Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 24th, 2015

Team of the Week

San Diego State – It’s been a couple weeks since we did this because we took last week to compile our Best in the West list, so this award encompasses not only the Aztecs’ two by-the-book wins over New Mexico and San Jose State, but also the wins from the previous week over Wyoming and Colorado State that put them atop the Mountain West standings. The San Diego State offense is starting to come around (it’s now played four straight games where it scored better than a point per possession); the Aztecs’ defense is still downright scary; and if they can find a way on Saturday to get revenge on Boise State for a beat-down earlier this month, they’ll be headed into March on quite a roll.

Winston Shepard and the Aztecs Are Rolling (AP)

Winston Shepard and the Aztecs Are Rolling (AP)

Player of the Week

Winston Shepard, Jr, San Diego State – From the moment he stepped on the court for the Aztecs, it has been clear that Shepard has voluminous skills on the basketball court. His long frame and athleticism help make him a terrific defensive threat. He’s a willing and alert passer. He’s got a nice handle and the ability to use it to get into the lane and make plays. There is really only about one thing he hasn’t been particularly good at, and it’s a pretty important one: shooting the ball. However, over the past couple of weeks, the endless work that Shepard has put in in trying to improve that aspect of his game has begun to pay dividends. A career 24.5 percent three-point shooter, Shepard has made five of his last 10 shots from deep and 14 of 20 from the free throw line, and as a result, he’s averaging nearly 16 points per game over the past two weeks.

Newcomer of the Week

Patrick McCaw, Fr, UNLV – Fellow freshman guard Rashad Vaughn suffered a torn meniscus on February 10 against Fresno State — he was the team’s leading scorer, took the highest percentage of shots and used the most possessions. Since that time, McCaw has stepped into his void, taking over a part of the role that the departed Vaughn once played. In the three games since, McCaw has averaged nearly 16 points per game, has made 10-of-23 shots from deep and has shown the college basketball world why he may be just as good of a young prospect as his more celebrated backcourt mate.

Wyoming Throwdown Of The Week

You think just because Larry Nance is out for the Cowboys that the dunks just stop? Not a chance, as you’ll see here with junior guard Josh Adams throwing one down.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (22-6, 12-3) – A couple weeks back, a Chad Ford mock draft at ESPN caused a bit of a stir around the Mountain West when San Diego State’s freshman forward Malik Pope checked in at #16. When I first heard this, I was incredulous, but the devil is in the details. First, Ford’s blurb about Pope sheds some clarity. First, he acknowledges all the questions everyone has about Pope (injury history, no consistent history of success, rawness), but then pins the pick on a combination of the team doing the picking (the Sixers) and an admitted swing for the fences. That explanation makes the mere fact of seeing Pope at #16 much more palatable. And certainly, if you catch Pope on the right night, the talent just jumps off the screen: 6’10”; sweet shooting stroke (42.9% from three in limited chances); athleticism; handle; basketball IQ. If he stays healthy and his game continues to progress, the sky is indeed the limit. But, still, he’s got a long ways to go. And this needn’t be a knock on him. After all, injuries deprived him of his final two seasons of high school ball. But he just simply needs more reps. He needs to take care of the ball better. He needs to balance his three-point shooting with more inside the arc. And, more than anything else, he needs to get stronger. Hey, if an NBA team is going to pay him a bunch of money right now and that’s what he wants, I hope it works out for him. But as a college hoops fan, I hope we get to see Pope develop his game under Steve Fisher. Because the result could be pretty special.

2. Boise State (20-7, 10-4) – The Broncos are 10-1 over their last 11 games. But, let’s talk about that one: a six-point loss at Fresno State a couple weekends back in which they were outscored 12-3 after the final media timeout. Exactly how debilitating is that loss? Well, here’s the simple fact: the Selection Committee uses RPI rather abundantly in measuring teams. And Fresno State, due to a terrible non-conference performance, has an ugly RPI of 214. Now, maybe the Selection Committee is smart enough to realize that Fresno State is a different team now than they were in the non-conference. And maybe they realize that playing in Fresno in February is no fun. And maybe they’re able to use the eye test and see that this Bronco team rounded a bend somewhere back in January and is a quality basketball team. But, those are a whole lot of maybes. And you can bet that every other team that finds itself near the bubble these days has maybes of their own. Put simply, while you and I may know that losing at Fresno State is not as terrible as the RPI hit would have you believe, it basically back the Broncos up against the wall. Not only can they still not afford a slip-up against their remaining sub-100 RPI opponents (New Mexico, at San Jose State, Fresno State), but now they really need to go out on Saturday evening and get that win at San Diego State, a feat far easier written than accomplished.

3. Colorado State (23-5, 10-5) – Defensively, Colorado State doesn’t do a ton of great things. They’ve got some offensive weapons on this team that aren’t all that adept at man-on-man defense. Their style is such that they don’t try to pressure opposing ballhandlers and force turnovers. They’re fortunate enough to have teams (for whatever reason) shoot poorly from the line against them. But the one area where the Rams focus defensively and where they excel is ending possessions after one shot by grabbing defensive rebounds. As a team, the Rams are 13th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. Only one player on this team’s rotation has a defensive rebounding percentage under 10%, and that guy is point guard John Gillon, generously listed as a six-footer. And still, he grabs 8.4% of opponents’ missed shots when he’s on the floor. This is a clear example of a coach mitigating weaknesses by focusing on one thing his team can do very well. With guys like J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano needed to play big minutes because of their offensive abilities, but somewhat limited on the defensive end, the choice is to try to limit those defensive liabilities by sending five guys to the defensive glass every time down. The Rams still aren’t anyone’s idea of a great defensive team (126th in the nation in defensive efficiency), but they’d be so much worse if they didn’t make defensive rebounding a team-wide priority.

