Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
At long last, Mountain West conference play is finally here. And after the long wait, the opening weekend did not disappoint in the least.
The conference opener between San Diego State and UNLV was the sole matchup between ranked teams across the nation on Saturday, and it was everything that could be expected of it and more. But, we’ll get to that shortly.
Jamaal Franklin Was Outstandings Against UNLV (AP)
Elsewhere around the league, Colorado State knocked off TCU in a wild double overtime affair in Fort Collins, while New Mexico and Air Force came up with impressive road wins over Wyoming and Boise State, respectively. While those later two games may not have been all that competitive down the stretch, after one weekend we’re even more sure of the idea that this is going to be a fun season to watch in the MW. Not only do the three teams at the top – San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV – figure to be in for a stirring battle for the top spot in the league, but the five other teams in the conference feature good athletes, fun styles and some very solid teams. In past years, let’s be honest, there were teams in this conference that were almost unbearable to watch (Wyoming the last couple of years, TCU last season, Air Force a couple years back, even Utah last year). This year, I fully expect to be able to tune into any single Mountain West game on the schedule and be thoroughly entertained. Stay tuned, this is going to get fun.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – All of the winners this week deserve a mention here, what with New Mexico going on the road and getting past a game Wyoming team, Air Force handling Boise State in their opener despite still playing without their best player – Michael Lyons – down with an ankle injury, and Colorado State fighting through a blown lead late and a couple nail-biting overtimes to finally dispense with TCU. But, we’ve got to give the Aztecs this recognition this week if for no other reason than as a welcome back to the land of the living. You see, since December 4, SDSU has been stuck playing teams like Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and, most recently, coming back from a seven-point second-half deficit to winless Chicago State. But, after being off the radar for about a month and a half, Steve Fisher’s club came back to their first game against significant competition without missing a beat. Jamaal Franklin continued his breakout sophomore season with arguably his most important performance of his career, James Rahon broke out of his season-long slow-down with a sparkling 22-point performance, the backcourt of Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley fought the tough and athletic UNLV backcourt to a draw, and even Tim Shelton made significant contributions above and beyond what his relatively tame stat line would indicate. In short, if you had forgotten the Aztecs in recent months, you can hardly be blamed, but now it is time to make sure this team is on your radar again.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
One of the unpleasant side effects of the recent spate of conference realignment maneuverings was this year’s MW being left with just eight teams, meaning a 14-game conference schedule is all that is required to complete a full home-and-away round-robin. Meaning that while conferences like the Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12, all of whom play 18-game conference schedules, have been going at it for two weeks now, the MW is just now gearing up to kick off conference play this weekend. And, in the meantime, the last two weeks have yielded some absolutely horrendous matchups for MW teams as their schedule-makers had a hard time finding quality opponents at this time of the year.
So, in lieu of looking back to a week in which a four-point TCU win over Rice and a six-point Wyoming win over Utah Valley are the “highlights,” let’s take a look back at a pretty impressive non-conference performance for the Mountain West. Overall the conference has posted a 94-26 record on the season thus far, good for a .783 winning percentage and a conference RPI of six. UNLV leads the way for the conference, currently ranking 13th in the RPI with their big win over then-#1 North Carolina highlighting their tournament resume. Colorado State is, quite surprisingly, the second highest RPI team in the conference, checking in at #27, but the Rams have nothing on their schedule that would qualify as a marquee win, although their one-point win over Colorado is looking better by the day. The other two teams that have their eyes set on a possible NCAA Tournament bid are San Diego State (RPI #45) and New Mexico (RPI #64). The Aztecs sport wins over California, Arizona, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara, but haven’t played anybody of interest in more than a month. The Lobos struggled out of the gate with two pretty unattractive losses in their first four games, but have now won 12 straight, with wins over Saint Louis, Missouri State and Oklahoma State mixed in there.
