CIO…the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on January 2nd, 2013

CIO header

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Looking Back

It’s been two weeks since we last caught up with the teams of the Mountain West, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on. All three of our favorites in the conference (San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico) have taken losses since we last did this, but at the same time, each of them has a quality win mixed in there as well. Meanwhile, the next tier of teams – Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State – have all been blemish-free over the past two weeks. It still appears there is a drop-off between the top three and the next three, but it remains to be seen just how far that drop is. We’ve got one more week of some pretty uninspiring non-conference games before conference play tips off and we start to get some answers to our outstanding questions.

We’ve also been keeping our eye on a situation off the court, as the conference realignment shuffle continues. On New Year’s Eve, it was reported that Boise State would wisely back out of its agreement to join the rapidly dwindling football Big East and remain in the Mountain West. With Boise sticking around, suddenly San Diego State, which had been steadfast in its intentions to stick with the move to the Big East, decided it too wanted to stick around, but the Mountain West, apparently fed up with SDSU’s foot-dragging prior to that, isn’t exactly jumping back into the relationship. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reports that the MW is poking around to see if there are other schools who would be a better fit with the conference. In the end, perhaps the only thing that would keep SDSU out of the conference would be if the MW is able to persuade BYU to rejoin. In an ideal world from a basketball perspective, both of those schools would rejoin, which would bring the conference up to 12 basketball teams next year, but that would also bring the football total to 13, probably one too many. If it is a choice between BYU and SDSU, though, the Cougars are the slam dunk choice.

After A Serious Fling With The Big East, The Mountain West Conference Has Acquiesced To Boise State's Demands (BSU Athletics)

After A Serious Fling With The Big East, The Mountain West Conference Has Acquiesced To Boise State’s Demands (BSU Athletics)

All of this was made possible when CBS allowed the conference to restructure its television agreement, allowing the conference to sell games to other national networks. It should be noted that the MW did have to cave to a pretty significant request wherein Boise State’s home football games will not be a part of the conference’s television rights contracts, allowing the school to sell those games themselves. Further, Boise will still owe some sort of buyout to the Big East for their change of heart (provided such an entity still exists to pay that buyout) and the Mountain West has agreed to chip in some amount to help Boise make that payment (rest assured that such an arrangement will not be made with SDSU). While this works out for the time being in keeping the conference together and perhaps even persuading BYU to rejoin, this sort of concession to one school at the exclusion of others is the exact type of thing that drove Nebraska and Texas A&M out of the Big 12. It remains to be seen if this type of move is sustainable, but, if everything works out for the best, we could be heading back to a MW basketball slate that still features SDSU, UNLV, BYU and New Mexico as its flagship programs. It the realm of unintended consequences, is quite possible that the Big East’s Catholic Seven defection could go a long ways towards rescuing another great basketball conference.

Reader’s Take

 

Team of the Week

Colorado State – The Rams swept to an impressive win in the Las Vegas Classic tournament just in advance of Christmas, winning four games in a week and capping that run off with a 36-point blowout of Virginia Tech in the championship game. They backed that up with a workmanlike 25-point win against Adams State this past weekend. We still don’t know just how good this team is after they’ve been completely remade from a guard-dominated team to one that relies on crashing the boards, and they still haven’t been tested much, but CSU fans have good reason to suspect that this iteration of the Rams is even better than last year’s tournament team.

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The Other 26: The Mountain West Enters the Spotlight

Posted by IRenko on December 29th, 2012

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

The action was light during this past holiday week, but the Mountain West’s finest took advantage of the lull to thrust themselves into the spotlight with two exciting contests, a pair of one-point games against top 10 teams decided by last-second blocks. In the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, San Diego State fell just short against third-ranked Arizona, losing 68-67 when Xavier Thames’ potential winning shot was blocked by Arizona’s Nick Johnson as time expired. Two days later, New Mexico visited eighth-ranked Cincinnati and emerged with a hard-fought 55-54 victory that was sealed by a last-second block from sophomore Alex Kirk. What was most impressive about these hard-fought contests is how both teams showed that even if you take away some of their key weapons, they are deep and versatile enough to compete.

