Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 10th, 2015

Team of the Week

Air Force – Maybe it is proof of the power of the home-court in the Mountain West (note that Ken Pomeroy carves out an altitude exception here to the declining value of the home court). Maybe it was visiting teams overlooking the previously 2-8 Falcons, a team run down by injuries. Maybe it was just plain old college basketball craziness. But, whatever the case, Air Force invited both New Mexico and Wyoming into Clune Arena this weekend and sent both those teams packing with losses. Against the Lobos on Wednesday, they scored the final nine points of the game, holding New Mexico scoreless for nearly seven minutes down the stretch, to pull out the close win. Then over the weekend, they absolutely put it to a Larry Nance-less Wyoming squad on the way to a 23-point victory. While they’ve struggled with injuries all year long, the Falcons are now about as healthy as they’re going to get this year and seem intent on making the most of it.

Dave Pilipovich and Air Force Are Riding High After A 2-0 Week (Isaiah Downing, USA Today)

Dave Pilipovich and Air Force Are Riding High After A 2-0 Week (Isaiah Downing, USA Today)

Player of the Week

Derrick Marks, Sr, Boise State – There were quite a few other solid candidates for this honor this week (Marek Olesinski, J.J. Avila, Rashad Vaughn and Marks’ own teammates James Webb for starters). But really, as long as Marks keeps playing as well as he currently is, I’m just going to keep him penciled in about this spot. This week, his numbers actually dipped a bit, as the length and athleticism of San Diego State gave him trouble on Sunday and held him below a 100 offensive rating for the first time since January 10. Still, Marks manufactured 19 points in a variety of ways and kept the Broncos rolling on their way to the team’s seventh-straight win. For the week, Marks average 21 points, five boards, a couple assists and a couple steals while shooting it at a 56.9 eFG%.

Newcomer of the Week

Rashad Vaughn, Fr, UNLV – The final result certainly wasn’t what Runnin’ Rebel fans wanted, as a one-point loss at Colorado State in one of the more entertaining games of the season left UNLV out in the cold. But Vaughn was spectacular early and often throughout this game, scoring 30 points on 21 field goal attempts, including six three-pointers. For the year, Vaughn sits behind only Marks among conference players in scoring average.

Wyoming Throwdown Of The Week

Ho hum. Just another high-flying fast-break alley-oop rim swing, this time with Derek Cooke on the receiving end of a Josh Adams pass.

Power Rankings

1. Boise State (17-6, 7-3) – After watching the Broncos take apart San Diego State on Sunday, the moment got to me and I put Boise State solidly in my RTC Top 25, at #19. Resume-wise, that’s indefensible: they’ve got two wins over top-30 RPI teams (SDSU and Colorado State), another couple over teams in the top 100 (Saint Mary’s and UNLV) and not a whole lot else. But the way Marks is playing, the way James Webb is turning into a star before our eyes, the contributions that Leon Rice is getting from elsewhere on his roster (Robert Heyer! Nick Duncan!), I think this team is the best team in this conference right now. And the good news is, they’ve still got upside, with Mikey Thompson in particular a guy I’ve been waiting on breaking out for the better part of two years now. Sitting nice with an RPI of 40 at this point, they’ve played their way back into NCAA Tournament consideration, but realistically, this team still has work to do. Seven of their remaining eight games come against teams KenPom.com ranks below 100, with half of those games coming against teams ranked 200 or lower. The challenge then is for the Broncos to not stub their toe in any of those games. If they win all seven of those but fall to San Diego State at Viejas Arena on the final day of February, they’re probably okay. Lose one of those, then picking up that tough road win in San Diego becomes a necessity, albeit one they are capable of. Me? I’m a believer. I think the Broncos are the best team in the conference and a threat to give teams a tough run in March. And, there’s no reason this success needs to stop when Marks graduates, as next year’s core figures to be Webb as a junior, Anthony Drmic back for his senior year, Thompson as a senior breakout candidate and Chandler Hutchison maybe ready to make an impact as a sophomore. Not to mention all those quality role players.

2. San Diego State (18-6, 8-3) – Sunday’s first half marked the fifth time this season that the Aztecs have scored less than 20 points in a half. Last week we detailed how this Aztec team is better defensively than any of the great Aztec teams in the Steve Fisher era. But, of course, there is another side to that coin and it ain’t pretty. In the KenPom era, there has never been a San Diego State team this darn bad on the offensive end. While this team can certainly get after it on the offensive glass, there is not a single other thing this team does that qualifies as remotely good on the offensive end. They get to the line a little bit (their 38.6 free throw rate is their second-best offensive statistic, a rate that qualifies for 140th in the nation), but once there, they shoot it at 62.3%, good for 333rd in the nation. They turn it over too much, they shoot too many threes, then don’t really share the ball all that well. And the shooting – oh for the love of god, the shooting: 45.8% from two (246th in the nation) and 30.6% from three (296th in the nation). Usually here I would like to put a “but…” and then a silver lining, but let’s not even joke. Things will get better in the coming years, but this Aztecs team is just going to have to roll on one leg.

3. Colorado State (20-4, 7-4) – The Rams’ win over UNLV on Saturday afternoon was a truly great game, basketball the way basketball is the most fun to watch. An up-temp 71-possession game where players made plays and both teams punched and counter-punched right down to the final buzzer. J.J. Avila was terrific once again, not only chipping in 15 points and 11 rebounds against Vegas’ long and athletic front line, but showing his full-hand, dishing out seven assists as well (and here’s the point where we conveniently sweep five turnovers under the rug). It is still to be determined just how good these Rams are, but this much is clear: they’re fun to watch. They’ve only played four games above 70 possessions, but just one under 60 and they’re good at getting their opponents to play up to their preferred pace. Heck, they even got Wyoming into a 67-possession game and two of the Cowboys’ three regulation games on the year of at least 63 possessions came against Larry Eustachy’s club. They’ve got a bevy of offensive playmakers, they’ve got upperclassmen across the roster and they’ve got a chance to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.