Team of the Non-Conference
Moser Has Been Outstanding in a UNLV Uniform (LV Sun/S. Morris)
UNLV – It is hard to argue with UNLV here. They’ve got the single best win – their November 26 upset of North Carolina – out of any of the MW teams, the highest RPI, and they head into conference action ranked 12th in the latest RTC top 25. Throw in wins over California, Illinois and 13 other teams, with the only losses coming at Wichita State and at Wisconsin and the Rebels have put themselves in a position where they would need to somehow take an unprecedented dive in conference play in order to miss the NCAA Tournament. And, given the fact that they’ve done all this while breaking in a first-time head coach in Dave Rice, this has been an excellent first half of the season for the Runnin’ Rebels.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences.
A Look Back
This past week in the Mountain West wasn’t exactly jam-packed full of great match-ups. New Mexico had a couple of very important games against quality opponents and came through with wins in each, but elsewhere there were relatively uninspiring games everywhere you looked. Air Force and Colorado State each played a couple games in four-team tournaments against middling competition (CSU won its tourney – the Sun Bowl Invitational in El Paso), TCU hosted a decent Tulsa team, UNLV went halfway across the Pacific to face Hawai’i, and Boise State traveled all of 22 miles to face Idaho, but there were also whitewashes against Central Arkansas and Redlands.
And, the bad news is, with teams across the country already up to their ankles in conference play, Mountain West teams have the likes of Johnson & Wales, Houston Baptist, Utah Valley, San Diego Christian, Nebraska-Omaha, and Cal State Bakersfield on the schedule next week – truly only a schedule a mother could love.
Fun Fact of the Week
No Mountain West team has had a sub-.500 record at any point this season. Only New Mexico has been as low as .500 at any point on the year (twice) after alternating wins and losses in their first four games of the year.
Team of the Week
New Mexico – Easy choice here, as the Lobos beefed up their NCAA Tournament credentials this week by knocking off Saint Louis (RPI #59) in Albuquerque on Saturday after having gained revenge on in-state rival New Mexico State earlier in the week. They still are only #50 in the nation in RPI, but should have a chance to bolster than number against a strong conference this season. And, more importantly, they are playing better as a team than they were early in the season. In recent weeks, Drew Gordon has been a monster on the glass, while he and Tony Snell, Kendall Williams, Jamal Fenton, Chad Adams, and Phillip McDonald have all scored in double figures at least once in their last four games. Read the rest of this entry »
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and the Pac-12 Conferences.
A Look Back
After a slow week for finals (just seven games between December 10 and December 18), things picked up against for the Mountain West last night, with six teams in action. All told, MW teams went 10-3 since the last time we did this, with two of those three losses coming at the hands of a sneaky good Denver team. The other loss was TCU getting blown out at USC, but aside from that game, MW teams scored wins over teams from the Big Ten (UNLV over Illinois) and the Big 12 (New Mexico over Oklahoma State), bringing the conference’s record on the year against teams from BCS conferences to 15-8.
Team of the Week
UNLV – Let’s not overthink this; the Runnin’ Rebels are the Mountain West team of the week on the strength of posting the best win of the week, a 64-48 thumping of previously undefeated Illinois in an anything-but-neutral site game in Chicago. Combined with a sluggish win over UTEP and a by-the-numbers slog over Louisiana-Monroe, UNLV, ranked #20 in this week’s RTC Top 25, improved to 12-2 on the season. And, even better, in the win Monday over ULM, they picked up another weapon, as point guard Reggie Smith, a transfer from Marquette, got his first minutes of the season after becoming eligible at the semester break. He played just nine minutes, but hit a three-pointer, grabbed a couple offensive rebounds and handed out an assist (we’ll overlook the three turnovers for today) in his first action.
Anthony Marshall, Brice Massamba And The Rest Of The Runnin' Rebels Notched A Big Win Over Illinois This Past Weekend (photo credit: Sam Morris, Las Vegas Sun)
Player of the Week and Newcomer of the Week
Hugh Greenwood, Fr, New Mexico –The freshman from Australia has earned his accolades this season mainly by not turning the ball over, admittedly a great characteristic for a point guard to have. Five different times this season he has played at least 25 minutes in a game without a single turnover, and his 3.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is 19th in the nation among players with 20 or more assists. But this weekend, in the Lobos win over Oklahoma State, Greenwood showed that he can also be called upon to score in the clutch when needed. After UNM had given up a 13-point 2nd half lead to allow OSU to take a one-point lead, Greenwood sparked a 14-3 run to close out the win for his squad, scoring eight points (including a couple of threes), grabbing two rebounds and snatching a steal over that stretch. After four years of Dairese Gary being the floor general in The Pit, Greenwood is well on his way to living up to that precedent.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences and a microsite staffer for the Pac-12.
