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 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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
This time of year is always preview heavy (we’ll start rolling out our own previews later today), and Athlon Sports breaks down Oregon in this piece. As they point out in the opening, Dana Altman and the Ducks are faced with another quick rebuilding effort, piecing together a roster full of experienced transfers that will keep the Ducks in the top third of the league despite losing key players like E.J. Singler and Arsalan Kazemi. The top priority this October will be finding a player in the post who can make up for the loss of Kazemi’s rebounding ability, and the guy that will get the first crack at it is sophomore Ben Carter. Oregon will take the court on October 27 against Northwest Christian to open its exhibition season and will face Georgetown on November 8 at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, to start regular season play.
Up the road in Corvallis, there are not a lot of preseason previews being published on Craig Robinson‘s Oregon State team, but the omnipotent presidential connection talk still hovers around the program. Robinson embraces it, though, enjoying the publicity that it brings to the school. “The one thing I know is that everybody knows the president’s brother-in-law works for Oregon State University,” said Robinson. “That’s great for a college.” It certainly doesn’t hurt recruiting, but the Beavers head coach will need to start showing better results on the court if he wants to stick around much longer in Corvallis.
California Golden Blogshas spent the last week previewing each facet of the 2013-14 Golden Bears, and this piece takes a look at the group of guards in Berkeley. Senior Justin Cobbs and sophomore Tyrone Wallace are slated to lead Cal at the one and two positions, not a bad combination with Cobbs’ outside shooting and Wallace’s perimeter defense. Click here to view the preview of Cal’s inexperienced post players, and click here to see the outlook on the wings. California opens its regular season on November 8 against Coppin State.
Shhhh. It’s that time of year for secret scrimmages, and one of the better ones this October (as far as we know), featured San Diego State at Stanford on Sunday. We will probably never know a result of the meeting, but if it does come out, know that senior Xavier Thames and sophomore Winston Shepard were questionable for San Diego State in that game. In the regular season, the Aztecs will host Arizona and Washington at Viejas Arena, with the possibility of a meeting with Arizona State in Fullerton.
We close with a fun video from Oregon, made by the Pit Crew student section and starring Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson. If you are unfamiliar with the Vine Dunk Cam videos, take a few minutes, check out this one, and this one, and have a good chuckle. Oh, the things we resort to in the offseason.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Nine teams, six in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament invitation, four with a good claim on a Top 25 spot — It is safe to say that the Mountain West, while maybe not having the elite teams that the Big Ten does, is the most competitive conference in the country from top to bottom. We’ve had three overtime games in two weeks and another five games decided by single figures. And, just when you’re ready to count out one team (like for instance, Air Force following a 39-point loss at Colorado State), they bounce back and score a big win (like those Falcons did against Boise State over the weekend). Conversely, we’ve seen a team like UNLV score a major road win over their biggest rival, San Diego State, then come back and struggle on the road. While the road environments in this conference are brutal, so far we’ve seen road teams have good success (road teams have won six of the 16 conference games played), such that it is looking like specific match-ups and timing may have as big of an impact on the outcomes of games as venue does. Two weeks in, everybody in the conference has at least one win and everybody, save for conference-leading New Mexico, has at least one loss. In other words, buckle up, because it is going to be a wild ride, and in all likelihood, this conference is not going to be settled until the final week of the regular season.
Team of the Week
Colorado State – After taking intra-state rival Air Force out behind the woodshed on Wednesday, the Rams welcomed UNLV into Moby Arena on Saturday for the headlining MW game of the weekend. Despite Colton Iverson’s offensive struggles and Wes Eikmeier’s foul trouble, CSU rode Dorian Green’s offensive explosion (24 points, including four threes, along with five assists and five boards) to its second straight win over the Rebels. The Rams hit 10 straight free throws in the final four minutes of the game and held UNLV to just two points on six possessions to turn a two-point deficit into a five-point win.
