Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 22nd, 2015

There’s plenty of on-court news that we’ll get to below, but the big news from the last week was from the conference office. As the Mountain West announced that the conference tournament will remain at the Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas through at least 2019, not so hidden in that announcement was the corresponding news that only the top eight teams in the final league standings will be making the trip. First, the venue. While nearly everyone in the conference is supportive of playing the conference tournament in Vegas because of the clear entertainment draw and centralized location, the particulars of playing on UNLV’s home court remain controversial. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher is a vocal opponent of that location, but subsidies for rent on the Thomas & Mack as well as hotel rooms make the decision a virtual economic necessity.

Las Vegas

The Mountain West Tournament will remain in Las Vegas, but fewer teams will be invited.

However, the paring down of invitees is more of a head-scratcher. Sure, commissioner Craig Thompson points to an invitation to the conference tourney as a reward for a strong regular season, but with an eye toward the fan experience, part of the fun of the conference tournament is having everybody at the same venue. Further, just in terms of planning a Vegas vacation in mid-March with weekdays in play, less notice for teams near the cut line does not bode well for maximum attendance. For example, the conference has had 11 members for the past two seasons. In 2013-14, there was a tie for eighth place, with just a one-game drop to ninth. Last season, there were three games separating spots #7 through #10. This year, KenPom currently projects sixth place in the conference at 9-9 with three more teams projected to go 8-10. In all of those scenarios, teams wouldn’t really be clinching a spot for an invitation to the conference tournament until the final week of the regular season, making it more difficult for fans to get time off work to head to Vegas.

Then there’s the simple fact that more postseason basketball, even between teams at the bottom of a conference, is not necessarily a bad thing. Really, if the Mountain West wanted to find something to fix about the conference tournament, it would be a way to stagger games to allow basketball junkies to also take in the Pac-12 Tournament a mile away. It might take some cooperation between conferences and there may be some coaches unhappy about the accommodation, but for the good of the fan experience, find a way to make it happen.

Power Rankings

  1. Boise State (8-4)November’s schedule was brutal, with two cracks against Arizona and one against now #1 Michigan State. But whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (although I have some serious doubts about that particular platitude) and the Broncos are in the middle of a five-game winning streak that doesn’t look like it is about to let up. While James Webb (31 pts, eight boards on Sunday against Bradley), Anthony Drmic (second leading scorer at 14.5 PPG and 40% shooting from deep) and Nick Duncan are the big names on this team, it is senior point guard Mikey Thompson who is making this team go. As a freshman, he displayed occasional jaw-dropping playmaking ability and just seemed to have “future star” written all over him. His sophomore year was a step forward in efficiency but Derrick Marks’ emergence limited Thompson’s role. Last year he struggled as his minutes and efficiency dipped, so much so that is was no sure thing that he’d be the guy at the one for the Broncos this year. But, early this season he has proven his value as this team’s floor general. He gets into the lane with impunity, scores it efficiently around the rim, has been terrific at setting up teammates with good looks of his penetration, and is the best on the team at getting to the line (where he also converts better than 82%). And finally, after three years of inconsistency, he is a rock-solid veteran, an extension of the coaching staff on the floor, and well-equipped to minimize bad decisions. Leon Rice still needs Drmic and Webb and Duncan to provide a lot of the scoring punch here, but Thompson can handle about all of the things you want a senior point guard to handle.

    Nothing Can Be Easy For Dave Rice At UNLV

    Nothing can be easy for Dave Rice at UNLV. (Getty)

  2. UNLV (8-4) – When we last did this, the Runnin’ Rebels had just a single loss on the season, a two-point loss to UCLA in Maui. Since that last Mountain West check-in, Dave Rice’s club has lost three out of four, in disparate but universally disappointing fashion. First there was the six-point loss at Wichita State, which on the face of it is not a bad loss. But the Shockers didn’t play particularly well, Fred Van Vleet was just back at far less than 100 percent from his various injuries and the Rebs left Kansas knowing they had let a winnable quality win disappear. After surviving a trip to UC Riverside that had disaster written all over it, it was dates with both of the Pac-12 Arizona schools last week. First, at home against the Sun Devils, UNLV took a 12-point lead into the half, then finished the last 17 minutes of the game on a 35-11 slide to give a game away in the face of another momentum-stealing zone defense. After all that, a trip to the McKale Center to face the Wildcats seemed particularly unwinnable, a premise the Rebels left unchallenged, never really competing en route to a 12-point loss. Freshman center Stephen Zimmerman played only nine minutes in that game after sustaining a thigh contusion that will keep him out of tonight’s game against South Dakota. Given all this recent failure and the sustained history of underachievement under Rice, the fact that the Rebels are still a strong second in these power rankings shows just how down the Mountain West is this season.
  3. San Diego State (7-5) – When last we left you, the Aztecs had just lost to San Diego in an embarrassing display at Petco Park. Surely, that was going to serve as a wake-up call, right? Well, last Friday night, the hosted Grand Canyon. Only one Aztec – freshman point guard Jeremy Hemsley – scored in double figures. The team combined to shoot 3-of-19 from three. And worse yet, that Grand Canyon team, among the bottom third in the nation in effective height, battled the Aztecs to a draw on the glass and limited Steve Fisher’s team to just 14-of-35 shooting from inside the arc. This team is a mess on offense. Sure, a lot of it has to do with their inability to hit perimeter shots. They’re shooting 31.7% from three as a team. Worse yet, they’re shooting 30.8% on two-point jumpers, good for 301st in the country. But really, everything they do on the offensive end is bad. They’re not very good on the offensive glass. They turn it over on better than one out of every five possessions. The only productive thing they do is get to the free throw line, but once they get there, they’re no better than average. There’s enough talent here that things could turn around. Hemsley has been very good as a freshman. Winston Shepard remains solid. Dakarai Allen is coming along. But guys like Malik Pope, Zylan Cheatham, Trey Kell and Angelo Chol are all, to one degree or another, leaving a lot of potential unfulfilled.

