CIO… the Mountain West ConferencePosted by AMurawa on February 5th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
When tonight’s games wrap up, we’ll officially be halfway through the conference season. The Super Bowl is over, all eyes are on college hoops, there will be just eight games remaining on all the team’s schedules and we’re all starting to think about the madness that awaits in Vegas in early March. For the longest time this season in the Mountain West, we’ve figured there were a pool of six teams in contention for NCAA Tournament bids. And, as we get ready to round the turn, it looks like we’ve still got six teams in the mix; the surprise, however, may be which six teams those are. After we take care of our weekly honors immediately below, we’ll take a look at where each team stands as we near the halfway mark in terms of their NCAA Tournament viability.
Team of the Week
Air Force – It was “only” a pair of home wins, but they were an impressive, and an important, pair. With wins over Fresno State and San Diego State, the Falcons put themselves within striking distance of the conference lead, all with a shot at that first place New Mexico team next up on the schedule. The former win was more a matter of just taking care of business, while the latter was truly impressive. Despite the fact that the Aztecs were hampered by injuries, Air Force withstood the full brunt of Jamaal Franklin attempting, and largely succeeding in his attempt, to take over the game. After giving up a 12-point second half lead, the Falcons had the wherewithal to answer every Aztec run and in the final seconds, they dodged a couple looks at game-tying threes, earning the Academy their very own RTC, even if it was small and relatively orderly. After weeks and weeks of having everybody overlook them, it is now time to give this team its due: with Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico all coming to Clune Arena in the back half of conference play, the Falcons have a chance (even if it is still a slim one) to win this thing.
Player of the Week
Hugh Greenwood, Sophomore, New Mexico – Before we get to Greenwood, a quick mention of Colorado State’s Pierce Hornung, who made this week’s decision a tough one. Hornung averaged 17.5 points and 12 rebounds per game this week, double-doubling each night and even knocked down all three three-pointers he attempted against Boise State on Wednesday, bring him up to eight-for-15 on the season from deep. But, as versatile as Hornung was this week, versatility is Hugh Greenwood’s middle name (yup, Hugh Versatility Greenwood – it’s an Aussie thing, I think). The Lobo sophomore made ten of the 13 shots he attempted from the field this week, including five-of-six from deep, averaged 14 points per game, 8.5 rebounds and five assists. Oh, and during the Lobos’ trip to Laramie on Wednesday, Greenwood saved the day by knocking down the go-ahead jumper with eight seconds left and sealing the game with a pair of free throws later. After winning multiple Player of the Week awards from us last year, this is Greenwood’s first nod this year.
Newcomer of the Week
Mikey Thompson, Freshman, Boise State – Anthony Bennett’s 19 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this week would be the easy choice, but we’re digging deep again and pegging the Bronco freshman, who had perhaps the best week of his young career this week, playing all but eight minutes of BSU’s two games this week and averaging 11 points and six assists along the way.
Anthony Bennett YouTube of the Week
Shut it down. The Dunk of the Year came this week and, despite this section being named after the UNLV freshman’s exploits, it was a neighbor to the north who got it done. And with Bennett looking on, no less. If, somehow, somebody beats this one (and really, the fact that there is absolutely no question in my mind that this one beats out Jamaal Franklin’s self-alley-oop should indicate just how good this is), that may well go down as the greatest play in the history of basketball. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, Deonte Burton.
Game of the Week
Boise State 77, UNLV 72 – It was one of the more enjoyable games you’ll see in the conference all year, a back and forth affair between the team that is almost universally regarded as the MW’s most talented team and a team that, after a surprising non-conference run, needed to score a big home win in order to remain on the NCAA Tournament bubble. And, the home crowd was pumped for this one as these two teams cranked out 71 possessions of excellent, hard fought (sometimes maybe too hard) entertaining basketball. And, when all was said and done, the team that needed the game to stay relevant, Boise State, came away with the win.
Game of the Upcoming Week
Air Force at New Mexico, February 6th, 7PM MST, ROOT Sports – This game marks the end of the first half of the conference schedule; everybody will have played everybody once. And if Air Force wins this game, admittedly a tall task, they’ll be tied for first place. That alone makes this game the game of the week. Amazing. And, aside from that little gem, this should be one heck of a matchup. When Air Force has the ball, we’ll see a matchup of the team’s strengths: the Falcons offense against the Lobos defense. The Falcons have the ability to shoot the eyes out of the nets, and while New Mexico does a ton of great things on the defense end, limiting shooting percentage, and specifically three-point shooting percentage (although Ken Pomeroy has shown that defensive three-point percentage is often more a factor of luck than of skill), is not one of their strengths. On the other end of the court? Well, neither team is particularly great there, but we will get to see one of the bigger teams in Division I (UNM) take on one of the smaller teams. While the Academy’s shooting is something to behold, they’ll need to find a way to come up with key stops in order to really contend for the Mountain West title and, more realistically, an NCAA Tournament berth.