(Getty Images)

Alex Kirk Led a Tough New Mexico Performance Against Cincinnati (Getty Images)

The Lobos distinguished themselves not just with a victory, but the way they earned it. They are accustomed to racking up points at the free throw line, but reached the charity stripe at only a 20 percent rate, far below their season average and good enough for just six points. But they gritted out the win by patiently moving the ball against Cincy’s high-pressure halfcourt defense to find open shooters and cutters. Junior point guard Kendall Williams turned in a performance befitting of a team leader, stepping up to hit several big three-pointers and finishing the game with a team-high 16 points. But it was Kirk who set the tone with his lunch bucket performance, fearlessly hurling himself into battle against Cincinnati’s imposing frontline and surviving with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, and three blocks, including a game-clinching rejection of a Sean Kilpatrick three-point shot.

The Aztecs, too, can be proud of the fight they showed in Honolulu despite coming up short. Leading scorer Jamaal Franklin was held to just nine points, his lowest output of the season.  But Franklin found other ways to contribute, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out six assists. And San Diego State found other players to carry the scoring load. Chase Tapley, who had already poured in 46 points in the first two games of the tournament, dropped 19 against Arizona to push his season scoring average to 15.8 PPG. And the Aztecs showed how strong their defense is, holding the Wildcats to 37.3 percent shooting.

This Saturday, UNLV will have a chance to intensify this week’s spotlight on the Mountain West when they travel to North Carolina. In a year when the conference seems as deep as any in the country, the only lingering doubt heading into this past week was whether they had the heavyweights to compete with the nation’s best teams. But as the final week of non-conference play comes to a close, the conference’s top teams are leaving little doubt that they can.

Top Ten Rankings

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Set Your DVR: Weekend Edition

Posted by bmulvihill on November 30th, 2012

Brendon Mulvihill is the head curator for @SportsGawker and an RTC contributor. You can find him @TheMulv on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

Many of the power conference teams hit the road for the very first time this weekend, so we should start to get a real sense of where teams stand early in the season. With a little less college football going on this weekend, you should make some time to catch a few games. Let’s get to the breakdowns.

Tennessee at #16 Georgetown – 6:30 PM EST, Friday on ESPN (****)

John Thompson III Has His Hoyas Exceeding Expectations (Getty)

  • Tennessee heads to Georgetown for its first true road game of the season. Like many of the games this past week in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and now the Big East/SEC Challenge, we are going to get a true indication of where a lot of teams stand. While the Vols are 4-1, they lost their toughest test against Oklahoma State. They face a Geogetown team that is extremely long. The Hoyas start four players who are at least 6’8”, while the “shortest” player, 6’2” guard Michael Starks, is their leading scorer. Look for the Hoyas to take advantage of their size and shoot a lot within the paint. Georgetown currently shoots 56% from inside the arc while the Vols rank 106th in the country in two-point defense. Also, keep a close eye on free throws. With this game looking like it’s going to take place inside the arc, free throws will be a key to victory. The Hoyas are struggling to get to the line and it caught up with them in their recent overtime loss to Indiana. On the other hand, Tennessee is ranked in the top 25 nationally in free throw rate. The team that gets to the line more and sinks its free throws should be the winner in this contest.

Baylor at #8 Kentucky – 12:30 PM EST, Saturday on CBS (****)

  • Kentucky and Baylor are two teams in desperate need of a good win. Kentucky is coming off a beating on the road at the hands of Notre Dame. As coach John Calipari discussed in many of his preseason press conferences, the Wildcats are not consistent on offense or defense. As soon as you think they are coming together, they lay an egg and shoot 40% against ND. Baylor is also struggling to find an identity outside of “The Pierre Jackson Show.” While Jackson’s play has been mostly excellent, it does not seem to be working particularly well with recent losses to Colorado and College of Charleston. Kentucky will be tough to beat at home but they need better consistency on both ends of the court. They should be able to shoot the ball against a struggling Baylor defense, particularly from downtown. If the Wildcats can get back in the long-ball groove, they should win at home for the 56th straight time under Calipari.

