Looking back at Thursday’s games in the Albuquerque regional from a Friday night perspective, my thoughts turn more to Montana, Harvard, South Dakota State, and UNLV than the teams that advanced from those first round games. We will have plenty of time to enjoy Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Baylor, and Colorado on Saturday afternoon and evening, but for right now, let’s talk about the good things that these four teams, whose seasons ended on Friday, did on Thursday and throughout the year.
After struggling through a non-conference schedule, everything came together for Montana in conference play, where they ripped off 15 wins in 16 games and then swept to the Big Sky’s automatic bid in relatively easy fashion. And on Thursday, for roughly 18 minutes, they gave Wisconsin a battle. They came out hot early, scored 18 points on the first 13 possession against a stingy Badger defense and had the numerous Grizzly fans who made the trip down to support their team dreaming of big things. There were forced turnovers, acrobatic finishes and lots of excitement created early for an undermanned team. However, once the Wisconsin defense locked down, the Grizzlies went cold and headed home early. Still, this is a program that has made three straight postseasons (including two NCAA bids) under head coach Wayne Tinkle and returns 66.3% of its scoring from this year, including talented backcourt combo Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar. And clearly, Tinkle’s got the community buying into the team and is well on the way to making Montana as much a basketball school as it is a football power.
What can you say about this Harvard team? First NCAA Tournament appearance in more than 60 years, a sparkling 26-4 record and at least a piece of the regular season Ivy League title for two years running. Better still, this is a program that shows all the signs of being in it for the long haul. Head coach Tommy Amaker is building for the future here, not just taking advantage of a flash in the pan. And, perhaps best of all, this has been a truly entertaining team to watch. I saw them in person twice this season and came away feeling good about the Crimson on both occasions. Amaker loses big man Keith Wright and hyper-efficient guard Oliver McNally, but they return plenty of experienced players for a team that should be the favorite in the Ivy again next year. Sophomore Laurent Rivard is an absurdly entertaining and confident shot-maker who earned the respect of Vandy’s players and fans by knocking down three after ridiculous three in the face of excellent defense. Junior forward Kyle Casey may be a bit undersized, but he cleans the glass for Amaker and just seems to be around the ball to make plays on a regular basis. Junior point guard Brandyn Curry is one of the best assist men in the nation and a scrappy defensive playmaker, while freshman Wesley Saunders is an athletic ball of energy with loads of upside. Add in the fact that Amaker has made Harvard a legitimate destination for recruits and it appears that the Crimson are on the verge of being an every-year type of team.
South Dakota State may have been the darling of the Albuquerque Thursday. Not only did the scrappy Jackrabbits battle a clearly athletically superior Baylor team tooth and nail for 40 minutes, but their fans, supporting a team from the state of South Dakota in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever, were an asset to the entire atmosphere in The Pit. Just as Baylor’s team showed up expecting to advance to the next round on the basis of their talent alone, the Bear fans strolled in from the parking lot at a leisurely rate, not even filling up their section until SDSU had run out to an early 12 point lead. Meanwhile, Jackrabbit fans made their way into the arena as early as the possibly could (the doors weren’t opened for the second session until 30 minutes before tip-off), loaded up their section and then some, and were loud and supportive throughout the game. They had plenty to cheer for as junior guard Nate Wolters led an inspired effort against one of the biggest, most athletic squads in Division I. Even after they booted away that 12-point first-half lead in a flurry of first half turnovers and seemed destined for a blowout, the Jackrabbits, fans and team alike, responded strong in the second half and at least put a good scare into the Bears. While Wolters gets most of the press, guys like sophomore reserve wing Chad White (15 points, five threes in 30 minutes), senior forward Griffan Callahan (seven points, two steals in a full 40 minutes of action), sophomore forward Jordan Dykstra (five points, three boards), junior forward Tony Fiegen (two points, five boards, five assists) and sophomore guard Brayden Carlson (nine points, five assists) deserve at least a mention, with Callahan, Fiegen and Dykstra all deserving extra props for contending with, and generally containing, the imposing Baylor frontline. In the end, it was a 27-8 record on the year for the Jackrabbits, the best in the history of the school. And with everyone but Callahan expected to return next year, South Dakota State could again claim a spot on the national stage.
