Mountain West Quarterfinal Roundup

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 14th, 2014

Wednesday was a busy day at the Thomas and Mack, with eight quarterfinalists battling for Friday reservations in the MW Tournament semis. Like they have all season, San Diego State and New Mexico found a way to distance themselves from the rest of the league on Thursday, but UNLV and Boise State were forced to work a little harder for their spot in the semifinals. Here are a few thoughts from each of the four MW quarterfinals:

San Diego State-Utah State

No surprises in the opener today. Five days after securing the conference regular season title, San Diego State made clear their intentions to double-dip with a MW Tournament crown, waxing Utah State 73-39. Balance and unselfishness were the themes of the day for the Aztecs, as SDSU had seven different players contribute six or more points, while 19 of their 24 field goals were assisted. Xavier Thames’ season high seven assists paced SDSU in that category. It was a solid day for the Mountain West Player of the Year (who also chipped in 15 points), who also added a season-high seven assists. Steve Fisher obviously hasn’t invented the concept of a scoring point guard here, but the tidbit is a subtle reminder of just how reliant the Aztecs are on their point guard to score the ball. San Diego State’s slow-tempo offense is also built around offensive rebounding and opportunistic finishing, and only three teams assist on a fewer percentage of field goals than the Aztecs. It’s an unconventional offensive formula, but at least on this day, Steve Fisher’s offense kept pace with their spirit-crushing defense.

X(avier) has marked the spot all season long for the Aztecs. On Thursday, the Mountain West Player of the Year contributed 15 points and seven assists in a rout of Utah State. (AP)

X(avier) has marked the spot all season long for the Aztecs. On Thursday, the Mountain West Player of the Year contributed 15 points and seven assists in a rout of Utah State. (AP)

Utah State wasn’t supposed to beat San Diego State, but they also weren’t supposed to lose by 33. It’s been that kind of season for Stew Morrill’s club, who has underachieved significantly in their first go-around in the Mountain West. Unfortunately for the folks up in Logan, the departure of four senior starters means that things may get worse before they get better, but the decades of consistency under Morrill should eventually translate into Mountain West success. As for the possible continuation of this season, the CBI or CIT may come calling for the 18-14 Aggies, but there is no guarantee that the man in charge is ready to accept a bid. When asked about postseason plans after today’s demolition, Morrill’s rhetorical question said it all about this Utah State season — “who the hell are we to think we might go to the postseason?” Read the rest of this entry »

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Four Questions Previewing the Mountain West Tournament

Posted by Andrew Murawa & Bennet Hayes on March 12th, 2014

RTC Mountain West correspondent Andrew Murawa and national columnist Bennet Hayes will both be in Las Vegas this week for coverage of the Mountain West Tournament. San Diego State and New Mexico appear to be on a crash course for a third and final meeting in the tournament final, but there are plenty of questions worth asking before play kicks off on Wednesday afternoon. Murawa and Hayes weigh in below on four of the most pressing.

Which is the most dangerous team outside of New Mexico and San Diego State?

Could "Khem Kong" And A Raucous Thomas And Mack Center Crowd Propel UNLV To An Unexpected Mountain West Tournament Run?

Could “Khem Kong” And A Raucous Thomas And Mack Center Crowd Propel UNLV To An Unexpected Mountain West Tournament Run?

AM:  UNLVWell, I jumped the gun and got my answers in first, so while Bennet gets stuck having to make a case for someone besides UNLV, I get to tell you why the Runnin’ Rebels – you know, the team playing the Mountain West tournament on its own home floor – has the best chance to win this thing. And honestly, even if they weren’t playing at the Thomas & Mack, the Rebels would still be my pick, even if they’re still something of a longshot compared to the two favorites. They’ve been inconsistent all year, and that isn’t going to change, but in Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith, they’ve got offensive firepower, and in Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, they’ve got the hard-working defensive grinders in place. This team should have been better than it was this year and the conference tournament would be a good place for Dave Rice’s crew to turn things around. For what it’s worth, UNLV has won the MW tournament three times at the Thomas & Mack, but the most recent is six years ago; maybe they’re due?

