Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 9th, 2016

It’s a week of callbacks in the Mountain West check-in because a lot of the things we talked about last week at this time proved particularly relevant in the interim. Before we jump into team-by-team breakdowns, however, let’s hit the big story: San Diego State going a long way toward wrapping up at least a share of the regular season title for the fifth time in the last six seasons. The Aztecs knocked off New Mexico on Saturday night, bumping their conference record to 11-0 and establishing a three-game lead over the Lobos in the loss column with seven games remaining. It wasn’t a dominant win and the Aztecs needed a fortunate (but not egregious) call with 12.9 seconds left to have a chance to tie the game. But, credit to Steve Fisher’s bunch, they made the most of the second chance by nailing a three from Malik Pope to send the game to overtime and then taking care of business from there. With the win, San Diego State continued its ascension up to #44 in the RPI and #64 in KenPom. What this all means is that there is some lingering hope around the conference that a second NCAA Tournament bid is possible. That would of course have to mean some team will knock off the Aztecs in the conference tournament, but six of those 11 conference wins have been decided by only one possession. In other words, if the luck factor in close games reverts to the mean, the Aztecs will have some losses coming between now and Selection Sunday.

With Saturday Night's Win, The Aztecs Again Have Full Control In The Mountain West (USA Today)

With Saturday Night’s Win, The Aztecs Again Have Full Control In The Mountain West (USA Today)

Power Rankings

  • San Diego State (18-6, 9-0) – Last week we dug into the Aztecs’ ongoing streak of what was then 159 straight wins (and 224 out of 225) when leading games with five minutes left to play. Since that post, the Aztecs found themselves ahead two more times with five minutes left, and in both games, with the outcome with a minute to go was severely in doubt. Against Colorado State, it was the Rams turning it over on three consecutive possessions and a contested layup at the buzzer that came up short. Against New Mexico it was a poorly executed in-bounds and a technically incorrect (but completely understandable) call. But here we stand with the streak now at 161 games. It’s not exactly on par with UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. Or DiMaggio’s hitting streak. But it is sort of mind-boggling. And I’ll certainly take it over the Globetrotters. One other note from the week: big men Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol combined to play 85 minutes and between them went 10-of-13 from the field, scored 20 points, grabbed 21 boards and blocked five shots. However, despite 13 feet and five inches of frontcourt goodness, the pair earned exactly zero free throw attempts.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 2nd, 2016

Its been too darn long since we’ve done one of these, so let’s do this right and get caught up on the Mountain West. We’re basically halfway through conference play with eight of the 11 teams having played at least nine conference games, and San Diego State has clearly established itself as the conference’s best team — off to a 9-0 start that gives them a game-and-a-half lead over two-loss New Mexico. Before we get into the team-by-team rundowns, let’s take a moment to congratulate the conference on the fact that, in an era of the horrors of unbalanced scheduling in large conferences, its brass made sure that the league’s top four teams (San Diego State, New Mexico, Boise State, UNLV) play each other twice. Sure, it’s easier to set that up when the league only has 11 teams (where you only miss a home-and-away schedule against two conference foes), but regardless of how, that part of the schedule is right this year.

Power Rankings

  • San Diego State (16-6, 9-0) – I wrote plenty about the Aztecs yesterday, so go read that article first. But, there’s also the matter of San Diego State’s 17 million straight wins when leading with five minutes remaining in a game (actually, the number now stands at 159 straight). Now, that number sounds impressive, and it is (Mark Zeigler noted three weeks ago that the next longest streak in the conference is at 14 wins). But even more impressively, that time 160 games ago when the Aztecs lost a game after leading at the five-minute mark was when Wyoming hit six threes in the final 4:12 to outscore the Aztecs 24-8 over that stretch. Even crazier: That loss broke another long 65-game Aztec streak of winning games when they were ahead at the five-minute mark. By my math, San Diego State is 224-1 in the last 225 games where it led at the five-minute mark. Go read that excellent Zeigler article about the streak. There’s a lot more great stuff in there too.
San Diego State's History Of Winning Games When Ahead At The Five-Minute Mark Is Insane (San Diego State University)

San Diego State’s History Of Winning Games When Ahead At The Five-Minute Mark Is Insane (San Diego State University)

  • New Mexico (13-8, 6-2) – After getting handled by the Runnin’ Rebels in UNLV’s first game post-Dave Rice a couple weeks back, the Lobos came back and got surprised by Wyoming in The Pit. It was easy to write New Mexico off at that time, and wins at San Jose State and at home against Air Force did nothing to change that idea. But Saturday night in Boise changed this up indeed. Behind a 30 points from Elijah Brown and 21 from Tim Williams, the Lobos had a terrific offensive night, kept their turnovers in check and served notice that despite some early season bumps and bruises, they were going to stick around for awhile. In that loss to Wyoming, sophomore point guard Cullen Neal suffered a concussion and missed the win over San Jose State, but in the two games since then, Neal played his best back-to-back games of the season, averaging 11.5 efficient points and a combined six assists to three turnovers.