Lastly, there’s UNLV, the most celebrated of the four losers on Thursday night. While Montana, Harvard and South Dakota State can all come away from their NCAA Tournament experience feeling okay about their seasons, for the Runnin’ Rebels, this is a disappointment, not solely because they were upended by a lower seed. This marks the fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament loss for the proud program and sends seniors Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback, and Brice Massamba off to graduation without a tournament win on their resume (fellow senior Kendall Wallace redshirted last season and was a small part of the 2008 team that beat Kent State in the first round). And, for the third consecutive year, this was a Rebel team that played its best basketball of the season in November and December and never improved as much as the other teams around them. And, perhaps most galling of all for a proud fanbase, the UNLV supporters were out-traveled and out-voiced throughout the game by Colorado fans, relative upstarts. Things need to change in Vegas next season. And the good news is, all the parts are there for the change to be made. Head coach Dave Rice will be heading into his second season as a head coach and should be able to build upon his experience this year. Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall, the first and third leading scorers on this team should return (provided Moser doesn’t do anything stupid and declare for the NBA Draft), along with plenty of other strong parts, including Division I transfers Bryce Jones and Khem Birch. Marshall will take over the leadership role for this team once and for all (a role he battled with Bellfield and Stanback over this year), and the team should be better for that. And, there is a buzz about the program that has been largely missing since the days of Jerry Tarkanian. In short, the future is bright in Las Vegas, even if the present is full of regrets over missed opportunities on Thursday.
Less than two minutes into the nightcap on semifinal Friday night, New Mexico found itself in a hole, down 12-0 to UNLV on the Rebels’ home court, a place where UNLV had not lost since last year’s Mountain West Tournament. Not only were they clicking on all cylinders (they had gotten threes from Chace Stanback and Anthony Marshall and a couple of old-fashioned three-point plays from Oscar Bellfield), but the Lobos looked awful, struggling to do simple things like catch the ball. But the Lobos responded. “They gave us a good punch in the face right there to start the game,” said head coach Steve Alford. “But there’s a lot of game left. They scored 17 points in the first three minutes of the half, then only scored 17 points the last 17 minutes of the half. After that initial barrage of points, we settled down and played extremely good defense.” The Lobos packed their defense in, dared the Rebels to hit threes against them, and that dare paid off. UNLV started three-for-three from deep in the first four minutes, then made just five of their 21 attempts over the final 36 minutes. UNM didn’t try to force anything defensively (in fact, they forced just three turnovers on the night), but made the Rebels have to score over them.
Demetrius Walker Helped The Lobos Climb Out Of An Early Hole (AP)
More importantly, however, the Lobos dominated the Rebels inside. Led by RTC MW Player of the Year Drew Gordon (who hit eight of 10 field goal attempts on his way to 19 points and 13 boards), New Mexico grabbed 85% of their defensive rebound opportunities and 26.9% on the offensive end, while outscoring the Rebels in the paint, 30-18. Senior Brice Massamba was generally solid for UNLV, scoring six points and adding nine rebounds before fouling out after 34 minutes, but the rest of their frontcourt was largely absent. Mike Moser had solid stretches at the start and at the end of the game, but was largely invisible in the middle three-quarters of the game, winding up with just three rebounds and 11 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Senior Chace Stanback hit a three on the first offensive possession of each half, but beyond that produced almost literally nothing (one point, one rebound and one assist the rest of the game), a concern as the Rebels head to the NCAA Tournament next week.
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. TT4 will cover four selected teams of interest – Syracuse, Indiana, Murray State, and UNLV – by tracking their ups, downs, and exciting developments throughout the course of the season.
It was only a matter of time. Murray State had been narrowly escaping against OVC competition in the past few games, so it shouldn’t come as a huge shock that the Racers lost their first game of the year on Thursday against a Tennessee State team ranked second in the conference standings. The loss certainly hurts the team’s postseason seeding and kills off the major story that was the undefeated season, but the team may actually benefit from shedding that spotlight off their back. They have a quick turnaround with their most challenging week of the season upcoming. Elsewhere, Syracuse just completed a monster week of wins, and UNLV and Indiana handled business with big home victories. Let’s get to this week’s outlook:
C.J. Fair Was Huge for Syracuse Against Louisville, One of Three Big Wins This Week For the Orange (Getty Images/A. Lyons)
Trending UP Because… – They had an awesome week, solidifying themselves as a top team in the land alongside Kentucky. Cuse played tight games against Georgetown and at Louisville, but great late-game execution lead to victories. Throw in Saturday’s win over Connecticut and the Orange are now 26-1 and 13-1 in the Big East, looking like a near-lock for a #1 seed come March Madness.
This Week’s Key Cog – Kris Joseph. Who said this team doesn’t have a go-to guy? Joseph scored 29 points, including the game-winning three in overtime, in Wednesday’s win over Georgetown. He averaged a team-high 17.0 points per game in the three victories.
Talking Point – Coach Jim Boeheim talked about Monday’s ugly win at Louisville, which ended with a score of 52-51: “You can either give the defenses credit or say it was a bad offensive game. We’re going to look on the bright side and say it was a real defensive struggle tonight.”
Erasing History – The Orange had lost seven straight games to Louisville heading into Monday’s matchup, and it looked like the streak was going to reach eight when the team trailed by five points with under 4:00 to play. But Jardine and Joseph, two seniors who have never beaten the Cards, were able to erase that history and taste their first ever victory against Rick Pitino’s squad when they closed out the game with strong defense.
