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.
Tonight’s Lede. It wasn’t the best night of college basketball we’ve ever witnessed, but as always, the storylines were plentiful. We’d love to walk you through the Michigan-MSU rivalry game that went down to the wire, Florida State’s newfound affinity for offense, Western Carolina’s embarrassing 102-point victory, and some other things… but Anthony Davis just swatted away our train of thought.
Your Watercooler Moment. Michigan-Michigan State Rivalry Heats Up On and Off the Court.
College Basketball Is Better When Both Michigan Schools Are Elite (K. Dozier/DFP)
In anticipation of his rivalry game with Michigan tonight, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo made his feelings known about his in-state rival loud and clear — even though he claims to respect UM and it’s head coach, John Beilein, he also doesn’t care for the Maize and Blue — “not one bit.” He may start to venture into hatred territory if the Wolverines continue beating his Spartans as they did tonight. Michigan point guard Trey Burke led the way with another superb performance, going for 20/4/3 assts/2 stls as the Wolverines defeated MSU for the third straight time in the series. The key to the game, however, was the consistent defensive pressure Michigan put on the Spartans’ primary three scorers: Draymond Green, Keith Appling, and Brandon Wood. The trio came in averaging 38 points per game, but were held to only 21 points on 9-26 shooting tonight. None of the three were ever able to find any sort of offensive rhythm, and when on the final possession Green ended up with the ball in his hands for a leaning jumper from the foul line, the shot was badly long with virtually no chance to drop in. With the win, Michigan moves to 5-2 in the Big Ten race while Michigan State drops to 4-2, but we’re high on both of these teams for the long run of the season and playing into March.
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.
It’s been a relatively quiet week around the Mountain West as teams took a bit of a break to celebrate the holidays. However, despite just eight games in the past week, we’ve had three fairly significant injuries. Boise State was the team hardest hit, as it lost freshman wing Igor Hadziomerovic to a broken foot and will likely play the rest of the season without him, while fellow freshman Anthony Drmic, the team’s leading scorer, missed the Broncos’ visit to Iowa with a sprained ankle. Meanwhile, Air Force lost is leading scorer, Michael Lyons, early in its visit to Spokane to face Gonzaga to a sprained ankle of his own. He never returned to a game in which the Falcons possibly could have challenged the Bulldogs, and the worst-case scenario for Lyons is not a good one. Since he sustained a high-ankle sprain, he could miss as many as six weeks, but a lot depends on how he reacts. It is possible he could be back as soon as this weekend, but ideally he would be back by January 14 when the Falcons travel to Boise State to open the conference season.
Another prominent MW player missed a game this week for a different reason, however, as New Mexico’s Kendall Williams sat out the Lobos’ Thursday game against UMKC as punishment from head coach Steve Alford for a poor academic fall semester. Williams is not in any way academically ineligible, and certainly the Lobos did just fine without him against middling competition, but give credit to Alford for laying down the law.
Team of the Week
UNLV – The Runnin’ Rebels take this honor down for the second straight week on the strength of its demolition of California on Friday. UNLV used a 31-12 run to close the first half to build a 20-point halftime lead, then led by as many as 27 in the second half before coasting home to a 17-point win. Anthony Marshall led the way in style with 22 points, nine rebounds, and three steals, while Oscar Bellfield handed out 11 assists and the Rebels dominated every facet of the game. UNLV still has to travel to Hawaii and Cal State Bakersfield in their non-conference (along with hosting Central Arkansas), but if everything holds up, they should enter conference play with a 16-2 record, including wins over North Carolina, Illinois and California and a good shot at a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Dorian Green Had A Career Game For CSU Against Northern Colorado, Knocking Down Eight Threes (photo credit: Sam Noblett, The Rocky Mountain Collegian)
Player of the Week
Dorian Green, Jr, Colorado State – Green caught absolute fire Thursday night for the Rams, hitting eight-of-ten three-pointers and 11-of-16 from the field while exploding for a career-high 36 points in a win over Northern Colorado. After an excellent freshman season in Fort Collins, Green took a step back last season, seeing his scoring and shooting numbers take a healthy dip. But in his third season, Green has been rock-solid shooting the ball, hitting 58.7% of his three-point attempts this year. He’s also picked up his rebounding numbers for the third year running, (even adding his first-career double-digit rebounding game against Duke a couple weeks back) while helping out with the ballhandling duties and providing an explosive offensive threat in a Ram backcourt made up of multiple excellent shooters.