#18 Oklahoma State at Virginia Tech 2:00 PM EST, Saturday on ESPN3 (****)

  • While Oklahoma State lost to Virginia Tech last year in a close contest and will play a true road game for the first time this year, the Cowboys have not been tested so far this season. More importantly, they have responded with drubbings of Tennessee and North Carolina State. For the Hokies, OSU is by far their toughest opponent to date. The Cowboys have been winning with solid defense. Opponents have been held to 36.3% from two and an overall eFG% of 39.8%. Typically, you may take these stats with a grain of salt given the competition, but Travis Ford’s team has played a strong schedule thus far. The match-up you should keep a close eye on is the Cowboy defense versus Virginia Tech guard Erick Green. The 6’3” Green is averaging 24.3 points per game thus far, and Ford will counter with a trio of big guards in 6’7” LeBryan Nash, 6’4” Marcus Smart, and 6’3” Markel Brown. Do not expect Green to hit for two dozen against the Pokes. If he does, Virginia Tech will be in good shape. Finally, watch the Hokies on the offensive glass. They currently rank 314th in the country in offensive rebounding rate against a fairly soft schedule. It’s not going to be easy for coach James Johnson’s squad to hit their shots, so he needs them to grab offensive boards desperately. If they don’t, look for the Cowboys to win in Blacksburg.

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Set Your DVR: Opening Weekend

Posted by bmulvihill on November 9th, 2012

Brendon Mulvihill is the head curator for @SportsGawker and an RTC contributor. You can find him @themulv on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

The college basketball season is finally here! This season Set Your DVR (ed. note: sadly, nobody has TiVos anymore) will be a twice-weekly column outlining the must-see games for the upcoming week and weekend.  This column will lay out the key factors in each game to focus on and how those factors could affect the outcome. It’s a military-themed weekend of hoops with three games taking place on aircraft carriers and one game taking place at a military base located across the Atlantic Ocean.  Let’s get to the breakdowns.

Game of the Weekend

#16 San Diego State vs. #5 Syracuse – 4:00 PM EST, 11/11/12 on FSN HD (*****)

Jim Boeheim takes the Orange to the USS Midway to take on San Diego State

  • The USS Midway provides the backdrop for an exciting opener between Syracuse and San Diego State. SDSU returns four starters including Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin as well as Chase Tapley, James Rahon, and Xavier Thomas. Keep a close eye on the match-up between the Aztec guards and Syracuse point guard Brandon Triche. Triche is taking over for Scoop Jardine and faces a tough test against this crew. Steve Fisher’s squad will have to improve in two areas if they are going to start beating top-tier programs like Syracuse – shooting and offensive rebounding. The Aztecs grabbed only 30.8% of their offensive rebound opportunities last season, so if they are only going to hit 33% of their three-point attempts and 49.8% of their two-point attempts like they did in 2011-12, it’s going to be difficult to beat the best teams in the country. Watch to see if transfers Dwayne Polee II and J.J. O’Brien can help the Aztecs grab more of those missed shots.
  • After losing four starters to graduation and the NBA Draft, Syracuse is in a much different place than SDSU. Jim Boeheim’s ability to fill the talent void will be a key factor in determining if this Orange team can beat an experienced Aztec team. The ‘Cuse returns two significant contributors from last year’s team – C.J. Fair and Triche. Both players need to improve their sub-50% eFG in order to prevent the team from taking a step backwards.  The key to the Orange’s success in this game and in the future, however, may be 6’8” senior forward James Southerland. In a somewhat limited role last year, Southerland put up some impressive shooting numbers from inside the arc. Keep a close eye on Southerland’s ability to take advantage of his size inside the three-point line. Syracuse will also be able to throw additional size at the Aztecs with 6’9” sophomore Rakeem Christmas, 6’10” junior Baye Keita, and 6’7” 275 lb. wide-body freshman, DaJuan Coleman. Read the rest of this entry »
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The Big East’s Top 25 (or so) Non-Conference Games of 2012-13

Posted by Dan Lyons on November 9th, 2012

While Big East basketball is always a spectacle, this conference season has even more added juice with the impending departures of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and (eventually) Notre Dame.  However, before we get to conference games, the Big East is involved in some really intriguing non-conference games this season. Big East teams will be playing all over the United States, Germany, and on a few aircraft carriers. Let’s take a look at the best that the Big East has to offer in the non-conference slate this season.