With Colton Iverson Struggling And Wes Eikmeier In Foul Trouble, Dorian Green Had His Best Game Of The Year (Dawn Madura/The Coloradoan)
Player of the Week
Anthony Marshall, Senior, UNLV – While Air Force’s Michael Lyons had the game of the week in the conference (37 ridiculously efficient points against Boise on Saturday), Marshall was the most consistent performer this week, averaging 20.5 points, four assists, seven rebounds and two steals while willing his Rebels to a road win at San Diego State. After the Rebels went more than five minutes without scoring, and in the process turned a nine-point lead into a three-point deficit, Marshall took over, scoring nine of the next 13 Rebels points and getting the lead back. Marshall followed that game up with an equally impressive effort against CSU, scoring 15 second half points in trying to earn his Rebels a secondstraight conference road win.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
It’s been two weeks since we last caught up with the teams of the Mountain West, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on. All three of our favorites in the conference (San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico) have taken losses since we last did this, but at the same time, each of them has a quality win mixed in there as well. Meanwhile, the next tier of teams – Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State – have all been blemish-free over the past two weeks. It still appears there is a drop-off between the top three and the next three, but it remains to be seen just how far that drop is. We’ve got one more week of some pretty uninspiring non-conference games before conference play tips off and we start to get some answers to our outstanding questions.
We’ve also been keeping our eye on a situation off the court, as the conference realignment shuffle continues. On New Year’s Eve, it was reported that Boise State would wisely back out of its agreement to join the rapidly dwindling football Big East and remain in the Mountain West. With Boise sticking around, suddenly San Diego State, which had been steadfast in its intentions to stick with the move to the Big East, decided it too wanted to stick around, but the Mountain West, apparently fed up with SDSU’s foot-dragging prior to that, isn’t exactly jumping back into the relationship. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reports that the MW is poking around to see if there are other schools who would be a better fit with the conference. In the end, perhaps the only thing that would keep SDSU out of the conference would be if the MW is able to persuade BYU to rejoin. In an ideal world from a basketball perspective, both of those schools would rejoin, which would bring the conference up to 12 basketball teams next year, but that would also bring the football total to 13, probably one too many. If it is a choice between BYU and SDSU, though, the Cougars are the slam dunk choice.
After A Serious Fling With The Big East, The Mountain West Conference Has Acquiesced To Boise State’s Demands (BSU Athletics)
All of this was made possible when CBS allowed the conference to restructure its television agreement, allowing the conference to sell games to other national networks. It should be noted that the MW did have to cave to a pretty significant request wherein Boise State’s home football games will not be a part of the conference’s television rights contracts, allowing the school to sell those games themselves. Further, Boise will still owe some sort of buyout to the Big East for their change of heart (provided such an entity still exists to pay that buyout) and the Mountain West has agreed to chip in some amount to help Boise make that payment (rest assured that such an arrangement will not be made with SDSU). While this works out for the time being in keeping the conference together and perhaps even persuading BYU to rejoin, this sort of concession to one school at the exclusion of others is the exact type of thing that drove Nebraska and Texas A&M out of the Big 12. It remains to be seen if this type of move is sustainable, but, if everything works out for the best, we could be heading back to a MW basketball slate that still features SDSU, UNLV, BYU and New Mexico as its flagship programs. It the realm of unintended consequences, is quite possible that the Big East’s Catholic Seven defection could go a long ways towards rescuing another great basketball conference.
Team of the Week
Colorado State – The Rams swept to an impressive win in the Las Vegas Classic tournament just in advance of Christmas, winning four games in a week and capping that run off with a 36-point blowout of Virginia Tech in the championship game. They backed that up with a workmanlike 25-point win against Adams State this past weekend. We still don’t know just how good this team is after they’ve been completely remade from a guard-dominated team to one that relies on crashing the boards, and they still haven’t been tested much, but CSU fans have good reason to suspect that this iteration of the Rams is even better than last year’s tournament team.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
A Look Back
Let’s be honest. There hasn’t been a whole heck of a lot of worthwhile games on the Mountain West schedule thus far. New Mexico got a piece of Davidson during ESPN’s 24-Hour Marathon, then got three solid games in the Virgin Islands at the Paradise Jam (much more on that below), but beyond that, the only real primo television game was San Diego State and Syracuse playing in slightly better conditions than I play on most days during the summer. Still, we got our first look at some new freshmen (Anthony Bennett – good, Winston Shepard – interesting, Cameron Michael – surprising), some new transfers (Colton Iverson – good, Bryce Dejean-Jones – interesting, Allen Huddleston – surprising) and a couple of new teams (Fresno State and Nevada, who happen to have the only two losses in the conference aside from that immediately discounted SDSU game).
Team of the Week
New Mexico – While everybody nationally has been talking about UNLV and San Diego State, the Lobos – the defending regular season and tournament champions in the conference – have flown under the radar. Yet, here they are with a 4-0 record, a Paradise Jam championship and arguably the conference’s best wins in the bag. Replacing Drew Gordon is going to be a collective effort as the season goes on, but not only are big guys Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and freshman Nick Banyard ready to chip in any way possible, but perimeter guys like Hugh Greenwood and Kendall Williams will lend a hand on the glass as well. They certainly haven’t been pretty wins so far, but this is just a group of winners with a knack for getting things done, one way or another.