- UNLV (16-5, 4-3): So, I almost did it this week. I had New Mexico up here and felt pretty good about dropping the Rebels a notch. But here’s the thing: the Rebels have four remaining road games, against Fresno State, Air Force, Wyoming and Nevada. They’ll be favored in all four of those games. Their big second-half games against New Mexico, Colorado State, San Diego State, even Boise State, those all take place at the Thomas & Mack. Yes, the Lobos have a nice lead a this point over UNLV, but this is still a very interesting race. As for the big picture, with just five losses on the season, and none of those even approaching a bad loss, the Rebs and their RPI of 19 are safe and sound, barring a complete collapse, as an NCAA Tournament team. But, with just two top 50 RPI wins (Iowa State and San Diego State) right now they’d be looking at a seed in the 5-7 range. But, again, plenty of opportunities exist to improve that number. A look ahead: The Rebels travel to Fresno State tonight and should overpower the Bulldogs. Of greater interest is their home game against New Mexico on Saturday.
- New Mexico (19-3, 6-1): While I still think the Rebels have more upside than the Lobos, there is no denying the excellent resume Steve Alford’s squad is building. Aside from that sparkling record, they’re ranked fifth in the RPI. They’ve got four wins against top 25 RPI teams and ten total against top 100 teams. This Lobo team has the potential to earn something like that three seed they earned back in 2010 behind Darington Hobson. Unfortunately, that team was overvalued by the RPI all year long and their season ended in a round of 32 blowout loss to Washington in a game where the Lobos struggled to score the ball. I’m not saying that is going to happen again, but keeping realistic expectations for this team would be wise. A look ahead: A couple of really big games for the Lobos this week, with a visit from Air Force tonight and then a visit to UNLV on Saturday.
- San Diego State (16-5, 4-3): The Aztecs may have lost three of their last five games, but given the injury problems they’ve had to endure, those losses are understandable. The key for this team over the back half of the schedule is to win enough games to keep the solid mid-range seed they seem to deserve, while nursing Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley back to good health by March. As it is, SDSU has big home wins over the two highest RPI Mountain West teams (New Mexico and Colorado State) and a pair of decent wins over UCLA and Indiana State in the non-conference. Couple that with the fact that their backcourt duo doesn’t seem ready to be back at full strength in the near term and we can probably expect the Aztecs to be playing in either a 7/10 or 8/9 game to open the Big Dance. A look ahead: The good news is that a couple of games in front of the home crowd awaits this week, with Boise State coming into Viejas Arena tonight and Fresno State on Saturday. Nobody in this conference should be overlooked, but that’s a manageable two-step for the Aztecs.
- Colorado State (18-4, 5-2): One of these weeks I’m absolutely going to have to move the Rams up the list some. Really, Larry Eustachy’s club is stuck at #4 in my rankings for one simple reason: that’s where I’ve had them since the end of last season and none of the three teams ahead of them have done enough to cause me to reconsider that. But, the Rams arguably have the second best resume in the conference. They’ve certainly got the second best RPI (#15) out of this bunch, and with six wins over top 100 teams, there is plenty of meat on these bones. Although, they’re the one team out of this top tier that has suffered a questionable loss – at UIC in early December. But what makes this team so appealing to me right now Is the fact that they’re steadily improving, and perhaps more importantly, they are taking care of business. Since that UIC loss, they’ve gone 11-2, with the only two negatives there road conference losses to San Diego State and New Mexico in very competitive games. Along the way, they’ve blown out teams like Boise State, Air Force and Wyoming, while snatching a very good home win against UNLV. If the Rams can continue to protect their homecourt and steal wins against lesser teams on the road, there is no reason they couldn’t wind up with a seed in the five or six range, their highest seed in NCAA history. A look ahead: Speaking of stealing wins on the road against lesser teams, the Rams have the perfect opportunity to do that tonight when they travel to Nevada, a team they should absolutely bury on the glass. And as a reward for taking care of business tonight, they’ll get the weekend off in advance of next Wednesday’s home game against San Diego State. Of course, if they lose tonight, you can bet Eustachy will have plenty of work for this team in lieu of their bye date.
- Boise State (15-6, 3-4): It cannot be understated just how big of a win the Broncos scored on Saturday night against UNLV. Losers of four of their previous five games (in increasingly noncompetitive fashion) and with only a home win over Fresno State to show for their troubles, the win not only gives the Broncos their second big resume win of the year (their win over Creighton back in November will come in handy as well), but it should go a long way towards restoring the confidence of this team. But, even with that win, BSU still has plenty of work to do. As of right now, they are firmly on the bubble. And losses at Utah and at Nevada don’t do them any favors. To make matters worse, from here on out, they play at San Diego State, at New Mexico and at UNLV. But, they do get the Aztecs at home on the last day of the regular season and they’ll also host Colorado State. Let’s just say they can take care of those two home games, while also picking off Wyoming, Air Force and Nevada at home and going on the road to take care of Fresno State. That would put the Broncos at 9-7 and probably firmly in the tournament. And, perhaps they even have enough cushion to see that conference record slip to 8-8. But, for a team that has never won an NCAA Tournament game, I wouldn’t chance it. A look ahead: The road to a 9-7 conference record begins tonight, with a road trip to a banged up San Diego State team. Let’s see if the Broncos can gather up some momentum from Saturday night’s win and give the Aztecs a run. On Saturday, Boise hosts Wyoming, a team looking to get revenge for their season-opening home loss.
