Checking In On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa on December 24th, 2013
Last year, the Mountain West Conference earned, and received, five bids to the NCAA Tournament. Once there, things did not go as planned, but regardless, it was a good regular season for the conference, with non-conference neutral-site wins over UCLA and Connecticut along with road wins against California, Washington, Creighton, and Cincinnati, plenty of home wins and bad losses being kept to an absolute minimum except for the very bottom of the conference. This year, with some talented players leaving the conference, there was little doubt that a step back was due. But with just four teams currently in the top 100 of the RPI, a couple of teams sitting below 270, and the overall conference RPI ninth in the nation, any prayer of getting five teams dancing again can be forgotten. Now the question is, can they get three?
Team of the Week
Utah State – Slim pickings this week, as it seems like every team that played a halfway decent opponent came away with at least one loss. But the Aggies took care of business at the Basketball Travelers Classic on its own campus. While the bookend wins over Western Illinois and Troy don’t do much for anyone, the middle game, a six-point overtime win over a good UC Santa Barbara team, is a nice accomplishment. Especially considering the fact that the Aggies fought back from an eight-point deficit at the under-four timeout, and did so without center Jarred Shaw, who is suspended indefinitely. More on Shaw below.
Player of the Week
Larry Nance, Jr, Junior, Wyoming – The Cowboys have taken two losses in a span of three games since we last did this, but that isn’t Nance’s fault. Against Denver last weekend, Nance broke out for a career-high 38 points on 15/21 shooting, adding 12 boards for good measure. Then on Friday, against Southern Methodist, he backed that up with 16 points, 13 boards and three blocks. And last night he had 29 points on 14 field goal attempts, while grabbing 13 boards and blocking three shots against Northern Colorado. All told, that’s 27.7 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 2 BPG, and a 72.8 eFG% in those three games.
Newcomer of the Week
Roscoe Smith, Junior, UNLV – Smith continues to dominate on the glass adding three straight double-doubles and averaging 13.3 points and 11.7 rebounds along the way.
- San Diego State (9-1) – They’re the best team in the conference, but they’re in the middle of an invisible stretch right now. They notched blowout wins over a couple of teams ranked below 300 by Ken Pom, they’ve got a game against something called St. Katherine coming up at the end of the week, but other than that, all eyes are focused on the beginning of conference play, against Colorado State on New Year’s Day, followed up quickly by a brief return to wrap up the non-conference slate by traveling to Kansas for a serious test.
- New Mexico (8-3) – Lots of news in Lobo land. First, there was the matter of a two-game losing streak; the loss to Kansas wasn’t unexpected (although perhaps the decisiveness of it was), but a home loss to in-state rival New Mexico State? That one sent the home crowd into a tizzy. Part of the reason for the timbre of that loss to NMSU was the absence of Hugh Greenwood. He had been battling through a wrist injury in recent weeks and New Mexico finally decided to shut him down for a bit. He’s missed two straight and there is no timetable for his return at this point. Never a big stat guy, Greenwood is nevertheless a vital cog for the Lobos as a offensive leader, intelligent defender and a versatile contributor. In his absence, freshman Cullen Neal has stepped into the starting lineup and, despite some questionable criticism from a small faction of fans, Neal came up with the best performance of his young career in a big win over Marquette on Saturday, pouring in six threes for a total of 24 points on just 12 field goal attempts. While the Greenwood absence certainly hurts in the short term, given the Lobos need to have somebody else step up for this squad, maybe the opportunity to give Neal a larger role temporarily will help in the long run. One other note from the Marquette game: Deshawn Delaney got the start, played 32 minutes, double-doubled with 10 and 10 and for the first time looked like a quality piece for this squad. He still needs to buy into his role as a defender/glue-guy and figure out the difference between good and bad shots, but it was an encouraging sign for the Kansas transfer.
- Boise State (8-2) – Losing on the road to Kentucky was entirely expected. Losing at home to Saint Mary’s? Not so much. The Gaels jumped out to a fantastic start, then bottled up Anthony Drmic the rest of the way and finished strong, leaving the Broncos in need of a big performance at the Diamond Head Classic this week. Stay tuned.
- UNLV (6-4) – The Rebels have now won four straight, but Southern Utah, Radford, Sacred Heart and Santa Clara are not exactly a murderer’s row. Really, if we expected to have any hopes for a Rebel revival this year, this team had better have an eight-game winning steak heading into their trip to New Mexico in mid-January. UNLV’s next four games: Cal State Fullerton, then opening MW play at Fresno State, then back home for Air Force and Nevada.
- Utah State (9-2) – So. Jarred Shaw. He’s the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, and shotblocker. He shoots 87% from the free throw line. And, he’s also suspended indefinitely following drug-related criminal charges that resulted from a sexual assault investigation. While the sexual assault reports proved to have no substance (according to police), Shaw is still caught up in a criminal investigation related to the drug charges. We’ll see how long this story lingers, but to put it bluntly, if Shaw is not available for large portions of the Mountain West schedule, the Aggies have no chance.
- Colorado State (7-4) – The Rams lost at home to Denver a couple weeks back and will get back to work tonight against Illinois-Chicago.
- Wyoming (8-4) – So, above we mentioned how good Nance has been over the last three games. And, of course, in that three-game span, the Cowboys have lost twice – to Denver and to SMU. In those two losses, Nance was a combined 21/32 (65.6%) from the field, while the rest of the team was a combined 17/64 (26.6%). Suffice it to say, Nance needs help. Riley Grabau has been the team’s second leading scorer, and he’s been lights out from the field this year, checking in among the top ten in the country in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. But, he’s a low usage guy who is primarily a spot-up shooter from deep. The other guy on the team averaging better than ten points per game is Josh Adams, who was five-of-18 from the field in those two losses this week.
- Fresno State (6-6) – The Bulldogs are on a three-game losing streak, but they can take solace in the fact that they’ve lost to three pretty good teams, in Utah, California and Florida. They’ll wrap up their non-conference schedule against UC Merced next weekend, then get conference play started by hosting UNLV on New Year’s Day. The Bulldogs won both of their games against the Rebels last year, so they’ll go into that opener with plenty of confidence.
- San Jose State (5-6) – The Spartans are on a three-game winning streak now, including a couple wins this week, one of which was a three-overtime affair over UC Davis. Our favorite, Rashad Muhammad, was big in that win, dropping in a career-high 28 points, including six three-pointers. He then followed that up with his worst game of the year, scoring just eight points on nine FGAs. And, while he was again blanked in the blocks and assists column, he did register a steal this week. So, to recap: 11 games, 33 threes, eight assists, six steals, and no blocks.
- Nevada (5-7) – Last Saturday, Nevada lost at home to Nebraska-Omaha, but they bounced back to knock off Iona last night. Deonte Burton is now averaging 23 points per game and has played at least 40 minutes in each of the last four games and is thus far third in the nation in minutes played. The Wolf Pack have actually been pretty decent offensively, but have been a disaster on the defensive end: they don’t force turnovers, they commit to many fouls and, especially inside the arc, they’re completely incapable of preventing their opponents from getting good looks.
- Air Force (6-5) – To put just how bad the Falcons are in perspective, they’re not only just as bad defensively as Nevada is, but they’re just as bad on the offensive end as the worst teams in the MW (UNLV and San Jose State).