Checking In On… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 31st, 2012
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
It was a week of upsets and near upsets in the Mountain West, a week that may ultimately turn out to be good for the conference. The notable upset came Saturday as Colorado State handed San Diego State its first conference loss of the season, while UNLV twice was taken to overtime on the road against the two teams who are currently seventh and eighth in the league, Air Force and Boise State. But, when all is said and done, we wind up with five teams in the conference sitting over .500 in conference play, and all five of those teams – UNLV, SDSU, CSU, New Mexico and Wyoming – are at the very least in the discussion for possible inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field. There is a long way to go between here and there, especially for teams like New Mexico, Colorado State and Wyoming, but as things stand right now in the conference, and given the struggles that some other power conferences are having, there is a very real possibility that half of the teams in the MW will wind up dancing come March.
Team of the Week
New Mexico – The Lobos knocked off Colorado State by 33 points on Wednesday night (a win that look a whole heap better come Saturday evening), then followed that up with a ho-hum 17-point win over TCU. Aside from outscoring their opponents by 50 points this week, the Lobos dominated on the glass, grabbing 85.5% of all defensive rebound opportunities this week, forcing turnovers on 27.6% of their defensive possessions and using those stellar stats to fuel a 1.16 point-per-offensive-possession week. Still, the Lobos will need to prove that they are capable of turning in those types of performances against the San Diego States and UNLVs of the world before we can really consider them capable of winning the conference title, but so long as they keep taking care of business against lesser competition, the Lobos are going to be right there down the stretch.
Player and Newcomer of the Week
Mike Moser, Soph, UNLV – Wednesday night, Mike Moser was sick. No, I don’t mean his performances was great or awesome (although it was, good god – 18 points, 21 rebounds, three treys, a couple assists, a couple blocks and a couple steals); I mean he was unwell, under the weather, down with disease. Which makes his unbelievable effort in 34 hard-fought minutes all the more incredible. Despite the illness, Moser was able to muster up enough energy to send back a last-second potential game-winning three-point attempt from Boise State sophomore Thomas Bropleh to send the game to overtime, and then in the extra period, Moser just kept going, grabbing four rebounds and adding five points to help the Rebels overcome an upset bid. Then all Moser did for an encore on Saturday night was hit 10-of-17 field goals for 27 points, grab 12 boards, and swipe three steals in another overtime win for the Rebels. It is safe to say, without Moser’s stellar play, this likely would have been an 0-2 week for UNLV.
Game of the Week
UNLV 77, Boise State 72 (OT) – It is hard to pick one of the Rebels’ two overtime wins over the other, but the nod goes to their Wednesday night victory solely on the basis of Moser’s heroics. It didn’t hurt that the Broncos turned in some heroics of their own, as Derrick Marks (21 points, a career high), Thomas Bropleh (17 points/13 rebounds) and Tre Nichols (11 points, tying a season high) all had outstanding games in taking the Rebels to the wire, but this was all about Moser, and to a lesser degree senior guard Oscar Bellfield, not allowing their team to go down.
Games of the Upcoming Week
Colorado State @ UNLV, February 1, 7:30PM PST, The Mtn. – After knocking off San Diego State last weekend, the path doesn’t get any easier for the Rams as they head to UNLV Wednesday night in search of their first conference road win of the year. The undersized Rams will need to find a way to deal with a Rebel team that will have a vast size advantage on them, but an even bigger concern may be finding a way for their porous defense to slow one of the more efficient offenses in the nation. All signs point towards a Rebel blowout win, but Tim Miles’ club proved last weekend that they are more than capable of rising up and biting a more talented team.
- UNLV (20-3, 4-1) — The Rebels go back to the top of the conference rankings, if only because their lone conference loss is a “better” loss than San Diego State’s, but there could be some cause for concern in Vegas over the Rebs’ recent performances. Looking back on the last two seasons, there is little doubt that the Rebels wound up playing their best basketball of the season in November before stagnating a bit as the season progressed. While the last two games go down in the books as wins, you can’t look past the fact that there is no way UNLV should have been played to a standstill by Boise State and Air Force. Still, this is a team just a week removed from blowing out New Mexico, and despite the fact that they were played close by the two teams at the back of the standings, they still came away with wins. A look ahead: The schedule is even a bit tougher than last week’s, as they host Colorado State on Wednesday night before making the scary trip to Laramie for Wyoming on Saturday. It will be telling to see how the Rebels respond to back-to-back subpar performances.