BH: Boise StateIn all likelihood, to win the Mountain West title this week, you will have to beat both New Mexico and San Diego State. No team was able to accomplish that feat in the regular season, but if there’s a team in Vegas capable of doing it, it’s the Broncos. They split with New Mexico in the regular season (winning in Boise) and lost two games to the Aztecs by a total of five points, so don’t let their 9-9 conference record fool you – this team can compete with anyone in the MW. Of course, they’ve proven capable of losing to almost anyone in the conference as well (see: Saturday against Air Force), but Las Vegas offers Boise a chance at a clean slate. Four wins in Vegas would go a long ways towards erasing the disappointment of a season that began with high hopes.

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College Basketball by the Tweets: Tony Romo, #cheerfortheears, Deonte Burton, and More…

Posted by Nick Fasulo (@nickfasuloSBN) on March 11th, 2014

Nick Fasulo is an RTC correspondent who writes the column College Basketball By the Tweets, a look at the world of college hoops through the prism of everyone’s favorite social media platform. You can find him on Twitter @nickfasuloSBN.

Mr. Buffett may lose points for looking like a fair weather fan, counting his money in Omaha and only coming out to play when the Bluejays are on the verge of making a deep NCAA Tournament run, but any billionaire willing to be photographed with stickers on his face is cool in my book.

Joel Embiid Out For Big 12 Tournament

Like Syracuse in 2012 (Fab Melo) and Cincinnati in 2000 (Kenyon Martin), Final Four contender Kansas has lost an important big man at the worst possible time. Joel Embiid, ruled out of the Big 12 Tournament with his NCAA Tournament status unknown because of a stress fracture in his back, has offered up a handful of angles as to what it all means for Kansas. To the hot sports takes!

#cheerfortheears Reaches Its Appropriate Climax

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What’s Trending: Deonte Burton’s Dunk of the Year, Jim Harbaugh, Senior Night, and More…

Posted by Nick Fasulo (@nickfasuloSBN) on March 7th, 2014

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Nick Fasulo (@nickfasuloSBN) is your weekly host.

Deonte Burton Dunk

Nevada’s Deonte Burton undoubtedly delivered the dunk of the year in college hoops. You’d probably seen it at least 15 times in the past 36 hours, but another binge watch is good for the soul.

The reaction from Twitter was swift…

burton dunk

Russdiculous

The latest chapter in the fantastic college career of Mr. Russell Smith was written Wednesday night, as the Cardinals’ senior guard scored 22 second half points (including six three-pointers) in a win over SMU.  Here’s to hoping the graphic below is used at the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on February 18th, 2014

It’s February 18. Valentine’s Day has come and gone, as has President’s Day. We’ll flip the calendar to March in less than two weeks. There are exactly three weeks of conference play remaining. In other words: In case you haven’t noticed, another season has almost entirely slipped past us. But, over these final three weeks there is a lot still to be decided. Our twosome at the top of the conference — San Diego State (11-1) and New Mexico (10-2) — each dropped a game this week, but with their first of two remaining regular season battles on Saturday and with both schools yet to visit third-place UNLV, there could be a lot of movement atop the leader board. The other big spot to look at in the standings is fifth place. Why? Because the top five seeds will all get first-round byes at the Mountain West Tournament, while the other six teams will be competing an extra day for a chance to get to Thursday’s quarterfinals. Right now, Wyoming and Nevada are in the fourth and fifth spots, but Boise State and Fresno State lurk just behind. And speaking of those Broncos, last week we talked about the climb they face if they are going to get back in the conversation for an at-large NCAA bid. Give them credit because they got off on the right foot, knocking off New Mexico by a point in Boise last Wednesday night, bringing their record in games decided by two possessions or fewer since Christmas to 2-6.

Anthony Drmic Helped Lead Boise State To Its Best Win Of The Year, Over New Mexico Last Wednesday (Adam Eschbach, Idaho Press-Tribune)

Anthony Drmic Helped Lead Boise State To Its Best Win Of The Year, Over New Mexico Last Wednesday (Adam Eschbach, Idaho Press-Tribune)

Team of the Week

Wyoming – When you welcome a top five team into your arena and come away with a solid win, as the Cowboys did last Tuesday night against San Diego State, you’ve got a strong head start in the race for my Team of the Week. Wyoming turned on the offense against a great Aztecs defense and got big nights out of just about everyone who saw the floor, with Riley Grabau in particular coming up big when most needed. The Cowboys followed that up by going on the road and uglying one out over a bad San Jose State team to improve to 7-5 in conference play. And once again, head coach Larry Shyatt has his team overachieving.

