Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 2nd, 2016

Its been too darn long since we’ve done one of these, so let’s do this right and get caught up on the Mountain West. We’re basically halfway through conference play with eight of the 11 teams having played at least nine conference games, and San Diego State has clearly established itself as the conference’s best team — off to a 9-0 start that gives them a game-and-a-half lead over two-loss New Mexico. Before we get into the team-by-team rundowns, let’s take a moment to congratulate the conference on the fact that, in an era of the horrors of unbalanced scheduling in large conferences, its brass made sure that the league’s top four teams (San Diego State, New Mexico, Boise State, UNLV) play each other twice. Sure, it’s easier to set that up when the league only has 11 teams (where you only miss a home-and-away schedule against two conference foes), but regardless of how, that part of the schedule is right this year.

Power Rankings

  • San Diego State (16-6, 9-0) – I wrote plenty about the Aztecs yesterday, so go read that article first. But, there’s also the matter of San Diego State’s 17 million straight wins when leading with five minutes remaining in a game (actually, the number now stands at 159 straight). Now, that number sounds impressive, and it is (Mark Zeigler noted three weeks ago that the next longest streak in the conference is at 14 wins). But even more impressively, that time 160 games ago when the Aztecs lost a game after leading at the five-minute mark was when Wyoming hit six threes in the final 4:12 to outscore the Aztecs 24-8 over that stretch. Even crazier: That loss broke another long 65-game Aztec streak of winning games when they were ahead at the five-minute mark. By my math, San Diego State is 224-1 in the last 225 games where it led at the five-minute mark. Go read that excellent Zeigler article about the streak. There’s a lot more great stuff in there too.
San Diego State's History Of Winning Games When Ahead At The Five-Minute Mark Is Insane (San Diego State University)

San Diego State’s History Of Winning Games When Ahead At The Five-Minute Mark Is Insane (San Diego State University)

  • New Mexico (13-8, 6-2) – After getting handled by the Runnin’ Rebels in UNLV’s first game post-Dave Rice a couple weeks back, the Lobos came back and got surprised by Wyoming in The Pit. It was easy to write New Mexico off at that time, and wins at San Jose State and at home against Air Force did nothing to change that idea. But Saturday night in Boise changed this up indeed. Behind a 30 points from Elijah Brown and 21 from Tim Williams, the Lobos had a terrific offensive night, kept their turnovers in check and served notice that despite some early season bumps and bruises, they were going to stick around for awhile. In that loss to Wyoming, sophomore point guard Cullen Neal suffered a concussion and missed the win over San Jose State, but in the two games since then, Neal played his best back-to-back games of the season, averaging 11.5 efficient points and a combined six assists to three turnovers.

  • Boise State (15-7, 6-3)All things considered, last year’s Broncos and this year’s Broncos are pretty similar on the offensive end of the court. Last year the team was the 51st most efficient offense; this year they’re 54th overall. They shoot it pretty well from the floor, they rarely turn it over, they shoot a lot of threes; same movie, different year. There are some differences: their three-point percentages have dropped significantly, but they’ve more or less made up for that by getting to the line far more frequently, where they make an excellent percentage. But, what really separates last year’s conference champion from this year’s disappointment is on the defensive end. In Leon Rice’s six years, last season was by far the most efficient defensive team in Boise, holding opponents to about 96.6 points per 100 possessions, good for 56th in the nation. This year, the Broncos are allowing about 102.3 points per 100 possessions, dropping them to 159th in the nation. Makes me want to give a lot more defensive credit to Derrick Marks and the perennially underrated Igor Hadziomerovic.
Without Ben Carter, UNLV's Best Hopes Are To Go Small and Fast (Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports)

Without Ben Carter, UNLV’s Best Hopes Are To Go Small and Fast (Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports)