Syracuse and San Diego State tip off the season on the deck of the USS Midway this Sunday (AP)

25. Pittsburgh v. Oakland, November 17, 7 PM

The Panthers have a rather light non-conference slate this season, but don’t expect them to look past the Golden Grizzlies. Oakland has a history of playing tough schedules, and won’t be intimidated by the Zoo. Oakland is coming off of a bit of a down year in 2011-12 when they finished 20-16 (11-7), but made the NCAA Tournament in both 2009-10, when they were knocked out in the first round by Pittsburgh, and 2010-11.

24. DePaul @ Auburn, November 30, 9 PM

Look for DePaul to try to do the conference proud when they head down to take on the Auburn Tigers as part of the SEC-Big East Challenge. This DePaul squad should be better than it has been in years past, returning dynamic forward Cleveland Melvin and dangerous guard Brandon Young.  Auburn is coming off of a poor 15-16 season, and could be ripe for a big non-conference road win for the Blue Demons.

23. Rutgers v. Iona, Madison Square Garden, December 8, 9:30 PM

One of these New York metropolitan-area teams is coming off of a great season that ended in a heartbreaking NCAA tournament loss to BYU. The other is continually striving to build its program, and aspires to have such success.  It almost seems backwards that Iona is the more accomplished team at the moment, but isn’t that what makes college basketball so great? A big performance by the Scarlet Knights at the Garden could go a long way in setting the tone for a run at a tournament berth in the Big East.

22. St. John’s v. Detroit, November 13, 2 PM

The Johnnies tip off their season against a very dangerous Detroit squad led by superstar Ray McCallum. St. John’s has a number of impressive young players themselves, and head coach Steve Lavin will return to the sideline after battling cancer last season. While many look forward to what should be a fun match-up between McCallum and D’Angelo Harrison, the St. John’s star was recently benched in the team’s final exhibition for disciplinary reasons. If Lavin continues to have issues with his top guard, it could prove very problematic for the Red Storm next week.

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2012-13 RTC Conference Primers: Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on November 6th, 2012

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and a Pac-12 microsite writer. You can occasionally find him on Twitter at @Amurawa.

Top Storylines

  • Major Mountain? No one is going to confuse the Mountain West with the ACC or the Big East, but fans of this conference are getting used to the fact that its best teams are regularly relevant on the national scene. In the past three years, while a conference like the Pac-12 has been fortunate to get a mere eight NCAA Tournament bids, the MW has earned 11, more than any other non-BCS league. Two seasons ago there were a pair of Sweet Sixteen performances and a national sensation in Jimmer Fredette, while this year suggests the chance at success approaching that magical year, with two teams – UNLV and San Diego State – ranked in the top 20 of the recently released USA Today preseason poll and a couple more teams in the “others receiving votes” category.
  • New, new, new. One of the reasons for the MW’s continued success has been the ability of the conference, and its member institutions, to roll with the rapid changes in the basketball landscape. That’s reflected this season in a pair of new teams in the league – Fresno State and Nevada climb aboard while TCU drops out – as well as a host of new impact players. Aside from four ESPN top 100 freshmen this season (including the #7 prospect, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett), the conference welcomes in a handful of Division I transfers, like Khem Birch (UNLV, via Pitt), James Johnson (SDSU, via Virginia), J.J. O’Brien (SDSU, via Utah), Dwayne Polee (SDSU, via St. John’s) and Colton Iverson (Colorado State, via Minnesota), who are expected to make big impacts this season.
  • More television exposure? Last year’s MW television schedule featured seven regular season games on the ESPN family of networks, and one game on CBS. Of course, 91 other regular season games were televised on other national cable networks of one kind or another. But, with the shuttering of The Mtn., the conference’s cable network, this year’s television schedule is quite different. As far as national exposure on the big boy channels, things aren’t going to change much, with six conference appearances on ESPN networks. To make matters worse, instead of having every regular season conference game televised, channels like CBS Sports Network, NBC Sports Network on the Time Warner Cable Sportsnet will pick and choose MW games. All told, just 53 games features MW conference teams are scheduled for television on a national cable network, with 21 of those headed to the TWC channel which currently sports limited distribution.

