CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on January 23rd, 2013
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.
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.
Newcomer of the Week
Winston Shepard, Freshman, San Diego State – As expected, Shepard had a rocky start to his Aztecs career. In his first four games, he had more turnovers than he did points. But head coach Steve Fisher has stuck with his talented youngster, giving him double-figure minutes in every game he has played in, and his patience is beginning to pay off. With veteran point guard Xavier Thames limited by a back injury, Shepard earned 51 minutes this week and scored 28 points while grabbing 11 boards and handing out five assists. And, perhaps most importantly, he only turned it over three times despite spending plenty of time with the ball in his hands. A skilled 6’8” athletic specimen, Shepard still has plenty of room for improvement (his jump shot, for instance, is definitely not ready for prime time), but he is capable of giving SDSU major mismatch potential when he is on the floor.
Game of the Week
New Mexico 79, Boise State 74 (OT) – In the hours leading up to Wednesday night’s game with Boise State, Hugh Greenwood was in a world of hurt, unsuccessfully fighting off a vicious illness. But, come tip-off time, he was surprisingly in the starting lineup. And, despite having played 24 of the first 39 minutes of the game, with time running down and his Lobos trailing, Greenwood had enough energy to come up big, getting into the lane and scoring the game-tying bucket. Then, with the prospects of another five minutes of action ahead of him, Greenwood finished strong, scoring five of his 15 points in overtime, including a big late three to put the Lobos up by five. Still, the Broncos weren’t done. After a pair of free throws, BSU got a steal on an inbounds play that lead to a wide-open look for Anthony Drmic at a game-tying three that went just long.
Game of the Upcoming Week
New Mexico at San Diego State, January 26, 1PM PST, NBC Sports Network – Every night there are games played in the conference, there are going to be games worth watching. But, supposing the Lobos are able to take care of Colorado State at The Pit on Wednesday night, their unbeaten conference record will surely be in peril when they head to Viejas Arena on Saturday afternoon. Last year the Lobos actually handled the Aztecs pretty easily in front of The Show (and in the Mountain West championship game), but expect Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley and company to be looking for revenge, and a much-needed conference win.
- UNLV (15-4, 2-2): Putting the Rebels atop my power rankings when they’ve got two losses, including one to unbeaten New Mexico, certainly deserves an explanation. So here goes. My goal when putting together these rankings is to determine who I think should be favored right now if they were to meet up in a neutral-site game, with an eye towards where the team will be in March. And, while the Rebels still have a ways to go before they max out on their potential, I think they’re beginning to do that, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, they’re finally getting close to whole. Mike Moser is back from his gruesome elbow dislocation, even though he isn’t back to full strength and certainly hasn’t shown the level of comfort with his new teammates that he had on last year’s team. And newly eligible Khem Birch is getting more comfortable by the game and was maybe the difference in UNLV’s win over San Diego State. Meanwhile, Anthony Marshall may be playing as well as he can at the point, creating opportunities for himself, if not for his teammates, while wings Katin Reinhardt and Bryce Dejean-Jones are beginning to limit their bad shots. And, I’ve made it this far without even mentioning Anthony Bennett, one of the most impressive talents in the nation (although he did have a down week, averaging just nine points and four boards – can he and Moser coexist?). If and when this team reaches its ceiling, they’ll be far and away the best team in the conference. And while they’re not near that ceiling yet, they’re definitely trending in the right direction. And, as I’ve said before, after two straight years of playing their best basketball in November and December, this is a team that is on pace to be playing its best basketball of the season come March. A look ahead: With the weekend bye ahead of them this week, the Rebels’ sole game this week is a Thursday night matchup with Wyoming at the Thomas and Mack Center.
- New Mexico (16-2, 3-0): The fact that the Lobos went on the road and earned a tough win over a good Boise State team this week and were rewarded with being bumped back in the power rankings is certainly a slap in the face. But while UNLV has gone on the road and scored a big win over one of the conference’s “big three”, New Mexico’s bigger conference tests still lie ahead of them. And while the Lobos are arguably the best defensive team in the conference, their offense has a ways to go to catch up. The good news is, this week Tony Snell woke up from a recent slide and hit more than 50% of his shots from the field in a game for the first time in almost a month, pouring in 22 points and three threes (his most from deep since the end of November). Likewise, Greenwood had his biggest offensive performance since early in December. While part of that could be attributed to Boise’s rather lax defense, Lobo fans have to hope this is the start of something good. As for Demetrius Walker (zero-for-11 from the field and one DNP-CD in the last four games), his potential breakout season has been a significant disappointment. A look ahead: While we bumped the Lobos down a slot this week, they’ve got a chance to make a big case for themselves this week, with a visit from Colorado State followed by a trip to San Diego State. UNM’s tough defense will come in handy this week, but they’ll need to get some solid offensive performances from their guards to still be undefeated in conference play at this time next week.
