Checking In On… The Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 12th, 2016

It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve done one of these because of holidays and real life, but it is time to jump back in as plenty has gone down in the Mountain West since Christmas. We’ll get to all the goings-on around individual teams below, but if you need a one-sentence summary of the season so far, here you go: Barring completely unforeseen circumstances, the winner of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas will be the conference’s sole representative in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, the league’s second year of existence. And to show just how wacky this league is this year, I’d probably bunch four teams ahead of the pack as favorites to win that tournament. Of those four, three are undefeated in league play. The fourth – UNLV, hasn’t won a conference game and just fired its head coach, Dave Rice. We will get the first two matchups of the year among those four teams this week, so let’s jump into the mess that is the Mountain West.

UNLV's Midseason Separation With Dave Rice Is Apropos For A Messy Year In The Mountain West (Getty Images/E. Miller)

UNLV’s Midseason Separation With Dave Rice Is Apropos For A Messy Year In The Mountain West. (Getty Images/E. Miller)

Power Rankings

1. Boise State (12-4, 3-0)The Broncos are a bright spot. Riding a nine-game winning streak (the seventh-longest streak in the nation), they’re the team that ratings systems like the most. In KenPom, they’re just a notch above the rest of the conference at #79, but their RPI of #49 makes them seem like they have a chance to earn an at-large bid. But, in terms of quality wins, a home win over Oregon is about all there is. And additional quality wins just aren’t coming on the league schedule. Maybe if that nine-game winning streak turns into 16 or something. And maybe if the Broncos run away with the conference at something like 16-2, they could sustain a loss in the conference tourney and still dance, but that’s a whole lot of maybes for a program that won the regular season Mountain West title last year and was “rewarded” by the selection committee with a road game in the First Four. As far as on the court happenings, by now you probably know all about James Webb and Anthony Drmic. Nick Duncan has become a cult figure and if you read this here spot, Mikey Thompson has been a regular feature for four years. But the biggest reason for optimism may be the recent play of sophomore Chandler Hutchison. Coming into Boise last season as the most highly touted recruit in program history, he bumped around and never looked fully comfortable in his 12.3 MPG. Early in the non-conference season, his level of comfort didn’t look all that different and it wasn’t insane to question why he was so highly regarded of a recruit. Well, in three conference games, he’s put on a show. It’s definitely a small sample size, but he’s got the highest offensive rating in conference play thus far after averting 9.3 PPG and 4 RPG while shooting a 67.7% eFG in 23.6 MPG. More important than those numbers, he’s looked comfortable, he’s attacked the rim and flashed his athleticism and is beginning to get it on the defensive end of the court.

2. San Diego State (10-6, 3-0) – Don’t look now, but things are starting to congeal into passable offense down on Montezuma Mesa. The Aztecs have scored better than a point per possession in each of their conference games. Keys to recent success? Look no further than a couple of freshmen who are getting acclimated to the new level of play. Point guard Jeremy Hemsley has the third-highest in-conference KenPom offensive rating, is averaging 15.3 PPG, 3.0 APG and has knocked in nine out of his 15 attempts from deep in conference play. Likewise, Zylan Cheatham has begun to bring his talents under control. Turnovers have dropped from more than two per game in the non-conference slate to just two total in conference play. He’s letting the game come to him more, but still turning in the type of jaw-dropping plays that make him such a great prospect. As for Malik Pope, he’s been slightly better of late, if only because he was so bad early that up was the only possible way to go.

Freshman Point Guard Jeremy Hemsley Is Beginning To Get Comfortable (Damien Spartans)

Freshman Point Guard Jeremy Hemsley Is Beginning To Get Comfortable. (Damien Spartans)

3. New Mexico (10-6, 3-0) – The Lobos are in the bottom 10% in the nation in turnover rate. Sophomore point guard and coach’s son Cullen Neal is the most guilty, using almost a quarter of his team-leading possessions-used on turnovers. In three conference games, he’s averaging 4.7 turnovers. In the Lobos 11 games since December 1, he’s only once had less than three turnovers in a game, and his 1.22/1 assist-to-turnover ratio is not good. It’s gotten to the point where it is in his head. He makes a mistake, then compounds the mistake by beating himself up over it and allowing it to effect subsequent plays. His confidence is suffering, his body language is awful at times and he’s not being the type of team leader this squad needs at the point. It doesn’t end with Neal, however, as four out of the six guys on this team that earn better than 30% of possible minutes turn it over on at least a quarter of their possessions used.

4. UNLV (9-7, 0-3) – Dave Rice was finally forced out at UNLV on Sunday following a third-straight loss to open the conference season. There are a whole lot of could-haves, should-haves and would-haves now in the past, but instead let’s look ahead for this program. What this move in the middle of the season does for the Rebels is allow the team to have a fresh start under interim head coach Todd Simon. As well as UNLV recruited under Rice, he just wasn’t getting it done where it mattered most. So, in order to give this talented roster to actually meet their potential, a midseason switch was appropriate. Believe it or not, this team is actually the eighth-most efficient defense in the nation, allowing fewer than 92 points per 100 possessions. The offense, however, is abysmal. A new point guard isn’t going to walk through that door tomorrow and Stephen Zimmerman isn’t going to gain a year’s worth of polish between now and March. This team simply has to have a better plan offensively, especially against a zone. Step one for Simon may be putting the ball in sophomore Patrick McCaw’s hands more on offense. But, a solemn warning for New Mexico, who the Rebels host tonight: The last time the Rebels opened a season with four consecutive conference losses was more than 20 years ago (1994-95) when the Rebels were in the Big West. With a home crowd energized following a change and a group of players given a new lease on life, the Thomas & Mack is going to be a rough road atmosphere tonight.