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Checking In On… The Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 12th, 2016

It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve done one of these because of holidays and real life, but it is time to jump back in as plenty has gone down in the Mountain West since Christmas. We’ll get to all the goings-on around individual teams below, but if you need a one-sentence summary of the season so far, here you go: Barring completely unforeseen circumstances, the winner of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas will be the conference’s sole representative in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, the league’s second year of existence. And to show just how wacky this league is this year, I’d probably bunch four teams ahead of the pack as favorites to win that tournament. Of those four, three are undefeated in league play. The fourth – UNLV, hasn’t won a conference game and just fired its head coach, Dave Rice. We will get the first two matchups of the year among those four teams this week, so let’s jump into the mess that is the Mountain West.

UNLV's Midseason Separation With Dave Rice Is Apropos For A Messy Year In The Mountain West (Getty Images/E. Miller)

UNLV’s Midseason Separation With Dave Rice Is Apropos For A Messy Year In The Mountain West. (Getty Images/E. Miller)

Power Rankings

1. Boise State (12-4, 3-0)The Broncos are a bright spot. Riding a nine-game winning streak (the seventh-longest streak in the nation), they’re the team that ratings systems like the most. In KenPom, they’re just a notch above the rest of the conference at #79, but their RPI of #49 makes them seem like they have a chance to earn an at-large bid. But, in terms of quality wins, a home win over Oregon is about all there is. And additional quality wins just aren’t coming on the league schedule. Maybe if that nine-game winning streak turns into 16 or something. And maybe if the Broncos run away with the conference at something like 16-2, they could sustain a loss in the conference tourney and still dance, but that’s a whole lot of maybes for a program that won the regular season Mountain West title last year and was “rewarded” by the selection committee with a road game in the First Four. As far as on the court happenings, by now you probably know all about James Webb and Anthony Drmic. Nick Duncan has become a cult figure and if you read this here spot, Mikey Thompson has been a regular feature for four years. But the biggest reason for optimism may be the recent play of sophomore Chandler Hutchison. Coming into Boise last season as the most highly touted recruit in program history, he bumped around and never looked fully comfortable in his 12.3 MPG. Early in the non-conference season, his level of comfort didn’t look all that different and it wasn’t insane to question why he was so highly regarded of a recruit. Well, in three conference games, he’s put on a show. It’s definitely a small sample size, but he’s got the highest offensive rating in conference play thus far after averting 9.3 PPG and 4 RPG while shooting a 67.7% eFG in 23.6 MPG. More important than those numbers, he’s looked comfortable, he’s attacked the rim and flashed his athleticism and is beginning to get it on the defensive end of the court. Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 22nd, 2015

There’s plenty of on-court news that we’ll get to below, but the big news from the last week was from the conference office. As the Mountain West announced that the conference tournament will remain at the Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas through at least 2019, not so hidden in that announcement was the corresponding news that only the top eight teams in the final league standings will be making the trip. First, the venue. While nearly everyone in the conference is supportive of playing the conference tournament in Vegas because of the clear entertainment draw and centralized location, the particulars of playing on UNLV’s home court remain controversial. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher is a vocal opponent of that location, but subsidies for rent on the Thomas & Mack as well as hotel rooms make the decision a virtual economic necessity.

Las Vegas

The Mountain West Tournament will remain in Las Vegas, but fewer teams will be invited.