- San Diego State (14-4, 2-2): For an 0-2 week that included a home-loss to the hated Rebels and a road effort that included a nine-point half, there should be surprisingly little panic around Montezuma Mesa. Why? Well, to begin with, they’ve got the built-in excuse of playing one of these games without junior point guard Xavier Thames and the other with him severely-limited. While Thames doesn’t get anywhere near the hype that Jamaal Franklin or Chase Tapley does, he’s a very important part of what this team does on both ends of the floor – a true floor general. Secondly, the Aztecs got good production from a couple of freshmen this week, as Shepard was good enough to earn our MW Newcomer of the Week award (see above), while Skylar Spencer was a force down low in limited minutes, making all four of his shots, grabbing six boards and blocking three shots. Still, concerns about Franklin’s overall game (including his penchant for drawing technicals – he leads the nation with six this year) remain and there is nobody in the frontcourt who has shown an ability to be a scorer on a regular basis. In other words, don’t get too worried about SDSU. But still, worry. A look ahead: The Aztecs make their first visit to Nevada, then host New Mexico on Saturday. A couple wins are a definite possibility this week, in which case, we’ll forget all about this week’s pair of blips.
- Colorado State (15-3, 2-1): The conventional wisdom all year long has been that there is a “big three” in the Mountain West, with New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV the three favorites in the conference and everybody else a step down. I think it is time to consider this a conference with a “big four”, with the Rams joining the other three. I thought long and hard about putting CSU up at #3 and even briefly considered a scenario where they would be #2, but I want to see them do some more (including, you know, win a conference road game) before I go that far. Still, at this point I’m not sure anybody would be surprised if, after a long drawn-out regular season battle, the Rams wind up earning the #1 seed in the conference tourney. Last year the team took advantage of some fortunate RPI numbers (and, to be fair, a couple really big late-season home wins over New Mexico and UNLV) to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. And this year, despite a coaching change and a couple players lost for the year to injury, they are in every way and improved team. Last year they were good offensively; this year they’re great. Last year they were mediocre defensively; this year they’re pretty good. Last year they were undersized and got taken advantage of inside; this year they’re probably the best rebounding team in the nation. And they’re balanced enough offensively that they can get big performances from any number of different guys to make up for teammates who struggle on a particular night. And with success now in their DNA, they’re capable of winning a dogfight down the stretch. A look ahead: Last year, the Rams dropped six of seven games on the road in conference. This year, after winning their first two non-conference road games, they’ve dropped three straight, including their lone conference roadie. This week, they’ll have a chance to prove that they’ve grown in this area as well, as they travel to New Mexico on Wednesday, then Fresno State on Saturday. The latter will clearly be the easier game, but if the Rams allow the UNM hangover to get to them (whether they win or lose in The Pit), the Bulldogs could make life miserable for them.
- Boise State (13-4, 1-2): Following their big opening-night last-second win over Wyoming, the Broncos have now dropped two straight: the heartbreaking home overtime loss to New Mexico and the all-too-predictable road loss at Air Force (seriously though, we predicted it here last week). No need for panic, however, as we still think the Broncos are a very good team that got tripped up by circumstances. One circumstance that will hopefully right itself is Jeff Elorriaga’s head; the junior guard sustained a concussion in BSU’s loss to New Mexico and missed the Air Force game as a result. Given just how hot this kid has been (he’s made 29 out of 49 three-point attempts since Christmas), the Broncos need him back knocking down daggers. A look ahead: The good news for the Broncos is that the immediate schedule is kind, with a visit from Fresno State and a trip to Nevada ahead this week, both very winnable games in which the Broncs cannot afford to slip up. The bad news is that pairing those teams together means BSU has a brutal stretch after that. Between January 30 and February 16, the Broncos will travel to Colorado State, host UNLV, travel to San Diego State, host Wyoming and then travel to New Mexico. Yikes.