Reader’s Take I

 

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. San Diego State (12-4)
  2. UNLV (11-5)
  3. New Mexico (11-5)
  4. Colorado State (9-7)
  5. Nevada (8-8)
  6. Air Force (6-10)
  7. Wyoming (6-10)
  8. Fresno State (5-11)
  9. Boise State (4-12)
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RTC Summer School: Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on August 14th, 2012

Over the next couple of week’s we’ll be checking in with each of the high mid-major leagues as to their mid-summer offseason status. Up next: the Mountain West.

Drew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference. You can also find his musings on Twitter @amurawa.

Three Summer Storylines

  • Tectonic Movement Continues. For the second straight year, the landscape of the MW shifts. Last year it was BYU and Utah heading off to greener pastures with Boise State landing in their place. This year TCU is on its way out the door with Fresno State and Nevada on their way in. And next year Boise State and San Diego State will depart with San Jose State and Utah State coming in. All in all, this will still be a good basketball conference even after all these moving parts settle, but the loss of a rapidly improving Aztec program will be tough for MW fans to take. TCU and Boise State certainly aren’t major losses on the basketball side, but the strength of their football programs could have provided stability for the conference and the potential for improved programs on the hardwood. Between the four newcomers, each of Fresno State, Nevada and Utah State have had good runs over the course of a handful of years, but they’ll all need to prove their ability to compete with more established programs like UNLV and New Mexico, while SJSU figures to step directly into the basement of the conference.

  • The Mtn. Crumbles. On May 31, The Mtn., the Mountain West’s television network, went dark, ceasing all operations after six years. Now, say what you will about the network, a channel that eschewed HD programming, struggled with distribution and had issues with their on-air talent, but the shuttering of its doors leaves some questions for MW hoops fans. In the era of The Mtn., if you wanted to follow MW hoops, it was easy to do so. Now, it remains to be seen exactly how much exposure teams from this conference will get during the year. Sure, the MW still has deals in place to get games shown on NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, but what about that Air Force/Boise State game on some random February Wednesday? Should you want to watch that game and you’re not in Idaho or Colorado, odds are pretty good you’re going to be out of luck.
  • Continued Success? For all the uncertainty about the membership of the conference, the last three years have been something of the golden age of Mountain West basketball. In the past three seasons, the MW has received 11 NCAA Tournament berths. Two years ago there were dual Sweet Sixteen appearances by BYU and SDSU. We’ve had Jimmer and Kawhi grab national headlines, while other guys like Dairese Gary and Darington Hobson, Billy White and Drew Gordon, D.J. Gay and Hank Thorns, Andy Ogide and Malcolm Thomas have kept us all entertained. But, even with all of those players now gone, there is still plenty to be excited about in the conference. San Diego State and UNLV lead the way again, with both expected to start the season in the preseason Top 25. New Mexico and Colorado State, who joined the Aztecs and Rebels in the Big Dance last year, both should be in the hunt for another tourney bid, while Nevada could be a sleeper in its first season in the conference. And, as always, we could be in for another surprise or two.

Reader’s Take #1

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits 03.16.12 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 16th, 2012

The NCAA Tournament is here and there’s more news, commentary and analysis than any of us can possibly keep up with. To make things a little easier, we’ll bring you a list of daily links gathered about teams in each of the four regions all the way through the Final Four.

Midwest Region

West Region

  • CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander believes Long Beach State‘s early exit at the hands of New Mexico shouldn’t cloud the legacy of the outgoing 49er senior class. Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson, Larry Anderson and Eugene Phelps came to LBSU one season after the 49ers won six games and beat Xavier and Pittsburgh in this season.
  • Also in Portland, behind a strong game from Peyton Siva, Louisville handled Davidson and now must prepare for the Lobos. Any chances of a deep run by Louisville hinge on Siva stringing together strong performances instead of his on-again off-again style that’s drawn criticism this season.
  • A matchup of contrasting styles pits Florida against Virginia this afternoon. Expect the Gators to push the tempo on both ends with run-outs, quick threes and defensive pressure to try to throw the Cavaliers out of sorts.
  • The Missouri Tigers have won over 1,500 games in their history, but none of them have come in the Elite Eight. Mizzou’s quest to end that streak begins today when it takes on Norfolk State.
  • They may be seeded three spots better, but Marquette will be in a de facto road environment for Saturday’s tilt with Murray State, as the KFC Yum! Center hosts the third round game 3.5 hours away from the Racers’ campus.

