Scouting North Carolina State vs. San Diego State

Posted by KCarpenter on March 16th, 2012

Announced last on the NCAA Selection Show (conspiracy?!), North Carolina State made the tournament after a brief absence from meaningful post-season play and was rewarded with what seems to be a fairly favorable draw against San Diego State. Coached by the legendary Steve Fisher, this San Diego State team that was supposed to be in severe rebuilding mode after losing most of last year’s veteran-loaded team to graduation and/or the NBA, but something strange happened. Sure, they lost more games than last year’s  team that went 32-2 before NCAA Tournament play, but who didn’t outside of Murray State. Still, instead of falling off the face of the Earth, the Aztecs made a really strong run this year, knocking off a number of pretty good teams. UNLV, New Mexico, and Colorado State, fellow NCAA teams from the Mountain West Conference all took at least one loss to San Diego State. The Aztecs also swept their three-game series against the Pac-12, beating Arizona, California, and Southern California as well as beating a pretty good Big West team in Long Beach State. Now, these wins look okay on paper, but they come with a number of caveats: The Pac-12 was truly terrible this year, wins against Cal and Arizona look worse and worse as more time passes, and beating USC was never really all that impressive. Though the wins against fellow Mountain West teams looks pretty good, it has to be understood that the Aztecs also lost at least once to all three of these teams. So while this is a nice collection of wins, I’m not sure that it says anything definitive about San Diego State’s quality.

Despite Being The Lower Seed, Gottfriend & The Wolfpack Should Like Their Chances

What I can say is that San Diego State has largely started 6’7″ Tim Shelton at center for much of the year. While the Aztecs can bring decent size off the bench in 6’11″ Garret Green and 6’8″ Deshawn Stephens (and they typically give reasonable minutes to both), San Diego is pretty small compared to NC State’s front court, which is a problem. San Diego State is a good defensive rebounding team, but the Wolfpack is one of the more formidable offensive rebounding teams in the nation, boasting a legitimate star of the offensive glass in Richard Howell. On the opposite end, the Aztecs (with the exception of Deshawn Stephens) are largely indifferent to the offensive glass, seeming to philosophically embrace a San Antonio Spurs-esque approach which encourages getting back on defense over crashing the offensive glass. All in all, this seems to add up to a distinct advantage for the Wolfpack on the glass on both ends. This difference in rebounding good be significant for teams that stylistically share a few attributes.

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Mountain West Tournament Diary: Semifinal Friday

Posted by AMurawa on March 10th, 2012

Less than two minutes into the nightcap on semifinal Friday night, New Mexico found itself in a hole, down 12-0 to UNLV on the Rebels’ home court, a place where UNLV had not lost since last year’s Mountain West Tournament. Not only were they clicking on all cylinders (they had gotten threes from Chace Stanback and Anthony Marshall and a couple of old-fashioned three-point plays from Oscar Bellfield), but the Lobos looked awful, struggling to do simple things like catch the ball. But the Lobos responded. “They gave us a good punch in the face right there to start the game,” said head coach Steve Alford. “But there’s a lot of game left.  They scored 17 points in the first three minutes of the half, then only scored 17 points the last 17 minutes of the half.  After that initial barrage of points, we settled down and played extremely good defense.” The Lobos packed their defense in, dared the Rebels to hit threes against them, and that dare paid off. UNLV started three-for-three from deep in the first four minutes, then made just five of their 21 attempts over the final 36 minutes. UNM didn’t try to force anything defensively (in fact, they forced just three turnovers on the night), but made the Rebels have to score over them.

Demetrius Walker, New Mexico

Demetrius Walker Helped The Lobos Climb Out Of An Early Hole (AP)

More importantly, however, the Lobos dominated the Rebels inside. Led by RTC MW Player of the Year Drew Gordon (who hit eight of 10 field goal attempts on his way to 19 points and 13 boards), New Mexico grabbed 85% of their defensive rebound opportunities and 26.9% on the offensive end, while outscoring the Rebels in the paint, 30-18. Senior Brice Massamba was generally solid for UNLV, scoring six points and adding nine rebounds before fouling out after 34 minutes, but the rest of their frontcourt was largely absent. Mike Moser had solid stretches at the start and at the end of the game, but was largely invisible in the middle three-quarters of the game, winding up with just three rebounds and 11 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Senior Chace Stanback hit a three on the first offensive possession of each half, but beyond that produced almost literally nothing (one point, one rebound and one assist the rest of the game), a concern as the Rebels head to the NCAA Tournament next week.