    Tim Williams and New Mexico suffered what was likely the toughest loss of the season so far. (USA TODAY Sports)

    Tim Williams and New Mexico suffered what was likely the toughest loss of the season so far. (USA TODAY Sports)

  4. New Mexico (7-3) – Comfortable home wins over Northern Iowa and New Mexico State built up hope and expectations. Then Rice rolled into The Pit on Saturday night, dropped in 11 threes, forced 18 turnovers and came back from a 17-point second-half deficit to steal a 90-89 win when Lobo junior forward Tim Williams tried to call a timeout the team didn’t have, leading to a game-winning technical free throw with one second remaining on the clock. If there’s been a tougher loss to swallow this season, I must have missed it.
  5. Fresno State (8-4) – We thought the Bulldogs could play with Arizona, and they did for about 35 minutes before fading. Still Rodney Terry’s club had to come away from Tucson feeling pretty good. However, following Sunday’s eight-point home loss to Evansville, we’re back to expecting another middle-of-the-pack season from Fresno. Part of their problem is that the Bulldogs only take 31% of their shots at the rim, 293rd in the nation. Conversely, they are 7th in the nation in the number of two-point jumpers they take, with 42.6% of their shots coming from that most inefficient range. Twelve games into the season, those type of numbers seem to reflect the personality of the team, not something that can be easily changed. If those jumpers are falling on any given night, the Bulldogs can blow hot and surprise; if not, they can blow cold and get surprised: the perfect equation for a conference record with a game of .500, one way or the other.
  6. Nevada (8-3) – Last time out, we read the tea leaves, noted A.J. West’s dwindling playing time and, let’s just say there wasn’t much surprise last week when he announced he was leaving the team and ending his college career. Back in November, such an announcement would have been calamitous for the Wolf Pack’s chances. But with the emergence of freshman big Cameron Oliver and Eric Musselman’s effective development of a perimeter-heavy lineup, the impact of such a loss is minimized. Still, West was the nation’s best offensive rebounder last season, eighth in the early stages of this year. For a Wolf Pack team looking up at much of the conference in terms of raw talent, such a loss is bound to sting some.

    Eric Musselman is starting to get it together up in Reno. (USA TODAY Sports)

    Eric Musselman is starting to get it together up in Reno. (USA TODAY Sports)

  7. Colorado State (5-3) – Last year against San Diego State, senior guard Daniel Bejarano got into an on-court disagreement with coach Larry Eustachy and was benched for the remainder of the game. A couple weeks ago, there were some post-game comments about problems between Eustachy and players on this team. To tie those two stories together, there’s this. In other news, leading scorer Gian Clavell is out for the year with a shoulder injury.
  8. Utah State (5-3) – Losses to BYU and UC Irvine since we last did this leave the Aggies without a win over the top 200 KenPom teams since the opening night of the season. Jalen Moore has taken a step back. Shooters like Chris Smith and Julion Pearre are still shooting well, but they just aren’t finding as many clean looks. After 14 seasons as an assistant coach under Stew Morrill, new head coach Tim Duryea is getting a crash course in all the difficulties that life in the hot seat can bring.
  9. Wyoming (7-4) – Just watch THIS.
  10. Air Force (6-3) – If you haven’t read it already, this post last week from Gary Parrish on Dave Pilipovich and why he has the toughest job in college basketball. This article is a must-read.
  11. San Jose State (4-5) – Last week I posted a cool couple thousand words on Frank Rogers and the San Jose State program. In the last two weeks, they’ve played three road games, lost by three at Santa Clara and Seattle and by 18 at Marquette. Sandwiched in between was an eight-point home loss to Montana State. Yes, these guys are better than last year and slowly making strides, but it is going to be a long process.
AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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