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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Second Round – Friday Afternoon

Posted by EJacoby on March 16th, 2012

RTC Region correspondents Brian Otskey (East), Kevin Doyle (South), Evan Jacoby (Midwest) and Andrew Murawa (West) contributed to this preview.

#6 Cincinnati vs. #11 Texas – East Region Second Round (at Nashville, TN) – 12:15 PM ET on CBS

These are two teams with similar statistical profiles but the Texas Longhorns are missing Alexis Wangmene, a big senior forward who would have added an extra body for Rick Barnes to go up against Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates in the paint. With a guard-oriented team and a thin front court, the Longhorns have some difficulty against the physical Bearcats. Cincinnati doesn’t have a deep front line either but Gates is the team’s third leading scorer and a key cog in its offensive flow. Neither team shoots the ball particularly well but Cincinnati has an edge on the perimeter with multiple players who can make a three. Texas ranks sub-200 in defending the triple and that’s something that could cost it the game. Cincinnati is a streaky hit-or-miss team with four capable guards surrounding Gates on the floor. As for Texas, leading scorer J’Covan Brown is pretty much the team’s only major threat. If Cincinnati can lock up Brown defensively, it will win the game rather easily. If Brown manages to get free and score close to his average of 20.1 PPG, the Bearcats will be in for a nail biter. Although Brown is the best player on the floor in this game, the edge has to go to Cincinnati because of its more balanced talent on the perimeter (including limiting turnovers), Gates in the post and the team’s overall experience. The majority of Cincinnati’s rotation is made up of juniors and seniors while four of Texas’ top six scorers are freshmen.

The RTC Certified Pick: Cincinnati.

#6 San Diego State vs. #11 N.C. State – Midwest Region Second Round (at Columbus, OH) – 12:40 PM ET on truTV

Jamaal Franklin is a Ferocious Competitor on Both Ends for SDSU (US Presswire)

A very popular upset pick, North Carolina State comes into this game on a roll having won four of its last five games with the only loss in the ACC Tournament semifinals to North Carolina by one possession. But NC State was on the bubble just one week ago; this team has been inconsistent throughout the season. The Wolfpack lost four games in a row prior to that strong finish to the season. The key to pull this upset will be to keep pressure on a strong SDSU defense, keyed by pounding the ball inside to find points in the paint with C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell, and C.J. Williams. It’s doubtful that San Diego State will give Scott Wood any wide open looks from three. The Aztecs, meanwhile, may have the two best overall players in this game with Mountain West Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin (17.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG) and savvy guard Chase Tapley (15.7 PPG, 43.3% three-pointers). Both players shoulder a lot of the scoring load but have been reliable in big games this season against strong MW competition. SDSU is a much stronger defensive team (93.5 defensive efficiency) and holds opponents to 40% shooting from the field. NC State has a 99.9 ‘D’ efficiency and allows too much easy offense. We’ll take the Aztecs, the stronger team all season long that has Sweet Sixteen experience from last season.

The RTC Certified Pick: San Diego State

#8 Creighton vs. #9 Alabama – Midwest Region Second Round (at Greensboro, NC) – 1:40 PM ET on TBS

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Mountain West Tournament Diary: Championship Saturday

Posted by AMurawa on March 10th, 2012

Saturday night’s Mountain West Championship game between San Diego State and New Mexico provided plenty of great storylines: the two regular season co-champions meeting in a rubber match; the two-time defending tournament champion Aztecs against a Lobo team that hadn’t won this tournament since 2005, when Ritchie McKay was still the head coach; and the battle between the top two candidates for the conference Player of the Year, the winner, Jamaal Franklin and the jilted, Drew Gordon.