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Mountain West Tournament Preview & Season Wrap-Up

Posted by AMurawa on March 8th, 2012

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Tournament Bracket


Coming into the year, we thought we had a couple really good teams in New Mexico and UNLV, and six other teams with more questions marks than answers. Four months later, add San Diego State to the list of really good teams, but add the other five teams in the conference as, at a minimum, pretty good. Only Air Force and Boise State end the season with losing records, and each of those teams has risen up and played one of the top three tough at some point, with the Falcons even pulling off a win over San Diego State. There are four teams (so far) with 20 or more wins and it looks more and more like Colorado State, with home wins over each of the top three teams in the conference, will join them in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Wyoming and TCU both remain strong candidates for NIT inclusion. All told, this was an excellent encore performance for a conference that was coming off their best season on the national stage, especially given the turmoil surrounding the Mountain West’s hits and misses in the conference realignment game. In short, despite a few bumps and bruises along the way, the MW is still alive and well. At least for now.

Final Standings

  1. San Diego State      24-6      10-4
  2. New Mexico            24-6      10-4
  3. UNLV                         25-7        9-5
  4. Colorado State       19-10      8-6
  5. TCU                            17-13      7-7
  6. Wyoming                  20-10     6-8
  7. Air Force                   13-15      3-11
  8. Boise State                13-16      3-11

Superlatives

Player of the Year. Drew Gordon, Senior, New Mexico. This was a tight race, with Gordon, UNLV’s Mike Moser and San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin all neck and neck at the finish line. But, I’ll always hold true to the theory that when in doubt, a tie goes to the senior. And I’ll still gladly make the argument that Gordon edges out the other two on his own merits as well. The one thing that all three players do well is rebound the ball, but Gordon is the best of the three. Franklin is more capable of creating his own shot than Gordon, but Gordon generally plays within himself and is more efficient offensively; likewise, while Moser has a perimeter jumper that is missing from Gordon’s game, it doesn’t go far enough to make up for the other advantages that the Lobo star has. And, defensively, Gordon is significantly more polished than either of his younger competitors. The race is very close, and in no way am I denigrating either Moser or Franklin. But likewise, I don’t want to take the easy way out and just call it a three-way tie. Call Gordon the better of equals.

Drew Gordon, New Mexico

Drew Gordon Earns Our MW Player Of The Year In A Close Race (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Coach of the Year. Steve Fisher, San Diego State. It has been a year of great coaching jobs in the Mountain West as well, but the race here is slightly less contentious. While we give Gordon the MW POY award by a nose, Fisher wins this by a full body length over guys like Jim Christian, Larry Shyatt, and Tim Miles. Christian and Shyatt took teams with basically the same personnel as last year and led a complete 180, while Miles took a team that lost three of its best players and has them a nose ahead of where they were last year. Meanwhile, Fisher took a team that lost its four leading scorers, including NBA First Round pick Kawhi Leonard, off a Sweet 16 team and led a ragtag bunch that included a undermanned frontline (Tim Shelton and his three knee surgeries, basketball novice Deshawn Stephens, and graduate transfer Garrett Green) to an unlikely Mountain West title. Along the way, he helped transform Chase Tapley from a role player into a team leader and a go-to scorer and Jamaal Franklin from a little-used reserve to a big-name player on the national scene. Oh, and then there’s the whole conference title and national top 25 ranking. That’s nice too.

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Night Line: Reloaded San Diego State Has Picked Up Where Last Season Left Off

Posted by EJacoby on January 24th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.

When you lose four starters, 73% of your scoring production, and one NBA lottery pick from the season before, it usually means that a year of rebuilding awaits your basketball program. But for San Diego State, a fresh slate of players who mainly watched and waited their turns last season have picked up where Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay, Billy White, and Malcolm Thomas left off. Tuesday night’s road victory over Wyoming improved No. 15 SDSU to 18-2 on the season and 3-0 in Mountain West conference play as one of the most surprising teams in the country. Veteran coach Steve Fisher and the new-look Aztecs have wildly exceeded expectations and are looking to match or surpass last season’s run to the Sweet Sixteen.

Steve Fisher is Leading This Year's Aztecs to Unexpected Success (Getty Images/K. Horner)

Junior guards Chase Tapley and James Rahon are the only current Aztecs who played significant minutes on last year’s outstanding 34-3 team that won the MWC and advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament before falling to the eventual National Champion UConn Huskies. Tapley was a starter and averaged 8.6 PPG a year ago, but this season has taken his game to a whole new level. The shooting guard leads the Mountain West in scoring (16.4 PPG) and steals (2.05 SPG) while hitting a tremendous 46.7% from behind the arc on over five attempts per game. His growth from role player to star guard, however, is not even the biggest improvement on the team. That distinction goes to sophomore Jamaal Franklin, who hardly rose off the bench last season (8.1 MPG), but who’s now developed into one of the most talented players in the conference. He didn’t start the first 10 games of this season, but Fisher has had him in the lineup in the past 10 after he flashed tremendous skills and strength at the small forward position. He’s now averaging 15.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per game as a versatile threat for the Aztecs.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on January 24th, 2012

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

  • Coming into the week, three Mountain West teams appeared in the RTC Top 25, but it was New Mexico, who was ranked #25, that had the biggest chance to make a splash, getting a crack at the other two teams: San Diego State at home and UNLV on the road. Following an 0-2 week, however, there are more questions than answers in Albuquerque, as the once impressive Lobo defense took a huge step back, allowing 1.25 points per possession in their two games this week.
  • In the wake of UNM’s failures, for the time being, it is a two-team race at the top, with San Diego State holding a slim edge on UNLV based on their home win over the Rebels in the conference opener. But, with both teams firmly in the top 25, the Aztecs and the Rebels look like sure bets to go dancing come March.
  • Back of the lead pack, we have Wyoming and Colorado State each sitting at 2-1 after the Cowboys handing the Rams their first conference loss in their first conference road game. Air Force and TCU each sit at 1-2, while Boise State has settled into the role of basement dweller.

