San Diego State – It’s been a couple weeks since we did this because we took last week to compile our Best in the West list, so this award encompasses not only the Aztecs’ two by-the-book wins over New Mexico and San Jose State, but also the wins from the previous week over Wyoming and Colorado State that put them atop the Mountain West standings. The San Diego State offense is starting to come around (it’s now played four straight games where it scored better than a point per possession); the Aztecs’ defense is still downright scary; and if they can find a way on Saturday to get revenge on Boise State for a beat-down earlier this month, they’ll be headed into March on quite a roll.
Winston Shepard and the Aztecs Are Rolling (AP)
Player of the Week
Winston Shepard, Jr, San Diego State – From the moment he stepped on the court for the Aztecs, it has been clear that Shepard has voluminous skills on the basketball court. His long frame and athleticism help make him a terrific defensive threat. He’s a willing and alert passer. He’s got a nice handle and the ability to use it to get into the lane and make plays. There is really only about one thing he hasn’t been particularly good at, and it’s a pretty important one: shooting the ball. However, over the past couple of weeks, the endless work that Shepard has put in in trying to improve that aspect of his game has begun to pay dividends. A career 24.5 percent three-point shooter, Shepard has made five of his last 10 shots from deep and 14 of 20 from the free throw line, and as a result, he’s averaging nearly 16 points per game over the past two weeks.
Any time you get around to comparing one coach to another, it’s a shaky situation. Isn’t the real decision about who is the better coach decided on the court? Sure, one coach may have more talent than another, but then again, isn’t pulling in talent part of the job description? So, prior to unveiling my rankings of the coaches in the Mountain West, lets offer up some criteria. For the most part, recruiting is excluded from this analysis. The question that we’ll attempt to answer instead is this: Pick any random team in the country — you don’t know its roster or its strengths and weaknesses — which Mountain West coach would give you the best chance over this and the next couple of seasons to get the most out of those players and leave the program in the best possible place at the end?
Well, here’s one man’s take, feel free to disagree.
The Dean Of Mountain West Coaches, Steve Fisher Is Among The Best In The Nation. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)
Steve Fisher, San Diego State – The results speak for themselves. Not only are the Aztecs the best team in the conference this year, Fisher’s done the most unbelievable job of building a program in the conference. Seriously, his track record at SDSU may not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as elite program-builders with national titles under their belts like Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun, but this trajectory is very, very close. Put it this way: There’s one sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in this conference and it is this man. He’s head and shoulders above the rest. The knock on him when he was at Michigan was that he could recruit well but wasn’t much of a teacher or a tactician. And earlier in his career at San Diego State, he struggled with some end-game scenarios (the 2006 NCAA Tournament First Round loss to Indiana still upsets me). But these days, his record in unimpeachable. He gets his players to improve from one season to the next and throughout their careers. Even while bringing in solid talent, he gets his team to exceed expectations. The team that he puts on the court is something that his supportive community can be proud of. Not only is Fisher far and away the best coach in the Mountain West, he’s on the very short list of the best in the nation. Read the rest of this entry »
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
It started out way back when with three teams – UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico – the teams expected to compete for the conference title. It quickly became apparent that Colorado State deserved to be among that group as well, while a few other teams – Wyoming, Boise State and even Air Force – had their moments in the sun. At one point or another in the season, seven different Mountain West teams could have reasonably dreamed of NCAA Tournament bids to come. And now, with a week remaining in conference play, many of our questions have been answered. New Mexico’s the conference champ, there will be at least four teams dancing (and probably a fifth), and it will be a disappointment if the conference doesn’t advance at least one team to the Sweet Sixteen. All told, it is without a doubt the deepest this conference has ever been. It may not have the elite teams that the conference had in 2011 when both San Diego State and BYU advanced to the Sweet Sixteen (and each were just a shot away from the Elite Eight), but there is still a strong opportunity for one of these teams to make a big run over the next month.
Team of the Week
Boise State – While it was New Mexico that clinched the conference title outright this week, we’re going to give the nod to the Broncos, a team that went a long way towards securing an invitation to the Big Dance with wins over Nevada and Colorado State. Boise clamped down defensively this week and got big scoring outputs from Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks to ensure themselves a .500 conference record. They’d still be wise not to let up quite yet, but Leon Rice’s club has put itself in good position to earn just its sixth NCAA Tournament invitation in its history.
