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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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on March 4th, 2014

As we head into the final week of the season, the regular season conference championship remains very much up for grabs San Diego State and New Mexico are tied atop the standings at 14-2, four games ahead of third-place UNLV, each with one game to go prior to their showdown at Viejas Arena on Saturday evening for what figures to be a battle for the outright conference title. The Aztecs have a bit more precarious mid-week exam ahead of them, as they’ll travel to those previously mentioned Runnin’ Rebels tomorrow to renew what has become one of the better rivalries in the conference in recent years.

Team of the Week

UNLV – The Rebels bounced back from an 0-for-2 previous week to score a solid win over Colorado State and a blowout of Air Force this week, securing their credentials, at least for the time being, as the third-best team in the conference. And, there’s little doubt that this Rebel team is significantly improved from the squad that was stinking up the Thomas & Mack in a home loss to those Falcons back in the early days of 2014. Dave Rice and company are probably still in a position where their only chance at an invitation to the Big Dance involves a Mountain West Tournament win in a week’s time, but at least such a possibility is no longer just a punch line to a bad joke.

Bryce Dejean-Jones Has Helped The Runnin' Rebels Become More Stable

Bryce Dejean-Jones Has Helped The Runnin’ Rebels Become More Stable

Player of the Week

Bryce Dejean-Jones, Junior, UNLV – His teammate Khem Birch won the official conference player of the week, but we’re going to go with the team’s most consistent offensive performer, who turned in a solid week of 14.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per night while knocking in shots at an efficient 54.7% eFG clip this week. Dejean-Jones has been maddening at time with erratic shot selection early in his career, but on a team without a ton of other guys capable of creating for themselves, he has been a high-volume shooter who has also significantly increased his capacity to separate a good shot from a bad one.

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#rushthetrip: Wrapping Up 12 Games, 17 Days and 5,476 Miles on the Road

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 25th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

They say that all good things must come to an end, and so is the case for my 17-day journey through college basketball’s Western lands. Large cities and small towns alike took turns as temporary homes, while the miles of passing scenery morphed from desert to snowy mountains and back to desert again, with plenty of change in between. The whirlwind ride reinforced the breadth of variety in the towns, arenas, and fan bases that stand behind Divison I’s basketball programs — only further mythologizing the notion of a “typical college town.” They make you work out West (note to future college basketball road trippers: the Heartland will be far kinder to your car’s odometer), but the payoff was worth every exhausting mile. By the numbers and some personal favorites, here’s the story of my trip.

Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It's Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops

Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It’s Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops

#rushthetrip, By The Numbers

  • Days: 17
  • States: 10
  • Games: 12
  • OT Games: 3
  • Miles Driven: 5,476
  • Distance from Tucson, AZ, to Spokane, WA: 1,494 miles
  • Tickets Received: 2
  • Biggest Arena: BYU (capacity of 20,900, sixth in D-I)
  • Smallest Arena: Sacramento State (capacity of 1,200, 348th in D-I)
  • Most Points (Individual): Stephen Madison, 42 (Idaho)
  • Smallest Margin Of Victory: 1, Boise State over New Mexico
  • Largest Margin Of Victory: 15, Gonzaga over Pepperdine
  • Best Team (by KenPom ranking): Arizona (#1)
  • Worst Team (by KenPom ranking): Southern Utah (#351)

#rushthetrip Favorites

Best Venues

  1. The Pit, Albuquerque, NM
  2. Marriott Center, Provo, UT
  3. McKale Center, Tucson, AZ

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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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#rushthetrip Day 11: Logan’s Hidden Gem Left With Little To Cheer About

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 17th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Saturday featured a Utah double-dip. My day began with an afternoon matinee in Logan (Utah State-UNLV) and would close up some 120 miles South in Orem, where WAC leader Utah Valley (yup…) was hosting Idaho. To be fair, my day actually began at 7:30 AM in Butte, MT, where some inclement weather had me holed up for the night. I wasn’t sure if my Chevy Malibu, replete with Arizona plates, would have the juice to push through the snowy conditions, but I somehow arrived in Logan just as the Aggies and Rebels were tipping off. Regrettably, I found myself walking through the front doors of The Spectrum just as the “I Believe” chant was dying off, but I figured forty minutes of basketball would provide the boisterous student section ample opportunity to show off.

Saturday Didn't Showcase The Dee Glen Smith Spectrum In It's Brightest Light, But Utah State's Home Floor Is Truly One Of A Kind

Saturday Didn’t Showcase The Dee Glen Smith Spectrum In It’s Brightest Light, But Utah State’s Home Floor Is Truly One Of A Kind

Logan is immediately striking. For one, if you are arriving from the North, there is almost no evidence of the town from 15 (the major freeway that runs North-South through Utah). Imposing mountains frame a valley well off into the distance, but it’s not until you climb a smaller hill in the middle of 15 and Logan that you actually catch sight of the town. From a distance, it’s a looker. Downtown and the University sit directly in the shadows of the mountain range visible from the freeway, but snow-capped peaks can be found in any direction you look. It was obvious before I reached town that Logan’s buildings were older, but the full antiquation of the scene didn’t hit home until I was in the midst of it. The combination of the cloudy day, dated architecture and snowy mountains evoked fairy-tales from decades past, and in a very monochromatic way. Logan is definitely not your classic college town – that was obvious after spending just three hours there.

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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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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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The Best in the West: Ranking the Top 20 Teams West of the Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 16th, 2014

Believe it or not, we’re about halfway through the season right now. So, it is time to revisit our Best in the West rankings. We did this about a month back, but to remind you, here’s how we roll. We take all the schools west of the Rockies (and we’re going to be a bit generous with our geography – basically we’re looking at schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast and Big West and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and WAC) and give you the top 20 teams. But, rather than just ranking schools #1 though #20, we’re going to divide all these teams up into tiers of similar quality. Below, you’ll see our Top 20 teams in the West (their overall rank will be in parentheses), with descriptions of what we think the teams in each tier have in common, plus brief comments on some of the teams in our list.

The Best of the BestIn a league of their own.

  • Arizona (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – Not only are the Wildcats head and shoulders above the rest of the teams out West, the argument can be made that they’re on a tier of their own nationally as well.
Arizona Has Established Themselves As A Team Head and Shoulders Above The Rest (Kevin Sapio, USA Today)

Arizona Has Established Themselves As A Team Head and Shoulders Above The Rest. (Kevin Sapio, USA Today)

Contenders to the Throne – And all Top 25 teams.

  • San Diego State (#2 overall, Mtn West #1) – Last time we did this, we had three teams in this tier, and the Aztecs were not among them. This time, the Aztecs are the only team aside from Arizona that should be considered a sure-fire Top 25 team.

Solid NCAA Tournament Team – Just outside the Top 25, but all with plenty of upside.

  • California (#3 overall, Pac-12 #2) – These teams are all bunched together by just about any metric. While I think you can make a case for any one of them for something like the #24 or #25 spot in your national Top 25, you can make an equally valid case that all of these teams deserve to be on the outside looking in. That being said, it is likely that if you make a national top 35, every one of these squads should probably be in there. We’ll take the Golden Bears by a hair over the rest of this group on the basis of their hot streak minus a couple of key players, but really, all these teams are very tight.

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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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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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