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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O26 Weekly Awards: Saint Louis, Billy Baron, David Carter & Portland

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 15th, 2014

Conference play was in full swing this week, offering up numerous monster performances, several sizable comebacks and just plain excellent basketball games (see: Akron vs. Ohio on Sunday night… seriously, watch the replay). Let’s get to it with some weekly awards for top O26 performers.

O26 Team of the Week

Dwayne Evans and the Billikens are our O26 Team of the Week. (Robert Leifheit Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports)

Dwayne Evans and the Billikens are our O26 Team of the Week. (Robert Leifheit/USA TODAY Sports)

Saint Louis. With all due respect to UMass and VCU, last week showed why Saint Louis remains the team to beat in the A-10 until proven otherwise. The Billikens — with relatively little fanfare, despite jumping out to the school’s best start in 20 years — quietly tipped off conference play at Rhode Island on Tuesday night against a fast-improving Rams team fresh off an impressive win at LSU. It had all the makings of a trap game, with Saint Louis perhaps looking ahead to its looming clash against Dayton on Saturday. And sure enough, the Billikens almost fell into the trap; Dan Hurley’s group gave them all they could handle for a full 40 minutes. Trailing by a seemingly-insurmountable 11 points in the second half, the Rams mounted a 23-7 run to take a five-point lead with under nine to go, energizing the crowd and putting all the pressure on the occasionally-stagnant Saint Louis offense. It might have spelled trouble had Jordair Jett not been having the best offensive game of his career. But indeed he was, and the senior guard poured in 11 points in the game’s final nine minutes, knocking down a huge three and several key free throws to give the Billikens the one-point edge with a few ticks remaining before coming up with the game-clinching steal in the final moment. In all, the eventual conference player of the week finished with a career high 31 points and led his team to a 59-58 victory.

It was Saturday’s tilt with Dayton that was tabbed as a potential loss, with the offensively-proficient Flyers coming in as slight favorites at home according to KenPom. Saint Louis was having none of that, though. The Billikens took the lead midway through the first half and never let go, playing vintage, suffocating defense and finding enough patient looks offensively to coast to a 67-59 victory. It was the type of game we’ve seen so many times from this team: The opponent, ostensibly within reach, scraps and claws until it becomes clear that the Saint Louis defense simply will not let up — each player in position, rotating to their spots, aggressively defending the three point line — and a comeback is completely hopeless. Dwayne Evans led the charge offensively with a crisp 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Now 15-2 (2-0 A-10), the Billikens are ranked second overall in defensive efficiency, have crept into the AP Top 25 and again look well-equipped to make a run at the conference title, and perhaps more, by season’s end.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 14th, 2014

Go home Mountain West, you’re drunk! How else to explain looking at the standings two weeks in and seeing Nevada – they of the eight non-conference losses, including to such luminaries as Pacific, Cal State Bakersfield, Morehead State, and New Orleans – alone atop the conference standings? How about Boise State and UNLV, two teams expected to contend for NCAA Tournament bids prior to the season, sitting back at 1-2? How about the worst team in the conference, San Jose State, giving New Mexico everything the Lobos can handle? How about the conference, home of terrific home court advantages up and down the West, sporting just a combined 10-9 record in league play so far? How about a San Diego State team in a rebuilding year with a work-in-progress offense carrying the banner for the conference with a top 15 ranking in the most recent RTC Top 25? Face it. Not a lot in this conference makes a ton of sense this year. And it is fascinating.

Deonte Burton Has Led A Wolf Pack Resurgence In Conference Play (US Presswire)

Deonte Burton Has Led A Wolf Pack Resurgence In Conference Play. (US Presswire)

Team of the Week

Nevada – This team was – not to put too fine a point on it – awful in the non-conference. They didn’t share they ball, they couldn’t rebound, they couldn’t defend. Less patient athletic directors may have begun their next coaching searches before Christmas. Now, while we’ve still no reason to suspect that the Wolf Pack are actually going to challenge for the conference title, much less an NCAA Tournament bid, these guys have turned into a real team. You actually want to find a way to watch them just to see what’s going on. They’ve got an NBA talent in Deonte Burton; they’ve got newcomer A.J. West providing some toughness up front; and they’ve got a handful of talented ancillary parts. And with sophomore Marqueze Coleman now back from injury, they’re starting to get back to whole. And – get this – they’re actually allowing less than a point per possession in four conference games. Maybe you can believe in this team, at least for a little while.