Player of the Week

Khem Birch, Junior, UNLV – He only played once, but what a game it was, as the junior big man fell just one additional blocked shot short of a triple-double against Utah State on Saturday as he helped his Runnin’ Rebels win their sixth game in seven outings. Birch dominated the middle with 10 defensive boards (and a couple on the offensive end) and nine blocks in helping to limit the Aggies inside while also jump-starting UNLV’s transition game.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on February 11th, 2014

We’re in the back stretch of conference play and, as we have expected for the past couple months, we now have clear separation between the top two teams in the conference – San Diego State and New Mexico, which have combined for only one conference loss – and the rest of the pack. Nevada dropped a pair of road games; UNLV lost on the road; and Wyoming dropped a pair as well, giving the second place Lobos a three-game lead in the loss column over the third-place team. Even more clearly, this looks like a two-bid league come March, barring a big surprise in the conference tournament. The third highest-rated team in the RPI is Boise State, checking in at #68 following a heartbreaker against the Aztecs.

A Dagger Of A Three From Dwayne Polee Leaves Boise State In Dire Straits (Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman)

A Dagger Of A Three From Dwayne Polee Leaves Boise State In Dire Straits. (Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman)

Let’s play a fun game of “let’s pretend” and say that the Broncos catch fire, win out in conference play and get to the championship game in Vegas before bowing out to either San Diego State or New Mexico. Never mind that this team hasn’t shown any indication that its capable of that type of streak, but that would put them at 24-10 with a win over New Mexico in the regular season and a win over the Lobos again (although possibly San Diego State) in the MW Tournament semifinal. That would give them two wins over New Mexico as by far their best wins of the season, with Utah – currently ranked #103 in RPI – ranks as their next best win. Not exactly the resume of an NCAA Tournament team.

Team of the Week

San Diego State – In a week where three conference schools scored a road win as part of a 2-0 week, the Aztecs had the most impressive road win by going to Boise State, roaring back from a 13-point deficit in the middle of the second half, then getting a big go-ahead three-pointer from Dwayne Polee with five seconds left to break the Broncos’ spirit. The Aztecs followed that up by coming home and handing it to Nevada in workmanlike fashion while in the process tying a school-record 20-game winning streak.

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How San Diego State Makes the Most of Its Talent

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 10th, 2014

I’ve written plenty about San Diego State this season. And while most of it has been glowing, there have been a lot of “yeah… but” moments. Yeah, they’re great defensively; yeah they’re athletic and long; yeah they’re well-coached; but then I would harp on some of their perceived weaknesses. After watching them wear down and put away a solid Nevada team on Saturday night at Viejas Arena for their 20th consecutive win, today there will be no mention of those weaknesses. Because one of the things that makes this Aztecs team so great is that they play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. The story of this team is that they find a way to do what they want to do, while not letting their opponent do what they want to do. They’re like an unwelcome visitor reclining on your couch and cracking a beer; they get comfortable and prevent you from doing same.

In Front Of Just Another Raucous Viejas Arena Crowd, San Diego State Ran Off Its 20th Consecutive Win

In Front Of Just Another Raucous Viejas Arena Crowd, San Diego State Ran Off Its 20th Consecutive Win

Before every game, Steve Fisher puts up a list of keys to success on the white board in the locker room. Some of them are basic and general: rebound the ball, limit turnovers, etc. Some are more involved, such as a goal to generate at least one 8-0 run per half, or to make more free throws than the other team takes. But each of these gives a window into the priorities for this squad. Most of it begins on the defensive end, like that goal for runs, something Fisher plans for. “It comes with staying with it and not allowing them to get an easy basket, not making a foolish turnover or giving them a second chance to end a run, and eventually you’re going to have a chance to get one of those,” said Fisher Saturday night. “That’s the earmark of any real good team; you play even for awhile and then all of a sudden you have a spurt.” They didn’t get one of those spurts in either half on Saturday night, coming up just short with a pair of 7-0 runs instead. There was one right at the end of the first half where the Aztecs responded to the Wolf Pack taking a one-point lead by forcing three turnovers over the course of four possessions, all of which resulted in transition opportunities. In the second half they widened a seven-point margin to a 14-point lead on the back of another turnover and getting to the line. On Wednesday night against Boise State, it was a 15-0 run, marked not only by forced turnovers, but also by good, solid, lockdown defense.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 4th, 2014