- Air Force (14-6, 5-2): Number six with a bullet! Five straight wins, a steadily rising RPI and a shot at a spot atop the conference leader board at the halfway mark? These are heady days for Air Force basketball. With no bad losses in their past and some solid conference wins, they’ve put themselves in pretty good position. But, they’ve got a lot of work to do. For instance, though improving, that RPI of 69 isn’t going to do anybody any favors. And while they earned a good road win against Wyoming a couple weeks back, they’re still a team that is 3-5 on the road with future road scraps with New Mexico, Nevada, Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State dotting the road ahead of them. If this is really going dancing, wins at Nevada and Fresno State are absolutely necessary. And if they want to find a path into the tournament that includes losses on the road to UNM, Boise and SDSU, they’ll probably need to win three of their four remaining home games against UNLV, Colorado State, Wyoming and New Mexico. That would put them at 10-6 in one of the top three conferences in the nation. You would hope that would get them in. A look ahead: If we’re still talking about an Air Force winning streak next week at this time, you know this team means business, because trips to New Mexico and Nevada make for an awful tough week.
- Wyoming (15-6, 2-6): Somewhere along the way (maybe it was outside a bar in Laramie after closing time one night) what once was a proud seaworthy Wyoming ship began to take on some serious water. And now, with half of their conference schedule in the bag, the Cowboys find themselves in a position where they’ve got to bail water and patch a hole. With six losses in eight games, the Cowboys RPI is sliding slowly and surely, back down to 62. They’ve got a couple nice wins over Colorado and San Diego State, but the odds are good that they’ll need to find their way back to 8-8 in the conference to have a prayer come Selection Sunday. So, how do the Cowboys get to 8-8? Well, they would have to start by stealing back a road game from Boise State on Saturday, then taking care of business next week at home against Fresno State and Nevada. That’s all well and good to get them back to 5-6, but that leaves them needing to win three of these final five games: at San Diego State, home against UNLV, at Air Force, at New Mexico, home against Colorado State. Good luck ‘Pokes. And, if you happen to lose one of those home games next week to Nevada or Fresno, at least Larry Shyatt’s decision about whether to possibility reinstate Luke Martinez when he is healthy again will be an easy one. A look ahead: Prior to Saturday’s trip to Boise, the Cowboys have the conference’s last regular season non-conference game, a road trip to Cal State Bakersfield that makes me really want to know the story of how this thing got scheduled.
- Nevada (11-10, 2-5): Down here, you’re looking at teams that need to go on a significantly improbable run down the back stretch in order to maybe earn some consideration for the CBI or CIT. No, from here on out, Nevada’s season is about improving with an eye towards next season. Malik Story is the only senior of note who will be departing, and there’s no reason Deonte Burton shouldn’t be back in Reno next year. But, David Carter needs to find some additional talent to surround him with. Guys like Jerry Evans and Jordan Burris have upside, and Cole Huff will probably be ready for an even bigger role next year, but it is hard to see another player on this team ready to step into Story’s offensive role. So far, the Wolf Pack’s 2013 recruiting class is still a work in progress, with only three-star wing D.J. Fenner committed. A look ahead: A couple home games for the Wolf Pack, with visits from Colorado State and Air Force. The bad news is, Nevada is just 1-2 at home in conference play.
- Fresno State (7-13, 1-6): At long last, Braeden Anderson is set to make his Division I college debut tonight against UNLV. He originally committed to Kansas out of high school, but was deemed a partial qualifier by the NCAA. Then, the Big 12 ruled him ineligible for participation at Kansas after he was unable to qualify for financial aid. Then, Anderson committed to Fresno State and has spent the better part of the last year and a half working to become an academic qualifier. And tonight, he’ll be ready to get his college career underway. We’ll see exactly how effective he’ll be after not playing the sport for nearly two years, but between him, freshman center Robert Upshaw and Oklahoma State transfer Cezar Guerrero, who will be eligible next season and ready to take over the starting point guard spot, head coach Rodney Terry is laying the framework for a rapid rise up the Mountain West standings. A look ahead: It’s UNLV tonight in Fresno, then a trip down south to San Diego State on Saturday. Oh, and if I didn’t mention any postseason scenarios above for the Bulldogs, it is because such scenarios are outlandish.