However, the paring down of invitees is more of a head-scratcher. Sure, commissioner Craig Thompson points to an invitation to the conference tourney as a reward for a strong regular season, but with an eye toward the fan experience, part of the fun of the conference tournament is having everybody at the same venue. Further, just in terms of planning a Vegas vacation in mid-March with weekdays in play, less notice for teams near the cut line does not bode well for maximum attendance. For example, the conference has had 11 members for the past two seasons. In 2013-14, there was a tie for eighth place, with just a one-game drop to ninth. Last season, there were three games separating spots #7 through #10. This year, KenPom currently projects sixth place in the conference at 9-9 with three more teams projected to go 8-10. In all of those scenarios, teams wouldn’t really be clinching a spot for an invitation to the conference tournament until the final week of the regular season, making it more difficult for fans to get time off work to head to Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 9th, 2015

Last week we were bemoaning the fact that the conference’s early season struggles had put it clearly behind the eight-ball. For example, in naming our top five non-conference wins, we had to include UNLV’s win over Cal Poly and Boise State’s win over UC Irvine. This week, however, following the Runnin’ Rebels defeat of Oregon, not only does the Mountain West have another fine scalp, the league has also got a team in those same Rebels with the makings of a legitimate at-large resume. Now, there’s a long, long way between here and Selection Sunday, but at least we can say there is some hope that the Mountain West is something more than a conference-tourney-winner take all one-bid league. And along the way, we’re ready to vault UNLV right into the role of the conference favorite.

UNLV's Most Recent Resume Win Has Dave Rice And Co. As Conference Favorites

UNLV’s Most Recent Resume Win Has Dave Rice And Co. As Conference Favorites.

 Power Rankings

  1. UNLV (7-1) – A technically neutral-site win over Oregon on Friday night gives the Runnin’ Rebels the two best non-conference wins in the Mountain West, arguably three of the top five and put them on the national top 25 radar. What’s more, that game against Oregon showed a lot of the things that have been missing around Vegas in recent years. First, there was far more ball movement that the nine assists on 26 made field goals would have you believe. Second, there was camaraderie and chemistry, all the signs of a group of teammates that actually get along with each other. And third, there were productive coaching adjustments and coherent offensive strategies against changing defenses. Ongoing doubts about Dave Rice’s ability to pull it all together for this team are still reasonable, but there is plenty of reason for hope. And with a trip to Wichita State tonight followed on down the line by dates with Arizona State and Arizona, we’ll continue to get chances to test that hope. Exciting times for the Rebs. Read the rest of this entry »
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Other 26 Previews: Mountain West Conference

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 13th, 2015

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

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Boise State Won The Conference Title Last Year, But Was Rewarded With A Road Game In The NCAA Tournament (Charlie Litchfield/IPT)

Boise State Won The Conference Title Last Year, But Was Rewarded With A Road Game In The NCAA Tournament (Charlie Litchfield/IPT)

Respect. If this conference isn’t careful, it could be on the verge of losing all of the respect it has built up over the course of a long period of competitive basketball. Last season, following Wyoming’s surprise Mountain West Tournament victory, the league went into Selection Sunday hoping to land four teams in the field of 68. Instead, the Cowboys were joined by San Diego State and a woefully underseeded Boise State (regular season champion relegated to a road game against Dayton in the First Four), while Colorado State and its three seniors were entirely left behind. Since 2011, when the conference put two teams (San Diego State and BYU) into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the league has been afforded plenty of respect by the Selection Committee with 14 invitations over the past four seasons. But during that stretch, the Mountain West has also combined to go just 6-14 in the NCAA Tournament, a full six wins below expectations based on its seed line. Worse yet, the conference has dipped from top five conference RPI rankings in 2013 to #10 in 2014 and #13 last season. Not good.

Non-Conference Slate. Part of upping those RPI numbers has to do with scheduling smartly in the non-conference schedule. Back when the Mountain West was earning five NCAA Tournament invitations, some of the credit for that Selection Sunday success had to go to the conference programs massaging their schedules to boost their RPI profiles. It seemed like there was a collective effort to avoid scheduling terrible RPI anchors and, while also scheduling several tough teams with good RPIs, avoiding a brutal schedule to harm the all-important win/loss records. This year? As Matt Stephens of The Coloradoan showed on Monday, if you average the 2014-15 RPIs of this year’s opponents, nobody in the league plays a schedule with an average RPI of stronger than 100th. That’s not good. UNLV has the toughest non-conference slate, with UCLA, Oregon, Wichita State, Arizona State and Arizona dotting the schedule, but those tests are also dragged down by some of the dregs of Division I basketball (Southern Utah, Prairie View A&M, South Dakota). Long story short: the Mountain West has seemingly scheduled it’s way behind the eight-ball from the get-go this season.