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A College Basketball Resolution For 2014: Get To Know Nevada’s Deonte Burton

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 9th, 2014

There’s a chance, Mr. or Mrs. Diehard college hoops fan, that you don’t know who Deonte Burton is. No, we aren’t talking about the Marquette swingman (although that might also be a conversation worth having, after he authored this late entry for the dunk of 2013). The Deonte Burton you need to know had produced a trio of productive individual campaigns before this 2013-14 season, but here in his final go-around, both the volume and efficiency of that production has exploded. Finding a national spotlight can be difficult when you are starring on a mediocre team in a self-proclaimed “little city” (even if it may be the “biggest little city in the world”), but it’s time for folks outside of Reno to start taking note of Nevada’s explosive senior. And if the surprising Wolfpack’s newfound winning ways somehow manage to keep up? There will be no choice but to appreciate the player at the center of the surge.

He Has Been Brilliant All Season, But Deonte Burton Put On A Special Show Wednesday Night At The Thomas And Mack Center- Even By His Lofty Standards

He Has Been Brilliant All Season, But Deonte Burton Put On A Special Show Wednesday Night At The Thomas And Mack Center- Even By His Lofty Standards

After a 74-71 victory over UNLV in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, Nevada is suddenly alone atop the Mountain West at 3-0. The quick start marks a drastic reversal of fortune for a team that won just three conference games all of last season, and entered 2014 with an entirely underwhelming 5-8 overall record. Wins over San Jose State (on the road) and Wyoming set the stage for the Wolfpack’s victory in the battle for the Silver State, but this latest triumph was far from guaranteed early. UNLV built an 11-point lead late in the first half, but in those critical pre-intermission minutes when second-half momentum is always on the line, Burton snatched all that impetus the Rebels had previously held. In the span of 80 seconds, three consecutive contested, step-back Burton jumpers found the bottom of the net, and the Wolfpack headed to the locker room down just two. It was as acute a pivot point in momentum as you will find, and it propelled Nevada to an 11-0 run out of the locker room. This spurt created some permanent separation, as the UNLV deficit wouldn’t shrink to below six again until the meaningless final seconds.

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Checking in On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 8th, 2014

After the slowdown around the holidays, the Mountain West is back in full swing. Conference play is underway; everybody has played at least one game against a conference opponent; and San Diego State ended non-conference play on a big high, scoring a thoroughly impressive win at Kansas over the weekend. There’s a lot to get to, so let’s jump right in, after recognizing that right now we have Air Force and Nevada – two teams we have been making fun of all season – tied atop the conference standings with 2-0 records.

Team of the Week

Behind Player Of The Week Xavier Thames, The Aztecs Are Outperforming Their Expectations (Kent Horner, Getty Images)

Behind Player Of The Week Xavier Thames, The Aztecs Are Outperforming Their Expectations (Kent Horner, Getty Images)

San Diego State – The Aztecs got conference play underway well by going on the road to Colorado State, getting a good early start, and then maintaining a solid lead the rest of the way. Then on Sunday, they capped off a dream day for San Diego sports fans, backing up the Chargers’ playoff win with a win of their own at Allen Fieldhouse. They’re not a perfect team, but this squad likes each other, works exceedingly well together, and Steve Fisher is getting every last drop out of it in what is turning out to be yet another masterful coaching job. While we maybe have been a step behind on fully believing in this team, those days are over; the Aztecs are the clear favorite in the Mountain West.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on December 11th, 2013