Team of the Week

San Diego State  In order for one team to separate itself from the pack atop the conference, contenders for the conference title needed to be able to defend their home court and steal a win on the road against the other contenders. So far, Steve Fisher and the Aztecs are off to a great start. Not only did they open the conference season with a home win over UNLV and follow that up this Saturday with a workmanlike win over Air Force, they bisected those wins with an impressive road win at New Mexico, an outcome that not only served to improve the Aztecs to 3-0, but to kick the Lobos down a notch. Enough cannot be said about the job that Fisher has done with not only this program, but this specific team.

After losing the bulk of last year’s record-setting team, this year’s Aztecs haven’t slowed down, as junior guard Chase Tapley has taken the leap from role player to lead guard, Jamaal Franklin has emerged as a star in the making after playing a bit part last year and Xavier Thames came back from his transfer year in exile to prove his tremendous abilities. Throw in gritty contributions from guys like Tim Shelton (he of the five knee surgeries), DeShawn Stephens (playing just his third season of organized basketball), Garrett Green (a graduate transfer from LSU) and James Rahon (who struggled early with a lingering ankle injury and is just now hitting with consistency), and Fisher’s got a good thing going down on Montezuma Mesa.

Player and Newcomer of the Week

Leonard Washington, Wyoming

Leonard Washington Was A One-Man Wrecking Crew On The Glass For Wyoming This Week (photo credit: Andy Carpenean/WyoSports)

Leonard Washington, Jr., Wyoming – With apologies to UNLV’s Anthony Marshall, who also just killed it this week, we’ve got to give this one to Washington, who was a one-man wrecking crew for the Cowboys last weekend. Things started out innocently enough on Wednesday night, when Washington had 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals in a road win at Air Force, but digging a little bit deeper into those numbers showed a sign of things to come, as Washington alone grabbed 46.4% of all the potential Cowboy defensive rebounds. Saturday night against an undersized Colorado State team, Washington upped that number to 55.9% and added a personal 22.3% offensive rebound percentage – a number some entire teams in the league would consider a fine effort. Washington wound up with 32 points and 14 rebounds (both career highs) in a performance dominant enough to allow us to completely forget about the two banked-in threes near the end of the Cowboys’ 19-point win.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on January 17th, 2012

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

At long last, Mountain West conference play is finally here. And after the long wait, the opening weekend did not disappoint in the least.

  • The conference opener between San Diego State and UNLV was the sole matchup between ranked teams across the nation on Saturday, and it was everything that could be expected of it and more. But, we’ll get to that shortly.

Jamaal Franklin Was Outstandings Against UNLV (AP)

  • Elsewhere around the league, Colorado State knocked off TCU in a wild double overtime affair in Fort Collins, while New Mexico and Air Force came up with impressive road wins over Wyoming and Boise State, respectively. While those later two games may not have been all that competitive down the stretch, after one weekend we’re even more sure of the idea that this is going to be a fun season to watch in the MW. Not only do the three teams at the top – San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV – figure to be in for a stirring battle for the top spot in the league, but the five other teams in the conference feature good athletes, fun styles and some very solid teams. In past years, let’s be honest, there were teams in this conference that were almost unbearable to watch (Wyoming the last couple of years, TCU last season, Air Force a couple years back, even Utah last year). This year, I fully expect to be able to tune into any single Mountain West game on the schedule and be thoroughly entertained. Stay tuned, this is going to get fun.

Team of the Week

  • San Diego State – All of the winners this week deserve a mention here, what with New Mexico going on the road and getting past a game Wyoming team, Air Force handling Boise State in their opener despite still playing without their best player – Michael Lyons – down with an ankle injury, and Colorado State fighting through a blown lead late and a couple nail-biting overtimes to finally dispense with TCU. But, we’ve got to give the Aztecs this recognition this week if for no other reason than as a welcome back to the land of the living. You see, since December 4, SDSU has been stuck playing teams like Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and, most recently, coming back from a seven-point second-half deficit to winless Chicago State. But, after being off the radar for about a month and a half, Steve Fisher’s club came back to their first game against significant competition without missing a beat. Jamaal Franklin continued his breakout sophomore season with arguably his most important performance of his career, James Rahon broke out of his season-long slow-down with a sparkling 22-point performance, the backcourt of Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley fought the tough and athletic UNLV backcourt to a draw, and even Tim Shelton made significant contributions above and beyond what his relatively tame stat line would indicate. In short, if you had forgotten the Aztecs in recent months, you can hardly be blamed, but now it is time to make sure this team is on your radar again.
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Checking In On… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on January 10th, 2012

