Checking in On… the Mountain WestPosted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 8th, 2014
After the slowdown around the holidays, the Mountain West is back in full swing. Conference play is underway; everybody has played at least one game against a conference opponent; and San Diego State ended non-conference play on a big high, scoring a thoroughly impressive win at Kansas over the weekend. There’s a lot to get to, so let’s jump right in, after recognizing that right now we have Air Force and Nevada – two teams we have been making fun of all season – tied atop the conference standings with 2-0 records.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – The Aztecs got conference play underway well by going on the road to Colorado State, getting a good early start, and then maintaining a solid lead the rest of the way. Then on Sunday, they capped off a dream day for San Diego sports fans, backing up the Chargers’ playoff win with a win of their own at Allen Fieldhouse. They’re not a perfect team, but this squad likes each other, works exceedingly well together, and Steve Fisher is getting every last drop out of it in what is turning out to be yet another masterful coaching job. While we maybe have been a step behind on fully believing in this team, those days are over; the Aztecs are the clear favorite in the Mountain West.
Team of the Week – Honorable Mention
Air Force – In the six years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve never cheated by awarding a team of the week to more than one team. But I can’t bypass the chance to recognize the Academy for its accomplishments this week. It is no overstatement to say that the Falcons looked just awful in their non-conference schedule, losing to teams like VMI, Jackson State and UC Davis. But two games into their conference slate, they’re undefeated, having not only knocked off Utah State at Clune Arena on New Year’s Day, but also having earned a comfortable win at UNLV over the weekend. If anybody outside of the most optimistic Air Force homers had the Falcons at 2-0 at this point, they are to be highly commended.
Player of the Week
Xavier Thames, Senior, San Diego State – His numbers aren’t mind-blowing, although solid – 19.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 3.5 SPG, 53.4% eFG), but Thames’ impact in both wins this week can’t be solely judged on the basis of numbers. It seemed like any time SDSU’s opponents made a run, it was Thames there with a shot or a dime or a steal or maybe even a play that didn’t show up in the stat sheet – the pass that led to the pass, perhaps – to help the Aztecs over the hump. Is there anything better in college hoops than a confident senior point guard?
Newcomer of the Week
Cezar Guerrero, Sophomore, Fresno State – We haven’t mentioned Guerrero enough around these parts yet this year, but the Oklahoma State transfer has been incredibly steady for the Bulldogs this season. He’s scored in double figures in all but one game; he’s averaging 4.4 assists per game on the year; and he has been key for a team struggling through injuries. While Fresno opened the conference season in disappointing fashion with two losses, Guerrero did his part, averaging 16 points, five assists and four rebounds this week. Oh, and dude – all 6’1” of him – also had three blocks against UNLV. Nevermind that those are his first three blocks of the season – dude had three blocks!
- San Diego State (12-1) – There are still valid concerns about their three-point and free throw shooting (33.3% and 61.5% combined in these last two games), but one thing is very clear: This team can D up. While this squad’s defense may not quite be up to the same level of the 2011 Sweet Sixteen team, it is very close. Skylar Spencer has turned into an elite rim protector (he blocks almost 12.9% of opponents two-point field goal attempts when he’s on the floor, good for 13th in the nation); Josh Davis is the best of a strong group of defensive rebounders; and then the length that this team can throw at you around the perimeter (it is rare that the Aztecs have two players smaller than 6’6” on the court at the same time) can be truly nightmarish for opposing offenses.
- New Mexico (10-3) – The Lobos had a bye on New Year’s Day, so they’ve only played one conference game thus far, but they came away with a seven-point home win against Colorado State. Cameron Bairstow led the way with 29 points and 14 rebounds, while Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams also had fine games. But the best news for the Lobos this week was the return of Hugh Greenwood from a wrist injury. He played 34 minutes, knocked in a couple threes, and had a perfectly Greenwood-ian line of eight points, three dimes and a couple boards. He’s not yet back to full strength, but he’s on his way.
- Boise State (11-3) – The last time we did this, the Broncos were headed to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic, in need of a big win or two there. They came away with wins against Hawaii and South Carolina and a loss to Iowa State, leaving them hanging on their win against Utah as their best non-conference win. Needless to say, now the Broncos need to make some noise in the Mountain West. They got off to a fine start, taking care of Fresno State in workmanlike fashion behind 15 and 17 from Ryan Watkins, but let’s hold off on making any grand pronouncements about the Broncos until they get through their game at San Diego State on Wednesday night.