- San Diego State (18-3, 4-1) — Sometimes, basketball is a really simple game. You’ve got to make your shots, and preferably more of them than the other team. That’s precisely what did not happen for the Aztecs against Colorado State on Saturday; their shots were off (33.6 eFG%, 3/21 from three), and CSU’s were on (55.1 eFG%, 6/13 from three, and a perfect 23/23 from the line). Most glaringly, the backcourt combo of Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley combined to shoot five-of-28 from the field, missing all eight of their three-point attempts. However, the fact that SDSU failed to make any serious dent against a drastically undersized Ram squad on the glass is a cause for concern. A look ahead: The Aztecs get to hit off a tee this week while everyone else sees live pitching – two home games, against Boise State and TCU. Just what the doctor ordered to bounce back from the CSU loss.
- New Mexico (17-4, 3-2) — Let there be no doubt, the Lobos circa late-January 2012 are a much better team than they were in November 2012. Back then, this was a team that was losing to Santa Clara and New Mexico State and being played tight by sub-par Pac-12 teams like Arizona State and Washington State. These days, Steve Alford’s squad is capable of running average teams like Colorado State and TCU out of a gym. The question remains, can this team beat good teams? Their best win on the season is a four-point home win over a pretty good Saint Louis team, but beyond that, they’ve struck out against their best competition to date: San Diego State and UNLV. They get return games with both teams, and the Lobos may wind up needing a win in one of those games in order to get an NCAA bid. Even if UNM finishes the MW with a 10-4 regular season record, but fail to score wins against UNLV or SDSU, they may wind up trying to curry favor with the selection committee based solely on something like a 25-7 record, an RPI around #40 and only that win over SLU to hang its hat on. While it is possible that type of resume could get them in, it would surely make for a night of fitful sleep on March 10. A look ahead: Last week UNLV had all sorts of trouble with a combination of road trips to Air Force and Boise State; this week New Mexico faces the same test.
- Wyoming (17-4, 3-2) — Last week was a pretty good summation of where this Cowboy team is at. They played a very good SDSU team tough, but just didn’t have enough offensive firepower to truly threaten a team of that caliber. But, when playing a lesser quality team, the Cowboys made every possession count, earned great shots and hit a spectacular 76.3 eFG% in an 11-point win at Boise State. So, here they sit with a gaudy overall record, but their best wins are a home blowout of Colorado State and a solid road win against Colorado. Currently, they’ve got an RPI in the 80s, and barring Larry Shyatt finding some way to keep his team competitive against UNLV, SDSU and UNM down the stretch in the MW, this looks very much like an NIT team. Still, for a team that was awful last season, that’s quite an accomplishment. A look ahead: Wyoming travels to TCU on Wednesday, then gets UNLV at home on Saturday. A 2-0 record and maybe we’ll reassess their NCAA chances, but an 0-2 week is not out of the question.