- Wyoming (15-2, 2-2): After a 13-point road loss to Fresno State that featured a 16-point first half, I can’t have been the only one who thought the bloom was off the surprising Wyoming rose. But, once back in Laramie, the Cowboys turned on the defense against San Diego State and held the Aztecs to just nine points in their first half on Saturday. While there are plenty of reasons to be seriously concerned about the long-term viability of this ‘Poke team, when they’re playing defense like that, they’ll stick with anybody in this conference. As for those concerns, how about point guard Derrious Gilmore, who went zero-for-eight against Fresno, then followed than up with a six-turnover night against the Aztecs? Or the complete absence of a bench (Larry Shyatt got 33 minutes zero made field goals and four points from his bench against FSU, then 17 minutes and five points against SDSU)? Or the lack of any real option as a spot-up shooter in the absence of Luke Martinez? The defense is real good, and Leonard Washington is in the discussion for the best player in the conference (14 points, 14 boards, five steals and two blocks against SDSU), but I remain skeptical that there is enough outside of the defense here to sneak the Cowboys into the NCAA Tournament. And losses to Fresno State, regardless of where the game is held, will not help their case. A look ahead: The Cowboys travel to UNLV on Thursday night, then have a quick turn-around, coming all the way back to Laramie before facing Air Force Saturday evening.
- Air Force (10-6, 2-2): The Falcons earn the schizophrenic award this week, pairing a 39-point loss to Colorado State with an 11-point win over Boise State. Michael Lyons’ week just about sums it all up: eight points in a foul-plagued 23 minutes with five turnovers mixed in against the Rams, then a full 38 minutes of action against Boise and 37 points, six boards, three dimes, two steals and three threes (along with 13/18 shooting from the field and a perfect eight-of-eight from the line). While I’m never one to shoot down a performance like the latter, a little consistency would be appreciated. A look ahead: The Falcons have the odd mid-season non-conference game against New Orleans on Wednesday, then travel to Wyoming on Saturday.
- Nevada (10-7, 1-2): For as bad the Wolf Pack have been this year (and, make no mistake, they’ve been really bad, regardless of their win over fellow cellar-dweller Fresno State this week), when you go an look at their individual KenPom.com numbers, you see a lot of offensive efficiency ratings up in the 100s. Deonte Burton checks in at 112, a relatively unsurprising number given his history of excellence. Malik Story is up at 104 (unsurprising on a historical level, but sorta surprising if you’ve seen any of his half-hearted play this season). Then there’s a whole collected of frontcourt guys (Jerry Evans Jr., Jordan Burris, Devonte Elliott and Cole Huff) all checking in somewhere north of 100. Look even further and all of those guys, somehow, have decent rebounding percentages. All of this relatively boring recital of numbers leads to this point: I’ve seen Nevada a handful of times and followed their box scores pretty closely, and if I had had to guess, I would have put Burton and perhaps Evans as the only guys over 100. So apparently, either they’re playing really poorly in the games I’ve seen, or they’re good enough to put up solid numbers and still lose games. A look ahead: If the Wolf Pack are going to make any splash in the conference, this week is a good place to start, with a pair of home games against quality opponents: San Diego State on Wednesday and Boise State on Saturday.
- Fresno State (7-10, 1-3): I’ve been going back and forth all year about which of these two teams at the bottom is the worst in the conference, and for now the Bulldogs have earned the nod due to their home loss to Nevada. But, while there may not be a ton of talent on this FSU team, give credit to Rodney Terry for always getting good effort out of his team, even as he’s had to play the psychologist a bit. Case in point, heralded freshman big man Robert Upshaw who has been up and down all year, showing flashes of talent interspersed with cluelessness. This week, Terry didn’t even deign to get him up off the bench against Wyoming, but when the youngster was called upon against Nevada, he was ready to play. He earned 18 minutes, grabbed five boards and blocked five shots. Offensively, he’s still working things out, but rest assured that Terry will get him there. A look ahead: They’re all rough weeks in the Mountain West when you’re looking up at a significant talent gap, and this week is no different as the Bulldogs travel to Boise State on Wednesday before hosting Colorado State on Saturday.