Stats Central – Monday’s victory was nothing to write home about. Syracuse averages a conference-leading 111.9 offensive efficiency in Big East games, but they only recorded an 89.7 rating in the game against Louisville. Nonetheless, they held the Cardinals to an 87.9 efficiency themselves and walked way with a one-point road victory.
What’s Next? – The Orange play just once this week, at Rutgers on Sunday (1:00 PM ET, ESPN) against a struggling Scarlet Knights team. However, Rutgets has already defeated Florida, Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame at home this season, and the RAC has become a tough place to play.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
For months now we’ve heard talk of a merger, in some form or another, between the Mountain West and Conference USA. Monday, we got a clearer picture of what that will look like, as it was reported that the remaining members from those two conferences will join together in a newly named conference, beginning as early as the 2013-14 season. So, here we are in the middle of yet another great Mountain West basketball season, and we’re faced with the eventuality of the MW going away.
We’ve known (but tried to forget, at least temporarily) that Boise State’s stopover in the conference was a short-term thing, as they would be headed to the Big East, but the fact that San Diego State would be sending its football team with them (because, you know, San Diego just screams East!) and sending its other sports to the Big West was a low blow. TCU already had plans to head to the Big East (Texas, frontier of the wild, wild East!), but reneged on that and chose a more suitable landing spot in the Big 12. But, with Nevada and Fresno State set to move to the conference next season, it looked like the MW was well on its way to guaranteeing survival in pretty solid shape. Now, however, we’re looking at a future where teams like UNLV and New Mexico are going to be shoehorned into a new conference with teams like Rice and Marshall (not to be confused with Dave Rice and Anthony Marshall).
In short, it has been an extremely fun ride in the MW, specifically over the last five years or so, but that wild ride is coming to an end. Maybe the next ride will be even more fun and exciting than this one has been, but it is hard to imagine a mid-major basketball conference that can survive the subtraction of such great rivalries as SDSU/UNLV, Utah/BYU, and UNLV/BYU and not skip a beat.
Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, UNLV and Wyoming Appear Headed To A Still-To-Be-Named New Conference
But, let’s put all that behind us for the next month or so. Right now we’ve got high quality basketball to salve those wounds. First and foremost, this past weekend marked the start of the second half of the MW schedule, and we were treated to another excellent battle between the two teams at the top of the conference. You can read more about UNLV’s win over SDSU below.
Elsewhere, New Mexico won its fifth straight in an absolute slugfest (and some would say abomination) with Wyoming, while Colorado State’s NCAA Tournament chances took a huge hit in a loss at TCU and their RPI continues its downward spiral; two weeks ago they had an RPI of #18, last week it dropped to #24 and today it sits at #30. Couple that with a rather unimpressive schedule that features only an upset of SDSU as any kind of quality win and I’m considerably less bullish on their NCAA chances today that I was two weeks ago.
Lastly, Boise State won its first conference game of the year, knocking off an Air Force team that had quite a shakeup, as head coach Jeff Reynolds was fired last Wednesday and replaced by assistant coach Dave Pilipovich. We’ll have more on this below, but this marks the second time in as many seasons that a MW coach was let go in the middle of the season, a trend is not particularly appealing.
Team of the Week
UNLV – In a short week like this, when each team only played one conference game, it is easy to just pick the team that beat the best team as Team of the Week. And that honor goes to the Rebels, who knocked off San Diego State and created a three-way tie at the top of the conference. Read the rest of this entry »
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
At long last, Mountain West conference play is finally here. And after the long wait, the opening weekend did not disappoint in the least.
The conference opener between San Diego State and UNLV was the sole matchup between ranked teams across the nation on Saturday, and it was everything that could be expected of it and more. But, we’ll get to that shortly.
Jamaal Franklin Was Outstandings Against UNLV (AP)
Elsewhere around the league, Colorado State knocked off TCU in a wild double overtime affair in Fort Collins, while New Mexico and Air Force came up with impressive road wins over Wyoming and Boise State, respectively. While those later two games may not have been all that competitive down the stretch, after one weekend we’re even more sure of the idea that this is going to be a fun season to watch in the MW. Not only do the three teams at the top – San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV – figure to be in for a stirring battle for the top spot in the league, but the five other teams in the conference feature good athletes, fun styles and some very solid teams. In past years, let’s be honest, there were teams in this conference that were almost unbearable to watch (Wyoming the last couple of years, TCU last season, Air Force a couple years back, even Utah last year). This year, I fully expect to be able to tune into any single Mountain West game on the schedule and be thoroughly entertained. Stay tuned, this is going to get fun.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – All of the winners this week deserve a mention here, what with New Mexico going on the road and getting past a game Wyoming team, Air Force handling Boise State in their opener despite still playing without their best player – Michael Lyons – down with an ankle injury, and Colorado State fighting through a blown lead late and a couple nail-biting overtimes to finally dispense with TCU. But, we’ve got to give the Aztecs this recognition this week if for no other reason than as a welcome back to the land of the living. You see, since December 4, SDSU has been stuck playing teams like Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and, most recently, coming back from a seven-point second-half deficit to winless Chicago State. But, after being off the radar for about a month and a half, Steve Fisher’s club came back to their first game against significant competition without missing a beat. Jamaal Franklin continued his breakout sophomore season with arguably his most important performance of his career, James Rahon broke out of his season-long slow-down with a sparkling 22-point performance, the backcourt of Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley fought the tough and athletic UNLV backcourt to a draw, and even Tim Shelton made significant contributions above and beyond what his relatively tame stat line would indicate. In short, if you had forgotten the Aztecs in recent months, you can hardly be blamed, but now it is time to make sure this team is on your radar again.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and the Pac-12 Conferences.
