Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 13th, 2015

Team of the Week

Wyoming – Two tough games and two hard-fought wins over Colorado State and Boise State bring the Cowboys’ record to 15-2 on the season and 4-0 in conference play, putting them along atop the Mountain West standings. They’ve won seven in a row now, and have been rewarded with a spot in the AP poll for the first time since March 15, 1988, back in the days of Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner. No surprise then that, with apologies to Theo Ratliff, the Cowboys may have their best individual player since those days in Larry Nance, who continued his fine play with averages of 16.5 points, 8 boards, 3.5 assists, and 2 blocks on a 70.6 eFG%. He’s not our player of the week this week, but he’s beginning to gain some separation on the Conference Player of the Year front.

Larry Nance and Dunk Town Laramie Sit Atop The Mountain West Standings (Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune)

Larry Nance and Dunk Town Laramie Sit Atop The Mountain West Standings (Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune)

Player of the Week

Marvelle Harris, Jr, Fresno State – A 40-point game in the much more high scoring NBA is a feat worth talking about. A 40-point game in the ever-slowing game of college basketball? Forget talking, let’s throw a party. Harris played all 40 minutes in Reno on Saturday afternoon against Nevada, and gave his Bulldogs a show to remember. He was 14/23 on the night from the field, including five three-pointers in the mix. He scored 16 of the Bulldogs’ first 18 points of the second half, helping to turn an eight-point lead at half into a 13-point margin, and then knocked down clutch free throws down the stretch to help his squad hang on. He’s now gone for 20 or more six times this season, and for the week averaged 29 points, five boards and four assists, while shooting a 66.2 eFG%. Best yet, he’s doing it as a part of a winning streak.

Newcomer of the Week

Angelo Chol, Jr, San Diego State – Others in the conference may have had more statistically impressive numbers this week (Rashad Vaughn, 17.5 PPG, 60.9 eFG%; James Webb, 5/7 from 3 for Boise State against Wyoming). But Chol’s emergence in Tuesday night’s game against New Mexico could pay dividends throughout the rest of the season. It’s no secret that the Aztecs struggle scoring points, but Chol is beginning to show up as a possible offensive threat in the middle. This week he scored 10 points on five field goal attempts, and over the course of three conference games, has chipped in a total of 18 points on just 10 attempts. While he may not be quite the rim protector that Skylar Spencer is, he may make the Aztecs incrementally better on the offensive end.

Angelo Chol's Efficient Offensive Game Could Help The Aztecs' Struggles (AP Photo)

Angelo Chol’s Efficient Offensive Game Could Help The Aztecs’ Struggles (AP Photo)

Soapbox Moment

Let’s get this out of the way really quick. If the NCAA really cared about student athletes’ well-being, they would just issue an unprompted proclamation that if Dwayne Polee wants to go ahead and sit out the rest of this season while he figures out what the hell has happened with his medical issues, he’ll retain a year of eligibility next season should he get cleared by doctors. There is absolutely no sense in ever rushing a kid back from a situation like this – not that San Diego State would ever do that. But this kid’s long-term health is far more important than any basketball game or any outdated NCAA rules.