It’s the first week in February, and we’re basically halfway through the conference season (believe it or not). So for the most part this week, our Mountain West check-in will be a review of the season to this point combined with  look forward, while just touching on a handful of stories from this past week.

First, the conference race. San Diego State remains atop the standings without a blemish in conference play. They’re ranked fifth in the nation and in the RTC25 and in strong contention for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But New Mexico has just one conference loss and still has two games with the Aztecs remaining on its schedule. A game back of those two, you’ll find the surprise team of conference play – Nevada – sitting at 7-2. How this makes any sense is still unclear as the Wolf Pack were terrible in non-conference play and have looked every bit of their record in conference; they can no longer be regarded as fluky. Despite Nevada’s successful run in conference play, the line for serious contention for at-large consideration in this conference is drawn right between the Lobos and the Wolf Pack. Right now New Mexico looks like a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team; whereas everybody south of the #2 spot in the conference probably needs to win the Mountain West Tournament to get a bid.

Steve Fisher, San Diego State

Steve Fisher Has His Aztecs Atop The Mountain West Standings And Again Inside the National Top Five. (Gus Ruelas/AP)

As for awards, Coach of the Year is the easy one – Steve Fisher is not only the heavy favorite to win the MW Coach of the Year award, but he’s probably the favorite nationally as well. Despite a less than favorable finish in our ranking of Mountain West coaches last week, Nevada’s David Carter really does deserve at least some consideration.

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Ranking the Mountain West Coaches

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 30th, 2014

Any time you get around to comparing one coach to another, it’s a shaky situation. Isn’t the real decision about who is the better coach decided on the court? Sure, one coach may have more talent than another, but then again, isn’t pulling in talent part of the job description? So, prior to unveiling my rankings of the coaches in the Mountain West, lets offer up some criteria. For the most part, recruiting is excluded from this analysis. The question that we’ll attempt to answer instead is this: Pick any random team in the country — you don’t know its roster or its strengths and weaknesses — which Mountain West coach would give you the best chance over this and the next couple of seasons to get the most out of those players and leave the program in the best possible place at the end?

Well, here’s one man’s take, feel free to disagree.

Steve Fisher, San Diego State

The Dean Of Mountain West Coaches, Steve Fisher Is Among The Best In The Nation. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

  1. Steve Fisher, San Diego State – The results speak for themselves. Not only are the Aztecs the best team in the conference this year, Fisher’s done the most unbelievable job of building a program in the conference. Seriously, his track record at SDSU may not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as elite program-builders with national titles under their belts like Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun, but this trajectory is very, very close. Put it this way: There’s one sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in this conference and it is this man. He’s head and shoulders above the rest. The knock on him when he was at Michigan was that he could recruit well but wasn’t much of a teacher or a tactician. And earlier in his career at San Diego State, he struggled with some end-game scenarios (the 2006 NCAA Tournament First Round loss to Indiana still upsets me). But these days, his record in unimpeachable. He gets his players to improve from one season to the next and throughout their careers. Even while bringing in solid talent, he gets his team to exceed expectations. The team that he puts on the court is something that his supportive community can be proud of. Not only is Fisher far and away the best coach in the Mountain West, he’s on the very short list of the best in the nation. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 28th, 2014

The Mountain West clearly isn’t as good as it was last year. Two teams receiving invitations to the NCAA Tournament in March seems likely. While there are some future pros in this conference, there is nobody even on the radar for an overall #1 pick like Anthony Bennett was last season. We could spend the next thousand words or so telling you all the things that the Mountain West is not, but let’s focus on this indisputable fact: It remains a pretty darn exciting league. This week, in 10 conference games, there were a total of five different overtime periods; three games were decided by just two points; and five were decided by less than two possessions. And yet, inexplicably, in a conference almost defined by the strength of its home court advantages, the road warriors once again rose up, with fully half of this week’s games won by road teams; for the year, home teams are just 21-18 in conference play.