Derrick Marks Exploded Against Colorado State For One Of The Year’s Best Offensive Displays
Player of the Week
Derrick Marks, Sophomore, Boise State – Way back in late November, Marks scored 18 straight points for his team in the second half of an upset at Creighton. This past week, with his team in need of another big win, Marks again went nuts in the second half, scoring 24 in a row for the Broncos and making all 11 of his shots from the field on his way to a career high 38 points in a big win over Colorado State. For the week, Marks averaged 22 points, six rebounds, 5.5 assists per game and shot a 68% eFG.
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.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Coming into the year, we thought we had a couple really good teams in New Mexico and UNLV, and six other teams with more questions marks than answers. Four months later, add San Diego State to the list of really good teams, but add the other five teams in the conference as, at a minimum, pretty good. Only Air Force and Boise State end the season with losing records, and each of those teams has risen up and played one of the top three tough at some point, with the Falcons even pulling off a win over San Diego State. There are four teams (so far) with 20 or more wins and it looks more and more like Colorado State, with home wins over each of the top three teams in the conference, will join them in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Wyoming and TCU both remain strong candidates for NIT inclusion. All told, this was an excellent encore performance for a conference that was coming off their best season on the national stage, especially given the turmoil surrounding the Mountain West’s hits and misses in the conference realignment game. In short, despite a few bumps and bruises along the way, the MW is still alive and well. At least for now.
San Diego State 24-6 10-4
New Mexico 24-6 10-4
UNLV 25-7 9-5
Colorado State 19-10 8-6
TCU 17-13 7-7
Wyoming 20-10 6-8
Air Force 13-15 3-11
Boise State 13-16 3-11
Player of the Year. Drew Gordon, Senior, New Mexico. This was a tight race, with Gordon, UNLV’s Mike Moser and San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin all neck and neck at the finish line. But, I’ll always hold true to the theory that when in doubt, a tie goes to the senior. And I’ll still gladly make the argument that Gordon edges out the other two on his own merits as well. The one thing that all three players do well is rebound the ball, but Gordon is the best of the three. Franklin is more capable of creating his own shot than Gordon, but Gordon generally plays within himself and is more efficient offensively; likewise, while Moser has a perimeter jumper that is missing from Gordon’s game, it doesn’t go far enough to make up for the other advantages that the Lobo star has. And, defensively, Gordon is significantly more polished than either of his younger competitors. The race is very close, and in no way am I denigrating either Moser or Franklin. But likewise, I don’t want to take the easy way out and just call it a three-way tie. Call Gordon the better of equals.
Drew Gordon Earns Our MW Player Of The Year In A Close Race (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Coach of the Year. Steve Fisher, San Diego State. It has been a year of great coaching jobs in the Mountain West as well, but the race here is slightly less contentious. While we give Gordon the MW POY award by a nose, Fisher wins this by a full body length over guys like Jim Christian, Larry Shyatt, and Tim Miles. Christian and Shyatt took teams with basically the same personnel as last year and led a complete 180, while Miles took a team that lost three of its best players and has them a nose ahead of where they were last year. Meanwhile, Fisher took a team that lost its four leading scorers, including NBA First Round pick Kawhi Leonard, off a Sweet 16 team and led a ragtag bunch that included a undermanned frontline (Tim Shelton and his three knee surgeries, basketball novice Deshawn Stephens, and graduate transfer Garrett Green) to an unlikely Mountain West title. Along the way, he helped transform Chase Tapley from a role player into a team leader and a go-to scorer and Jamaal Franklin from a little-used reserve to a big-name player on the national scene. Oh, and then there’s the whole conference title and national top 25 ranking. That’s nice too.
On Friday, Seth Davis published a series of scouting reports on teams from coaches within their own conference. While none of the analysis will be groundbreaking to those who follow the sport closely it is interesting to see how brutally honest some of these coaches are. For example, a Big East coach said of Connecticut, “The Huskies don’t run offense. I mean they literally don’t run a fricking offense.” We are assuming the coaches know many of these things about their own team, but we would be interested to know if any of the players and/or coaches read these comments and try to make a change based on them. We doubt it, but we imagine that at least a few of them will read these comments and be affected by them at least subconsciously.
If you are the coach du jour this March, you might be wise to consider the tale of Chris Lowery, who in 2007 was one of the hottest coaches in the country and then was fired by Southern Illinois on Friday. Lowery, who has two years remaining on a contract that is scheduled to pay him more than $5 million with a buyout of approximately $1.5 million, took the school to the Sweet 16 in 2007, but finished just 145-116 in eight seasons there. We are not sure where Lowery goes from here, but the hot rumor right now is that Southern Illinois plans to go after its former coach Bruce Weber if (more likely when) he is fired from Illinois.