A Look Back
After a slow week for finals (just seven games between December 10 and December 18), things picked up against for the Mountain West last night, with six teams in action. All told, MW teams went 10-3 since the last time we did this, with two of those three losses coming at the hands of a sneaky good Denver team. The other loss was TCU getting blown out at USC, but aside from that game, MW teams scored wins over teams from the Big Ten (UNLV over Illinois) and the Big 12 (New Mexico over Oklahoma State), bringing the conference’s record on the year against teams from BCS conferences to 15-8.
Team of the Week
UNLV – Let’s not overthink this; the Runnin’ Rebels are the Mountain West team of the week on the strength of posting the best win of the week, a 64-48 thumping of previously undefeated Illinois in an anything-but-neutral site game in Chicago. Combined with a sluggish win over UTEP and a by-the-numbers slog over Louisiana-Monroe, UNLV, ranked #20 in this week’s RTC Top 25, improved to 12-2 on the season. And, even better, in the win Monday over ULM, they picked up another weapon, as point guard Reggie Smith, a transfer from Marquette, got his first minutes of the season after becoming eligible at the semester break. He played just nine minutes, but hit a three-pointer, grabbed a couple offensive rebounds and handed out an assist (we’ll overlook the three turnovers for today) in his first action.
Anthony Marshall, Brice Massamba And The Rest Of The Runnin' Rebels Notched A Big Win Over Illinois This Past Weekend (photo credit: Sam Morris, Las Vegas Sun)
Player of the Week and Newcomer of the Week
Hugh Greenwood, Fr, New Mexico –The freshman from Australia has earned his accolades this season mainly by not turning the ball over, admittedly a great characteristic for a point guard to have. Five different times this season he has played at least 25 minutes in a game without a single turnover, and his 3.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is 19th in the nation among players with 20 or more assists. But this weekend, in the Lobos win over Oklahoma State, Greenwood showed that he can also be called upon to score in the clutch when needed. After UNM had given up a 13-point 2nd half lead to allow OSU to take a one-point lead, Greenwood sparked a 14-3 run to close out the win for his squad, scoring eight points (including a couple of threes), grabbing two rebounds and snatching a steal over that stretch. After four years of Dairese Gary being the floor general in The Pit, Greenwood is well on his way to living up to that precedent.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences and a microsite staffer for the Pac-12.
A Look Back
While a couple Mountain West teams took their lumps early in the week, the weekend was an unabashed success for the teams at the top of the conference, clearly highlighted by UNLV knocking off the nation’s #1 team, North Carolina, at the Las Vegas Invitational Saturday night. In the process, and with preseason co-favorite New Mexico struggling to find its stride early, the Runnin’ Rebels have grasped the mantle of sole favorite in the conference. The Lobos lost their second game of the season on Thanksgiving night, dropping an overtime game to Santa Clara at the 76 Classic, but they rebounded to sweep through an unimpressive consolation bracket in that tournament. And San Diego State confirmed the fact that they are, in fact, a contender not only for an NCAA Tournament bid, but a league title, despite losing the bulk of last year’s Sweet Sixteen team. While there are some other solid teams among the rest of the conference, these three have risen to the top as the cream of the conference, but the strength and depth of the conference can be seen in the MW’s collective 39-10 record (second in the nation behind only the Big Ten’s 63-10 record) including a 3-0 record against the ACC and a 6-2 record against the Pac-12.
Team of the Week
UNLV – Last week the Rebels probably should have been the pick here, but in the interest of mixing things up, I went with Boise State. This week Dave Rice’s team leaves no other option. Not only did the Rebels beat the #1 team in the country, they handled them pretty well, winning 90-80, outrebounding the vaunted Tar Heel front line (31.7 OR%, 78.6 DR%) and knocking down 13 threes (spread out over five players) to seal the deal. Last year at this time, the Rebels were coming off of an impressive championship performance at the 76 Classic, but were never really able to capture the energy they showed that weekend the rest of the season. It remains to be seen if this vintage of the Rebels has a staying power that last year’s team did not.
