Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 27th, 2015

Team of the Week

Wyoming – The Cowboys only played one game, but boy was it a doozy. They hosted New Mexico on Saturday and prevailed in dramatic fashion in a game where the win probabilities swung dramatically on a regular basis, not including a Larry Nance three-quarter court shot at the regulation buzzer that seemed to go halfway down before rattling out. Still, not to be denied, the Cowboys won the game on a steal and dunk at the end of overtime that was dramatic and amazing. With every game that gets checked off the schedule, Dunk Town Laramie is beginning to look like a team of destiny.

Larry Nance's Slam Just Before Time Expired In Overtime Sealed A Stunning Win For Wyoming (Wyoming Athletics)

Larry Nance’s Slam Just Before Time Expired In Overtime Sealed A Stunning Win For Wyoming (Wyoming Athletics)

Player of the Week

Hugh Greenwood, Sr, New Mexico – A week ago in this column, I wrote negatively about Mr. Greenwood for what I’m sure must be the first time. Since then, he posted his second- and third-highest scoring games of his career and became a national phenomenon in shooting down a hateful and small-minded Twitter troll in a postgame press conference. For the week, the averages are 22.5 points, six boards, a couple assists, 11-of-17 shooting from three and an 82.7% eFG in a pair of games that were just a joy to watch. And were it not for little mistakes late against Wyoming, it would have been a darn near perfect week. But in the grand scheme of things, Greenwood’s week hit all the buttons we love in college sports. A senior leader bouncing back from a slump to help his team to a hard-fought road win in the middle of the week in the face of personal issues far more important than anything having to do with a silly old game. And then, on the weekend, in another hostile road environment in what will surely go down as one of the handful of regular season games I recall fondly from this season, Greenwood was a major factor in just about every key play down the stretch of regulation and on through overtime. In the end, it didn’t go his team’s way. But there was nobody in the country who was more fun to watch this week.

Newcomer of the Week

Rashad Vaughn, Fr, UNLV – There were a lot of great performances around the conference this week from newcomers – David Collette, Nick Duncan, Patrick McCaw and Malik Pope’s breakout for San Diego State to name a few – but our preseason newcomer of the year Vaughn takes the prize with his 31-point effort on Saturday in an overtime win over Utah State. Vaughn has been terrific all year as the most polished scorer on the talented but underachieving Rebel team, but this week he took it to a new level. After a solid but comparatively quiet game against New Mexico, Vaughn checked all the boxes against Utah State, adding nine boards, three assists, three steals and a couple blocks in a high-volume shooting night, knocking in 10 of 24 shots, including four from deep.

Wyoming Throwdown Of The Week

Now this thing may not have the amazing athleticism and grace and power that some of our other Wyoming dunks this season may have had, but the reason this play gets the nod here this week is not just because of the dunk, but everything surrounding it: Nance playing free safety and picking off the Greenwood pass, saving it back inbounds as he heads towards the scorer’s table, the ball seemingly an inch away from being turned back over to the Lobos at least a couple of times, then the whip-smart pass from Josh Adams (who, I’m probably going to get through this column without writing a whole lot about, but who was absolutely excellent in this game) and then the matter-of-fact, just-put-the-ball-through-the-hoop finish to cap a spectacular game. Oh, and then the celebration. In about 30 seconds here, you get an encapsulation of so many things that are great about college basketball. And you know what? Basically the whole final 15-20 minutes of this game were played at a similarly high quality. Fantastic basketball game.

