Mountain West Tournament Diary: Quarterfinal ThursdayPosted by AMurawa on March 9th, 2012
Game of the Day
On Monday, San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin was named the Mountain West Player of the Year (nevermind the fact that we at RTC gave Drew Gordon the nod) after a blazing conclusion to the regular season. On the first day of postseason play in the conference, Franklin reminded everybody just how good he can be.
With the shot clock turned off and Boise State having run back to tie their quarterfinal game with the Mountain West regular season champion, the Aztecs called a timeout and set up a play that everybody in the Thomas & Mack Center knew was headed Franklin’s way. The Broncos tried to deny him the ball, but San Diego State point guard Xavier Thames got him the ball, and then, as Franklin is known to do repeatedly in practices, he counted down the final seconds on the clock and threw up a prayer at the buzzer, this time over the hands of two Boise State defenders. And the prayer was answered, as the ball settled softly into the net, advancing the Aztecs to Friday night’s semifinal.
Head coach Steve Fisher painted the picture of Franklin playing the part of a kid on a playground or in his back yard, knocking down imaginary game winners against a clock of his own making. During practices, the Aztecs have a period of spot shooting and, according to Fisher at the end of that session, “Jamaal waits and waits and waits and he shoots one as the clock hits zero. If he makes it, he falls down,” mimicking a buzzer-beating celebration. All the practice has paid off for Franklin, as twice now this year, he has scored game-winners as time expired. “Everyone in the gym knew who the last shot was going to,” said Boise State freshman guard Derrick Marks, fighting through tears. “So, Xavier Thames passed the ball, I was supposed to go double and he just made an incredible shot.” Franklin commended the Boise State defense, saying it was a “very tough look. X did a great job giving me the ball because they denied me all the way out to basically halfcourt. My first object was to get to the rim, but they kind of double‑teamed me and I just shot the three.”
San Diego State was in that dogfight down the stretch in part because they helped a game Boise State get back in the game. The Aztecs were up 11 with under six minutes left, but down the stretch they missed layups, missed free throws and turned the ball over three times, the most memorable one coming when Chase Tapley turned it over in the backcourt, leading directly to the game-tying layup for the Broncos on a nice dish from freshman Anthony Drmic to sophomore Thomas Bropleh. Tapley was, however, a hero most of the day for the Lobos, at one point scoring 10 out of 12 San Diego State points and contributing 20 points (including four threes) and numerous under-the-radar plays.
Boise fought hard all day, putting a hurting on the Aztecs on the glass, grabbing 88.4% of their defensive rebound opportunities and 29.6% on the offensive end. But, after shooting a sparkling 59.3 eFG% in the first half, their shooting cooled considerably in the second half (41.7 eFG%). But they defended well, forced seven second-half SDSU turnovers and were right there at the end. Of the nine players who played on Thursday, 96% of the minutes were played by guys that are expected to return next season. Head coach Leon Rice seems to have a bright future awaiting the Broncos, and he’s certainly caught the eye of Fisher. “As I watched the job that Leon Rice has done with that team, when you look down the roster of all the kids he’s playing, all the freshmen, the important minutes that they’re playing, he and they have done a wonderful job,” said the San Diego State head coach. “Sometimes it doesn’t reflect right away in your record. But he’s an outstanding coach. That’s a good team that we played today.” Drmic, in particular, played a great game, scoring 19 points, grabbing seven boards and handing out three assists, but the frontcourt trio of Bropleh, junior Kenny Buckner and sophomore Ryan Watkins did great work along the frontline, combining for 25 points and 15 boards. And Rice credits the level of competition in the Mountain West for the improvement the Broncos have made. “This league is raising the bar for our program; it raises the bar for these guys individually,” he said. “I was looking at our schedule saying, ‘It feels like we’re playing pretty good basketball right now’. But four of our last five games have been against top‑25 teams.” That type of trial by fire for a group of talented youngsters should pay dividends next year for the Broncos.
Player of the Day
At one point late in the first half, Mike Moser was outscoring everybody else who had played in the game: he had 16 points, the rest of his UNLV team had five points and the entire Wyoming team had nine points. He wound up with 22 points, 14 boards, three blocks, a couple assists and a couple threes. At one point in the first half, he went up and grabbed a man’s rebound over a couple Cowboy players, turned and took the ball up court, put the ball behind his back near the free throw line and finished at the hoop with an acrobatic double-clutch shot – a play from start to finish that not many players in the nation could make.