4. Wyoming (21-6, 10-4) – Larry Nance Jr. has missed four straight games due to mononucleosis. The good news is, he traveled with his team to Reno as they put away Nevada last Tuesday night. Odds are good that Nance returns tomorrow night as the Cowboys host Fresno State, but let’s put the rest of the Wyoming season in perspective: win the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas, or resign yourself to an NIT bid. That’s not opinion. And just about any unbiased observer would probably want to see Wyoming get an NCAA bid over most any other average bubble team. But those are the facts. With an RPI of 78 and without a lot of chances remaining on their schedule to significantly improve that, the Cowboys probably need to win three games in three days to go dancing. So, those final four games of the regular season? Those are preparation. Getting Nance back up to full strength, getting him comfortable again. And then playing for your tournament life come Las Vegas. Now, here’s the thing: I could write that about every other team down the line from here, but for the most part those teams either have young talent around which to mount another challenge in future years. For the Cowboys, with four seniors, including perhaps the greatest player in 20 years in Laramie in Nance, there is quite a bit more finality.

5. Utah State (16-10, 9-5) – The Aggies might be the most underrated team in the country. Remember, this is a team that lost nine of its top ten scorers from last season. Their leading returning scorer (Jalen Moore) averaged 5.6 points per game last year. Of the six guys on this team who have played more than 30% of the team’s minutes, we’ve got Moore, two freshmen, two junior college transfers, and sophomore JoJo McGlaston, who averaged eight minutes and two points per game last season. So, when you apply that perspective to their four straight non-conference losses in late November and early December (at Mississippi State, at UC Davis, home to BYU and at USC), things get understandable. Apply another asterisk to their loss at Fresno State and what Stew Morrill has done with this team in his final season as head coach could qualify as a miracle. And, with a core of Moore, David Collette, Darius Perkins and Chris Smith due back next season, he’s also left his predecessor with a full cupboard.

David Collette and Utah State Have Been A Nice Surprise

David Collette and Utah State Have Been A Nice Surprise

6. UNLV (15-12, 6-8) – Eight conference losses by a total of 31 points, including a nine-point loss in overtime. That’s eight losses all by two possessions or less. Want some more bad luck for good measure? Losing Vaughn, perhaps for the year, right when it looked like they were turning a corner. Now, certainly losing Vaughn is no fun. But, this is still a very talented team that could very well cause problems. McCaw is stepping up his game. Christian Wood is ever capable. Jelan Kendrick is showing signs of life. Jordan Cornish can stroke the three. There probably isn’t enough consistency here to string together the three or four wins necessary to win the conference title, but they can certainly get it together long enough to ruin somebody else’s chances.

7. New Mexico (14-13, 6-9) – The Lobos have lost six in a row. The last time a New Mexico basketball team lost six in a row, Richard Nixon was president, the NASDAQ had just been invented and Led Zeppelin released an untitled album with four weird symbols on the cover. In other words, this is not a program with a long history of being okay with losing. Which makes the fact that head coach Craig Neal is in just his second season somewhat perilous. I’m not even beginning to say that Neal’s job is even remotely in jeopardy, but in a job where you need to have public opinion on your side and defend against possible negative recruiting, turning in an all-time bad season in your second year in a job is not ideal.

8. Fresno State (12-15, 7-7) – The Bulldogs have been just bad enough this year to help drag down the conference’s RPI, but just good enough to spring the occasional upset. Just ask San Diego State and Boise State how tough playing in Fresno can be. But, for Rodney Terry to truly turn the corner, the Bulldogs need to find a way to deliver come consistency.

9. Air Force (12-14, 5-10) – The last time the Falcons lost to a team ranked lower than 100 by Ken Pomeroy was January 17 at Utah State. The last loss to a “bad” team occurred in January 3 when they got drilled at Nevada. Now, that’s overlooking the fact that a 25-point loss to Boise State is not good, nor is a 28-point loss at San Diego State. But by and large, the Falcons are a tough out that are capable of beating all but the very best teams in the conference. And with youngsters Hayden Graham, Matt Mooney, Trevor Lyons and Zach Kocur earning experience with every passing game, the future looks bright for Dave Pilipovich.

10. Nevada (8-18, 4-10) – Lost in the dumpster fire that is Nevada basketball is 6’9” junior forward A.J. West, whose 21.9 offensive rebounding percentage is the best in the nation. He’s a good shotblocker, has solid low-post moves and is nearly a 70% free throw shooter. All of which surely has coaches as high major Division I schools wondering: any chance this guy can earn a degree by the end of the summer session?

11. San Jose State (2-24, 0-14) – says the Spartans now have an 86.3% chance of going winless this season. Their best chance comes Saturday when they travel to Nevada to face the Wolf Pack. The Spartans had chances aplenty to beat the Pack in San Jose back at the start of February, and came away empty. Quick Rashad Muhammad watch: he’s got 25 assists, 15 steals and three blocks this season, both numbers just eking past last year’s totals. More importantly, he needs just two more assists and one more block to equal brother Shabazz’s totals in his lone season at UCLA. Unfortunately, the steals mark is probably out of the question, as Shabazz somehow got 23 steals at UCLA.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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