Not To Be Repetitive, But With A Pair Of Road Wins, The Aztecs Again Win Our Team Of The Week

Not To Be Repetitive, But With A Pair Of Road Wins, The Aztecs Again Win Our Team Of The Week

Team of the Week

San Diego State – When you win two road conference games in one week, you’ve got good credentials for having had the best week in the conference. When you do it in the same week that you get bumped up to #5 in the AP poll, then you’re a lock. Sure, going to San Jose State and getting a win isn’t exactly going to raise many eyebrows, but the Aztecs did what they were supposed to do there: They blew out the Spartans. And then to go from San Jose and beat Utah State in one of the toughest road environments in the country — the first ever home loss in Utah State’s long (ahem) and illustrious history in the Mountain West? That’s a serious accomplishment.

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Bumpy First Ride Through MW For Utah State, But Program Belongs

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 23rd, 2014

Life is not easy on the road in the Mountain West. The conference’s newest member has quickly learned the harsh reality of a league notorious for protecting its home courts, as Utah State dropped its fourth league road game in as many tries Wednesday night, falling 62-42 at UNLV. In a development typical of both conference and program, the Aggies have taken care of business in their two conference home games, but dwindling at-large hopes will only truly be resuscitated away from the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. However, NCAA Tournament or not, Stew Morrill’s program should fast find comfort in its new league. An entrenched coach, a passionate fan base, and a paradigmatic home court all make Utah State a natural fit for the Mountain West. But for now, the Aggies are learning that a step up in class doesn’t always make for the smoothest transition.

After An 0-4 Road Start In MW Play, Preston Medlin And The Aggies Are Looking Forward To Returning Home

After An 0-4 Road Start In MW Play, Preston Medlin And The Aggies Must Be Looking Forward To Returning Home

The last time Utah State switched leagues, it found the changeover a bit more manageable. Back in 2006, Stew Morrill led his charges from the Big West into the WAC, where they went 11-5 in their first regular season, then pushed Nevada to overtime in the WAC Tournament title game. No matter that the WAC brought a significantly enhanced reputation to the table: the Aggies belonged from the get-go. In this round of conference roulette, the MW brings a similar upgrade in class for Utah State. If geography still means anything when it comes to conference affiliation (the AAC may tell you that it doesn’t), the Aggies have positioned themselves in a western league that has to be second to only the Pac-12 in terms of desirability for the Logan, Utah, based school. It’s an elevation well-worth a season – or two, or three – of struggles on the court.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 21st, 2014

With New Mexico taking a home loss to UNLV this week and Nevada slipping back to reality a bit, San Diego State is all alone in the driver’s seat, the last remaining undefeated team in conference play. Now with a 15-game winning streak, the Aztecs have earned their way into the #11 spot in the latest RTC Top 25. Beyond Steve Fisher’s club, however, there are a lot of question marks. The Lobos are the clear #2 team in the conference, but questions remain about their long-term NCAA Tournament aspirations. Our resident bracketologist has them firmly in the field, but future home losses to middling teams are not recommended.

Team of the Week

Boise State Got Back On Track This Week, In Part Due With A Home Win Over Utah State (Devin Ferrell, The Arbiter)

Boise State Got Back On Track This Week, In Part Due With A Home Win Over Utah State. (Devin Ferrell, The Arbiter)

Boise State – The Broncos bounced back from a pair of losses with a very good week. They went on the road and handed Nevada its first loss of the season, and anytime you can get a road win in conference play – no matter what conference you’re in, but especially in this one – you’re doing something right. Then on Saturday they handled Utah State and have seemingly righted the ship, at least for now. Derrick Marks led the way with 20 points per game this week, but it was a full-team affair, with Ryan Watkins helping the Broncos control the paint and Anthony Drmic being his usual solid self. And there was even one more Bronco who made a big and surprising contribution this week, who we’ll get to shortly.

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