Player of the Week
Mike Moser, Sophomore, UNLV – Much like the TOTW award, Moser could have and probably should have taken down this award last week. This week, no such slight as he averaged 13.3 points and 13 rebounds per game, and stepped up his game even another notch in the UNC upset when he had 16 points, 18 boards, added six assists and even dropped in his first two three-pointers of the season (although, his shot selection may be one area he could still stand to work on). With his long arms, freaky athletic ability and feel for the game, you can expect to see his name here again this year.
Game of the Past Week
San Diego State 76 UC Santa Barbara 75 (OT) – The Aztecs traveled north to Santa Barbara to face a formidable foe Saturday night and needed a late 11-0 run in regulation to eventually force overtime, then an improbable ending to seal the victory in overtime. SDSU head coach Steve Fisher was the Michigan coach when Chris Webber infamously called a timeout that his team didn’t have in the waning moments of a national championship game. On Saturday night, Fisher’s Aztecs were on the receiving end of a similar play. With SDSU up three and the clock under ten seconds, UCSB’s Orlando Johnson lost control of the ball near midcourt. After Johnson recovered the ball in a scramble, an unidentified Gaucho called for timeout; unfortunately for them, they had just used their final timeout minutes before. Jamaal Franklin sank one of two technical free throws, effectively sealing what had been a great back and forth game. Point guard Xavier Thames had his best game as an Aztec, going for 20 points, ten rebounds and six assuists, while UCSB’s Johnson had 26 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Games of the Upcoming Week
Creighton @ San Diego State, 11/30, California @ San Diego State, 12/4 – The Aztecs stretch of incredibly tough non-conference opponents wraps up this week with visits from the favorites of the Missouri Valley and the Pac-12 conferences. By the end of the week, SDSU will have played six top-75 teams (according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings), and if they can continue the success they’ve had in the opening weeks of the season, they could earn serious consideration for a national ranking. Creighton’s sophomore wing Doug McDermott leads a Blue Jay team that is #1 in the country in effective field goal percentage, and the Aztecs defense will have to take a big step forward to slow down that offensive attack on Wednesday. Then on Saturday, the Golden Bears backcourt duo of Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez will be pitted against SDSU’s backcourt in a battle of the two team’s strengths.
Fun Stat of the Week
In honor not only of UNLV’s 13 three-pointers in their win over UNC on Saturday, but also of the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the three-point shot to the college game, it is worth noting that the Rebels hold the NCAA record for consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer, with 812 games. The Rebels are joined by Vanderbilt and Princeton as the only three teams in the country who have made at least one three-point field goal in every game since the rule was implemented, but since the Rebels have played more games than the other two schools, they currently hold the record.
Runnin' Rebels Fans Participated In An RTC-Approved Court Storm Saturday Night After UNLV Toppled #1 North Carolina.
1. UNLV (7-0): Okay, I’ve made it this far without bragging about the fact that I had UNLV hanging tough with UNC in the LVI final, several days before the matchup was even official and then again after the win over USC was final. Well, enough fake humility. Now that’s out of the way; more details from the upset over UNC. First, senior forward Chace Stanback set a career-high with 28 points and added ten revounds, a breakout performance for the team’s leading returning scorer who had been almost invisible the previous night (four points, two rebounds in 17 minutes against USC). Second, Oscar Bellfield was brilliant, scoring 16 points, knocking down four threes and handing out nine assists in what may have been the best game of his UNLV career; if he can continue that type of play, this Rebel team has got a bright future. Third, the three-headed center of Brice Massamba, Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez was solid if unspectacular against the future pros along the Tar Heel front line – the three combined for 14 points, nine rebounds and a couple blocks, while deftly using 11 of their 15 fouls in 44 minutes of action. And finally:
A Look Ahead: Tough week for the Rebels, especially in the penumbra of the North Carolina victory; the team travels to UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday night (and RTC Live will be courtside there) and heads to Wichita State on Sunday.
2.San Diego State (7-1): It’s important to remember what the Aztecs are missing from last year’s Sweet 16 team. First, NBA lottery pick and freak-of-nature Kawhi Leonard’s double-double and lock down defense are gone. Senior forwards Billy White and Malcolm Thomas (21.7 highly efficient points and 12.5 rebounds between them) are also gone. And floor general-supreme and master of the clutch hoop, D.J. Gay, also gone. The only two returnees who played significant roles for last year’s club – Chase Tapley and James Rahon – were merely low-usage role players. This year, however, Tapley has stepped up and taken over not only a leadership position on this team, but also the role as go-to scorer. He has attempted double-digit field goals in six of the Aztecs first eight games, scored in double figures in the same number of games and done so while knocking down exactly half of his 46 three-point attempts to this point. Rahon hasn’t been quite so lucky yet, as an ankle injury kept him out of SDSU’s first three games and he has yet to really hit his stride yet. The three-point specialist did post a career-high 20 in the win over Long Beach State, but he’s struggled with his stroke from deep, hitting just three of his 20 attempts thus far.
