The Other 26: The Mountain West Enters the Spotlight

Posted by IRenko on December 29th, 2012

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

The action was light during this past holiday week, but the Mountain West’s finest took advantage of the lull to thrust themselves into the spotlight with two exciting contests, a pair of one-point games against top 10 teams decided by last-second blocks. In the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, San Diego State fell just short against third-ranked Arizona, losing 68-67 when Xavier Thames’ potential winning shot was blocked by Arizona’s Nick Johnson as time expired. Two days later, New Mexico visited eighth-ranked Cincinnati and emerged with a hard-fought 55-54 victory that was sealed by a last-second block from sophomore Alex Kirk. What was most impressive about these hard-fought contests is how both teams showed that even if you take away some of their key weapons, they are deep and versatile enough to compete.

(Getty Images)

Alex Kirk Led a Tough New Mexico Performance Against Cincinnati (Getty Images)

The Lobos distinguished themselves not just with a victory, but the way they earned it. They are accustomed to racking up points at the free throw line, but reached the charity stripe at only a 20 percent rate, far below their season average and good enough for just six points. But they gritted out the win by patiently moving the ball against Cincy’s high-pressure halfcourt defense to find open shooters and cutters. Junior point guard Kendall Williams turned in a performance befitting of a team leader, stepping up to hit several big three-pointers and finishing the game with a team-high 16 points. But it was Kirk who set the tone with his lunch bucket performance, fearlessly hurling himself into battle against Cincinnati’s imposing frontline and surviving with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, and three blocks, including a game-clinching rejection of a Sean Kilpatrick three-point shot.

The Aztecs, too, can be proud of the fight they showed in Honolulu despite coming up short. Leading scorer Jamaal Franklin was held to just nine points, his lowest output of the season.  But Franklin found other ways to contribute, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out six assists. And San Diego State found other players to carry the scoring load. Chase Tapley, who had already poured in 46 points in the first two games of the tournament, dropped 19 against Arizona to push his season scoring average to 15.8 PPG. And the Aztecs showed how strong their defense is, holding the Wildcats to 37.3 percent shooting.

This Saturday, UNLV will have a chance to intensify this week’s spotlight on the Mountain West when they travel to North Carolina. In a year when the conference seems as deep as any in the country, the only lingering doubt heading into this past week was whether they had the heavyweights to compete with the nation’s best teams. But as the final week of non-conference play comes to a close, the conference’s top teams are leaving little doubt that they can.

Top Ten Rankings

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2012-13 RTC Conference Primers: Summit League

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 25th, 2012

Eli Linton is the RTC correspondent for the Summit League. You can follow him on Twitter at @elilinton.

Top Storylines

  • Out With The Old, In With The New: As most fans of the conference already know, Southern Utah and Oral Roberts are long gone, which makes this season an interesting one to watch in the Summit League. South Dakota State is the heavy favorite to win this conference, but there is now room for new contenders to fill the void. Replacing teams like Southern Utah and Centenary with South Dakota and Omaha has the potential to create more natural rivalries. But there is still room for more new members and with teams like Oakland and IPFW sniffing around for a new conference, there may be more change ahead for the Summit League.
  • Has The Summit Seen Its Best Days? In the past four or five years the Summit League has steadily improved, rising all the way to the 16th-ranked conference in the country. But with the departure of ORU, the talent level has now gone down in the Summit. Outside of Oakland and South Dakota State, there isn’t a nationally competitive team. That the Summit League was unable to keep Oral Roberts around, whether that was by design or not, is going to hurt the conference in the long run. Unless another team can surprisingly rise up and become competitive, the Summit League has likely already seen its best days.

Is This The Year Nate Wolters Gets The National Publicity He Deserves? Leading A Mid-major Favorite In South Dakota State Could Be Enough.

  • Naters gonna Nate: Ever since his 34-point beatdown against Washington and the unprecedented run to the NCAA tournament by South Dakota State last season, Nate Wolters has been getting a lot of time in the national spotlight. From CBS Sports to ESPN and everyone in between,basketball writers are jumping on the Wolters bandwagon, and why not? He is the best player the conference, and being the only player in division I to average 20/5/5 last season, he is arguably one of the best players in the country. He overpowers other guards with his 6’4” frame, getting whatever he needs around the rim, although Doug Gottlieb could still use some convincing. DraftExpress writer Joey Whelan already had Wolters as a mid-second round draft pick back in 2011, so you have to think his stock will continue to rise if he has another monster season. The Summit League has gotten a lot of exposure because of the Wolters cult-heroism, and they get a chance to display some more of their talented players as the troop of NBA scouts follow Wolters from city to city. Guys like Nate are helping make the Summit League relevant to the rest of the country.

Reader’s Take I

 

Predicted Order of Finish 

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Checking In On… the Summit League

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 26th, 2012

Charlie Parks is the RTC correspondent for The Summit League. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieParksRTC.

