare — collapsing on the court for no clear reason for the second time in a year — is not something that is going to help SDSU’s offense. He’s been bad so far this year on offense, but he’s one of the team’s best athletes and has shown an ability in the past far beyond the 20% he’s shooting from deep this season. His medical questions leave his future in doubt at this time. Then there is junior Winston Shepard who is progressing only slightly on the offensive end of the court. He’s great at getting to the rim and is an aware offensive player, but his jumper (although slightly improved) remains broken and he turns the ball over too much. At this point, Aqeel Quinn is the Aztecs’ best offensive player, and he;s not even really a guy who can go get a shot for himself. For SDSU to make a big jump between now and March on the offensive end, either freshman Trey Zell (who has shown some flashes in his first couple months of college ball) or Malik Pope (who has played spotty minutes, mostly in mop-up duty) is going to have to turn into the type of player that can get his own shot and open things up for his teammates. Otherwise, down the stretch of tight games, it appears that senior J.J. O’Brien may have to be this team’s go-to offensive player. That is not an encouraging situation.
  2. Colorado State (13-0) – You know about J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano, the conference’s most dynamic duo. But what makes this edition of the Rams so much better than last year’s is the wide variety of potent offensive forces at Larry Eustachy’s disposal. John Gillon, a sophomore transfer from Arkansas-Little Rock, is seventh in the nation in drawing fouls, getting to the line regularly and converting at a 78% clip there, while also knocking in threes at a 43% rate. His ability to score inside and out make the six-footer a tough check for defenses who also need to pay attention to Avila and Bejarano’s versatility. Then there are guys like Gian Clavell, Tiel Daniels, Stanton Kidd and Joe De Ciman, all of whom earn major minutes and have become serious contributors. Daniels and Kidd, in particular, are very effective on the offensive glass. Put it all together and this is a potent offensive squad that can even give the vaunted Aztec defense problems.

    Could Larry Nance Jr. and Wyoming truly challenge for the Mountain West crown? More attacks to the rim like this one against Montana State earlier this season wouldn't hurt.

    Could Larry Nance Jr. and Wyoming truly challenge for the Mountain West crown? More attacks to the rim like this one against Montana State earlier this season wouldn’t hurt.