- Colorado State (9-6) – I’m not sure the Rams are the fourth best team in the conference. But the other options for teams to put here have all lost to either Air Force or Nevada recently. At least the Rams have shown their ability to give the two best teams in this conference a run for their money. J.J. Avila, Daniel Bejarano and Jon Octeus have combined to form a solid trio of offensive players, but this squad has serious problems on the defensive end, with no proven rim protector and weak perimeter defenders.
- Utah State (11-3) – The bad news is that the Aggies lost at Air Force on opening night, a bad win any way you slice it. But, that was without senior center Jarred Shaw who was suspended. The good news is Shaw is back after having pled guilty to a third-degree felony marijuana possession charge (grrrrrrr) and played (albeit poorly) in a home win against San Jose State on Saturday night. Huge news for the Aggies, as without the senior big guy they were paper thin up front. With him back, the Utes are dangerous, especially at home, although they still deserve to be punished for a loss to Air Force, regardless of who was and was not playing in that game.
- UNLV (10-5) – So, the Rebels won their conference opener by going to Fresno State, getting a big game from Bryce Dejean-Jones and dominating on the interior. Enough about that – how the hell did this team lose to Air Force at home? Well, to begin with, in a game where the Rebels should have dominated on the glass, they got fought to a draw. Worse yet, the Rebel bigs – Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith – were held to just 12 points on five-of-12 shooting (and just two total free throw attempts) by an undersized and underathletic Falcon frontcourt. Throw in the Falcons shooting the lights out from the field (59.6 eFG%) and that’s a seven-point home loss for the Rebels. Not that long ago, it appeared that Kendall Smith was on the verge of taking over the point guard spot for the Rebels, but he was held to just 13 minutes against the Falcons while Deville Smith played 24 minutes (and was awful – seven points on seven field goal attempts, two assists, two turnovers, four fouls). In other words, the Rebels are no closer to having an answer at the point than they were back in the preseason when they were losing to Dixie State.
- Wyoming (9-5) – A road loss to Nevada in the conference opener is certainly not ideal. But that’s going to be par for the course for this Cowboy team. They’re good enough that they can give anybody in this conference a good game when they’re playing at 7200 feet in Laramie. But when the Cowboys strike out on the road, they’re fair game. And, let’s face it, when Larry Nance struggles scoring the ball, as he did against the Wolf Pack (5/15 from field), the Cowboys are going to struggle to score, even against a team as bad defensively as Nevada.
- Fresno State (7-8) – After already struggling with injuries, things got worse for Fresno this week when they went off to play Boise State without junior forward Alex Davis. The good news is, Tyler Johnson is looking like he’s back at full strength (22 points, eight boards, five assists against Boise) following his foot injury and center Tanner Giddings is back from his wrist injury that cost him the first month-plus of the season and easing into a 20-minute-a-night role. This is about as full-strength as the Bulldogs are going to get this year.
- Air Force (8-5) – One of the hallmarks of Air Force basketball in the KenPom area has been their complete dismissal of offensive rebounding in favor of getting back on defense and making it tough for the other team to score. Between the 2002-03 and 2012-13 seasons, the highest the program has ranked in offensive rebounding has been 322nd in the nation in 2004-05 when they grabbed 26.6% of their own misses. This year, the Falcons are breaking new ground – for them at least – grabbing boards on 27.6% of their own misses, good for 289th in the nation. And indications are that those numbers may be headed upwards permanently, as over their past five games the Falcons have grabbed a full third of their own misses. With Kammryn Williams, in particular, showing a nose for the ball on the offensive boards, no longer can opposing teams just assume they’re going to be able to clear the glass with little competition from the Falcons.
- Nevada (7-8) – The Wolf Pack are another team that is a little thin right now, what with Marqueze Coleman out after being poked in the eye and Ronnie Stevens recovering from a stress fracture. But they got some good news over the break as junior college transfer A.J. West earned his eligibility and has played in four straight now. Best of all, he looks like a player, providing some physicality inside that the Wolf Pack have been missing. He’s averaged 13.5 points and 10.5 boards in his two Mountain West games and could be the difference between the Wolf Pack competing for the cellar and a solid middle-of-the-pack finish.
- San Jose State (6-8) – Quick weekly Rashad Muhammad update, and man do we have big news. In the Spartans’ 19-point loss at Utah State, Muhammad notched a pair of steals, bring his total for the year to eight. He also had an assist, making an even ten on the year. He still trails brother Shabazz in the career blocks category 4-0 however. At least he’s still got something to play for. In all seriousness, Muhammad has been one of the few bright spots for head coach Dave Wojcik this season and appears to be a guy worth building around for the future, especially as it appears he’s barely scratched the surface of his overall talent.