Gordon had made no bones about the fact all week that he felt he deserved the individual honor and that other awards, such as Defensive Player of the Year and Sixth-Man of the Year, should have wound up in Lobo hands, and he played with a chip on his shoulder all weekend, averaging 15.3 points and 10.7 boards in the tournament on his way to the Most Outstanding Player award. But the win on Saturday night was a total team affair. Tony Snell got things off on the right track, scoring the first five points of the game and turning in his third straight double-digit scoring game after slumping through February. Freshman point guard Hugh Greenwood continued his do-whatever-it-takes style and contributed ten boards and a couple threes. And bench players Phillip McDonald, Demetrius Walker, and Cameron Bairstow all made major contributions. McDonald, who has lost minutes this season as Snell and Walker have stepped up, came off the pine and had a three, an assist, a rebound and drew a charge, all in his first couple minutes of action. Bairstow battled on the boards and at one point scored six straight points for the Lobos. And Walker, despite not making a field goal, provided energy and hit clutch free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory.

Drew Gordon, New Mexico

Drew Gordon, The Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Is Mobbed By New Mexico Fans

But more than anything else, this win was about the New Mexico defense. They held San Diego State to 0.86 points per possession (the number was quite a bit lower than that until Chase Tapley went nuts late) and at times in the second half just completely froze the Aztecs out in the paint. Kendall Williams took San Diego State point Xavier Thames completely out of rhythm and Snell helped frustrate James Rahon into an 0-for-8 shooting night. Franklin, meanwhile, was hounded into six-of-14 shooting and six turnovers. And, despite wrapping up their semifinal game late in the evening on Friday night, the Lobos never showed fatigue and kept competing (and hard) right to the final whistle. They were consistently first to loose balls and always scrapping and making multiple attempts at rebounds.

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Mountain West Tournament Diary: Semifinal Friday

Posted by AMurawa on March 10th, 2012

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, New Mexico

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.

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Mountain West Tournament Diary: Quarterfinal Thursday

Posted by AMurawa on March 9th, 2012

Game of the Day

On Monday, San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin was named the Mountain West Player of the Year (nevermind the fact that we at RTC gave Drew Gordon the nod) after a blazing conclusion to the regular season. On the first day of postseason play in the conference, Franklin reminded everybody just how good he can be.

With the shot clock turned off and Boise State having run back to tie their quarterfinal game with the Mountain West regular season champion, the Aztecs called a timeout and set up a play that everybody in the Thomas & Mack Center knew was headed Franklin’s way. The Broncos tried to deny him the ball, but San Diego State point guard Xavier Thames got him the ball, and then, as Franklin is known to do repeatedly in practices, he counted down the final seconds on the clock and threw up a prayer at the buzzer, this time over the hands of two Boise State defenders. And the prayer was answered, as the ball settled softly into the net, advancing the Aztecs to Friday night’s semifinal.

Head coach Steve Fisher painted the picture of Franklin playing the part of a kid on a playground or in his back yard, knocking down imaginary game winners against a clock of his own making. During practices, the Aztecs have a period of spot shooting and, according to Fisher at the end of that session, “Jamaal waits and waits and waits and he shoots one as the clock hits zero.  If he makes it, he falls down,” mimicking a buzzer-beating celebration. All the practice has paid off for Franklin, as twice now this year, he has scored game-winners as time expired. “Everyone in the gym knew who the last shot was going to,” said Boise State freshman guard Derrick Marks, fighting through tears. “So, Xavier Thames passed the ball, I was supposed to go double and he just made an incredible shot.” Franklin commended the Boise State defense, saying it was a “very tough look. X did a great job giving me the ball because they denied me all the way out to basically halfcourt.  My first object was to get to the rim, but they kind of double‑teamed me and I just shot the three.”

San Diego State was in that dogfight down the stretch in part because they helped a game Boise State get back in the game. The Aztecs were up 11 with under six minutes left, but down the stretch they missed layups, missed free throws and turned the ball over three times, the most memorable one coming when Chase Tapley turned it over in the backcourt, leading directly to the game-tying layup for the Broncos on a nice dish from freshman Anthony Drmic to sophomore Thomas Bropleh. Tapley was, however, a hero most of the day for the Lobos, at one point scoring 10 out of 12 San Diego State points and contributing 20 points (including four threes) and numerous under-the-radar plays.

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