  3. Wyoming (11-2) – Apologies to Patterson Hood, but the story of the Cowboys season is the duality of the Wyoming thing. If you’ve been paying limited attention to the ‘Pokes in the Larry Shyatt era, you know them to be a low-tempo, grind-it-out defensive team. College basketball troglodytes might go so far as to call their style – with possession lengths ranked 349th in the nation on the offensive end, and a relatively brisk 339th in the nation on the defensive end – “boring”. But, mixed in with the slow style and deliberate manner are the dunks. My, oh my, the dunks. Like Jason McManamen’s throw-down out of nowhere. Or Josh Adams’ ridiculous scoop-oop to Larry Nance on the break. Or Larry Nance skywalking for a posterization. Now, calling Laramie a city may be too much, but the ‘Pokes are trying to stake a claim on Dunk Town. Stay out of the way of the Wyoming thing.
  4. UNLV (9-3) – Let’s be honest: nobody, nowhere, with any knowledge of those two teams, saw that UNLV win over Arizona coming in the way it happened. The Rebels dominated the glass on both ends of the court, were the better team in the paint, were the more poised team under pressure and came away with the win despite senior point guard Cody Doolin doing nothing of use. But, Christian Wood had a breakout moment in a game against a Wildcat team with probably at least five future frontcourt pros, double-doubling with 24 and 10 and blocking a couple of shots. And freshman Goodluck Okonoboh has repeatedly put his athleticism and defensive game-changing ability on display. And, even better news, the Rebels used that game as a springboard to come back and put the type of beatdown on a bad Southern Utah team that a team of their desired caliber should. With a trip to Wyoming on New Year’s Eve opening things, and then a trip to Lawrence to face Kansas next Sunday, we’ll have a much better idea of whether the Arizona game was a blip, or the start of something special.
  5. Boise State (10-3) – After a non-conference slate that really featured only a handful of even slightly meaningful contests, you look back and see the Broncos with wins over San Diego and St. Mary’s on the good side of the ledger, and losses at North Carolina State and against Loyola Chicago in Las Vegas as swings and misses. Senior Anthony Drmic has missed six straight games and on Tuesday it was confirmed that he’ll miss the rest of the season following ankle surgery (he’ll have eligibility for next season after a redshirt year this year). Classmate Derrick Marks was out against Loyola Chicago with an ankle, and there have been various injuries throughout the season. From here on out, the Broncos are going to have to buy-in to life post-Drmic for the year, with junior Mikey Thompson’s tantalizing but as-yet unfulfilled talent the most promising hope.
  6. New Mexico (8-4) – Lobo fans can take some solace in the fact that they beat New Mexico State twice. Other than that? It was a non-conference slate, wrapped up succinctly with an inexplicable loss at Grand Canyon. No, not the national park; a school of some sort, coached by Dan Majerle. Grand Canyon’s previous best win of the season had been over Montana State, the team currently ranked 308th in the nation by KenPom. The Lobos have been hit hard by injuries, with Cullen Neal out since the third game of the season and maybe due for a redshirt, and with Arthur Edwards, Jordan Goodman and Sam Logwood all missing time. And on a team already turning over all sorts of playing time to new players, those injuries hit even harder. But still, let’s be honest: that loss to Grand Canyon was completely unacceptable.
  7. Utah State (7-5) – It’s gone downhill since last we did this, but remember: this is a roster whose most experienced returnee played 43% of the team’s possible minutes last year, and whose second-most experienced player played 15% of possible minutes last year. Two freshmen have significant roles, another two more limited roles. Then there are two JuCo transfers. And, in remaking this team on the fly, Stew Morrill is getting the most possible out of this team. Incredible. And you know what? They’ll probably win a few games they have no business winning between now and Las Vegas.
  8. Air Force (7-4) – Their best win is against Nebraska-Omaha. They’ve got losses to Army, UC Davis and Texas Tech. Jacksonville State just took this team to OT prior to Christmas. Collectively, this bunch couldn’t guard a desk. But, senior Max Yon can shoot the lights out, hitting 45.8% of his 49 attempts from deep.
  9. Fresno State (5-8) – For some reason, against all available evidence, I’m still convinced this team is significantly better than how they’ve performed to this point. Point guard Cezar Guerrero, after being declared ineligible for the fall semester, was expected back against Pacific on December 20. But, that game and another have come and gone since then and still no Guerrero, with the player and the team waiting on final semester grades to be solidified. It is possible Guerrero is back when the Bulldogs open conference play against New Mexico on Wednesday night. But even if he doesn’t play a minute this season, the Bulldogs should be better than what they have shown so far.
  10. Nevada (4-8) – A streak of eight-straight losses was finally ended when the Wolf Pack crushed Marshall just before Christmas. And, looking on the bright side, the bulk of those losses were fairly competitive affairs. Between guys like AJ West, Marqueze Coleman, Michael Perez and D.J. Fenner, there is a solid talent on this roster, but the results have just not been there. And, speaking of not being there, if things don’t change drastically between now and March, head coach David Carter will not be the head coach in Reno next season.
  11. San Jose State (2-10) – An absolute mess. The Spartans official record shows two wins, but those are over Bethesda and St. Katherine – both non-Division I schools. Ken Pomeroy puts the odds of the Spartans getting through this season without a Division I win at 13.6%. Among the worst teams in the nation, teams like Grambling State, Florida A&M and Chicago State play in leagues like the SWAC, the MEAC and the WAC. San Jose State has the great misfortune to be completely in over their heads in the Mountain West. And, what’s worse, head coach Dave Wojcik had to suspend five players – including the teams four leading scorers – in the middle of December. With point guard Jalen James already out for the year with an ankle injury, the Spartans have been reduced to recruiting players from the football program just to be able to field a team. This thing has gone off the rails.
AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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