- Colorado State (14-6, 3-2) — The win over San Diego State was as excellent as it was improbable. It’s not so much that they shot well against the Aztecs and pulled out a gunner’s win. No, they outplayed the Aztecs. For a team that is currently ranked in bottom half of Division I in defensive efficiency, the Rams defended like mad; for a team that is the second smallest team in Division I, with no player taller than 6’6” earning significant minutes , they battled a solid rebounding team to a draw. In short, this wasn’t a one-off miracle win where a team got hot and shot the lights out on the way to an upset win, this was a team battling hard for 40 minutes and leaving it all out on the floor. Give credit to the entire squad and to Tim Miles’ staff for getting that effort. Now, what the hell happened against New Mexico on Wednesday? Well, forget about it. In this space last week we wrote that Miles would be happy to find his team with a 3-3 record next Thursday following a gauntlet of a schedule that included New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV in succession. The SDSU win gives the Rams three wins already with a free spin on Wednesday night for a chance at a 4-2 record. Regardless of that outcome, CSU and its mysterious RPI of #18 (seriously, go look at that CSU schedule and tell me how that schedule earns an RPI of 18?) are a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender. If they can finish 8-6 in the conference and win an opening-round MW Tournament game, they could wind up wind up 20-10 with a good looking RPI and go dancing. Nevermind the fact that this CSU team is nowhere near as good as last year’s NIT squad, this could be the year the Rams get back to the Big Dance. A look ahead: After that trip to UNLV on Wednesday, they return home to face Air Force on Saturday. Really, from here on out, all the Rams have to do is take care of business against teams like AFA, TCU and BSU. That means going on the road and winning in Fort Worth, Boise and Colorado Springs, but all things considered, that is a seriously feasible path to the NCAA Tournament. I’m as surprised as you are.
- Air Force (11-8, 1-4) — This team is way better than its current record. Way better. It’s not a reach to say that this is the best Air Force team since the 2006-07 team that went 26-9. But, this team has nobody on it that has earned a winning record in college basketball, and they look like a team that doesn’t have the confidence yet to close out a game. Last week, in both games the Falcons played, they were the best team on the floor. No, they’re not a more talented team than UNLV, but on Saturday night, they were the better team for much of that game. And then they blew a five-point lead in the final four minutes of regulation by turning it over twice on three possessions, missing a free throw and stringing together three other bad possessions before getting to overtime where they turned the ball over six times, only attempting one field goal in the extra period. Against TCU, they went the last 3:02 without scoring, turning it over twice on three possessions. This is a team that is still unsure whether or not it is worthy of winning close games, and until that doubt goes away, they will not be. A look ahead: Right back on that horse for the Falcons, as they host New Mexico tonight before traveling to Colorado State on Saturday. Air Force is good enough to win both of those games, but they’ve got to prove it.
- TCU (12-8, 2-3) — While we’re giving Air Force crap for fumbling away the game against TCU last Wednesday, we should also note the fact that the Horned Frogs didn’t really go out of their way in the final minutes of that game to win it either. After leading by six with over six minutes left on the clock, TCU scored only one more bucket the rest of the way, turning it over twice in seven possessions and making just one of five shots over that stretch. But, the Frogs came away with the win and are in the middle of a pretty good little season for themselves. Remember, this team won 11 games all of last season, and here they sit with 12 wins before February even starts and have yet to be below .500 on the year. And, in one of the more inexplicable results of the season, this is one of just three teams to have beaten Virginia this year. Kudos to Jim Christian and his squad for squeezing every last drop out of this team. Now they just need to go get some more talent before they get eaten alive by the Big 12 next year. A look ahead: TCU hosts Wyoming tomorrow night, then travels to San Diego State on Saturday. While they can certainly hang around with the Cowboys, I’d feel pretty comfortable betting by mortgage payment on the Aztecs to win on the weekend.
- Boise State (10-10, 0-5) — Six straight losses make the Broncos the first team in the Mountain West to sink back to .500 for the year since New Mexico started the season 2-2. But, head coach Leon Rice still has his team fighting. Freshman sensation Anthony Drmic has seen his shot disappear (after scoring in double figures in 12 of his first 15 games, he has now failed to score more than nine in five of his last six and he’s 15-of-61 over that stretch), but he’s still doing his best to help out the Broncos on the glass and defensively. Meanwhile, teammates like Derrick Marks, Thomas Bropleh and Tre Nichols have stepped up. Still, this Bronco squad is undersized, underexperienced and undermanned, a bad trifecta. The good news is, the team is gaining experience by the day and they should be back bigger and stronger next season. Oh, and they’ll get to play against the WAC instead of the MW. A look ahead: Boise travels to San Diego State tomorrow night, then hosts New Mexico on Saturday. Yikes. Hello 0-7.