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Wyoming, Relentlessness, and a Mountain West Title

Posted by AMurawa on March 14th, 2015

Relentless. It’s the one-word answer Mountain West Tournament MVP Josh Adams chose to describe the play of his Wyoming basketball team this week. It was personified, to just choose one example, by All-Mountain West senior forward Larry Nance Jr. – a year past a torn ACL – who, early in the hard-fought second-half grind-a-thon against San Diego State, blocked a Winston Shepard layup attempt, recovered to challenge his second shot following an offensive rebound, then dove out of bounds to save the ball to his teammate. “We’ve been relentless all year,” Adams expounded on the word. “We’ve been in dogfights all year. This is the style we play. I know a lot of the critiques about us — we’re grinding it out; we’re going to lose energy – but we had a bounce in our step and were able to grind it out all the way to the end of the game, and now we’re going dancing.”

Josh Adams, Mountain West Tournament MVP, Celebrating A Championship

Josh Adams, Mountain West Tournament MVP, Celebrating A Championship

Effort. Between the 3:39 mark at the end of the first half and the 11:29 mark in the second half, Wyoming did not score. Over the course of 15 possessions, the Cowboys had five turnovers, five missed layups and three missed threes. Over that stretch, however, San Diego State was only able to turn a nine-point deficit into a five-point lead mainly because the Pokes were still selling out on every defensive possession. Five seniors and their brothers all fighting to extend their careers. It was tense. It was rough. It was difficult to watch. And it was beautiful. By the time Adams finally knocked the lid off the basket and cut the Aztecs’ lead to two, it was easy to see that the Cowboys weren’t going anywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

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Dunk Town Laramie: America’s Most Likable Team?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 13th, 2015

About four minutes into their quarterfinal win over Utah State on Thursday afternoon, Wyoming’s Larry Nance unsuccessfully attempted to throw down a dunk over his back in traffic. The next time down the court, it was a tomahawk attempt (again unsuccessful) over a couple of Utah State defenders. They were spectacularly entertaining misses. The Cowboys did, however, have more success in their attacks on the rim in the second half, throwing down four increasingly spectacular dunks as they fought back from a seven-point second half deficit to come away with the season-sustaining win. There is a reason this team has earned the moniker of Dunk Town.

Larry Nance And The Cowboys Have Earned The Moniker Of "Dunk Town" (Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune)

Larry Nance And The Cowboys Have Earned The Moniker Of “Dunk Town” (Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune)

“We love it,” said junior guard Josh Adams, author of the Cowboys’ most emphatic dunk on Thursday, when asked about the nickname after the game. “We fully embrace that nickname. And our fans have too.” And so has head coach Larry Shyatt. “It’s a pretty good percentage shot,” he said, a master of understatement. “I sort of like seeing [Derek Cooke’s] elbows above the rim when they drop it off to him.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 4th, 2015

Team of the Week

Boise State – I just wrote a couple thousand words about the Broncos, so go read that piece if you want any longwinded explanations of why they’re the obvious pick here. In breaking San Diego State’s 29-game home winning streak, the Broncos put themselves in the driver’s seat for the conference championship and the #1 seed in the conference tournament. There was no other reasonable option.

Those Around The Boise State Basketball Program Have Plenty of Reason To Smile (Matt Cilley, AP Photo)

Those Around The Boise State Basketball Program Have Plenty of Reason To Smile. (Matt Cilley, AP Photo)

Player of the Week

Derrick Marks, Sr, Boise State – I thought for a second about getting creative and going with Marvelle Harris, and Utah State put together a couple good wins. But let’s not be crazy here. While Marks’ performance against San Diego State was a little rugged offensively, that’s to be expected against such a fearsome defense. And still, check out these numbers for the week: 24.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 2.0 SPG, and a 50% eFG. All told, this week was about Marks getting his team over the hump and into position to win a conference title. Along the way, he probably sewed up the Player of the Year award, although odds are good that wasn’t his main goal.