Wyoming Throwdown Of The Week

Power Rankings

1. Wyoming (15-2, 4-0)Usually when we talk about Wyoming, we talk about Larry Nance. And, rightfully so; the guy is amazing. But this is a complete team, not just Nance and some hangers’-on. What this team is is the culmination of four years of everything coming up Larry Shyatt. When he took this team over in 2011-12, they were coming off consecutive 10-21 seasons. He took more or less that same team and turned gave their record a 180, turning in a 21-12 season in that first year. But he did it largely on the back of defense, taking a team that was 172nd in the nation in defense in Heath Schroyer’s last year and making that squad 28th in the nation in Shyatt’s first year (shout-out to Leonard Washington who was a massive part of that turn-around). But, what makes this Cowboy team different is that, while they’re still solid defensively, this is the first year that their offensive efficiency has eked over the average mark. So, what’s different? A lot. They’re shooting the ball better from two (59.7% – good for second in the nation) than they ever have before. They’re getting to the line (13th in nation in free throw rate) and making free throws at higher rates. But the big, big, big deal is that Wyoming is earning an assist on 69.3% of all of their made baskets – the best mark in the nation. Now, Shyatt has manufactured quality point guard play out of guys like JayDee Luster and Derrious Gilmore in the past. But what he has done with Josh Adams is among the best pieces of player development he has accomplished. When Adams showed up in Laramie, he was a bouncy attacker who probably played too fast for his own good and Shyatt’s patience. Now, as a junior, Shyatt and Adams have come to an understanding. Adams is free to use his speed to attack, and given a longer leash than other players in regards to turnovers and the occasional forced shot, because Shyatt has come to trust him so much. And Adams has earned that trust, using the second-most possessions on the team, handing out assists on better than 30% of his teammates hoops, keeping turnovers fairly limited and honing his jumper enough that he is shooting a career-best 34.6% from three this season. Nance is the stud on this team, for sure, but Adams is every bit as important to this team’s overall success. Now, that’s a healthy heaping of praise for the Cowboys, but is it okay to still be leery of putting this team atop the Mountain West power rankings? I’ve fallen out of love with Colorado State just because of their disregard for playing defense, and San Diego State’s offense is the type of offense only a (very good and understanding) mother could love. But, for instance, if we were to put the Aztecs and the Cowboys together on a neutral floor tomorrow, I’d take the Aztecs. Of course, we’ll have plenty of light shed on the subject tomorrow night as the Cowboys host San Diego State.

2. San Diego State (12-4, 2-1) – Last week we joked about San Diego State panicking following their abysmal offensive performance (the latest in a long line of examples) against Fresno State. At home against New Mexico a week ago, we began to see the adjustments that Steve Fisher and company are making. First, Trey Kell to the bench, Matt Shrigley into the starting lineup. I was skeptical of this, but you know what? It’s not like Kell is a pure point and its not like the Aztecs needed to rely on Shrigley in that role. Instead, J.J. O’Brien, Winston Shepard and Aqeel Quinn took care of most of the ballhandling when Shrigley was on the floor, freeing him up to float around the perimeter and hunt open threes. He only made two of seven, but he’s the team’s best three-point shooter and on a team starving for guys who can score, the Aztecs need to get him chances. We already talked about how Chol earned more minutes and produced in them. The other trend was Shepard attacking the hoop, taking six of his ten field goal attempts at the hoop and making all of them. There are so many benefits to that trend. First, that means Shepard, the team’s best slasher, is taking and making shots in and around the rim. Second, it means he is not taking jumpers (thank god for that). And third, with Shepard getting into the paint and being such a good passer, he’s capable of drawing the defense to him and kicking it out to guys like Shrigley and Quinn for good looks at the perimeter. So, all those big changes and what did it result in? Well, 0.95 points per possession. Baby steps, right?

3. Colorado State (15-2, 2-2) – Daniel Bejarano sat out Colorado State’s trip to Air Force on Saturday with strep throat (didn’t even make the trip) and the team responded by playing down to the level of Air Force, especially on the defensive end. But, at least that freed up J.J. Avila to do J.J. Avila things. Like, score 28 points on 16 field goal attempts, grab 14 boards, and put a member of the United States military in a headlock.

4. New Mexico (11-5, 3-1) – While the young Lobos looked pretty darn good last week in a pair of home games, the trip to Montezuma Mesa to face the Aztecs proved too much for the squad looking to find itself. They got beat on the boards, they couldn’t shoot the ball, they don’t have a ton of players who can get their own shot yet and that all resulted in a 0.72 PPP performance. But, they bounced back with a road win at Utah State behind big performances from their vets Hugh Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney. Less enthralling were the performances by Sam Logwood and Jordan Goodman (combined 23 minutes, 3 points, 1/6 shooting). These guys need to come along for this Lobo team to reach its potential. I’d also really like to see Craig Neal shave down some of the minutes for the ninth, 10th and 11th men on this team. Find a strong eight-man rotation, barring foul trouble. May I suggest Greenwood, Delaney, Logwood, Williams, Aget, Jacobs, Goodman, Edwards.