A look ahead: We detailed the Aztecs’ tough stretch at home above in our Game of the Week section, but after this week, SDSU takes a significant step down in the remainder of its non-conference schedule, with games against Division III and NAIA teams mixed in with ho-hummers against Big West and WCC also-rans.
3. New Mexico (4-2): It hasn’t really been the start that New Mexico fans expected. The loss to in-state rival New Mexico State? Okay, it’s a hard-fought rivalry game; anything can happen. You can write off a loss there with any number of excuses or explanations. But the 76 Classic opening round loss to Santa Clara? That one was inexcusable. Defensive problems were exposed in that game (notably the fact that as athletic as Kendall Williams is, he had no chance chasing SCU’s Kevin Foster off multiple screens every possession), but give the Lobos credit – their defense looked better in the final two games of that competition, albeit against lesser competition. Further, the New Mexico offense showed signs of coming into its own, with freshman Hugh Greenwood clamping down the point guard position that he’ll likely hold for the next four years with a three-game, zero-turnover performance over the weekend. Moreover sophomore wing Tony Snell continued his vastly improved play, hitting 18 of 32 field goals (and 12/24 threes) on his way to a stellar weekend. Williams and Drew Gordon, the established stars on this club, still have yet to really get comfortable out there, but with Greenwood running the offense smoothly and Snell giving opposing defenses a third scoring option to worry about, expect the Lobo big guns to have a bit more room to operate.
A look ahead: A visit from Idaho State on Wednesday precedes a tough matchup in the MW/MVC challenge on Saturday when Missouri State visits Albuquerque.
4. Boise State (4-1): The Broncos got brought back down to earth a bit on Tuesday with a ten-point road loss at Long Beach State, but given that the 49ers are a high-caliber opponent, there is no shame in that loss for BSU. The Broncos bounced back Saturday with a 14-point win over Northern Illinois, and the trend of new players stepping up every night for head coach Leon Rice continued as sophomore guard Jeff Elorriaga went for 14 points on the night. Offensively, Elorriaga is nothing but a bomber. On the year he has attempted 20 field goals; 18 of those (and all six of his makes on the year) were from behind the arc. Kenny Buckner, a bruising jucotransfer, also picked things up this week, posting a season-high 14 points in the loss to LBSU. Buckner provides a good presence in the middle for the perimeter-oriented Broncos, averaging 5.4 rebounds in 18.8 minutes on the season.
A look ahead: The Broncos host a couple of MVC opponents this week, with Drake coming in on Wednesday night before Indiana State visits on Saturday. The latter game is the only official part of the MW/MVC Challenge.
5. Air Force (3-1): The Falcons only played one game this past week – a 76-73 overtime loss to Colorado – but they’ll hold on to the #5 spot this week, if only because, you know the Pac-12 is so strong that a loss to one of its member institutions is no big deal, right? Anyway, Michael Lyons continued his sparkling start to the season by going for 31 points, seven rebounds and three steals in the losing effort. Junior Todd Fletcher continued his solid play at the point by handing out six assists in the game; he’s had at least six assists in every game this season against Division I competition. And junior center Taylor Broekhuis has shown that as long as he can stay out of foul trouble (which he did not do in the Falcons’ season opener against Army) he can provide a strong interior presence for the Academy.
A look ahead: It’s another slow week for the Falcons, with only a trip to Des Moines on Saturday for a matchup with Drake ahead.
6. Wyoming (6-1): The Cowboys have lost the toughest game they’ve played this year – a road trip to face Green Bay, a team that is just 2-4 on the year – and have beaten no one of consequence (they’re best win is over Northern Colorado, another 2-4 team). But the mere fact that the Cowboys are beating these teams is an accomplishment. Last year, Wyoming lost to Northern Colorado by 14, to North Florida by 16 and to South Dakota by ten. While this team may not have the talent to measure up with the big boys at the top of the league, at the very least they are competing under new head coach Larry Shyatt. This week it was redshirt junior guard Luke Martinez, who misses all of last season with a broken elbow, who led the way, averaging 17 points per night and knocking down 16 out of 26 three-pointers in the Jim Thorpe Classic round-robin tournament in Laramie. Fellow guard Francisco Cruz pitched in with three consecutive double-figure games, while freshman forward Larry Nance, Jr. (does that name ring a bell?) had his best game of his young career on Saturday with nine rebounds and four steals, although his offensive game is still not quite ready for primetime. Also worth noting is that JayDee Luster, who struggled to take care of the ball under previous head coach Heath Schroyer, has handed out 26 assists this season while only turning it over three times.
A look ahead: Utah Valley on Wednesday won’t raise the bar much, and a visit from a poor Bradley team in the MW/MVC Challenge on Saturday means the Cowboys have a good chance to get to 8-1 before they face Colorado on 12/9.
