Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference. He filed this report from The MW Tournament in Las Vegas Wednesday evening.
While other people around the country have been anointing New Mexico as a legitimate possibility for a #1 seed and a contender for a deep March run, I’ve been reluctant to buy in completely due to the inconsistent offensive production they get from their guards. Between Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Hugh Greenwood, the Lobos get an average of 33.4 points per night, but from one night to the next, you never really know what you’re going to get. Williams dropped 46 against Colorado State to great acclaim, then followed that up with 15 points over the next two games. Greenwood (who, to be fair, is not meant to be a prolific scorer), followed up his season-high 17 points against USC with a pair of four-FGA games. And Snell? For all his immense talent (and make no mistake, the kid has the potential to be on the very short list of best players in this conference), you not only never know what you’re going to get from him offensively on a game-to-game basis, you can see wildly divergent performances within the same game – or even the same half. Tonight, we got the good Tony Snell early, as he knocked down his first four shots, including a couple threes, on the way to 11 points out of the gate. He then proceeded to miss his next seven shots from the field and scored just four more points the rest of the way – all from the free-throw line (although, to be fair, New Mexico makes scoring from the charity stripe a priority). But the good news, and the fact that will keep the Lobos in more games than not, is that all of these guys buy in defensively. Even when Snell either isn’t finding shots or isn’t knocking them down, he – and Williams, and Greenwood – are active and aware defenders. If the Lobos can find a way to get regular consistent production offensively out of these guards, they are a threat to play well into March, and possibly April. But there is also the possibility that Snell, Williams and Greenwood all turn in lackluster offensive performances in the same game and they get bounced early. They got the job done tonight, against a short-handed and over-matched team, but is this type of effort going to get the job done against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams.
While New Mexico is the national story, the story inside the gym was Wyoming’s hustle and determination in keeping the game as close as possible for as long as possible. While this game was never seriously in doubt, the Cowboys were playing for keeps tonight. I lost count of the number of times multiple players on their team got down on the court to get after loose balls, they were consistently selling out on the defensive end and just generally leaving it all out on the court. Their star forward and senior leader Leonard Washington was in foul trouble almost throughout, but recognizing that his team didn’t stand a chance without him, head coach Larry Shyatt kept bringing him back far before you would otherwise suspect; for instance, he was in the game for a long stretch in the first half with three fouls and was brought back into the game almost immediately after picking up his fourth just five minutes into the second half. Still, the grizzled veteran, playing through a back injury that clearly limited him, fouled out with more than seven minutes remaining, effectively sealing the game. Shyatt is still convinced that the Cowboys and their top-70 RPI will earn an invitation to some post-season tournament, otherwise college basketball has seen the last of Washington (and no, he is not, contrary to popular belief, an eighth-year senior), so let’s pause to salute one of the country’s hardest-working, most-versatile players in recent years. Here’s Larry Shyatt on his senior, playing through injury: “For seven games now, he has tried to give this school, this team, this state everything he’s had. He’s the first to admit, like yesterday, he just doesn’t have it right now. The back is just at a point where, the greatest gift he has is lift, and he doesn’t have lift right now. I tell you what, I owe him a lot of respect for the level of toughness he’s tried to show. I just wish he could have performed like Leonard these last six or seven games.” Check out these senior year stats for a minute: 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.4 steals per game, all while playing in one of the nation’s most down-tempo systems. And, somehow, I left him off of not just my All-Mountain West first team, but also off the second team. I was completely wrong on that one. And I have no idea how, or why I did that.