It Wasn’t Always Pretty, But Hugh Greenwood and New Mexico Earned The Paradise Jam Title Over Connecticut (Thomas Layer)
Player of the Week
Tony Snell, Junior, New Mexico – Last year, Tony Snell’s offensive game was little more than three-point attempts either in spot-up situations or running off of a screen. Almost 70% of his field goal attempts came from behind the arc. Thus far this year, Snell has shown a much more varied attack, even taking his man off the dribble from time to time. While he’s not exactly hitting shots at an exceptionally high rate early on (46.2 eFG% through four games), he’s leading the team with 17.5 points per game, has shown a good ability to find open teammates and continues to use his length to be a frustrating defensive opponent. Oh, and he’s hit a big shot or two, as we’ll get to shortly.
We could lead off with so many things here following ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon, but we will just refer you to our After the Buzzer post on the day’s events. Special events like games on naval ships may generate more buzz with the media and general public, but we will take games being played at crazy hours in front of rabid college students over games that are cancelled because of condensation. Of course, this will lead to the inevitable question about whether we should start the season with this Marathon. As easy it would be to say we should I think it would be a little bit too much to expect teams to come out and play well in their first game of the season (exhibitions don’t count) and the current format allows for a somewhat soft opening that gives us better quality games even if teams aren’t quite playing their absolute best.
If you are waiting on Jabari Parker to sign a letter of intent you could be waiting a while as his mother has come out saying that he will probably commit some time next month and then sign a letter of intent in the spring. The news shouldn’t come as a surprise for those who have followed Parker’s drawn-out recruitment and his list – BYU, Duke, Florida, Michigan State, and Stanford – is not a change, but we still do not understand why a player of Parker’s caliber would even bother signing a letter of intent when he can force a school’s hand by just committing to play for them without locking himself in. Few players are in a position of power — when they are they should use it.
The list of ineligible freshman continues to grow as San Diego State freshman Winston Shepard has been suspended for three games for “inadvertently violating an NCAA rule.” Nobody at the school is willing to comment on the issue as they appeal to the NCAA, but it appears that the issue at the center of the suspension is an automobile loan that was co-signed by a family he met while attending Findlay Prep although no money was provided to Shepard and he returned the car within four days. Given the pace with which the NCAA can move, we doubt that Shepard’s suspension will overturned by the time his suspension is complete.
Speaking of the NCAA and suspensions, the family of Shabazz Muhammad issued a response to the NCAA after it had declared Muhammad ineligible. Essentially they criticize the NCAA for issuing a press release, which they claim the NCAA said it would not do, and that they cooperated with the NCAA despite what their press release said. For their part the NCAA issued another press release saying they were standing behind what they previously stated. Confused yet? Meanwhile UCLA continues to wait for the NCAA to release all of its information before filing an appeal to get Muhammad reinstated. The way this is going we are beginning to think an extended European vacation might in Shabazz’s future (although he did look pained on the UCLA bench in its one-point win over UC Irvine last night).
Yesterday on the Big 12 Morning Five we mentioned Joel Embiid‘s imminent college commitment and the 7-footer followed through as he announced that he will play for Kansas. Many of you probably are not familiar with Embiid as he is not included in many recruiting rankings, but he reportedly has only been playing basketball for 18 months and according to ESPN’s Dave Telep will likely become a top 20 player when the rankings are updated. Basically, he has “upside” (and “project”) written all over him. Embiid may not be able to contribute right away for the Jayhawks, but with his size, athleticism, and learning curve he should eventually become a valuable player in Lawrence during his time there.
It is not hard to predict the nation’s top freshmen in a given season. Typically, general recruiting rankings do a pretty decent job aiming at a consensus. They pinpoint the players offering the greatest upside and promise at the college level, with an eye toward NBA potential. And most of the time, they are right. We watched this phenomenon unfold last season in the grandest fashion, when the Kentucky Wildcats took in another batch of top recruits, coalesced into a cohesive unit, captivated the college hoops landscape with an unprecedented brand of togetherness and selflessness, and shattered old axioms about the importance of experience and veteran leadership in the NCAA Tournament, all en route to a national championship. To be clear: 2011-12 Kentucky’s freshmen were not what we call elite; they were special, precocious in so many ways, far ahead of expected developmental paths. Not every top 10 recruit is an Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd Gilchrist or Marquis Teague. Most of the time, the blue chippers – the recruiting crème de la crème, the five-stars, or whatever moniker works for you – are extremely capable players with high developmental curves, packaged with a specific trait (athleticism, floor vision, shot-blocking, you name it) that separates them from the rest of the pack. If you can land one of these players, your team, needless to say, is extremely fortunate. Sealing one of these guys means instant credibility and, if all goes according to plan, success.