But, despite Moser’s first half heroics that had the Cowboys all but beaten, give credit to the Wyoming team for fighting back from a 22-point second half deficit to get back within six. Head coach Larry Shyatt brought all six of his seniors (including the injured Afam Muojeke) to the post-game press conference and then proceeded to let everybody know just how highly he thought of his team. I’m not even going to edit much out of this, because it was pure gold, one of the better moments of the day. “Before this game I told these guys I wasn’t sure if we ever trailed a team this entire season by more than 13 points ever. I don’t know if there’s another team (that did that). I’ve seen some of the top teams in America, I’ve seen them get obliterated by 20 or 30 on certain nights and crumble, and I’d never seen that (from Wyoming). We may have been on the brink tonight. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team play more inspired in a time of adversity. And I got to tell you I love ‘em. I think the world of ‘em. I think they’ve earned the respect of a lot of people who I think lacked respect for them. And I’ll never forget ‘em if this is the end of the road.”
Given how far this came in just one season under Shyatt, from a 10-21 season last year to a 20-win team this year, transforming the entire culture and turning kids who were out of control and generally ineffective on the court into focused and efficient athletes, Cowboy fans should certainly be proud of what this team accomplished.
Team of the Day
Last year, Colorado State came into the Mountain West tournament needing to at least get to the tournament final to have a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. The bar was a lot lower this year, as their win today over TCU probably cinched an invitation for a team that was already in pretty good position. The Rams scored the first nine points of the game and never trailed, despite playing without junior forward Greg Smith, who sprained his ankle in practice yesterday. (Last year, the Rams lost senior leader Adam Nigon to a similar injury on the day before the Mountain West tournament). Smith’s brother Dwight helped cover for his absence, as the 6’4” guard played along the frontline and scored 13 points. Pierce Hornung, a 6’5” forward for the undersized Rams, also had a major impact, grabbing nine offensive rebounds (something like a 37.5 individual OR%) on his way to 16 points (on eight-of-11 shooting) and 14 boards. Due to the injury, just seven Rams combined for 99% of the minutes, and six of those players scored in double figures. For a team that is the sixth smallest team in the nation, the Rams scored 50 of their 81 points in the paint and they dominated a much bigger TCU team on the glass, proving that it is not always about size or athletic ability, sometimes it is about heart.
Colorado State head coach Tim Miles also got off the line of the night, when he responded to a question about how he planned to defend Jamaal Franklin on Friday with: “Where is Jeff Gillooly?” Somehow, we think Miles will come up with some sort of plan, without having to resort to a crowbar to Franklin’s ankle.
Jeer of the Day
There is a special place in hell for the referees of the New Mexico/Air Force contest on Thursday evening. In 40 minutes of not-all-that-physical action, the crew of Verne Harris, Shawn Lehigh and Dan Chrisman somehow called 50 fouls. Along with the legitimate fouls, there were touch fouls whistled and a handful of phantom whistles and even a terrible technical foul on Kendall Williams, who after dunking at full-speed in traffic with a couple of Air Force players in the vicinity, hung on the rim for an extra beat. Of course, a whistle rang out almost immediately and Williams was tee’d up. On the rare occasions where the refs let the action go for a couple minutes without a whistle, the action was fairly entertaining. But because they wanted to be the center of the show at all times, we were treated to one of the least entertaining basketball games I’ve ever seen.
In the end, the Lobos came away with a 15-point win, with reserve Demetrius Walker putting up an excellent 19-point line. But in the post-game press conference, we were treated to some more weirdness as Drew Gordon responded to an extended question from a New Mexico beat writer Mark Smith with a blunt “I don’t know” (jump to 3:30 in this video) and then proceeded to describe how he was hurt that certain people (a passive-aggressive reference to that same beat writer) didn’t vote for him for conference Player of the Year (see the start of this video), all while Steve Alford stared at the ground or off into space and Williams chipped in his own two cents. And then, Williams claimed just a minute later that the team didn’t care about individual awards. All in all, a bizarre press conference to wrap up a bizarre game.
Quick Semifinal Preview
So, at the end of the day, we’re left with, more or less, what we wanted to see. Without rooting for any particular team, we came into this weekend wanting to see the four Mountain West teams that appear likely to be headed to the NCAA Tournament to square off in one last battle royale. And that’s what we’ll have Friday night. Colorado State and San Diego State will square off in the first semifinal, with New Mexico and UNLV – the two teams bringing the largest and loudest contingent of fans – squaring off in the nightcap. We have the three primary candidates for the conference POY, we have tons of excellent complementary players and we have four great coaches. It doesn’t get much better than this.