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

One of the unpleasant side effects of the recent spate of conference realignment maneuverings was this year’s MW being left with just eight teams, meaning a 14-game conference schedule is all that is required to complete a full home-and-away round-robin. Meaning that while conferences like the Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12, all of whom play 18-game conference schedules, have been going at it for two weeks now, the MW is just now gearing up to kick off conference play this weekend. And, in the meantime, the last two weeks have yielded some absolutely horrendous matchups for MW teams as their schedule-makers had a hard time finding quality opponents at this time of the year.

So, in lieu of looking back to a week in which a four-point TCU win over Rice and a six-point Wyoming win over Utah Valley are the “highlights,” let’s take a look back at a pretty impressive non-conference performance for the Mountain West. Overall the conference has posted a 94-26 record on the season thus far, good for a .783 winning percentage and a conference RPI of six. UNLV leads the way for the conference, currently ranking 13th in the RPI with their big win over then-#1 North Carolina highlighting their tournament resume. Colorado State is, quite surprisingly, the second highest RPI team in the conference, checking in at #27, but the Rams have nothing on their schedule that would qualify as a marquee win, although their one-point win over Colorado is looking better by the day. The other two teams that have their eyes set on a possible NCAA Tournament bid are San Diego State (RPI #45) and New Mexico (RPI #64). The Aztecs sport wins over California, Arizona, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara, but haven’t played anybody of interest in more than a month. The Lobos struggled out of the gate with two pretty unattractive losses in their first four games, but have now won 12 straight, with wins over Saint Louis, Missouri State and Oklahoma State mixed in there.

Team of the Non-Conference

Moser Has Been Outstanding in a UNLV Uniform (LV Sun/S. Morris)

UNLV – It is hard to argue with UNLV here. They’ve got the single best win – their November 26 upset of North Carolina – out of any of the MW teams, the highest RPI, and they head into conference action ranked 12th in the latest RTC top 25. Throw in wins over California, Illinois and 13 other teams, with the only losses coming at Wichita State and at Wisconsin and the Rebels have put themselves in a position where they would need to somehow take an unprecedented dive in conference play in order to miss the NCAA Tournament. And, given the fact that they’ve done all this while breaking in a first-time head coach in Dave Rice, this has been an excellent first half of the season for the Runnin’ Rebels.

Player of the Non-Conference

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by AMurawa on December 13th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

This week marked the start of a relatively quiet time in the Mountain West schedule. With the MW/MVC Challenge and early season tournaments a thing of the past, and with the combination of finals, holidays and a late start to conference play, we’re treated to almost a month worth of sleepy matchups. We’ve still got a handful of interesting games, however, like the UNLV-Wisconsin matchup this past week, or the upcoming Rebels’ matchups with Illinois and Cal (other games of note include New Mexico-Oklahoma State and Boise State-Iowa). But for every one of those types of games, we’ve got a UC Riverside-San Diego State or Sioux Falls-Wyoming snoozefest to keep us in check. Despite the fact that the Mountain West currently ranks fourth among all conferences in RPI, you can expect that the anticipated dive in strength of schedule over the next month will hurt the conference’s member institutions when it comes to selection and seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

Team of the Week

Michael Lyons, Air Force

Air Force, Led By Michael Lyons, Won Both Their Games This Week By An Average Of 16 Points (Julie Jacobson/AP)

  • Air Force – The Falcons are my team of the week, almost by default. They are the only team in the conference to win two games this week, and they did so in convincing fashion, knocking off Wright State by 21, then taking care of Arkansas-Pine Bluff by 12. The Falcons used suffocating defense to limit WSU to just 9-of-46 shooting from the field and coasted enough to allow a whopping 17 players to get playing time in the game. Senior guard Michael Lyons led the way in both games, and is now averaging 19 points (best in the conference) and 5.4 rebounds per game (#11 in the conference), while Mike Fitzgerald busted out with six threes on his way to a career-high 19 against UAPB. The Academy is now 5-2 on the season, with the two losses (to Colorado and Drake) coming by a combined total of just five points.

Player of the Week

  • DeShawn Stephens, Jr, San Diego State – In a week where there was no runaway winner, we’re going to take this opportunity to recognize Stephens, a junior college transfer in his first year on Montezuma Mesa. With the Aztecs woefully thin up front to begin with, more minutes opened up for Stephens when senior big man Tim Shelton was limited to just seven minutes by yet another knee injury in their game against cross-town foe San Diego. Stephens, a quick learner who didn’t play basketball in high school, responded with 16 points and nine rebounds in the Aztecs win, and should be in line for more minutes from here on out, as he is already arguably the best SDSU big man.