 

Derrick Marks, Sr, Boise State – I thought for a second about getting creative and going with Marvelle Harris. Utah State put together a couple good wins and I thought about going with an Aggie, but picking one meant ignoring the others. And really, let’s not be crazy here. While Marks’ performance against San Diego State was a little rugged offensively, such is to be expected against such a fearsome defense. And still, for the week, check out these numbers: 24 PPG, 5 RPG, 3 APG, 2 SPG, and a 50 eFG%. All told, this week was about Marks getting his team over the hump and into position to win a conference title. Along the way, he probably sewed up the Player of the Year. But odds are good, that wasn’t his main goal.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 24th, 2015

Team of the Week

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)

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.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 10th, 2015

Team of the Week

Air Force – Maybe it is proof of the power of the home-court in the Mountain West (note that Ken Pomeroy carves out an altitude exception here to the declining value of the home court). Maybe it was visiting teams overlooking the previously 2-8 Falcons, a team run down by injuries. Maybe it was just plain old college basketball craziness. But, whatever the case, Air Force invited both New Mexico and Wyoming into Clune Arena this weekend and sent both those teams packing with losses. Against the Lobos on Wednesday, they scored the final nine points of the game, holding New Mexico scoreless for nearly seven minutes down the stretch, to pull out the close win. Then over the weekend, they absolutely put it to a Larry Nance-less Wyoming squad on the way to a 23-point victory. While they’ve struggled with injuries all year long, the Falcons are now about as healthy as they’re going to get this year and seem intent on making the most of it.

Dave Pilipovich and Air Force Are Riding High After A 2-0 Week (Isaiah Downing, USA Today)

Dave Pilipovich and Air Force Are Riding High After A 2-0 Week (Isaiah Downing, USA Today)

Player of the Week

Derrick Marks, Sr, Boise State – There were quite a few other solid candidates for this honor this week (Marek Olesinski, J.J. Avila, Rashad Vaughn and Marks’ own teammates James Webb for starters). But really, as long as Marks keeps playing as well as he currently is, I’m just going to keep him penciled in about this spot. This week, his numbers actually dipped a bit, as the length and athleticism of San Diego State gave him trouble on Sunday and held him below a 100 offensive rating for the first time since January 10. Still, Marks manufactured 19 points in a variety of ways and kept the Broncos rolling on their way to the team’s seventh-straight win. For the week, Marks average 21 points, five boards, a couple assists and a couple steals while shooting it at a 56.9 eFG%.

Newcomer of the Week

Rashad Vaughn, Fr, UNLV – The final result certainly wasn’t what Runnin’ Rebel fans wanted, as a one-point loss at Colorado State in one of the more entertaining games of the season left UNLV out in the cold. But Vaughn was spectacular early and often throughout this game, scoring 30 points on 21 field goal attempts, including six three-pointers. For the year, Vaughn sits behind only Marks among conference players in scoring average.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 4th, 2015

Team of the Week

UNLV – With a 2-0 week, including a road win against in-state rival Nevada, the Runnin’ Rebels got back to 4-5 in the first half of conference play. The young and talented group certainly has underachieved to this point, but each of their conference losses has been decided by two possessions or less. And with a three-game winning streak as the team takes the turn, and with opponents like Fresno State, Boise State, Wyoming and San Diego State all due a visit to the Thomas & Mack, Dave Rice’s club could be ready to turn things around down the stretch.

Following Five Conference Losses Decided By Two Possessions Or Less, UNLV And Christian Wood Could Change Their Second Half Luck (Ethan Miller, Getty Images)

Following Five Conference Losses Decided By Two Possessions Or Less, UNLV And Christian Wood Could Change Their Second Half Luck (Ethan Miller, Getty Images)

Player of the Week

Christian Wood, So, UNLV – The 6’11” sophomore, once considered a soft, perimeter-bound wanna-be just got done posting double-doubles number 11 and 12 this week, averaging 16.5 points and 10.5 boards in this week’s games. For the season, he’s not only putting up 14.4 points and 9.5 boards, but he’s boosted his shooting numbers, turned up the gas on the defensive end and found a way to earn his 70+% free throw shooting to the line at a higher rate. We’d sure still love to see him launch his 20-something-percent three-point shot far less often (he’s jacking better than two and a half threes per contest), but the light is beginning to click on for Wood.

Newcomer of the Week

Malik Pope, Fr, San Diego State – Averages of just eight points and four boards in 18 minutes per game don’t begin to do justice to the energy that the 6’10” frehman has brough to the Aztecs in his recent emergence. In the four consecutive games now that Pope has played 17 or more minutes as part of the regular rotation for Steve Fisher, San Diego State has average 1.12 points per possession. His ability to knock in threes (he’s 11/22 from deep on the year) or put the ball on the deck and go dunk on someone gives this offense some punch they sorely needed.

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