So much of the Sun Devils’ season depends on Jahii Carson’s ability to produce right away (Photo credit: US Presswire).
There are times when these recruiting gems don’t pan out at the next level, when lower-ranked players outplay their more-touted classmates. This can happen for a number of reasons. Often times, it has to do with opportunity, the sheer need-based requirements certain programs afford to incoming freshmen. When teams lose a significant number of minutes of starters from the previous season, freshmen – whatever their star ranking – are often asked to step in and fill the void. These players are in better position to have big debut seasons than higher-ranked freshmen who get buried on the depth charts (or redshirt) of deep and experienced rosters. It’s why some prospects spurn established programs with winning track records to chase more playing time at a less-prominent hoops locale. They step on campus expecting to play right away. Coaches have long since used this carrot as a recruiting trick. My job is to pin down these players. By surveying each team’s positional needs, and the recruiting work they did to fill those needs, I’ve come up with a group of newcomers who figure to play important roles on their respective teams. Selections may coincide with the top-end of 2012’s recruiting rankings, but inclusion is based more on circumstance than bare talent and scouting merits.
Jahii Carson – Arizona State. Unless Arizona State shows significant improvement in 2012-13, just one year after posting a 10-21 record and 10th place finish in an abysmal Pac-12, coach Herb Sendek’s seventh season at the school could be his last. Preventing that fateful outcome will hinge largely on Carson’s ability to navigate the backcourt and facilitate the Sun Devils’ offense, whose 98.4 adjusted offensive efficiency rating ranked near the bottom of Pac-12 teams, according to kenpom.com. Carson, who was ruled an academic non-qualifier last season, will be handed the reins on offense. He spurned offers from the likes of UCLA, Arizona, Washington and Memphis to stay in his home state. Now Carson has the chance to prove he made the right decision.
Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Josh Paunil, the RTC recruiting guru. We encourage you to check out his website dedicated solely to college basketball recruiting, National Recruiting Spotlight, for more detailed recruiting information. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to who the hot prospects are at the lower levels of the sport. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at email@example.com.
Lead Story: Standout Junior Expected To Pick Kentucky
Willis Will Make Kentucky Fans Like These Happy If He Picks The Wildcats As Expected
Wildcats In Good Shape For Willis. Kentucky may have to wait a while to get commitments from their top junior targets such as small forward Troy Williams and power forward Julius Randle, but they are likely to get some good news soon when Class of 2013 power forward Derek Willis is expected to pick the Wildcats. The 6’9″, 210-pound big man is making his announcement tomorrow at 4 PM at Bullitt East High School (Kentucky) and is choosing between Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, and Purdue. The Kentucky-native previously committed to Purdue last April then later backed off his decision in August to explore all of his options. He would be head coach John Calipari‘s first Class of 2013 commitment and is a good athlete who can score all over the floor. He’s very skilled and can shoot and slash to the basket.
What They’re Saying
Senior star Anthony Bennett on why he recently cut his list to Florida, Kentucky, Oregon, UNLV, and Washington: “I picked those five schools because I think it’s the best fit for me [and] I feel like if I go to any one of those schools I could work for a starting spot.”
Anthony Bennett Recently Discussed His New List (247 Sports)
Senior standout Amile Jefferson‘s high school coach, Malcolm Musgrove, on when Jefferson will commit: “At the end of the week we’ll have a conversation and I think he could wrap this up in the next few weeks. I’m thinking by the end of January he will know.”
SeniorDemetris Morant on UNLV and senior Shabazz Muhammad: “I think Shabazz is really considering going [there] because he feels that they’re a great team and everyone else sees that, too, and they’re ranked in the nation. At first he wasn’t thinking about going there because he thought they wouldn’t be that good and he wouldn’t be looked at by [NBA] scouts. So he was mostly considering Kentucky, but now UNLV is in the top three.”
Junior Troy Williams on his favorite schools: “I don’t have a favorite yet, but the number one spot is between North Carolina and Kentucky. They play my style and have great coaching staffs.”
Junior Julius Randle on his ideal coach: “A coach that will push me, he’s not going to always tell me what I want to hear, but what I need to hear. Someone that will make me the best player I can be.”