After going through hundreds of resumes Air Force decided the best option for their next coach was their current coach and on Saturday they announced that they were removing the interim label from the title of Dave Pilipovich to make him their new head coach. Citing a desire to establish continuity for the team and his win over a San Diego State team that was ranked in the top 15 at the time (and leaving out his 1-5 record in his other games), the school opted to retain Pilipovich who will have his first head coaching job after working for 26 years as an assistant.
It takes a special kind of dumb to get kicked off the team with one regular season game remaining in your college career, but apparently Ty Walker is. The 7-foot tall center was dismissed from the Wake Forest team with just one regular season game remaining in his college career for an undisclosed violation of departmental policy. Walker’s troubles in college have been well-documented and his decline from one of the top recruits in the country coming into college to a guy who gets kicked off the team just before his college career is over could be a case study in how not to become a professional basketball player.
It seems like every year we link to a piece on Lenny Cooke, a high school legend who was famously destroyed at ABCD Camp in 2001 by some kid named LeBron. This year’s installment/update comes from The New York Times and takes a look at what has gone wrong in Cooke’s life. While you could probably write a similar story about many high school athletes, few carry the brand-name appeal to people of a certain generation (like the one of the two editors here) as Cooke. For those of you who are not familiar with Cooke’s story, it is essentially similar to the one that is told in Hoop Dreams except that Cooke was considered more of a sure-fire NBA prospect than William Gates ever was.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
If you were to sum up the past week of the Mountain West in a slightly altered movie title, “How The (Mountain) West Was Won” would be the slam dunk choice. We’ve still got two weeks of conference play left, and the conference race is yet to be officially decided, but New Mexico went a long way towards sewing up the regular season title this week by getting revenge on both San Diego State and UNLV, going into Montezuma Mesa and knocking off the Aztecs, then returning home and putting a hurting on the Rebels on Saturday morning. Those wins, coupled with a pair of losses by SDSU and UNLV to lower-tier MW teams (Air Force and TCU) leaves the Lobos with a two-game conference lead with four games remaining. Prior to this week, the Lobos appeared to be in the NCAA Tournament, but certainly in the back half of the rankings. Now they’re all but guaranteed a spot in the field and are looking at a pretty solid seed.
Meanwhile, SDSU and UNLV still sport solid NCAA Tournament resumes and should have no trouble getting into the field, barring a complete collapse down the stretch (and even with a complete collapse, they’d still both be at least in the discussion), while Colorado State and Wyoming, who had been angling for their own at-large spot in the field, seem to be tailing off. Wyoming lost both of its games this weekend in particularly unappealing fashion, while Colorado State fell at Boise State on Wednesday before handing the Cowboys one of their losses this week. CSU still boasts an RPI of #30, but has little else in the positive column aside from a home win against SDSU. Still, these days when you look at the bubble, teams like North Carolina State, Arizona, Oregon and South Florida are all among either the last four teams in or first four out (according to Zach Hayes’ bracketology this week) and none of those teams have either the RPI or the quality win that CSU has.
It is also interesting to note that with the sudden resurgence of cellar dwellers Boise State and Air Force (who are a combined 5-1 over the last two weeks), there are again no teams in the Mountain West with losing records on the season.
Team of the Week
New Mexico – No need to think about this decision at all this week: UNM knocked off the two other teams in the top tier of the conference, opened up a commanding two-game lead in the race for the regular season title and in doing so also put themselves in the driver’s seat for the #1 seed in the MW Tournament in March. If the final standings are at all similar to what we’ve got right now, that means that UNLV and SDSU will be on the same side of the bracket, potentially meeting in the semifinal, while the Lobos will get a far easier (though still potentially dangerous) opponent in their semifinal matchup. We’ll get to Drew Gordon’s big week shortly, but also wanted to highlight sophomore guard Kendall Williams for a bit here too. Williams hasn’t made that big leap forward that was perhaps unreasonably expected of him in his second year, but he was certainly big in the win over SDSU on Wednesday, hitting five increasingly difficult three-pointers on his way to tying his career-high of 21 points.