5. UNLV (10-6, 1-2) – The Runnin’ Rebels, having lost to Nevada last Wednesday, are now 0-3 since the start of last year against their in-state “rival.” Just comparing rosters, this is unforgivable.

6. Boise State (10-6, 0-3) – For a team that has lost four in a row, including a home game to Utah State (who I actually have lower than the Broncos in these power rankings for some reason), I actually feel pretty good about this team. We know Derrick Marks is among the handful of best pure scorers in the conference. James Webb is turning into an inside-outside monster; pulling down boards when he’s not knocking in threes. Mikey Thompson and Igor Hadziomerovic are sort of sharing playmaking duties. And then Leon Rice is starting to settle into Nick Duncan, Dezmyn Trent and Montigo Alford as the next group of players. They’ve had some bad luck early, but this team is going to be plenty of teams this year.

7. Utah State (9-7, 2-2) – There’s a lot of things we could talk about on the basketball court for the Aggies this week, but the story is Stew Morrill. On Friday afternoon, Morrill announced that this season would be his last with the school, choosing to head into retirement while he’s got plenty of time to enjoy it. While this season will likely end without an NCAA Tournament appearance (although, who knows, maybe we’ve got some Morrill Magic waiting in Las Vegas?), his 29 years as a head coach will go down as a massive success. Right now, he stands at 611-288 in his career, including 393-150 in his 17 years in Logan. While we won’t miss his penchant for horrific non-conference scheduling, his ability to develop under-recruited players and X-and-O with the best of them, all while doing things the right way, will definitely be missed.

8. Fresno State (8-9, 3-1) – After that dreadful start to the season, the Bulldogs appear to have finally adjusted to life without Cezar Guerrero (who remains in some sort of weird NCAA academic limbo at this time). They’ve got three in a row, ready to make that four (can we just sort of start pre-emptively awarding wins against San Jose State?), with a chance at home against Wyoming coming up on Saturday. They can win that game. If they do, you can bet we’ll be talking more about them here next week. And they’ll probably be quite a bit further up this list.

9. Nevada (6-9, 2-1) – The Wolf Pack did something like this last year. For the non-conference slate, they were pretty awful, losing to teams like Pacific and Cal State Bakersfield and Nebraska-Omaha. And then they started out conference play 7-2 and looked like a tough team. It’s almost like David Carter treats the non-conference as meaningless pre-season/exhibition games. Well, now, behind Marqueze Coleman (game winner vs. UNLV was of the “No! No! Why did you… Oh, nice shot kid!” variety) and A.J. West and JuCo transfer Tyron Criswell and a strong group of role-players, this Nevada teams looks like a tough out for anyone. Hell, Carter may even keep his job, right?

10. Air Force (8-7,1-3) – Certainly, the Falcons put up a fight this week. Ahem. But really, Max Yon and Malek Olesinski were terrific in fighting back in the second half against Colorado State to make a game out of that. Air Force is just one of the toughest teams in the conference to gameplan for, just because everything they do is so much different than what anybody else in the conference is trying to do. It’s like having to play one of the service academies in football on a short week. They may not have the athletes you do, but the scheme must be accounted for.

11. San Jose State (2-14, 0-4) – A 22-point loss to Air Force, a 34-point loss to UNLV. After checking in at 345th out of 351 teams in the nation last week, the Spartans actually dropped. Um, Rashad Muhammad watch: 29 points, 29 field goal attempts, six rebounds, three turnovers, three steals and zero assists in 77 minutes. Boo-yah.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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