Reader’s Take

 

The Week That Was

  • League Continues To Impress: If you still underestimate the Summit League, I have some news for you. On January 24, The Summit League was ranked No. 15 in the Collegiate Basketball News RPI (rpiratings.com) and No. 17 in the Sagarin Ratings. The Summit League has a winning percentage of .500 or better against 15 of the 17 mid-major conferences its teams have played this season, a .506 winning percentage against non-league Division I opposition and a .585 winning percentage against all non-league competition. Still not convinced? How about five players currently among the NCAA’s Top 15 in scoring average, more than any other Division I conference. IUPUI’s Alex Young owned the nation’s highest single-game scoring total this season (43), and he is the active points leader in the nation. Oral Roberts is making the most noise nationally, but whomever emerges from the conference will be a challenge for anyone in the Big Dance.

    Can Dominique Morrison Lead The Golden Eagles To An Undefeated Conference Mark?

  • Golden Eagles Flying High: Oral Roberts enters the week having won 17 consecutive Summit League games dating back to last season, The Golden Eagles are closing in on Oakland’s record of 20 games set during the 2009-11 seasons.

Power Rankings

  1. Oral Roberts (18-4, 10-0) — Dominique Morrison has led the Golden Eagles to one of the best starts in school history, but they have a daunting road trip ahead when they travel to the Dakotas for back-to-back games. If they can survive early February without a blemish, they’ll have a strong chance to finish with the first undefeated record in conference history.
  2. South Dakota State (13-5, 8-1) — They have not lost since the meltdown at ORU, and although that game made them fade into the background, they are still a talented and dangerous team. ORU is in the top-45 in RPI, but the Rabbits are right on their heels in the top-60. Golden Eagles beware; there are no free-passes.
  3. North Dakota State (11-6, 6-3) — They have now lost to the top two teams in the conference, but they are still very much in the mix as well. When Taylor Braun plays well, the Bison have a chance to beat anyone. He’s averaging 16.2 points per game and 7.1 rebounds. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking In On… the Summit League

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 19th, 2011

Charlie Parks is the RTC correspondent for The Summit League. You can also find his musings on Twitter @CharlieParksRTC.

Reader’s Take

 

The Week That Was

  • Bad news for Oral Roberts — senior guard Ken Holdman tore his ACL and is out for the season.  This is a huge blow for the Golden Eagles as they look to unseat Oakland in their final season in the Summit League. They are now down to just seven scholarship players available. This is not anything new for Oakland, a team who has suffered four major knee injuries in the past two seasons resulting in players missing the entire season. You hate to see contenders hobbled by injuries, so let’s hope they find a way around this.
  • I still think this season may be one of the most hotly contested in the Summit League, as there are a few teams that are talented enough to win it and it won’t be a clear favorite like it has been in years past. Doug Gottlieb named ORU as one of his five underrated mid-major programs, but ESPN.com writer Myron Medcalf picked Oakland to win the Summit League– one of the few publications (besides RTC, of course) to pick Oakland over ORU.
  • Jay Bilas ranked his top three-point shooters of all time, and Oakland guard Travis Bader made his list as the next great shooter beyond the arc. Some good pub for OU, but I think it also just affirms the fact that Bader really is the key factor for Oakland to win its third Summit League championship in a row.

Power Rankings

Nate Wolters (middle) Is Getting Plenty of Pub, But Needs Help To Lift The Jackrabbits To The Top Of The Summit