We’ve talked about it a lot around these parts this year, since before the season even began — so many Mountain West teams putting all their eggs in a very small scheduling basket. For instance, Utah State’s only really quality non-conference game was its rivalry game with BYU. After losing that one, it was assured that their best win prior to the calendar flipping over to conference play would be at UC Santa Barbara – a good victory for sure, but not one to pin your NCAA Tournament hopes on. To make matters worse, Utah State backed up that BYU loss with a home loss to Pacific. So now the Aggies sit at 5-2; they’re lucky to have an RPI in the low 40s; and they face the prospect of needing a very strong run through the Mountain West on their first go-round in order to get themselves in the NCAA Tournament talk later this year.

Preston Medlin And Utah State Don't Have A Lot To Cheer About After Dropping A Home Game to Pacific (Rick Egan, Salt Lake Tribune)

Preston Medlin And Utah State Don’t Have A Lot To Cheer About After Dropping A Home Game to Pacific (Rick Egan/Salt Lake Tribune)

Likewise, Boise State went out and put together a schedule not befitting for a squad with borderline Top 25 talent and arguably the best team in school history. Certainly, they’re in the midst of the toughest stretch of their non-conference schedule, what with a trip to Kentucky on Tuesday night followed by a visit from an undefeated Saint Mary’s team on Saturday. But, as could have been expected, the Broncos struck out against the talented Wildcats, getting killed on the glass and at the rim and not being able to find enough good clean looks from deep against their long and athletic guards. Now all their hopes for a quality non-conference win get pinned on Saturday’s game against the Gaels. Again, on the basis of six wins in seven games, the Broncos are fortunate to have an RPI of #40, but with no resume wins in the non-conference, those four conference games against New Mexico and San Diego State in conference will loom large.

You see, it is only the Aztecs and the Lobos who have succeeded in coming away with some quality wins in the non-conference. SDSU has scalps from Creighton and Marquette, while New Mexico’s got UAB and Cincinnati on the wall already, with Kansas in Kansas City looming on Saturday and Marquette up the following Saturday. None of the victims of the Lobos or Aztecs are elite teams, but they’ve at least helped their teams to RPIs of #11 and #17, respectively. At the quarter-pole of the year, those two squads are alone among Mountain West teams on the good side of the resume ledger.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on December 3rd, 2013

Hooray! The Mountain West has its hero. November is in the books and the conference finally has a victory worth crowing about under its collective belt. In fact, San Diego State scored a couple really meaningful wins this week at the Wooden Legacy, knocking off both Creighton and Marquette to earn the tournament title. Still, I for one have yet to put a MW team in my weekly national Top 25. I’ve considered New Mexico previously and have kept them just on the outside looking in. Boise State also remains in the back of my mind, where they’ll stay until they play anybody of note. And the Aztecs were among my final cuts this week. So what leaves SDSU still needing to prove itself? I know they’re going to defend like nuts all year long and stay in games that way, but I just don’t believe that Xavier Thames is going to be able to knock down shots at his current rate forever, and aside from him, there aren’t a whole lot of polished offensive players on this team. Still, there is no denying that the Aztecs have looked awfully good so far this year and are beginning to earn the benefit of my doubt.

Xavier Thames and A Boisterous Crowd Helped San Diego State Capture The Wooden Legacy Title (USA Today Sports)

Xavier Thames and A Boisterous Crowd Helped San Diego State Capture The Wooden Legacy Title (USA Today Sports)

Team of the Week

San Diego State – We’ll get to Thames shortly, but there have been a lot of guys stepping up for this squad who deserve attention. J.J. O’Brien has been the most regular second option for the Aztecs, averaging nearly 14 points per game before a hand injury limited his production on Sunday. Matt Shrigley has emerged from his redshirt year to display not only a nice shooting touch but a good game off the bounce. Winston Shepard has clearly worked on his body and his game in the offseason, and he’s well on his way to becoming a great college player. And true freshman Dakarai Allen is out of the gates with a strong start to his college career. Even if Thames does slow down a bit, there are some options here who could pick up the slack.

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