  • UNLV (13-9, 4-5) – The Rebels got taken apart by San Diego State in the second half on Saturday night. But this biggest loss was not on the scoreboard but in the trainer’s room. After an awkward fall in the first half, power forward Ben Carter was helped from the court. It was revealed Monday that he had sustained a torn ACL which ends his season. In his first season in the desert after a couple years at Oregon, Carter was an efficient and integral frontcourt piece. In his absence, and with sophomore center Goodluck Okonoboh’s transfer at mid-year, the Rebels don’t have another true big man to take over the four. Physically, sophomore Dwayne Morgan is the guy who most looks like a power forward, but he’s just a mess thus far in his career. The best case scenario is that high-wire freshman Derrick Jones takes over at the four, the Rebels put even more Runnin’ into their game plan and find a way to manufacture easy buckets in transition, all while maintaining the harassing defense that has them 11th in the nation in defensive efficiency.
  • Fresno State (14-7,5-3) – Last season, featuring a lineup that ranked 230th in the nation in KenPom’s effective height metric, the Bulldogs were 320th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (25.9%, meaning they grabbed just 25.9% of their missed field goal attempts) and 252nd in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (32.7%). This year, that effective height metric is still just 103rd in the nation (and eighth in the Mountain West), but the Bulldogs are no longer getting outrebounded. Behind returnee Karachi Edo and JuCo transfers Torren Jones and Cullen Russo, they have jumped to 53rd in the nation in offensive rebounding and 78th on the defensive glass, with Rodney Terry making a commitment to send as many guys to the defensive glass as necessary to end a defensive possession. The presence of Edo, Jones and Russo as rim protectors also helps shore up the final line of defense, and it is no surprise that the Bulldogs are allowing 4.5 fewer points per 100 defensive possessions this season.
  • Nevada (13-8, 5-4) – Think Nevada made a smart decision to fire David Carter last year and replace him with Eric Musselman? With at least ten games remaining this season, the Wolf Pack have already won as many conference games as last season, and have four more overall wins. They’re averaging 5.8 more points per 100 possessions, allowing 5.5 fewer points, and are playing at a far more appealing pace, averaging 8.3 more possessions per 40 minutes. And all this is happening with really only three significant changes. First, A.J. West left the program nine games into this year, and his spot has more than been covered by freshman center Cameron Oliver. Then, senior guard Michael Perez from last season has been replaced by freshman defensive wiz Lindsey Drew. And, of course, there’s the change in the hot seat. With Oliver and Drew expected to anchor the Wolf Pack for the next three seasons, and with Musselman bringing buzz back to Reno hoops, Nevada is trending upward.
  • Wyoming (11-12, 4-6) – Sorry everybody else. I’m biased. Josh Adams is my favorite player in the conference.

  • Colorado State (12-9, 4-4) – In a conference filled with teams that are very good on the defensive end and borderline awful on the offensive end, leave it to Larry Eustachy’s club to flip the script. Even with Gian Clavell’s 20.8 PPG lost for the year after just ten games, the Rams are an offensive juggernaut, held below a 1 PPP in just five games this season: vs UTEP, at Northern Colorado (two aberrations there), at Kansas State (#17 defense in the country), against UNLV (#11 defensive team in the country) and against San Diego State (#2 defensive team in the country). The flip side of that is that they’ve only held a Division I opponent under 1 PPP three times: vs. Portland (#187 offensive team in the country), that same atrocious Kansas State game (#122 offense) and that same atrocious UNLV game (#243 offense).
  • Utah State (11-9, 3-6) – If you like offense and hate defense, make sure to check out Colorado State/Utah State on February 17. While their offense/defense splits aren’t quite as wide as the Rams, the Aggies have a similar profile. And when those two teams played on January 16, they combined for 188 points in 142 total possessions, or 1.33 PPP.
  • San Jose State (7-15, 2-8) – It’s a season of first in San Jose State. Back on January 13, the Spartans earned their first conference win (and first win over any Division I team) since February 18, 2014. With their 75-54 win over Air Force on Saturday, for the first time in their third year of Mountain West history, they’ve got two conference wins. Even more exciting, for the first time they’re in a place other than last in their new conference. And glory of all glories, for the first time ever they’re in a spot other than last place in my power rankings. Seniors Frank Rogers and Princeton Onwas won’t be around to help the Spartans take their next big step forward, but with freshmen Ryan Welage, Brandon Clarke, Cody Schwartz and Jaycee Hillsman all getting big minutes and with head coach Dave Wojcik starting to land appropriate recruits, the needle is swinging upwards for the Spartans.
  • Air Force (10-12, 1-8) – Back in 2011-12, when Dave Pilipovich took over for midseason coaching casualty Jeff Reynolds in early February, it was immediately clear that he was the right man for the job. What he did the following season, leading an undermanned Falcons squad to a .500 conference record cemented that reputation. And when he led his team to six wins the next two seasons, he became the first head coach in the history of the Academy to win at least six conference games in three consecutive seasons. All of which is preamble to say that, despite a 1-8 conference record with the lone win a seven-point home win over San Jose State, Pilipovich is still the right man for this insanely difficult job for about as long as he wants it.
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