4. Wyoming (19-5, 8-3) 

In the 2012-13 season, the Cowboys started 12-0 and were enjoying a fine holiday break, right up until senior shooter Luke Martinez broke his hand against another guy’s face in a bar fight. After peaking at #31 according to KenPom on January 2, it was all downhill from there, as the Cowboys finished the season with a second round loss in the CBI. Last year, a week after knocking off San Diego State at home, the Cowboys were in the middle of a hard-fought win over Fresno State in mid-February when all-conference junior forward Larry Nance went down with a torn ACL. The Cowboys would peak in their KenPom ranking in their next game (actually a one-point loss at Colorado State) and win just one of their final seven games of the year, bowing out of the CBI in the first round this time. On Friday, it was announced that Nance had been diagnosed with mono and would be regarded as day-to-day. He missed the Cowboys’ game at Air Force on Saturday and, as we discussed above, the Cowboys lost by 23. Long story short, this is a fanbase that loves their team, but can’t help but feel like the basketball gods must be against them. Because, aside from the near-term health concerns about Nance (mono ain’t no joke, a could reasonably be a drag on Nance’s performance, when he returns, through the rest of the month), that Air Force loss effectively ends their hopes for an at-large bid. Their RPI currently sits at 73, they’ve got absolutely nothing to point to in their non-conference slate and their best chance at a big-time win between now and the MW Tournament comes tomorrow night when they travel to San Diego State, possibly without Nance.

5. UNLV (13-10, 4-6) – Six conference losses by a total of 25 points, with nine of those points coming in an overtime loss at Boise State. Right to the point: UNLV fans aren’t about to be hearing Wyoming fans’ complaints of curses. Still, this team has shown it can play with anyone in the conference. They’ve got a boatload of talent. And they’re hosting the conference tournament in a month. And there is some good long-term news for this program: Dave Rice is actually getting noticeable improvement out of his guys over the course of a season. Much like any profession, coaches can learn and improve and get better with more experience. It’s not much of a secret that Rice has underachieved in his early years in Las Vegas, failing to capitalize on some impressive talent that has come through the Thomas & Mack. But this year, without a doubt, guys like Christian Wood, Rashad Vaughn and Patrick McCaw are playing appreciably better basketball right now than they were back at the start of the year.

6. Utah State (13-10, 6-5) – After earning a split the hard way this past week (a home loss against Boise and then a road win at The Pit), the Aggies are in a position to get on a roll. Tonight they’re home against Nevada. They get a week off then travel to San Jose State, then the following weekend host Fresno State, followed up by a visit from UNLV, before capping off February with a visit to Air Force. Utah State will be strong favorites in those first three games and slight favorites in those final two. They’ve got a chance to head into a rough final week of conference play (at Wyoming, home against Colorado State) with a 10-6 conference record.

7. New Mexico (14-9, 6-5) – Which is worse: a loss at Air Force or a home loss to Utah State? Neither is “bad” in the grand scheme of the Mountain West, mind you, but neither meets the expectations that have been set in Albuquerque. They’ve still got road trips to Colorado State and Boise State (not to mention Nevada and Fresno State – no easy conference road games) and visits from San Diego State, UNLV and Wyoming. This is not going to be a pretty conference record when all is said and done, but you still have to consider the Lobos a threat in the Mountain West Tournament, especially since guys like Jordan Goodman and Sam Logwood haven’t come near their potential yet.

8. Fresno State (11-12, 6-4) – An 18-point win at home against San Jose State where every starter scores in double figures and every player that earned more than mop-up minutes posted an offensive efficiency rating of better than 100.

9. Air Force (11-12, 4-8) – Three players on this team lost the entire season to injury without playing a single minute. Senior Kammryn Williams had his career ended in the Mountain West opener by a torn Achilles. Fellow senior Max Yon missed a couple games with injury and then missed a couple more with a personal leave of absence. Various other injuries have cost the Falcons players, with the team having missed, by one count, 97 games due to injury this season. Throw in three transfers and it is no wonder that this Air Force team looks nothing like what was expected.

10. Nevada (7-15, 3-7) – A three-point road win at San Jose State. AJ West went for 17 and 15 in that game after turning in 14 and 13 against San Diego State on Wednesday. He’s good. The rest of the team is not.

11. San Jose State (2-21, 0-11) – This was their big chance. Following an and-one free throw after the under-four media timeout, the Spartans trailed Nevada by just four. From there they had eight offensive possessions, earned eight free throws and took eight field goal attempts. Unfortunately, they were just 4/8 on the freebies and 2/8 from the field and 0/3 from deep, with a turnover mixed in there, all resulting in a three-point home loss. But, head coach Dave Wojcik had this team fighting to the last second, diving for loose balls, battling on the glass and playing smart. They’re just out-manned. KenPom now puts their chances of going through conference play without a win at 78.7%. Their best chances at a week from tomorrow when they host Utah State, the final day of February when they travel to Nevada and then the final game of the regular season when they host UNLV. Still, in none of those games do Pomeroy’s numbers give them better than a 6% chance of winning.

AMurawa (994 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.


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