Newcomer of the Week

  • Stephens – The 6″8″, 215-pound Los Angeles native is also converted 7-of-8 shots in the victory over San Diego.
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San Diego State On the Rise?

Posted by rtmsf on December 11th, 2011

David Gao is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference. You can also find his musings online at Zotcubed, a UC Irvine blog, or on Twitter @dvdgao.

Four years ago, the San Diego Toreros were taking their turn as the latest mid-major Cinderella, upsetting No. 4 seed Connecticut in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. That same year, San Diego State was smashed in the first round of the NIT, losing 73-49 to Florida. Oh, how things have changed. The Toreros and the Aztecs met at Jenny Craig Pavilion on Wednesday night, and although San Diego put up a good effort, SDSU came away as the clearly superior team. Although the Aztec defense appeared lackadaisical and out-of-whack for stretches of the game, SDSU did what superior teams do, which is to find a way to win the games you should win, even if the team isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Steve Fisher Is Doing It Again

At 9-2 on the year and heading into a weaker part of their schedule, San Diego State has once again asserted itself as a team to be reckoned with. This is no small task considering the Aztecs lost four of their five starters from last year’s magical Sweet Sixteen run, including NBA-bound Kawhi Leonard and all-important point guard D.J. Gay. It’s a sign that coach Steve Fisher has truly built a program with staying power, a team that has won 20 consecutive games against California opponents, with quality wins this season over ranked Cal and Arizona teams.

Now, amidst news that SDSU’s other sports besides football will most likely move to the Big West starting in 2013, Steve Fisher is able to respond positively, asserting that the program could stand alone regardless of the conference they played in. He complimented the fiercely loyal fans that some Pac-12 schools are envious of, and he cited the positive factor of the Big West ESPN TV deal. But most of all, Fisher can point to the near-Top 25 success of this year’s team as a sign that the 2011 NCAA Tournament run was not a one-time fluke. SDSU basketball has officially arrived as a program, firmly entrenching itself as the basketball darling of not only San Diego, but quite possibly the entire region of southern California.

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Pac-12 Game of the Week: California @ San Diego State

Posted by AMurawa on December 4th, 2011

Sunday afternoon, California makes its first true road trip of the season, heading south to face the San Diego State Aztecs. Since the Golden Bears were embarrassed by Missouri in the championship of the CBE Classic two weeks ago, they haven’t had much in the way of stiff competition, but the Aztecs should change all of that. SDSU is coming off a tough loss Wednesday night in which they blew a 17-point first half lead before succumbing to Creighton, so they’ll be primed to get back to their winning ways, while Cal is ready to prove to fans around the country that the performance against Missouri was an aberration.

Chase Tapley, San Diego State

Chase Tapley Has Been San Diego State's Go-to Scorer This Season (credit: Associated Press)

After losing the bulk of last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, the Aztecs have turned to junior guard Chase Tapley as their primary offensive weapon, but new point guard Xavier Thames – a transfer from Washington State – is getting more and more comfortable every game; in the last two outings, he has gone for a combined 41 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds. Also, sophomore wing Jamaal Franklin has burst on to the scene this year, scoring double figures in all but one of his appearances, while helping out the shorthanded Aztecs on the glass. Steve Fisher really only has four frontcourt players to rely on, with seniors Garrett Green and Tim Shelton getting the bulk of those minutes up front, but he has been unafraid to run three and even four guards out there at a time. As of yet, that plan hasn’t really backfired, because although the Aztecs have come nowhere near duplicating last year’s stellar offensive rebounding numbers, they have been doing an excellent job of taking care of the defensive glass.

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RTC Conference Primers: #7 – Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 31st, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences; he is also a staffer on the Pac-12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @AMurawa.

Reader’s Take I

 

Top Storylines

  • Tectonic Shifts in the MW: As the landscape of college sports continues to shift, the Mountain West continues to change. This year, the conference is without BYU and Utah for the first time in its history. Aside from the fact that the state of Utah was sort of the center of the conference for many years, the impact on the basketball side of things cannot be overstated. In the 12 years that the two schools were a part of the conference, they won five outright regular season titles between them and twice shared the regular season title. TCU will join the two Utah schools as ex-MW members after this year when it joins the Big 12.
  • Temporary Fixes? As old schools depart, new schools come in. Boise State joins the conference this season, although there are already rumors that its stay may be short-lived, as other conferences including the Big 12 and the Big East, woo the Broncos. Fresno State and Nevada are due to join the conference in 2012-13, but as the ground continues to move under the feet of college athletics, one never knows what changes will come next.
  • Scheduling: With just eight conference teams this year, each team will play just 14 conference games. So while the Pac-12 and Big Ten and other major conferences are kicking off games against their conference rivals on or before New Year’s, MW schools will wait until the middle of January to get into conference play, filling the interim with games against schools like Johnson & Wales, Texas-Pan American, Nebraska-Omaha, Houston Baptist, San Diego Christian and Utah Valley. This is not a good thing for a conference, not a good thing for the fans, and not a good thing for college basketball.
  • Changes On The Sidelines: Aside from having a new team in the conference, we’ve got a couple returning teams with new coaches. The most high profile coaching change comes at UNLV with Lon Kruger gone for Oklahoma, and Dave Rice, the former associate head coach under Dave Rose at BYU, returning to Vegas where he played and served as an assistant under Jerry Tarkanian. The other coaching change is at Wyoming, where Larry Shyatt returns to town after spending the last several years as the associate head coach at Florida.