Extra Point

Just about a year ago, I posted this piece ranking the coaches in the Mountain West from top to bottom. Well, with all of the same guys back in all of the same positions and with a little bit more information on guys like Craig Neal, Dave Wojcik, Rodney Terry and Dave Pilipovich, it is a good time to revisit this a little bit. It is hard to argue with what Steve Fisher has done at San Diego State, so he has to stay put at the top of that list. I’ll still argue for Larry Shyatt, Larry Eustachy and Stew Morrill (in that order) rounding out the top four, but I can see arguments for any order for guys #2-#4. Starting at five is where I want to start to rearrange things. First, what Neal has done with an inexperienced roster saddled with regular injuries this season has been impressive. Whatever doubts were had about him in the middle of his first season I’m ready to consider erased. He’s got some work to do to jump into the upper echelon here, but early results are good. I had Pilipovich and Terry five and six last year at this time, and I still really like what Terry is getting done in Fresno, so I’d keep Terry at six (behind Neal now), but I’d jump Leon Rice (under-ranked last year at nine because of repeated problems in closing moments of games) up to a virtual tie with Terry. Rice has shown a great ability to coach players up and X-and-O around injuries this season. Last year we had Wojcik at #8, simply because he hadn’t built up any negative impressions like some of the guys on the end of my list, but really, he’s yet to accomplish anything of note in by far the worst job in the conference; honestly, at this point, he’s left excluded from this list until we have anything to judge him on. That bring us to spots 10 and 11, where we had David Carter and Dave Rice last season. I took some heat from denizens of the Silver State for these rankings, and of course Carter had a decent start to conference play last season. But 12 months later, Rice’s teams in particular continue to disappoint. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon, what with his contract extension in the wake of his talks with South Florida last season. But for a guy that regularly brings in quality recruits, wouldn’t you like to see a player, just once, improve over the course of his time under Rice?

Just to sum up, my revised rankings a year later would go something like: Fisher, Shyatt, Eustachy, Morrill, Neal, Terry/Leon Rice, Pilipovich, Carter, Dave Rice, with Wojcik asterisked out as a coach of a team that doesn’t really belong in this grouping of teams.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (15-5, 5-2) – The Aztecs highlights in their Saturday night affair with Colorado State are littered with Malik Pope. He started by hitting Matt Shrigley for a three, then here with a monster put back on a Trey Kell miss, followed that up with a three from the wing, and then added a layup for a total of seven points and an assist of a three-point shot over the course of four offensive possessions. If you follow along with those highlights in that link above, you’ll see a sick step-back three (at about the 7:00 mark) that is just ridiculous for a 6’10” freshman, just one of five jumpers he made in the second half on his way to a career-high 22 points. Steve Fisher brought him along slowly this season following a slew of injuries in high school but in the three Mountain West games where he has played at least ten minutes, Pope is 13-of-17 from the field and 6-of-7 from three (94.1% eFG) and averaging 12.0 PPG in less than 20.0 MPG. Obviously the Aztecs’ struggles scoring the ball are no secret, but Pope’s instant offense could be an instant panacea.

2. Wyoming (17-3, 6-1)So many great plays in the game against New Mexico this week, let me just remind you of one more, clock running down in regulation, ball finds its way into the hands of Larry Nance. I can’t have been the only one that felt absolutely sure that this thing was going in.

3. Colorado State (18-2, 5-2) – I can hear the Colorado State fan already: “We just beat San Diego State, how are we ranked below them?” Really, I like all three of these teams at the top a lot and have to rank them in some order. But a six-point home win is not enough to sway me that the Rams are better than the Aztecs. And, what is fun about these two teams and what will keep me looking forward to Saturday February 14 (yay! I made Valentine’s Day plans with my wife for the 15th!) are the divergent styles. The Rams are the offense-first team that gets up and down the court and has trouble stopping anybody; the Aztecs are grind-it-out defensive teams with great athletes that have trouble putting the ball in the basket. There’s a whisker of a difference in quality between any of the three teams at the top of this conference (and frankly, the next couple teams down aren’t too far away either), but what keeps me putting the Aztecs atop the Rams at least is that I think SDSU has more upside on their weak end of the court than CSU does on theirs. In other words, SDSU could improve from a bad offensive team to a merely average one, while I don’t think the Rams have the type of players that could turn them into a neutral defensive team.

4. Boise State (14-6, 4-3) – After a rough start to conference play, things have settled down for the Broncos. Of course, a week with games against San Jose State and Air Force will help matters. We’ll know a lot more about the Broncos tonight after they try for revenge against Colorado State, so let’s check back next week.

5. New Mexico (13-7, 5-3) – The story for the week was Greenwood and close games. But, while Greenwood was the only Lobo to score in double figures this week, there’s also the fun fact that ten other players played in each game, for a total of 20 players earning at least four minutes of action in those two games. Of those 20 entries on the box score, 16 of them wound up in the scoring column, indicating that even though Greenwood is the team’s go-to guy at this point, everybody else is chipping in at least a little. And the weird thing is, it almost seems like it is a different guy every night. Next year, theoretically, everybody except Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney will be back. And if that is the case, they’ll all have experience and confidence to draw upon.

