Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 4th, 2015

Team of the Week

UNLV – With a 2-0 week, including a road win against in-state rival Nevada, the Runnin’ Rebels got back to 4-5 in the first half of conference play. The young and talented group certainly has underachieved to this point, but each of their conference losses has been decided by two possessions or less. And with a three-game winning streak as the team takes the turn, and with opponents like Fresno State, Boise State, Wyoming and San Diego State all due a visit to the Thomas & Mack, Dave Rice’s club could be ready to turn things around down the stretch.

Following Five Conference Losses Decided By Two Possessions Or Less, UNLV And Christian Wood Could Change Their Second Half Luck (Ethan Miller, Getty Images)

Following Five Conference Losses Decided By Two Possessions Or Less, UNLV And Christian Wood Could Change Their Second Half Luck (Ethan Miller, Getty Images)

Player of the Week

Christian Wood, So, UNLV – The 6’11” sophomore, once considered a soft, perimeter-bound wanna-be just got done posting double-doubles number 11 and 12 this week, averaging 16.5 points and 10.5 boards in this week’s games. For the season, he’s not only putting up 14.4 points and 9.5 boards, but he’s boosted his shooting numbers, turned up the gas on the defensive end and found a way to earn his 70+% free throw shooting to the line at a higher rate. We’d sure still love to see him launch his 20-something-percent three-point shot far less often (he’s jacking better than two and a half threes per contest), but the light is beginning to click on for Wood.

Newcomer of the Week

Malik Pope, Fr, San Diego State – Averages of just eight points and four boards in 18 minutes per game don’t begin to do justice to the energy that the 6’10” frehman has brough to the Aztecs in his recent emergence. In the four consecutive games now that Pope has played 17 or more minutes as part of the regular rotation for Steve Fisher, San Diego State has average 1.12 points per possession. His ability to knock in threes (he’s 11/22 from deep on the year) or put the ball on the deck and go dunk on someone gives this offense some punch they sorely needed.

Wyoming Throwdown Of The Week

This may not have the stunning athleticism that early entries in this space have had, but what I like about this is that we get to see how Wyoming’s relentless defense leads directly to one of their many dunk, as Josh Adams picks an inbounds pass against Nevada and turns it into an exciting transition jam.

Halfway Point

This week we’re marking the halfway mark in the conference schedule, with just about half of all conference games having been completed (Nevada has played eight games, Air Force has played ten and Utah State, with last night’s loss to Boise State in the books has also played ten). So, let’s take a quick spin around the conference and get you caught up on where we stand, including handing out some mid-year awards, before we check in briefly with our power rankings.

NCAA Prognostications: After getting a record five bids in 2013 (and winning just two games), last year the number of MW teams dancing dipped to two. This year, there is good news and bad news. First, barring big breakdowns down the stretch, the conference should against get at least two. And, there is an outside chance at a third, especially with Boise State fast on the come. But the bad news is that Wyoming, among the teams vying for the conference title, currently sits with an RPI in the 80s, in part due to a week non-conference schedule. While San Diego State and Colorado State appear to be in strong shape for at-large consideration, odds are strong that the Cowboys will need to win the Mountain West’s automatic bid in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Just to throw another wrench in Wyoming’s way, there are probably seven teams (San Diego State, Colorado State, Wyoming, Boise State, UNLV, New Mexico and Utah State) in this conference that could get hot and win the Mountain West tourney in March. And, while I don’t even count Fresno State among that group, the Bulldogs have certainly put the thought in the back of minds that they’re a team that can beat a team that happens to be looking past them.

Player of the Midyear: Larry Nance, Sr, Wyoming. Boise State’s Derrick Marks is making a serious charge (and it is basically a dead-heat with Marks with momentum), and by no means is this thing locked up, but the Nance story has been pretty special this year. Making a comeback from a season-ending ACL tear last year, Nance took a minute to warm up this year, but he’s now scored in double figures in ten straight games and has notched five double-doubles and countless dunks, significant accomplishments for a team that plays among the slowest paces in the nation. And while Marks is without a doubt the league’s best scorer, Nance not only scores and rebounds at a high caliber for the Cowboys, he’s also one of his team’s best defenders, playmakers and leaders.

In A Tight Race, We're Taking Larry Nance By A Nose In The Current POY Horse Race (Blaine McCartney, WyoSports)

In A Tight One, We’re Taking Larry Nance By A Nose In The Current POY Horse Race (Blaine McCartney, WyoSports)

Mid-Year All-Conference Team

  • Larry Nance, Sr, Wyoming
  • Derrick Marks, Sr, Boise State
  • J.J. Avila, Sr, Colorado State
  • Marvelle Harris, Jr, Fresno State
  • James Webb, So, Boise State

Rookie of the Midyear: James Webb, So, Boise State. His inclusion on the All-Conference team is tenuous at this point, with guys like Christian Wood, Rashad Vaughn, Jalen Moore, Josh Adams, and others hot on his heels. But for a guy who earned about 40 words as afterthought in the Blue Ribbon preview prior to the season and nary a word in the RTC preview, he’s been a great surprise. Not only is he going a long way towards easing the loss of rebounding phenom Ryan Watkins from last year, he’s helped ease the pain of losing Anthony Drmic to injury by knocking in 50% of his threes, 70% of his twos and being a disruptive defensive force at the top of the Boise State zone.

Coach of the Midyear: Stew Morrill, Utah State. Larry Shyatt, Leon Rice and Larry Eustachy all deserve mention, but what Morrill has done with a completely rebuilt roster in Logan is just further testament to the greatness that is our departing coaching genius. He may not get the press that other guys around the league and around the country get, but Morrill has consistently done more with less, getting great improvement out of his players and X-ing and O-ing opponents to death.

Taking A Team With Little Returning Experience And Making Them Competitive Is Just The Latest Stew Morrill Accomplishment (Lennie Mahler, Salt Lake Tribune)

Taking A Team With Little Returning Experience And Making Them Competitive Is Just The Latest Stew Morrill Accomplishment (Lennie Mahler, Salt Lake Tribune)

