Mountain West Preview 2012-13: San Diego State and UNLV fight it out at the top

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Mountain West sent a record four teams to the NCAA tournament in 2011-12, but, despite high expectations, saw only one advance out of the Round of 64 and claimed no Sweet 16 berths.

But the conference is back in 2012-13 with another strong group of contenders. Take a look below at’s Mountain West Preview:

Five Things to Know

1.The top of the conference will be a fight between two teams that should be in the national Top 25 to begin the season, UNLV and San Diego State. The Runnin’ Rebels, with their strong recruiting class and returners Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall, will be going toe-to-toe with Jamaal Frankin, Chase Tapley, and the Aztecs down the stretch.

2. New Mexico will have to compensate for the loss of Drew Gordon, who averaged 13.7 points and 11.1 points per game last season, but the Lobos do return Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, who together combined for close to 23 points per game.

3. Colorado State, coming off a run to the NCAA tournament last season, is now without coach Tim Miles, who moved on to take the head coaching spot at Nebraska. Former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy is now at the helm.

4. Nevada and Fresno State join the conference and begin their first season in the Mountain West. The conference says goodbye to TCU, who meant more to MWC football than basketball, and actually upgrades in basketball with Nevada, who should compete in the middle of the conference.

5. Boise State, we hardly knew ye. The Broncos, who just joined the conference, will be spending their final season in the MWC before heading off to the Big West. Not a big loss for basketball, but football calls the shots at Boise.

Impact Newcomers

Anthony Bennett, Katin Reinhardt, Khem Birch (UNLV)

UNLV got an impressive recruiting haul this off-season, capped off by Bennett’s commitment in the spring. Reinhardt, formerly a USC commit, showed his versatility over the summer and should be able to contribute for a team that will be shuffling the cards in its backcourt. Birch becomes eligible in December.

Winston Shepard (San Diego State)

Shepard is the crown jewel of a three-man recruiting class for coach Steve Fisher and the Aztecs. He brings athleticism to an already-athletic team, but can also settle down into the mid-range and hit shots.

Robert Upshaw (Fresno State)

When Frank Martin left Kansas State for South Carolina, Upshaw reopened his recruitment and fell right into Fresno State’s lap. He brings size and a big body down low. As a Top-50 recruit, Fresno State grabbed a gem.

Colton Iverson (Colorado State)

The Minnesota transfer becomes eligible this season and brings a big body to a conference where he has a chance to make an impact. He averaged 5.0 points and 5.4 rebounds in his last season with Minnesota.

Marqueze Coleman (Nevada)

Coleman averaged 21.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season for Alemany High School (Calif.) and will have a very good backcourt to learn from at Nevada.

Breakout Players

Michael Lyons (Air Force)

Lyons was a Second Team All-MWC selection last season after averaging 15.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, so perhaps that doesn’t make him a breakout player, but he is certainly under the radar. The Falcons will likely remain toward the bottom of the conference in 2012-13, but keep an eye on this senior.

Malik Story and Deonte Burton (Nevada)

This solid backcourt combo gets a shot at proving itself against tougher competition after averaging 14.1 and 14.8 points respectively last season when Nevada was a member of the WAC.

Kevin Olekaibe (Fresno State)

Olekaibe is another player who will get a chance to prove himself against competition in a more difficult conference. He was the second leading scorer in the WAC last season with 17.8 points per game.

Coaching Situation: Lots of Fresh Faces

The Mountain West is a solid split between coaches who have established themselves and coaches who are just getting into the swing of things at their new schools. Eustachy is new at Colorado State and Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich took over in-season after the firing of Jeff Reynolds. Leon Rice is entering his second season at Boise State.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, which includes Dave Rice and Steve Fisher, who should have their teams competing in March.

Player of the Year: Mike Moser (UNLV)

Moser’s decision to return to UNLV gives the Runnin’ Rebels a legitimate shot at making noise deep into March. Jamaal Franklin will contend for Player of the Year honors as well, but Moser is’s pick for this season.

All-Conference Team

G Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State)

G Wes Eikmeier (Colorado State)

G Kendall Williams (New Mexico)

F Mike Moser (UNLV)

F Anthony Bennett (UNLV)

Predicted Finish

1. UNLV—Moser, Marshall, and Bennett will have Rebels in the mix in March

2. San Diego State—Franklin and Tapley lead the group, but solid newcomers and transfers supplement the attack

3. New Mexico—Losing Gordon is difficult, but Kendall Williams and Tony Snell should step up for the Lobos

4. Nevada—MWC newcomers will rely on backcourt duo Story and Burton for production after losing frontcourt piece Dario Hunt to graduation

5. Colorado State—Eikmeier is the biggest key for the Rams, who will also be adjusting to adding Larry Eustachy at head coach.

6. Wyoming- Leonard Washington and Luke Martinez return from a team that won 20 games last season.

7. Fresno State—Expect Robert Upshaw to be an immediate contributor, but the former WAC members will likely struggle against tougher competition at the top of the conference.

8. Air Force—The Falcons tied for last in the conference last season and even with another strong year from Lyons, they will likely finish near the bottom again.

9. Boise State—This will be Boise’s last season in the MWC and they’ll try to make it memorable, but will likely run into difficulties. Their three wins last season came against Air Force, Colorado State, and TCU.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Sister Jean the star of Loyola’s Cinderella run

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Yeah, Loyola beating Tennessee to gain a spot in the Sweet 16 is a great basketball story, but the best news about their Cinderella run is something else entirely.

America gets another week with Sister Jean.