A Look Back
While a couple Mountain West teams took their lumps early in the week, the weekend was an unabashed success for the teams at the top of the conference, clearly highlighted by UNLV knocking off the nation’s #1 team, North Carolina, at the Las Vegas Invitational Saturday night. In the process, and with preseason co-favorite New Mexico struggling to find its stride early, the Runnin’ Rebels have grasped the mantle of sole favorite in the conference. The Lobos lost their second game of the season on Thanksgiving night, dropping an overtime game to Santa Clara at the 76 Classic, but they rebounded to sweep through an unimpressive consolation bracket in that tournament. And San Diego State confirmed the fact that they are, in fact, a contender not only for an NCAA Tournament bid, but a league title, despite losing the bulk of last year’s Sweet Sixteen team. While there are some other solid teams among the rest of the conference, these three have risen to the top as the cream of the conference, but the strength and depth of the conference can be seen in the MW’s collective 39-10 record (second in the nation behind only the Big Ten’s 63-10 record) including a 3-0 record against the ACC and a 6-2 record against the Pac-12.
Team of the Week
UNLV – Last week the Rebels probably should have been the pick here, but in the interest of mixing things up, I went with Boise State. This week Dave Rice’s team leaves no other option. Not only did the Rebels beat the #1 team in the country, they handled them pretty well, winning 90-80, outrebounding the vaunted Tar Heel front line (31.7 OR%, 78.6 DR%) and knocking down 13 threes (spread out over five players) to seal the deal. Last year at this time, the Rebels were coming off of an impressive championship performance at the 76 Classic, but were never really able to capture the energy they showed that weekend the rest of the season. It remains to be seen if this vintage of the Rebels has a staying power that last year’s team did not.
Player of the Week
Mike Moser, Sophomore, UNLV – Much like the TOTW award, Moser could have and probably should have taken down this award last week. This week, no such slight as he averaged 13.3 points and 13 rebounds per game, and stepped up his game even another notch in the UNC upset when he had 16 points, 18 boards, added six assists and even dropped in his first two three-pointers of the season (although, his shot selection may be one area he could still stand to work on). With his long arms, freaky athletic ability and feel for the game, you can expect to see his name here again this year.
Game of the Past Week
San Diego State 76 UC Santa Barbara 75 (OT) – The Aztecs traveled north to Santa Barbara to face a formidable foe Saturday night and needed a late 11-0 run in regulation to eventually force overtime, then an improbable ending to seal the victory in overtime. SDSU head coach Steve Fisher was the Michigan coach when Chris Webber infamously called a timeout that his team didn’t have in the waning moments of a national championship game. On Saturday night, Fisher’s Aztecs were on the receiving end of a similar play. With SDSU up three and the clock under ten seconds, UCSB’s Orlando Johnson lost control of the ball near midcourt. After Johnson recovered the ball in a scramble, an unidentified Gaucho called for timeout; unfortunately for them, they had just used their final timeout minutes before. Jamaal Franklin sank one of two technical free throws, effectively sealing what had been a great back and forth game. Point guard Xavier Thames had his best game as an Aztec, going for 20 points, ten rebounds and six assuists, while UCSB’s Johnson had 26 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Games of the Upcoming Week
Creighton @ San Diego State, 11/30, California @ San Diego State, 12/4 – The Aztecs stretch of incredibly tough non-conference opponents wraps up this week with visits from the favorites of the Missouri Valley and the Pac-12 conferences. By the end of the week, SDSU will have played six top-75 teams (according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings), and if they can continue the success they’ve had in the opening weeks of the season, they could earn serious consideration for a national ranking. Creighton’s sophomore wing Doug McDermott leads a Blue Jay team that is #1 in the country in effective field goal percentage, and the Aztecs defense will have to take a big step forward to slow down that offensive attack on Wednesday. Then on Saturday, the Golden Bears backcourt duo of Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez will be pitted against SDSU’s backcourt in a battle of the two team’s strengths.
Fun Stat of the Week
In honor not only of UNLV’s 13 three-pointers in their win over UNC on Saturday, but also of the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the three-point shot to the college game, it is worth noting that the Rebels hold the NCAA record for consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer, with 812 games. The Rebels are joined by Vanderbilt and Princeton as the only three teams in the country who have made at least one three-point field goal in every game since the rule was implemented, but since the Rebels have played more games than the other two schools, they currently hold the record.
Runnin' Rebels Fans Participated In An RTC-Approved Court Storm Saturday Night After UNLV Toppled #1 North Carolina.
1. UNLV (7-0): Okay, I’ve made it this far without bragging about the fact that I had UNLV hanging tough with UNC in the LVI final, several days before the matchup was even official and then again after the win over USC was final. Well, enough fake humility. Now that’s out of the way; more details from the upset over UNC. First, senior forward Chace Stanback set a career-high with 28 points and added ten revounds, a breakout performance for the team’s leading returning scorer who had been almost invisible the previous night (four points, two rebounds in 17 minutes against USC). Second, Oscar Bellfield was brilliant, scoring 16 points, knocking down four threes and handing out nine assists in what may have been the best game of his UNLV career; if he can continue that type of play, this Rebel team has got a bright future. Third, the three-headed center of Brice Massamba, Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez was solid if unspectacular against the future pros along the Tar Heel front line – the three combined for 14 points, nine rebounds and a couple blocks, while deftly using 11 of their 15 fouls in 44 minutes of action. And finally:
A Look Ahead: Tough week for the Rebels, especially in the penumbra of the North Carolina victory; the team travels to UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday night (and RTC Live will be courtside there) and heads to Wichita State on Sunday.
2.San Diego State (7-1): It’s important to remember what the Aztecs are missing from last year’s Sweet 16 team. First, NBA lottery pick and freak-of-nature Kawhi Leonard’s double-double and lock down defense are gone. Senior forwards Billy White and Malcolm Thomas (21.7 highly efficient points and 12.5 rebounds between them) are also gone. And floor general-supreme and master of the clutch hoop, D.J. Gay, also gone. The only two returnees who played significant roles for last year’s club – Chase Tapley and James Rahon – were merely low-usage role players. This year, however, Tapley has stepped up and taken over not only a leadership position on this team, but also the role as go-to scorer. He has attempted double-digit field goals in six of the Aztecs first eight games, scored in double figures in the same number of games and done so while knocking down exactly half of his 46 three-point attempts to this point. Rahon hasn’t been quite so lucky yet, as an ankle injury kept him out of SDSU’s first three games and he has yet to really hit his stride yet. The three-point specialist did post a career-high 20 in the win over Long Beach State, but he’s struggled with his stroke from deep, hitting just three of his 20 attempts thus far.
A look ahead: We detailed the Aztecs’ tough stretch at home above in our Game of the Week section, but after this week, SDSU takes a significant step down in the remainder of its non-conference schedule, with games against Division III and NAIA teams mixed in with ho-hummers against Big West and WCC also-rans.
3. New Mexico (4-2): It hasn’t really been the start that New Mexico fans expected. The loss to in-state rival New Mexico State? Okay, it’s a hard-fought rivalry game; anything can happen. You can write off a loss there with any number of excuses or explanations. But the 76 Classic opening round loss to Santa Clara? That one was inexcusable. Defensive problems were exposed in that game (notably the fact that as athletic as Kendall Williams is, he had no chance chasing SCU’s Kevin Foster off multiple screens every possession), but give the Lobos credit – their defense looked better in the final two games of that competition, albeit against lesser competition. Further, the New Mexico offense showed signs of coming into its own, with freshman Hugh Greenwood clamping down the point guard position that he’ll likely hold for the next four years with a three-game, zero-turnover performance over the weekend. Moreover sophomore wing Tony Snell continued his vastly improved play, hitting 18 of 32 field goals (and 12/24 threes) on his way to a stellar weekend. Williams and Drew Gordon, the established stars on this club, still have yet to really get comfortable out there, but with Greenwood running the offense smoothly and Snell giving opposing defenses a third scoring option to worry about, expect the Lobo big guns to have a bit more room to operate.
A look ahead: A visit from Idaho State on Wednesday precedes a tough matchup in the MW/MVC challenge on Saturday when Missouri State visits Albuquerque.
4. Boise State (4-1): The Broncos got brought back down to earth a bit on Tuesday with a ten-point road loss at Long Beach State, but given that the 49ers are a high-caliber opponent, there is no shame in that loss for BSU. The Broncos bounced back Saturday with a 14-point win over Northern Illinois, and the trend of new players stepping up every night for head coach Leon Rice continued as sophomore guard Jeff Elorriaga went for 14 points on the night. Offensively, Elorriaga is nothing but a bomber. On the year he has attempted 20 field goals; 18 of those (and all six of his makes on the year) were from behind the arc. Kenny Buckner, a bruising jucotransfer, also picked things up this week, posting a season-high 14 points in the loss to LBSU. Buckner provides a good presence in the middle for the perimeter-oriented Broncos, averaging 5.4 rebounds in 18.8 minutes on the season.
A look ahead: The Broncos host a couple of MVC opponents this week, with Drake coming in on Wednesday night before Indiana State visits on Saturday. The latter game is the only official part of the MW/MVC Challenge.
5. Air Force (3-1): The Falcons only played one game this past week – a 76-73 overtime loss to Colorado – but they’ll hold on to the #5 spot this week, if only because, you know the Pac-12 is so strong that a loss to one of its member institutions is no big deal, right? Anyway, Michael Lyons continued his sparkling start to the season by going for 31 points, seven rebounds and three steals in the losing effort. Junior Todd Fletcher continued his solid play at the point by handing out six assists in the game; he’s had at least six assists in every game this season against Division I competition. And junior center Taylor Broekhuis has shown that as long as he can stay out of foul trouble (which he did not do in the Falcons’ season opener against Army) he can provide a strong interior presence for the Academy.
A look ahead: It’s another slow week for the Falcons, with only a trip to Des Moines on Saturday for a matchup with Drake ahead.
6. Wyoming (6-1): The Cowboys have lost the toughest game they’ve played this year – a road trip to face Green Bay, a team that is just 2-4 on the year – and have beaten no one of consequence (they’re best win is over Northern Colorado, another 2-4 team). But the mere fact that the Cowboys are beating these teams is an accomplishment. Last year, Wyoming lost to Northern Colorado by 14, to North Florida by 16 and to South Dakota by ten. While this team may not have the talent to measure up with the big boys at the top of the league, at the very least they are competing under new head coach Larry Shyatt. This week it was redshirt junior guard Luke Martinez, who misses all of last season with a broken elbow, who led the way, averaging 17 points per night and knocking down 16 out of 26 three-pointers in the Jim Thorpe Classic round-robin tournament in Laramie. Fellow guard Francisco Cruz pitched in with three consecutive double-figure games, while freshman forward Larry Nance, Jr. (does that name ring a bell?) had his best game of his young career on Saturday with nine rebounds and four steals, although his offensive game is still not quite ready for primetime. Also worth noting is that JayDee Luster, who struggled to take care of the ball under previous head coach Heath Schroyer, has handed out 26 assists this season while only turning it over three times.
A look ahead: Utah Valley on Wednesday won’t raise the bar much, and a visit from a poor Bradley team in the MW/MVC Challenge on Saturday means the Cowboys have a good chance to get to 8-1 before they face Colorado on 12/9.
7. Colorado State (4-2): The Rams won both of their games this week, but the fact remains that the team’s best win was in the opener over an average Montana team. With no real producers on this team over 6’6”, this team is going to go as far as its backcourt triumvirate of Wes Eikmeier, Jesse Carr and Dorian Green will take it. This week, in close wins over Texas-San Antonio and Manhattan in the NIT Season Tip-Off consolation bracket, Eikmeier and Green were strong, each scoring in double figures in both games (Eikmeier 20.5 PPG this week, Green 16 PPG). None of the three guards are true lead guards, but all share the duties at point; the problem is that none of the three are great at creating opportunities for teammates. Up front, Greg Smith and Will Bell are hard workers (the two combined to average 18.8 PPG and 10.5 RPG), but they could get overpowered even by a relatively small frontcourt like SDSU’s.
A look ahead: The Rams will get a couple of good tests this week, with Colorado visiting on Wednesday, followed by a trip to Northern Iowa on Saturday.
8. TCU (4-2): After a strong opening win in the Paradise Jam, the Horned Frogs dropped their final two games, with Ole Miss sending the team back home with an 11-point loss. But they bounced back on Saturday with an exciting one-point win at Houston. After Houston took a one-point lead with six seconds left, senior wing J.R. Cadot rebounded his own miss and scored with under a second left to give TCU their fourth win on the year. The 6’5” Cadot has taken it upon himself to hit the glass with abandon this season, leading the team in rebounds and generating offense for an team without a lot of offensive options by crashing the offensive boards. Juco transfer Adrick McKinney has also been helping out on the glass and while this is still a relatively undertalented team, head coach Jim Christian is getting the most out of the players he does have.
A look ahead: Lamar visits Fort Worth on Wednesday, with a trip to Evansville lined up on Saturday.
It wasn’t the sexiest bracket you’ve ever seen in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament. There were no teams ranked in the top 25 prior to this weekend and no player of the year candidates to be found anywhere. But there were some great coaches, some solid teams expected to contend for their respective conference titles, and some good basketball played at the 76 Classic in Anaheim this weekend. By way of putting a bow on this tournament, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the weekend.
Champion:St. Louis – The Billikens take home the championship without ever being seriously challenged this weekend. They posted a 60.6 effective field goal percentage over the three games, nailing 29 threes, and as a team they posted almost a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But where the Billikens really excelled was defensively. They limited their opponents to less than seven offensive rebounds per game, forced almost 15 turnovers per game, held their opponents to under 45% shooting from the field, and did all of that while only allowing their opponents 15 free throws per game. With Brian Conklin emerging as an efficient offensive threat, Kwamain Mitchell returning to the fold as a great floor general and playmaker for the team, and a deep and talented bench capable of carrying out head coach Rick Majerus’ game plan, this is a disciplined team that can give all sorts of teams trouble this season.
Brian Conklin Turned In A Career Weekend In Earning The Most Outstanding Player Award At The 76 Classic (Credit: Chris Lee, McClatchy Newspapers)
Surprise Team:Santa Clara/Oklahoma – Both the Broncos and the Sooners came away from this weekend with a 2-1 record, and both teams come away with their share of converts. When Santa Clara senior forward Marc Trasolini went down with a torn ACL in September a lot of people counted out the Broncos. That injury left the Broncos with an inexperienced frontline to pair with its prolific backcourt of junior Kevin Foster (who broke Steve Nash’s all-time record for three-pointers at Santa Clara this weekend) and sophomore Evan Roquemore, but this weekend Kerry Keating’s team proved that those guards (along with junior wing Ray Cowels) were good enough to put this team on their back. Meanwhile, not much was expected of an Oklahoma team that went 14-18 last season. With more or less the same roster returning, similar results were expected, but under new head coach Lon Kruger and with new point guard Sam Grooms taking the reins, the Sooners advanced to the championship game before getting outclassed by the Billikens. While the Sooners should not be expected to contend for a Big 12 title, Kruger definitely has this program headed in the right direction, and this team will rise up and knock off some teams this year.
Andrew Murawa is an RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences and a Pac-12 microsite staffer. This week he’s checking on the eight teams at the 76 Classic in Anaheim with some thoughts…
While the old tradition about Thanksgiving Day and football going together like turkey and mashed potatoes is all well and good, college hoops fans know that Thanksgiving week has fast become a smorgasbord of hoops action as well. Thursday night after some turkey and fixings with the family, I got a chance to dig into the basketball buffet a bit at the 76 Classic with a pair of intriguing games: New Mexico/Santa Clara and Oklahoma/Washington State. While I’ve had a chance to catch WSU and UNM on TV a couple of times, this was my first real good chance to get to know these teams. Here are my thoughts on what I saw Thursday night.
Drew Gordon Is Just One Lobo Who Has Yet To Get On Track This Year
The big question mark for New Mexico coming into the season was how they would go about replacing point guard Dairese Gary, who graduated last season. Junior Jamal Fenton had served as Gary’s understudy for a couple of years, but at 5’9”, he can be a liability on the defensive end. Well, after four games I think we can safely say that UNM has its point guard – and it’s not Fenton. Freshman Hugh Greenwood, a 6’3” native of Australia, saw the majority of the minutes at the point Thursday night (he played 33 minutes, Fenton just 16) and scored 14 points, handed out three assists and never turned the ball over. “I thought he was tremendous,” said head coach Steve Alford. “He has, like a lot of guys, some things he has to do better defensively but he competed and ran our team well.” However, as solid as Greenwood was, the Lobos still are having trouble getting Mountain West Preseason Player of the Year Drew Gordon, or even MW preseason all-conference player Kendall Williams, on track. Gordon scored 11 points and added ten rebounds on Thursday, but did so in a below-the-radar way, while Williams scored just six points and was repeatedly exposed defensively by Santa Clara’s Kevin Foster. In the Lobos two losses so far this season, Williams and Gordon area combined 2/25 from the field. ““We had some guys, very similar to the New Mexico State game, where there was just no production and we’re not good enough for that,” said Alford in a clear reference to his two stars. “We’ve got to have production from guys who are supposed to produce.”
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)
The Reign Man is heading back to Seattle. Sort of. Washington announced yesterday that Shawn Kemp Jr. (yes, that one; no, we won’t be making the obvious Jr. joke) had signed a financial aid agreement to get the final scholarship the Huskies had available. Kemp Jr. has taken an interesting path to get to Washington as he previously committed to Alabama in 2008 before being declared academically ineligible and to Auburn in 2009 before being declared academically ineligible again. Now it appears that he is academically eligible although coach Lorenzo Romar has already said, “The first thing he’s going to have to do is get into condition.” Unfortunately that isn’t the first time we have heard that about a player named Shawn Kemp.
After Kyrie Irving went down last December, Jared Sullinger stepped up to become the premier freshman in the country. This season the Ohio State star is looking to take his game to another level by attempting to lose up to 30 pounds in an effort to get into better shape and develop his game more. It is rare that we would question any big man trying to lose a few pounds, but given Sullinger’s inside game and his relatively good conditioning (not falling apart late in games even as a freshman) we have to wonder if Sullinger’s play might actually suffer in a weird way from him getting into shape.
UNC coach Roy Williams was honored yesterday in Marion, North Carolina, where he was born, with the unveiling of a sign honoring him with the official ceremony to follow on July 18, which Williams is expected to attend. Before fans of rival teams start harping on the cost of the sign in these fiscally challenging times it is worth noting that the sign was paid for with private donations. The more interesting thing for us is that due to his very well-documented difficult childhood Williams actually spent very little time in Marion and grew up in Asheville, North Carolina.
Luke Winn checks in with his summer update from the FIBA Under-19 Tournament in Latvia, and the biggest storyline involves a player who isn’t even suiting up this summer. Youssef Mejri is a 6’8″ power forward prospect who has committed to Davidson despite never playing a minute of American high school basketball, and few people are quite sure as to whether the Wildcats are getting a major sleeper or an unfulfilling headache. Several other D-I players that Winn evaluates include rising freshmen Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Sim Bhullar (Xavier), Jackson Aldridge (Butler), and Hugh Greenwood (New Mexico).
Finally, one of our correspondents, Kelly James Powers, was in Indianapolis yesterday for the adidas Invitational and noted that in addition to the star power on the court (Andre Drummond and Shabazz Muhammad were showcasing their considerable talents) there was plenty of star power in the stands (John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, and Tom Izzo, just to name a few). As exciting as the on-court skills of the players might be, the positioning and interactions of these coaches while evaluating these prospects would be fascinating to watch. Obviously Calipari and Pitino have to act like the other doesn’t exist, but what about the other coaches there?