Drew Gordon Looks to Lead New Mexico to a Mountain West Title

  • New Favorites. Last year, it was more or less a two-horse race for the conference title between BYU and San Diego State. This year, there is no BYU and SDSU has graduated its four most important players. As a result, it looks to be two new horses who head the pack in search of a conference title with UNLV and New Mexico far and away the favorites. In the MW preseason basketball poll, the Lobos got 22 of the 26 first place votes from the media, with the Rebels snagging the other four. Those two schools also dominated the all-conference team selections, each putting two players on the list.
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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 25th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

A Look Back

With the battle for the conference title just a day away, the conference race has taken its shape. Up top, of course, are national top-ten teams BYU and San Diego State, tied at 12-1 and ready to battle on Montezuma Mesa on Saturday morning. Next, UNLV has moved backed into third and seems a lock to be asked to the Big Dance, while Colorado State is still waiting in the wings, hoping to secure its own invitation in its remaining schedule after having just booted one of its last big chances. Down the ladder another rung, Utah has suddenly turned on the juice and bolted to three straight wins (although it may not be enough to save Jim Boylen’s job), while New Mexico has been the biggest disappointment in conference play, still three positive outcomes away from a .500 MWC record. At the bottom of the conference, Air Force has now lost four straight and fallen back to .500 overall for the first time since their second game, and suddenly they’ve got Wyoming nipping at their heels for the right to avoid the 8/9 game in the MWC Tournament. And finally, there’s TCU all alone at the bottom with a 1-13 record, an 11-game losing streak and a program in shambles in advance of an upcoming move to the Big East in 2012-13.

Team of the Week: UNLV – Since we last talked, the Rebels have bounced back from their disappointing result against the Aztecs and reeled off three straights wins to pop their bubble and plant themselves firmly in the NCAA field. While there has been very little pretty about their wins over Air Force (just a horribly brutal game to watch), New Mexico and Colorado State, the Rebels have gotten back to playing the type of defense they were playing in November. Against the Falcons, UNLV turned on the pressure and held Air Force scoreless for over 13 minutes in the second half, while grabbing a staggering 96.7% of all defensive rebound opportunities in securing a come-from-behind win there. Then the Rebels paired a revenge victory over Colorado State in Fort Collins with a squeaker over New Mexico in Albuquerque, two mighty impressive road wins. While offense continues to be a struggle most nights, this Running Rebel team figures to be an awful tough out in the MWC Tournament on their own home floor.

Player of the Week: Malcolm Thomas, Senior, San Diego State – On the hyper-talented Aztec frontcourt, Kawhi Leonard is the star, the go-to guy, the All-American candidate. But this guy is pretty good too, and a vital cog in what Steve Fisher wants to do. While Leonard is flashier with the ball in his hands, Thomas is nearly as good on the glass, and arguably a better interior defender. Thomas leads the Aztecs with more than two blocked shots per game (and blocks on about 8% of all opponents’ two-point field goals – good for 66th in the nation), and he racked up seven more blocks this week, to go with 21 points and 9.5 rebounds per outing. Given that he had been in a bit of a slump on the offensive end, averaging just over seven points per game in the prior eight games, his offensive awakening is a welcome piece of good news heading into Saturday’s big game.

Newcomer of the Week: Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico – Despite three losses this week, part of a four-game slide for the Lobos, Gordon has to take down the honor on the basis of his 17 points and a MWC-record 23 rebounds against Utah on Saturday. Throw in 13 points and nine rebounds against SDSU and 15 points and 14 rebounds against UNLV, Gordon has become a dominant low-post force in the conference. There are still some holes in his game, but if those can get patched (or at least temporarily hidden), he could help the Lobos make some noise in the MWC Tourney.

Game of the Week: Utah 62, New Mexico 60 – This game just epitomizes the type of season the Lobos are having. New Mexico controlled just about every facet of this game, except for the small little fact that they couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean from the beach, post a sub-40% effective field goal percentage. And yet, they still found themselves up one with time running down and with the Utah offense in disarray. And then Chris Hines did this. With the Lobos having lost to UNLV in overtime on Wednesday night after having a good look at the buzzer in regulation, and lost at SDSU last Wednesday after fighting back from a 14-point deficit to be right there at the end, this was just another annoyance. But couple with all the other missed opportunities in the Lobo year (a one-point loss at UNLV in which they had multiple chances to put that one away, a double-overtime loss at Dayton, and this heartbreaking loss at Wyoming), this must be just the basketball gods getting back at New Mexico for all their fortunate bounces last year.