Drew Gordon Skying High For A Rebound Was A Familar Sight This Week (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)
Player of the Week
Drew Gordon, Sr, New Mexico – The traditional stats are pretty impressive: two double-doubles against ranked teams, averages of 22 points and 18.5 rebounds per game, 20-of-35 from the field. The rebounding numbers jump out, and they’re even more impressive when you look at them as a percentage. On the offensive glass, there were 61 total opportunities for Gordon to grab a rebound last week; he grabbed 10 of them, or 16.4%, a figure that would put him in the top ten nationally if carried out over the course of a season. Defensively he was even better. There were 65 opportunities for him to grab a defensive board last week; he grabbed 27 of them, or 41.5% an astronomical number that is almost ten percentage points ahead of Thomas Robinson, the best defensive rebounder in the land. Gordon almost single-handedly controlled the glass for the Lobos this weekend, as no other player on his team grabbed more than four rebounds in the past two games. Without a doubt, Gordon is playing his best basketball of his career as his final year plays out.
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 »
Faced with the possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament in 2013 due to its abysmal APR scores Connecticut has offered the NCAA a proposal that would punish itself without having to miss the NCAA Tournament (assuming they are even invited, which is no sure thing this season). While the actual proposal is quite long (all 112 riveting pages are available here), it boils down to the school giving up its share of 2013 NCAA Tournament money, going to study hall instead of playing exhibition games, playing 23 regular season games plus one exempt tournament (max of 26 games total) instead of 27 regular season games plus one exempt tournament (max of 30 games total), and preventing Jim Calhoun from making off-campus visits during the fall recruiting period and making him take a NBA player who graduated from the school (insert your jokes here) to an inner city to talk about the importance of academics. With at least two lottery picks who have not announced whether they are returning for next season and a Hall of Fame coach who is currently on an indefinite medical leave of absence, the NCAA’s decision on this should have a significant effect on the Connecticut basketball program for years to come.
With Memphis officially receiving an invitation to join the Big East in July 2013, Conference USA already has plans on how to move forward and they may make the biggest move in terms of the number of schools involved that we have seen so far. The conference board of directors will look at a proposal later this week about the possibility of merging with the Mountain West Conference. With both conferences facing several defections in the near future, Conference USA would only have eight schools for all sports and Mountain West would only have seven schools since one school (Hawaii) would only be there for football. A merger would create a 15-/16-team conference in the 2013-14 season. While neither conference has a particularly impressive group of schools, it would create an interesting mix of basketball schools with one national power (UNLV) and a handful of others that have been competitive in the past few years.
While a small rivalry in North Carolina took most of the headlines last night, we would be remiss if we did not mention Jim Boeheim passing Dean Smith last night for third on the all-time men’s Division I wins list with his 880th win, which puts him just 22 wins behind Bob Knight for second place with Mike Krzyzewski holding a safe lead at 920 career victories and counting. While we have a hard time putting Boeheim in the conversation of top 5 coaches of all-time (the all-time victory list includes Boeheim, the three others we already mentioned, and Adolph Rupp), but as he builds up his win totals he is almost definitely in the top 10 and working his way up the list even if the top 5 is off-limits right now since we are holding an extra spot in the top 5 for some coach named Wooden.
Even if you are not a fan of advanced metrics particularly defensive ones that can be quite cumbersome and are often of questionable validity, we would encourage you to check out Luke Winn’s analysis of Syracuse‘s defense and the impact Fab Melo has on it. It is much more technical than you will find on any other mainstream site, but Winn does a good job of explaining it at a fairly, but not overly simplistic level. While many people have had issues with some of the work that Winn has published in his weekly power rankings post (usually ignoring his disclaimers), the longer format allows him to more thoroughly explain the statistics. And if you needed any anecdotal evidence of Melo’s impact on defense, watch a replay of Georgetown’s last possession of regulation last night.
We are still struggling to understand the in-season firing of coaches in situations where the coach is not dealing with a major scandal, but it appears like the trend will not be stopping any time soon as Air Force became the fourth school this season to fire its head coach when it dismissed Jeff Reynolds yesterday afternoon. Reynolds, who was in his fifth season at the school, had a record of 63-82 including 11-10 this season. While the school did not cite a specific event that led to the dismissal they mentioned “the look in the player’s [sic] eyes” and along with other nebulous concepts as well as a break in the schedule to allow for the change. We still do not get how any of that leads to this decision, but for the rest of the season associate head coach Dave Pilipovich will fill in as the interim head coach.