7. Colorado State (4-2): The Rams won both of their games this week, but the fact remains that the team’s best win was in the opener over an average Montana team. With no real producers on this team over 6’6”, this team is going to go as far as its backcourt triumvirate of Wes Eikmeier, Jesse Carr and Dorian Green will take it. This week, in close wins over Texas-San Antonio and Manhattan in the NIT Season Tip-Off consolation bracket, Eikmeier and Green were strong, each scoring in double figures in both games (Eikmeier 20.5 PPG this week, Green 16 PPG). None of the three guards are true lead guards, but all share the duties at point; the problem is that none of the three are great at creating opportunities for teammates. Up front, Greg Smith and Will Bell are hard workers (the two combined to average 18.8 PPG and 10.5 RPG), but they could get overpowered even by a relatively small frontcourt like SDSU’s.
A look ahead: The Rams will get a couple of good tests this week, with Colorado visiting on Wednesday, followed by a trip to Northern Iowa on Saturday.
8. TCU (4-2): After a strong opening win in the Paradise Jam, the Horned Frogs dropped their final two games, with Ole Miss sending the team back home with an 11-point loss. But they bounced back on Saturday with an exciting one-point win at Houston. After Houston took a one-point lead with six seconds left, senior wing J.R. Cadot rebounded his own miss and scored with under a second left to give TCU their fourth win on the year. The 6’5” Cadot has taken it upon himself to hit the glass with abandon this season, leading the team in rebounds and generating offense for an team without a lot of offensive options by crashing the offensive boards. Juco transfer Adrick McKinney has also been helping out on the glass and while this is still a relatively undertalented team, head coach Jim Christian is getting the most out of the players he does have.
A look ahead: Lamar visits Fort Worth on Wednesday, with a trip to Evansville lined up on Saturday.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences and a Pac-12 microsite writer.
Reader’s Take I
A Look Back
Coming into the season, New Mexico and UNLV were the clear favorites to be the class of the conference this season, with the other six teams in the conference were littered with question marks. After a little more than a week of the regular season, UNLV has more than lived up to expectations while New Mexico has already stumbled once (to in-state rival New Mexico State) and has generally looked shaky at best. Around the rest of the conference, San Diego State has been the most active, already completing six games and losing only a road game to Baylor, RTC’s #11 team in the country. TCU pulled off a big surprise with a win over Virginia in the Paradise Jam (nevermind the fact that it backed up that breakthrough with a loss to Norfolk State). Air Force is undefeated through three games, sweeping the All-Military Classic with wins over Army and Virginia Military. And then, there’s our team of the week, below.
Team of the Week
Boise State – All apologies to UNLV, who has looked excellent in its four games so far, but the nod here goes to the Broncos, who have impressed in their first three games as members of the Mountain West. They’ve played nobody of note, but at least they’ve handled those three teams (Colorado Christian, Utah and Cal State Northridge) with ease, winning the three games by an average of 38 points per outing. Despite replacing three starters with a roster chock-full of newcomers, BSU has had three different players lead the team in scoring in its three games, and it has had seven different players score in double figures at least once. They’ve got bigger tests ahead (starting tonight with a trip to Long Beach State), but they have sure started well.
Player of the Week
Chase Tapley, Junior, San Diego State – There are a lot of possibilities here, including Tapley’s sophomore teammate Jamaal Franklin who has been outstanding, but we will go with Tapley for his across-the-board production and efficiency. In six games, Tapley has averaged 16.5 points per game, while contributing nearly five rebounds a night, 2.5 assists per outing and more than three steals a night, all while shooting 47.8% from the field and 53.1% from three-point range. In the Aztecs lone loss, it was Tapley who kept them in shouting distance, posting a career-high 28 points while hitting eight of his ten three-point attempts in their loss to Baylor.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences; he is also a staffer on the Pac-12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @AMurawa.
Reader’s Take I
Tectonic Shifts in the MW: As the landscape of college sports continues to shift, the Mountain West continues to change. This year, the conference is without BYU and Utah for the first time in its history. Aside from the fact that the state of Utah was sort of the center of the conference for many years, the impact on the basketball side of things cannot be overstated. In the 12 years that the two schools were a part of the conference, they won five outright regular season titles between them and twice shared the regular season title. TCU will join the two Utah schools as ex-MW members after this year when it joins the Big 12.
Temporary Fixes? As old schools depart, new schools come in. Boise State joins the conference this season, although there are already rumors that its stay may be short-lived, as other conferences including the Big 12 and the Big East, woo the Broncos. Fresno State and Nevada are due to join the conference in 2012-13, but as the ground continues to move under the feet of college athletics, one never knows what changes will come next.
Scheduling: With just eight conference teams this year, each team will play just 14 conference games. So while the Pac-12 and Big Ten and other major conferences are kicking off games against their conference rivals on or before New Year’s, MW schools will wait until the middle of January to get into conference play, filling the interim with games against schools like Johnson & Wales, Texas-Pan American, Nebraska-Omaha, Houston Baptist, San Diego Christian and Utah Valley. This is not a good thing for a conference, not a good thing for the fans, and not a good thing for college basketball.