Game of the Upcoming Week: New Mexico (17-11, 5-8) at TCU (10-19, 1-13), 2/26, 5PM PST, CBS College Sports – Yes, this epic battle between the Horned Frogs and the…. Okay, just wanted to see if you all were paying attention. Clearly the game of the week (which will be played Saturday morning at 11AM PST on CBS – the first ever national non-cable television broadcast of a MWC regular season basketball game – between San Diego State (27-1, 12-1) and BYU (26-2, 12-1). And CBS knocked the ball out of the park in choosing this game to televise way back in August. When these two teams played in late January, Jimmer Fredette took the nation by storm, knocking down 43 points in increasingly improbable fashion and slowly breaking the will of the Aztec defenders. What was a close game for 30-plus minutes or so turned into a game that was not particularly in doubt after the final TV timeout. The Aztecs controlled the glass as expected, but struggled to score. In particular senior point guard D.J. Gay, who started off guarding Fredette, seemed overwhelmed by the responsibility of both guarding Fredette and being the Aztec offensive rock. I’m guessing that won’t happen again. While the Aztecs are rightly afraid of getting into a wide-open transition game with the Cougars and Fredette, they’ll need to be able to turn some of their rebounds into transition opportunities in order to get some easy offense, but most importantly, they’ll need to control Fredette. Gay was ineffective against him last time, and Steve Fisher can’t risk losing his offense this time around, so expect Chase Tapley to get the first crack at Jimmer, while Billy White and even Kawhi Leonard may get some face-time with the National Player of the Year candidate.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (27-1, 12-1): The Aztecs posted wins over Air Force and New Mexico, got Tapley and Tim Shelton back from injury, and then got to rest up in the middle of the week in preparation for Saturday’s game. This week couldn’t have gone any better. While his running mate Thomas took down the POTW award, Leonard continued his great play, averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds this week. Apropos of little, you could actually piece together a pretty strong All-American team with just players from the MWC and Pac-10 this season, and only have to reach once. Gimme Leonard and Fredette paired with Arizona’s Derrick Williams and Isaiah Thomas (Fredette and Williams are dead-solid locks to be first-team All-Americans, while Leonard and Thomas should be second-team, but may lose out to players who play primarily on ESPN), and throw in Klay Thompson for good measure and I’d guess that team could probably take any other team put together out of any other two conferences around the country.

A look ahead: The Aztecs host the Cougars in the biggest game in the history of the Mountain West Conference on Saturday, after which they’ll wrap up the season with a trip to Wyoming and a visit from Colorado State.

2. BYU (26-2, 12-1): A ho-hum week for the Cougars: two more wins (a 23-point blowout at TCU and a never-particularly-close eight-point win at home against Colorado State) and 57 more points from Fredette (although in an increasingly inefficient manner – just 15 of 42 from the field in the two games). Other highlights included Kyle Collinsworth contributing eight rebounds per game off the bench and sophomore Stephen Rogers having his best game since New Year’s Day with 15 points and three threes against TCU.

A look ahead: I’m only reminding you one more time: 11AM PST Saturday morning, your local CBS affiliate. BYU at San Diego State. Watch it.

3. UNLV (21-7, 9-5): We detailed the fact that the Rebels have now won three straight games in our Team of the Week section, but it’s interesting that they’ve done it with different players leading the way in each instance. In the Air Force game, Tre’Von Willis took over and led the team with 13 points and four assists (those numbers may not sound impressive, but it is all relative in a game where the winning team scored 49 points). He continued his strong play in the other two games (eight assists against Colorado State and 25 points, five three, four assists and four steals against New Mexico), but in each case had plenty of help. In the CSU game, Oscar Bellfield led the way with 18 points, including 16 in the second half, to secure the Rebel victory, while it was Quintrell Thomas taking over the game against the Lobos with 19 points and 13 rebounds in place of the fouled-out Chace Stanback. The Rebels still don’t have a single go-to guy (although Willis has begun to look willing to take that role back over, despite his nagging knee injury that is not getting any better), and there are plenty of maddeningly inconsistent performers here (with Stanback’s yo-yo act the most egregious example), but the good news for Lon Kruger is that he is at least getting somebody to step up every night, even if it is somebody different every time out.

A look ahead: UNLV hosts Air Force on Tuesday, then travels to Colorado State on Saturday with revenge on their minds.

4. Colorado State (18-9, 8-5): The good news for the Rams is that they took care of business against TCU. The bad news is that they struck out in their chances against UNLV and BYU, falling by seven at home to the surging Rebels and by eight at Provo. With the season-ending game at San Diego State the sole remaining “up” game on their schedule, the Rams are faced with the prospect of going into Selection Sunday with a neutral-site win over Southern Miss and a win at UNLV as their sole wins against teams in the top-50 RPI. This year, that could be good enough, but a win over the Aztecs on the final day of the season or a MWC Tournament semifinal win over either BYU or SDSU would go a long ways towards helping Tim Miles sleep well on March 12.