5. Wyoming (9-8, 2-2) – It’s all about Josh Adams, the current favorite for conference player of the year despite playing on a team in the middle of the pack. He’s fourth in the nation in scoring with 23.9 PPG. He almost never sits, earning 91.4% of possible minutes. He’s damn near un-guardable, drawing 8.5 fouls per 40 minutes (and hitting 83.4% of his freebies when he gets to the line) while also knocking in 37.5% from deep. He’ll dunk over opponents (he’s shooting 67.1% on his shots at the rim this year) and is plenty capable of breaking down opponents on his own (only 10% of those shots at the rim come off of assists from teammates), while also more than willing to operate within Larry Shyatt’s offense (65% of his made threes come off of teammates assists). In short, he may be the perfect Mountain West basketball player.

6. Fresno State (11-6, 2-2) – Those four teams up there are the favorites. As flawed as that group above is, the rest of this conference has serious warts. The Bulldogs have played at home against New Mexico and on the road at Boise State and lost those two games by an average of 13 points. We’re still waiting for the Bulldogs to make a leap up the standings, but confidence in such a possibility is dwindling. Still, the thing that makes this team so much more intriguing than previous teams under Rodney Terry in Fresno are the bigs. After playing the last two seasons with a rotation heavy on guards and wings, the Bulldogs can run 6’9” Torren Jones, 6’9” Cullen Russo and 6’6” grinder Karachi Edo out there for plenty of effective minutes in the frontcourt. However, that change has yet to result in victories.

7. Nevada (10-6, 2-2) – With their win Saturday over Air Force, the Wolf Pack have already surpassed last season’s win total and for all the world look to be a program headed in the right direction under new coach Eric Musselman. They’re playing at a tempo not seen since the days of Trent Johnson in the early 00’s and when things are going good, the future looks bright. Freshman center Cameron Oliver looks like a guy worth building around and sophomore wing Eric Cooper is a terrific shooter (his 30.6 3P% notwithstanding), but freshman point guard Lindsey Drew, while a potential difference maker defensively, has a long way to go before his offense catches up enough to make him an effective overall player.

8. Colorado State (10-6, 2-1) – A team largely built around guards like John Gillon, Antwan Scott, Joe DeCiman, Fred Richardson, J.D. Paige and Gian Clavell (now out for the season with a shoulder injury), the Rams do have a surprisingly good one-two punch up front in the duo of senior Tiel Daniels and Emmanuel Omogbo. The two of them combine to average 20.6 PPG and 13.8 RPG in just 50 combined minutes. And both do an excellent job of earning their way to the line on a offense predicated on getting free throw attempts.

9. Utah State (9-6, 1-3) – The Aggies have had three straight games against the top four teams in these power rankings and the results are going steadily downhill. After a nine-point road win at San Jose State to start the season, they lost by three at home to San Diego State, then by 15 at home to Boise State, followed by a 18-point road loss to New Mexico. After a 22-point, 11-rebound outing to start that stretch against the Aztecs, Tulsa transfer Lew Evans dipped to five points on 2-of-9 shooting against the Broncos, then crashed and burned against the Lobos with 0/7 shooting, plus a turnover and three fouls in just 15 minutes.

10. Air Force (10-6, 1-2) – Here’s a little oddity that doesn’t mean a whole lot and isn’t particularly unexpected. But. Through 16 games, the Falcons have made 82 three-point shots. Of those, 81 came off of assists from teammates. The lone exception was a C.J. Siples shot-clock-beating three with 14:34 remaining the second half in a home loss to Army. By comparison, last year’s Falcons had 13 non-assisted threes out of 232 total makes from deep. Where do the Falcons stack up nationally? Believe it or not, East Carolina has made 103 threes this season and every single one has come off of an assist.

11. San Jose State (5-11, 0-4) – The Spartans have lost 27 straight Mountain West games and 40 of their 41 games in their history in this conference. The sole win came over Nevada on February 18, 2014. All of which makes Saturday’s home one-point overtime loss to Colorado State even more frustrating. With 21 seconds in regulation, the Spartans were up four, at which time they had about a 92 percent probability of winning the game. A phantom foul call in John Gillon’s favor gave the Rams a couple points. Then the Spartans turned it over trying to bring the ball up court, turning into a buzzer-beating layup from Jeremiah Paige to send the game to overtime. In the extra session, the Spartans led for all but 49 seconds. Unfortunately, ten of those seconds were the final ten seconds of the game, following a Gillon layup when the Spartans failed to stop the ball on defense. San Jose State had one more good look when Jaycee Hillsman missed a twisting but point-blank layup as time expired, sealing the Spartans fate in heartbreaking fashion. Wins will come for this team at some point this season (even though they’ll be underdogs in every remaining game), with tomorrow night’s home chance against Wyoming the next potential swing. But in the meantime, frustration continues.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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