Changes On The Sidelines: Aside from having a new team in the conference, we’ve got a couple returning teams with new coaches. The most high profile coaching change comes at UNLV with Lon Kruger gone for Oklahoma, and Dave Rice, the former associate head coach under Dave Rose at BYU, returning to Vegas where he played and served as an assistant under Jerry Tarkanian. The other coaching change is at Wyoming, where Larry Shyatt returns to town after spending the last several years as the associate head coach at Florida.
Drew Gordon Looks to Lead New Mexico to a Mountain West Title
New Favorites. Last year, it was more or less a two-horse race for the conference title between BYU and San Diego State. This year, there is no BYU and SDSU has graduated its four most important players. As a result, it looks to be two new horses who head the pack in search of a conference title with UNLV and New Mexico far and away the favorites. In the MW preseason basketball poll, the Lobos got 22 of the 26 first place votes from the media, with the Rebels snagging the other four. Those two schools also dominated the all-conference team selections, each putting two players on the list.
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Mountain West correspondent, Andrew Murawa.
Reader’s Take I
A New Look League: In the aftermath of last summer’s conference shake-ups, the Mountain West is a slimmer volume this year than last, and will look even different next year. Last year’s regular season champion, BYU, is off to pursue football independence, with membership in the West Coast Conference for basketball and some other sports a byproduct of that decision. Secondly, Utah jumped at the opportunity to become a member of the new Pac-12 conference. In the 12 years in which the two Utah schools were a part of the MWC (okay, since its unveiling of their new logo in July, the league office wants the conference to be abbreviated as MW, rather than MWC, and we’ll try to do that from here on), they won a combined five outright regular season titles between them (BYU three, Utah two) and twice shared the regular season titles. However, the MW did not sit idly by and let its conference dissolve when the Utah schools left. It snapped up Boise State to give the Mountain West eight teams in the 2011-12 campaign, with Fresno State and Nevada due to join in 2012-13 just as TCU departs for the Big East. In the long run, the three losses are bigger than the three additions, but the newcomers are strong enough to keep the MW chugging along.
Coaching Shuffle: We knew heading into the offseason that there would be at least one new coach in the conference, as Wyoming pulled the trigger on firing Heath Schroyer during the middle of the conference season. In late March they announced the hiring of Larry Shyatt, an associate head coach at Florida, back for his second stint as the head man in Laramie. But when Lon Kruger announced a day later that he had accepted the head coaching job at Oklahoma, arguably the most attractive job in the conference opened up at UNLV. Ten days later, UNLV announced the hiring of Dave Rice, most recently the associate head coach to Dave Rose at BYU, but previously a player and assistant coach under Jerry Tarkanian in Vegas. With Rice’s brother, Grant Rice, the head coach at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High – not coincidentally the high school of 2012 top ten recruit Shabazz Muhammad – the hiring opens further inroads for the Rebels with local recruits. To tie everything up in a nice little bundle, Schroyer was hired by Rice as one of his new assistants, along with former Rebel star Stacey Augmon and former SDSU assistant Justin Hutson.
Transfer Hotbed: Every year, the Mountain West seems to be the landing spot for some big transfers, guys who have struggled in their first stop in a BCS conference and who are ready to start over a rung down the ladder. UCLA as a feeder school for the conference is a well-worn path, having sent Chace Stanback to UNLV and Drew Gordon to New Mexico in recent years. This year, another former Bruin will be active in the MW, with forward Mike Moser joining Stanback in Las Vegas for the Rebels. No less than five other former-Pac-10 players will show up on MW rosters this season, with Drew Wiley (formerly of Oregon) joining Boise State, Demetrius Walker (formerly of Arizona State) joining New Mexico, and Xavier Thames (formerly of Washington State) joining San Diego State, all of whom will be eligible this season. Arizona’s Daniel Bejarano and USC’s Bryce Jones also announced transfers to Colorado State and UNLV, respectively, but neither will be eligible until the 2012-13 season. UNLV also welcomes former Marquette point Reggie Smith to compete with incumbent point guard Oscar Bellfield this season, while CSU inked former Minnesota center Colton Iverson, eligible in 2012-13. Then there’s the Aztecs, who signed Utah transfer J.J. O’Brien and St. John’s transfer Dwayne Polee. While O’Brien will sit out a year, Polee, who attended Los Angeles’ Westchester High, has applied for a hardship waiver, given that his mom is suffering from an undisclosed medical condition. While these waivers aren’t often granted, if it happens in this case, Polee could be a big boost for the Aztecs’ 2011-12 hopes.
Steve Fisher maxed out an experienced team in 2011, but will need former role players to step up this season. (Kent Horner/Getty Images)