A look ahead: The Rams travel to Air Force, then host Utah, and while a win in either of those games is not going to put them in the NCAA Tournament, a loss might keep them out. Then, on March 5, they travel to San Diego to face the Aztecs on a day when the raucous crowd at Viejas Arena will be saying goodbye to D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and likely Kawhi Leonard. Yikes. Good luck with that.

5. New Mexico (17-11, 5-8): So, three straight losses have effectively killed any prayer this Lobo team had of getting an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament. And yet, I still think this team is a threat in the MWC Tournament. Why? Well, Dairese Gary is every bit the bulldog that Gay is at SDSU, the type of player who is capable of willing his team to victories down the stretch (although, admittedly, you maybe wouldn’t know that following these guys this year). Gordon has turned into a dominant rebounder and athletic presence up front (although he’s the consummate black-hole on offense – the ball goes in to the post and never comes back out). Tony Snell, Kendall Williams and Philip McDonald are athletic and skilled wing players who are each capable of catching fire from deep (although (1) Snell is a freshman who has only recently started producing, and inconsistently at that, (2) Williams, also a freshman, has tailed off some since a lightning fast start and (3) McDonald is a complete mystery who is shooting 10 percentage points lower than last year’s average from three just 33% from the field in MWC play). And then there’s a ton of tough big guys up front to pair with Gordon (none of whom have displayed any hint of desperation in grabbing a rebound, playing solid post defense or setting solid screens). See. They’re brilliant!

A look ahead: At TCU, at BYU and home against Air Force as the Lobos play out the string. None of those games mean a thing to the Lobos tournament hopes – they’ll need to win three straight games on March 10th, 11th and 12th, or they’re NIT bound.

6. Utah (13-15, 6-8): When last we checked in with the Utes, they had lost five straight games and the last two of those by an average of more than 22 points. Jim Boylen’s job was in serious jeopardy and they looked to be already in the offseason mentally. Since then, they’ve strung together three solid wins, albeit against the three teams currently below them in the standings, and by a combined total of 14 points, but you’ve got to give credit to Boylen for keeping this team playing hard. While circumstances may conspire against him in Utah, he’s given the administration some good reasons to consider giving him another chance.

A look ahead: The Utes are down their final two games in their MWC regular season history: at Colorado State next Wednesday and at home against UNLV next Saturday. An NCAA Tournament bid is extremely unlikely (they’d need to win the conference tourney), but if they can extend their momentum a bit longer, perhaps they’ll get back on the NIT’s radar.

7. Air Force (13-13, 4-9): Four straight losses (and an average of just over 50 points per game in those losses) and all of a sudden, what was looking like a surprisingly strong Falcon season has turned into a fight to hold on to the first-round bye in the MWC title. While Air Force got destroyed on the glass by BYU, UNLV and San Diego State in the first three of those losses, Wednesday’s night loss at Wyoming was bizarre basketball. Out of the blue, suddenly the Falcon outrebounded somebody, and at the hands of a Cowboy team that killed them on the glass in their first meeting. Just as surprising, the Falcons turned the ball over 19 times, a stunning number for a team that takes care of the ball well. And, for a third surprise, Wyoming, a team in the bottom quarter of Division I teams in effective field goal percentage, outshot the Falcons, the 22nd best team in the nation in that category. And, through all that, Wyoming snuck out a one-point win.

A look ahead: Tough games at home against Colorado State and at New Mexico surround a very winnable home game against the cellar-dwelling Horned Frogs. Win two of those three games and the Falcons are guaranteed a .500-or-better regular season record.

8. Wyoming (10-17, 3-10): Four games in and Fred Langley’s got a 2-2 record as a head coach. Given that Heath Schroyer was 1-8 when he was fired, you’d have to say that it looks like the timing to fire him was right. The biggest boost from the coaching change has undoubtedly been given to sophomore forward Amath M’Baye, who has averaged 20.3 points and 6.5 rebounds under Langley.

A look ahead: Wyoming travels Salt Lake City for a matchup with Utah, where a win could put the Cowboys in seventh place in the conference.

9. TCU (10-19, 1-13): Three more losses, and the assumption is that Jim Christian is a dead man walking; this has turned into a total collapse. With two of the four leading scorers on this team having been kicked off the team, the back-half of this conference season has been little more than tryouts for next year’s scholarships. Point guard Hank Thorns has been tough, handing out assists all over the place (he’s easily the conference’s leading assist man, with nearly seven per game), junior wing J.R. Cadot has come on strong of late (he’s had double figure scoring in four straight games and has shown a penchant for rebounding above and beyond his 6’5 frame) and Garlon Green has been a consistently solid performer all season long, but beyond that, this roster is in need of an overhaul.

A look ahead: The Horned Frogs host New Mexico, then travel to Air Force next Wednesday in a game that gives them a solid chance at their second conference win.

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