Power Rankings

  1. San Diego State (17-5, 7-2) – Watch out league. Not only is the Aztec offense beginning to come around slightly, but their defense is kicking into high gear. Don’t believe me? Well, back in 2010-11 when Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White were making things incredibly difficult for the rest of the conference, the Aztecs had the second-best defense in the nation, posting a defensive efficiency of 89.1, which more or less amounts to allowing 89 points over the course of 100 possessions against the average offensive basketball team in the nation. This season, while checking back in as the #2 defense in the nation again, those defensive efficiency numbers are now along the lines of 85 points over the course of 100 possessions. Sure, offensive numbers are down across the nation, but with Skylar Spencer a dominating anchor in the middle and blocking better than 13% of opponents two-point attempts, with long athletes all over the perimeter, and with a mindset set to destroy, these Aztecs are behind only Kentucky (on pace to be the greatest defense in the history of anything) in their defensive excellence.
  2. Wyoming (18-4, 7-2)A loss at Utah State can be forgiven; Logan – like anywhere that isn’t San Jose in this conference – is a tough place to play. There is a lot to pick apart in that game on the Cowboys’ side, but instead let’s focus on this: Alexander Aka Gorski? In the Cowboys’ previous 20 games against Division I competition, this guy played a total of 48 minutes. Against Utah State, he played 18, knocked in a couple threes, handed out a couple assists and played with an energy desperately needed by the Cowboys. I think week just got a sneak peek at the next fun Cowboy guard.
  3. Colorado State (19-3, 6-3) – It’s not often Larry Eustachy gets clearly outcoached. But, when you’re in a tight neck-and-neck conference road game (in this case at Boise State) with title implications and you’ve got a five-point lead with two minutes left and you get a technical call arguing, for all practical purposes, balls and strikes? Odds are pretty good you’re letting your emotions get the better of you. From that point on (technically 2:28), Boise State outscored the Rams 14-5 en route to a four-point win. The Rams bounced back with a dominating home win against Fresno State, but if, as it appears, this conference race is going to come down to a handful of bounces here and there, giving away points and momentum in a game against a title contender could be the one fatal flaw in an otherwise excellent season.
  4. Boise State (16-6, 6-3) – The Broncos are without a doubt the hottest team in the conference and are streaking their way into NCAA Tournament consideration, with six straight conference wins in spectacular fashion. Derrick Marks is playing out of his mind (since an eight-point outing in the midst of recovering from an ankle injury in the MW opener, he’s averaged 25.5 PPG). James Webb is turning into an NBA prospect with every drilled three followed by breakaway dunk. Leon Rice is making all the right moves and the future for this emerging program is bright. But best of all, for stretches of several minutes at a time, this team is playing absolutely beautiful and mesmerizing offense, making an art out of the game, replete with attacking drives, quick passing, backdoor cuts and big-men popping out to the arc and knocking down threes. And, when all else breaks down, there’s Marks making absolutely insane shots of one kind or another, whether it be the step-back J with a hand in his face or the old-man moves in the post. Between Marks and Nance, we could be in for an epic race for POY down the stretch, and along the way, Marks seems intent on dragging his squad along to conference title contention. And yet, in the era of the plague of unbalanced conference schedules, the world is denied the chance to see Wyoming visit Boise State this season.
  5. New Mexico (14-7, 6-3) – A 26-point win at The Pit against an historically bad San Jose State team? Nothing to see here. We’ll check back in with the Lobos following a trip to Air Force and a visit from Utah State.
  6. UNLV (13-9, 4-5) – We hit on the Rebels’ big week above, so we’ll check back in with them after they travel to Colorado State on Saturday in what amounts to a must-win game if the Rebels are going to cling to slim hopes to get back into the conference race.
  7. Utah State (11-8, 4-3) – A homestanding Utah State knocks off Wyoming last Tuesday night in a 12-point road win. The Aggies – minus any rotation player with as much as two years in the program – followed up that breakthrough with a 20-point loss at San Diego State on Saturday and a home loss to Boise State last night (featuring 1/4 shooting from the field, a turnover and a pair of offensive rebounds allowed after going into the final media timeout tied). Such is life with talented underclassmen.
  8. Fresno State (10-12, 5-4) – After building momentum at the start of the 2015 calendar year with four straight wins, momentum has stalled for the Bulldogs following a couple of humbling road losses this week. First, San Diego State held them to 21 points through 30 minutes on Tuesday. Then Colorado State ran them out of Fort Collins with ferocity over the weekend.
  9. Air Force (9-12, 2-8) – What’s worse than having just two conference wins through ten games? Having those two wins only at the hands of a San Jose State team that is the worst team to ever play in the Mountain West.
  10. Nevada (6-14, 2-6) – After a win at UNLV that put the Pack at 2-0 in conference play, we thought maybe Nevada was going to be respectable in the Mountain West. A 56-point loss at Colorado State shattered those notions, and now the Wolf Pack have lost six straight. Just picking out one ugly stat among many: Nevada is shooting the three-ball at 23.8%, good for 350th in the nation.
  11. San Jose State (2-19, 0-9) – On Saturday, the Spartans host Nevada. If you’re sick like me, you’ll at least take a peek at that game (available online on the Mountain West Network Saturday at 3pm PT), because that is probably the last halfway possible chance the Spartans have to win a game this season. KenPom.com puts their chances at 15% and predicts a nine-point home loss. Unlike the above blurb where I picked out one ugly stat, I won’t even attempt that feat here, mostly because, like a restaurant with an overly expansive menu, I’m having a hard time picking just one.
AMurawa (994 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.


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