6. UNLV (11-9, 2-5) – After the heartbreaking home loss to hot-shooting Hugh Greenwood and the Lobos on Wednesday, it certainly appeared that the Rebels were more than ready to give away another close game, this time against Utah State on Saturday. In 20 games so far, the Rebels have been involved in nine games decided by two possessions or less and had just a 3-6 record in those, include five losses by such a margin in conference play. And with every Jordan Cornish missed dunk or other brain fart, it appeared that no matter how far Dave Rice walked out onto the court or jumped up and down in his spiffy white tennis shoes, this game was going to go down the way those previous five had. But then, in the final 30 seconds, a twisting Vaughn layup, a Christian Wood dunk and an absolutely ridiculous floater by Patrick McCaw with three seconds left to force overtime and the Rebels got into overtime and eked one out. There’s a lot of talent here. And they’ve had some bad luck so far. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see a couple low-profile plays go different ways in a handful of those five conference losses and look up and see the Rebels there atop the conference with everyone else. Let’s put it this way: there isn’t anybody in this conference that UNLV can’t play with on a regular basis.

7. Utah State (11-8, 4-3) – We don’t know who it is going to be yet, but all indications are that next year when Stew Morrill is no longer the head coach of the Aggies, whoever his replacement is will have fully-stocked shelves. Between the pair of 6’8” underclassmen on this team – freshman interior scorer David Collette and sophomore wing Jalen Moore – Utah State can compete with anybody in this conference in terms of the best one-two punch to build upon. They’ll likely have tough point guard Darius Perkins back for his senior season and combo guard Julion Pearre back for his sophomore campaign. Given the right hire and roster stability, whoever winds up as the head coach in Logan next year will have a good chance for early success. Heck, as it is, the Aggies are a tough out on a nightly basis this year. Of course, with a visit from Wyoming followed by a trip to San Diego State, the young Aggies have their work cut out for them this week.

David Collete Is One Half Of An Underclassmen Duo That Should Serve Utah State Well (John Zsiray, AP Photo)

David Collete Is One Half Of An Underclassmen Duo That Should Serve Utah State Well (John Zsiray, AP Photo)

8. Fresno State (10-10, 5-2) – This week consisted entirely of a four-point home win against Nevada: not an impressive margin, but not enough to draw conclusions from this week. With a trip to San Diego State on the docket tonight and Fort Collins on Saturday, even as much as a single win this week would be a terrific success for the Bulldogs.

9. Air Force (8-11,1-7) – The Falcons opened conference play by giving San Diego State everything they wanted in an ugly four-point loss in San Diego on New Year’s Eve. Good news, bad news, because if nothing else, Air Force alerted the Aztecs to the fact that they can be a threat if overlooked. So, obviously, the Aztecs did not overlook them this week and drilled them by 32 at Clune Arena. But they bounced back with a solid performance in a nine-point loss against Boise State, got 24 from Marek Olesinski and a breakout performance from Hayden Graham who had 14 points in 29 minutes in that game.

10. Nevada (6-12, 2-4) – One quirk of the unbalanced conference schedule is that the Wolf Pack have had their share of byes already. They were the one conference team that missed the mid-week conference opener on New Year’s Eve, then had a bye two Saturdays ago as well. So, while everyone else in the conference has played at least seven games and Air Force has even played eight, the Wolf Pack go from here to the Mountain West tournament without a bye. Hey, who knows, maybe they’ll get on a roll.

11. San Jose State (2-17, 0-7) – I promise, we’re never picking on Rashad Muhammad when we often focus on his game and what he does (and sometimes doesn’t do) for the Spartans. It is just, especially with Jalen James out for the season, he is about the only redeemable player on an otherwise awful roster. Let’s put it in perspective. Last Wednesday, the Spartans went to Boise. Muhammad shot 4/12 from the field with one three-pointer. He got to the line four times and made all four freebies. He notched one assist, but turned it over three times. Those aren’t terrible offensive numbers, but they’re certainly not good either. And still, when the final box score was turned in, Muhammad, with those paltry numbers, had far and away the best night of anybody on the SJSU squad. No wonder then that his team fell by a final score of 86-36. They’ve now lost their seven conference games by an average of 25 points. What the hell happened when Wyoming visited San Jose on January 3 and only won by 5?

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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