Just when you thought things were about to turn around a little bit for the Pac-12, and just when you thought Colorado was on the verge of being able to string together a few wins in a row following a solid win over Georgia on Monday night and a manageable schedule in front of them, the Buffaloes go and shoot 44.8% from the free throw line and lose a tough one against in-state rival Colorado State. CU fought back from a ten-point deficit early in the second half to tighten things up, only to have the Rams jump back out to an eight-point lead with under 90 seconds remaining. However, a 10-1 run over the next 75 seconds capped by a Nate Tomlinson steal of a CSU inbounds pass and an ensuing layup gave the Buffs a brief lead. But CSU’s Dorian Green took the ball out from coast to coast and hit a jumper in the lane to give CSU the lead right back. Tomlinson was almost the hero again, but his three-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out.
The other two games Wednesday night featured Pac-12 wins against uninspiring competition, with USC holding UC Riverside to 35 points in a 21-point Trojan victory at UCR. While Washington State, you know, the same team that lost to the UC Riverside team on Sunday, took out their frustrations on a now 0-6 Grambling team with a 69-37 thrashing. Brock Motum had 11/10 for the Cougs, while point guard Reggie Moore handed out seven assists, but WSU will need to tackle some tougher competition before anybody believes anything they’re selling.
This season hasn’t exactly been the stuff of dreams for Utah in their first season in the Pac-12, and plenty of that can be attributed to a series of defections from the basketball team over the past two seasons. But at least some of their struggles can be attributed to the absence of their 7’3” senior center David Foster in the middle. Foster played six minutes in the Utes’ exhibition game against Adams State on November 4, but left the game with a broken right foot. At present, it is still undecided whether Foster will take a medical redshirt and return for next season or if he will come back when able this season. Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak would prefer to have Foster return this season and play the last four-to-six weeks of the regular season with the Utes, while Foster and his dad are holding out for the possibility that a redshirt season may be the best bet. While his immediate future is unclear, what is clear is that the Utes are significantly worse off without the 3.2 blocks he provided in 20 minutes per game last season. Last year the Utes defense wasn’t great (112th in the nation according to kenpom.com), but this season it is abysmal – 288th in the nation.
You may have heard that the UCLA basketball program is struggling a bit this year. It’s true. With surprising losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee to pair with more predictable losses to Kansas and Michigan, the Bruins are off to a 2-4 start. So, what’s their problem – aside from chemistry issues and a general lack of athleticism or outside shooting, that is? Jeff Eisenberg asked the coach of a team who has already beaten the Bruins this year to give an assessment of Ben Howland’s club. Long story short: Their guards can’t make shots, Joshua Smith’s conditioning is terrible, the Wear Twins are incapable of guarding athletic small forwards and they need to get freshman guard Norman Powell more involved in the offense. Any good news? The coach expects the Bruins to get better as the season goes on, if only because he believes they’re a well-coached team.
Oregon State junior guard Jared Cunningham earned a lot of attention after scoring 37 points in the Legends Classic semifinal, after having scored 35 points in his previous game against Hofstra – both career highs at the times. Since then, Beaver opponents have put their defensive effort into slowing Cunningham’s offensive attack. Vanderbilt sent senior forward and defensive savant Jeffery Taylor at Cunningham with additional eyeballs on him at all times, while Towson put its defensive energy into slowing him as well. Cunningham had better get used to other teams keying on him, because as sophomore guard Roberto Nelson put it, “they’d be stupid if they didn’t.” Still, even if other teams are able to limit his ability to score, Cunningham is still able to influence the game in other ways. He is an excellent defender capable of not only taking the opposition’s best guard out of his rhythm, but also forcing turnovers and creating easy transition opportunities for the Beavers. He is also very capable of drawing defenders to him and finding open looks for his teammates. And, if he can keep improving his jump shot (clearly the main weakness in his game), Cunningham can still get his points.
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)