  1. Oakland (0-2)– A loss to No. 15 Alabama is hard to gauge at this point, but one telling statistic from that game was that Oakland only managed four three-pointers. Oakland was a team last season that was very good from outside and it made them one of the top five offenses in the nation, but they could only get 12 points beyond the arc on Monday? It could be some early season rust, or it could be a sign that without the inside presence from last season, open shots will be much harder to come by. Again, it was a loss to a Top 20 team and those guys usually make you look bad, but it is something to consider.
  2. Oral Roberts (1-2)—Losing the first two games of the season to West Virginia and UTSA are tough to swallow for Golden Eagles fans — especially since the losses were by a combined eight points. However, the Ls don’t really tell us much about the team or how their season will finish. The one thing ORU fans can take away from the opening games: Depth is clearly an issue. I don’t know what team you are watching, but they literally have six guys who can play basketball right now (and by “play basketball” I mean guys who don’t hurt the team every time they step on the floor. They may need to dip into the walk-on jar if center Damen Bell-Holter’s injury persists.
  3.  North Dakota State (4-0)- Those Bison have been the most impressive Summit League team so far. They have played some solid low-major teams and played very good basketball to pick up some dominant victories. NDSU has had balanced scoring so far in the season, with their two guards Taylor Braun and Mike Felt combining for 29.4 PPG. The Bison are similar to South Dakota State in that they lean heavily on three-point shooting, but they are not married to the arc like SDSU and they are a much more efficient from the field. The Bison are shooting 37% from three and 51% overall from the field—almost ten points higher than South Dakota State. Keep an eye on the Bison.
  4. South Dakota State (1-2)- I don’t like reading into non-conference wins and losses, especially early in the season, but SDSU’s first two games raised some eyebrows. They had a nail-biter against Western Michigan, even with Nate Wolters scoring 32 points and dropping 11 dimes. They made it clear in that game that they were going to live and die by the three (no surprise), and the blueprint for beating SDSU is simply stop Wolters. Their second game was a 71-55 loss to Minnesota. The Gophers are an average team, and maybe Oakland, ORU, and NDSU would have kept that game a little closer or even pull out a win against Minnesota. Wolters still had 20 points, but the Jacks shot 36% from the field. I don’t want to oversimplify this, but it is early, so I will — squeakers against bad teams and big losses to average teams means something needs to be fixed.
  5.  IUPUI (1-2)— IUPUI had an impressive showing against, well, Anderson University. Alex Young proved once again that he will be a force, scoring 20 points in 26 minutes, but the 75-70 loss against UALR really exposed some weaknesses with the Jags. The Jags are going to have trouble grabbing boards this season. They were outrebounded 36-26 by the Trojans, which is a massive gap in a five-point game. The Jags’ big man, senior Christian Siakam, had just two rebounds in the game.  He is their biggest inside presence, and he must do a better job to give his team a better chance to win. This team won’t go anywhere if Young continues to lead the team in rebounding.
  6. IPFW (1-1)— Good teams tend to expose your weaknesses, and that is exactly what No. 14 Xavier did to the Mastodons when they ran them out of the building, 86-63. IPFW has a lot of work to do before they can seriously contend. They need to decide what kind of team they are going to be. Last year they were a pretty good shooting team from downtown, but they shot just 25% from the field against Xavier. Frank Gaines is a really good player, and he is one of the team’s best rebounders (15 in the first two games, great for a guard). Gaines is also the clear heart and soul of this team’s offense. He dropped 29 points against Nebraska-Omaha and 22 against Xavier, but those points came off 14-44 shooting (31%). Somebody else has to step up and take the pressure off Gaines, both as a scorer and a rebounder.
  7. Southern Utah (3-1)- They scraped by UC Davis in a one-point win and were completely destroyed by San Diego State 70-37. Southern Utah struggled to shoot the ball against the Aztecs, going 13 -43 with 26 turnovers. Whenever you have twice as many turnovers as you do made baskets, you are really in for a tough practice the next day. I don’t think Southern Utah is terrible, but they have looked pretty bad in the early going, although they did manage to beat Montana State-Billings. Their offense needs to improve, and they need to find a way to rebound. They have height problems - Matt Massey is their starting center at 6’9″ – but that is the least of their worries at this point. The turnovers need to stop, most importantly. The T-Birds have 71 of them in the first four games.
  8. UMKC (1-2)- You know you are in trouble when you get run out of your own gym by Division II Northwest Missouri State. UMKC has shot 32% and 36% from the field in the losses to Northwest Missouri State and Bradley. So far it looks like the offense is their main weakness.  They don’t really have a clear scoring threat, with guys like Reggie Chamberlain going from being the leading scorer one night to a non-factor the next. This is obviously just a team that has lost its two best players from last year and is stuck in a transition period. Kirk Korver is not exactly the sharpshooter his brother was, he is just 6-20 so far on the season for the Kangaroos.
  9. South Dakota (0-2)—Their Division I transition has not gone well so far, losing big to Nebraska and then falling by nine to Eastern Washington. They have a very low 35% field goal percentage, and they are near the bottom in the country with 54 points per game. There is a lot of basketball to be played, but for now, just expect the Coyotes to struggle as they find their feet in Division I.  However, I still think in the overall picture, this team will be better than Western Illinois, Southern Utah, and UMKC by the time the conference schedule comes around.
  10. Western Illinois (0-2)— Ceola Clark is the best player on this Leatherneck team, but he did not play in the 87-58 beating that was inflicted on them by the Dayton Flyers, who are an average team in the Atlantic-10 Conference. It is just one game, but it was an ugly one. Let’s hope this team doesn’t have a year like Centenary did last season.  After their surprisingly close loss to Michigan, they will have what most teams would consider a cupcake schedule—with games against Greenville, North Dakota, Eastern Illinois, Illinois-Chicago and Eureka—but they will likely struggle to win against even these teams with their 293rd-ranked offense.

Looking Ahead

A few decent shots at better mid-majors are going to crop up around Thanksgiving. Among them:

  • Austin Peay at Oral Roberts, Nov. 19—This is a very important home non-conference game for the Golden Eagles. ORU can’t afford to dig themselves and their confidence out of a deep hole like they did last year. They are the favorites this season and expectations begin to have a crushing effect when teams don’t live up to the hype.  If they want to be considered a contender, these are the games they have to win.
  • Oakland at Houston, Nov. 22— A winnable game for Oakland against a Conference USA opponent. This is one of those confidence boosters you hope for early in the season, especially since they have gotten run by two tough non-conference opponents already.
  • North Dakota State at Fresno State, Nov. 26— A 6-0 start for North Dakota State would be very impressive, and Fresno State is their next test. Although the Bulldogs are not as tough as they once were, they still are a difficult team at home. It will be a good gauge for the Bison to see how they stack up against Summit-level teams this year.
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