The Ramblers’ 98-year-old team chaplain has captured the hearts of the March Madness public, with her pre-game prayers and post-game celebrations. Clayton Custer’s game-winner was fine, but Sister Jean’s been great.

Loyola, though, will now have to try to defy Sister Jean. She picked against the Ramblers in the Sweet 16 in her bracket.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago beats No. 3 Tennessee to advance to Sweet 16

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Cinderella is headed to the Sweet 16!

For the second time in this tournament, trailing 62-61 on the final possession of the game, Loyola-Chicago has won.

On Thursday, the Ramblers got the benefit of a missed Lonnie Walker free throw and a game-winning three from Donte Ingram to beat No. 6-seed Miami, 64-62.

On Saturday, the situation was almost the same — the Ramblers had the ball with 10.5 seconds left on the clock — but the execution was different.

Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left to answer Grant Williams’ and-one and send Loyola-Chicago to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In the immortal words of Gus Johnson, the slipper still fits:

Loyola was in control of this game for the majority of the second half and led by eight points at the under-four time out, but a pair of threes from Tennessee set up Williams’ and-one on Tennessee’s final possession. Jordan Bone had a shot to win the game at the buzzer that bounced off the back of the rim.

Aundre Jackson led the Ramblers 16 points off the bench as No. 11-seed Loyola landed their second upset of the weekend, beating No. 3-seed Tennessee, 63-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Those 16 points that Jackson scored were the most that any Loyola player scored in either of their games this weekend. The 10 shots that Jackson took in the first round win over No. 3-seed Miami was the only time in those two games that a Rambler player had double-digit field goal attempts. They held Miami and Tennessee to a combined 116 points.

I say all that to say this: Loyola is not a typical Cinderella team. They don’t have some superstar scorer that carried them to this point in the tournament, like a Jairus Lyles from UMBC or a Jon Elmore from Marshall. They’re not a high-scoring team or a team that just-so-happened to catch fire from three at the right time. What they are is a smart, tough and extremely well-coached group that is everything you think of when you picture Missouri Valley basketball.

They aren’t going to give up penetration defensively. They are going to pound the defensive glass. They aren’t going to commit silly turnovers or take dumb shots. They’ll run their offense and trust that whatever their coach calls is going to get them the shot they need to get.

They will not beat themselves, and if you are going to beat them, you’re going to work for every possession.

And it’s worked.

Loyola will advance to Atlanta where they will face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 7 Nevada. With Buffalo losing and either No. 10-seed Butler or No. 11-seed Syracuse counting as anything close to a mid-major, Loyola, Marshall and UMBC are the only true Cinderella teams left in the tournament. The 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers, who became the first No. 16 seed to get to the second round of the tournament after a Friday night win over top overall seed Virginia, take on No. 9-seed Kansas State on Sunday while No. 13-seed Marshall gets a date with in-state an rival, No. 5 West Virginia.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paces No. 5 Kentucky past No. 13 Buffalo

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Its deficit cut to five, Buffalo zipped down the floor in transition. The ball found Jeremy Harris, who stepped into his 3-point shot attempt and let it fly as the crowd in Boise was ready to blow the roof off Taco Bell Arena, hopeful they’d have the chance to will the Bulls to an upset of Kentucky. The shot barrelled toward the basket, carrying Buffalo’s Sweet 16 dreams with it.

The ball, along with control of the game, clanged off the rim and bounced into Kentucky’s hands.

The No. 5 Wildcats turned away No. 13 Buffalo, 95-75, on Saturday to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

Buffalo got 26 points from Wes Clark and 18 from CJ Massinburg, and made the Wildcats sweat deep into the second round until things spiraled away from them. Making just 7 of 31 shots from 3-point range and your opponent shooting 56.3 percent from the floor is no recipe for an upset.

Even with a rough shooting day, Buffalo threatened Kentucky time and again, but at every turn, the Wildcats had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The 6-foot-6 freshman was simply spectacular, scoring 27 points on 10 of 12 shooting. He added six rebounds and six assists for good measure.

Gilgeous-Alexander was an unsolvable problem for Buffalo. The Bulls were never able to find a way to corral or deny him. He just got what he wanted when he wanted it, and what he wanted was buckets. Lots of them.

Inconsistency has been the pock on Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie campaign, but in recent weeks he’s found his groove. He’s scored in double-digits in nine-straight games. He’s either made shots or gotten to the free-throw line. Sometimes both.

For a Kentucky team without a dominant player, Gilgeous-Alexander’s emergence as a go-to and consistent scorer is huge. The Wildcats are going to have an athletic advantage in almost every game they play. If they’ve got a guy other than Kevin Knox they can count on for 15-plus, that’s going to take a lot of pressure off an offense that doesn’t have the benefit of much in the way of shooting.

The path for Kentucky to the Elite 8 looks incredibly navigable after Virginia’s stunning and historic loss Friday to UMBC. The Wildcats will have to beat a nine or 16 seed to be just 40 minutes from another Final Four.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can continue to be the offensive weapon he’s turned into over the last month, San Antonio may very well be hosting Big Blue Nation in April.

VIDEO: Buffalo’s Nick Perkins posterizes Kevin Knox

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Buffalo and Kentucky are locked in an entertaining battle on Saturday afternoon, and while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been completely dominant, the play of the day comes courtesy of the Bulls.

After Kentucky pushed their lead to 10 points with less than nine minutes left, Nick Perkins — who is known for as a three-point shooter than anything else — dunked on Kentucky’s soon-to-be lottery pick, Kevin Knox, emphatically: