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Conference Catchups: Mountain West competitive at the top

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico

When the season began teammates Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk had the look of Lobos most likely to make a run at the league’s Player of the Year award. But at the “halfway” point it’s been the third member of New Mexico’s “big three” who’s stood out. Bairstow is currently ranked in the top ten in both scoring (2nd) and rebounding (9th), and he’s third in the Mountain West with a field goal percentage of 54.7%.

First Team All-Mountain West:

  • Xavier Thames, San Diego State
  • Deonte Burton, Nevada
  • Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
  • Roscoe Smith, UNLV
  • Alex Kirk, New Mexico

Midseason Coach of the Year: Steve Fisher, San Diego State

Fisher’s Aztecs are off to a 10-1 start, and while the overall strength of schedule has been noted in some circles SDSU does have wins over solid Creighton and Marquette squads thus far. And, their lone defeat came at the hands of an Arizona team that now sits atop the national polls. Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard III have led the way offensively with J.J. O’Brien and Josh Davis contributing in the front court, and as those youngsters mature this will be a tough team in Mountain West play.

Favorite: New Mexico Lobos

Sticking with the preseason favorites despite San Diego State’s start, with their senior trio being one reason why. But of note in New Mexico’s last two games has been the play of freshman Cullen Neal, who averaged 21.0 ppg and shot 13-for-22 from the field in wins over Marquette and Grand Canyon. With Hugh Greenwood due back for the team’s conference opener and Deshawn Delaney playing better basketball of late, New Mexico is well-positioned entering Mountain West play.

And three more contenders: 

  • San Diego State will certainly be a team to be reckoned with, and their ability to defend is a big reason why. According to kenpom.com the Aztecs rank 13th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they limit teams to 38.2% shooting inside of the arc.
  • With Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks leading a roster of capable scorers, Boise State will be a contender in the Mountain West. But if they’re to win the league the Broncos will need to get even stronger on the defensive end, as they rank 9th in the league in field goal percentage defense.
  • It didn’t look good early but UNLV’s taken advantage of its recent schedule and looks to be an improved group heading into conference play. With Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith inside this is a very difficult team to score on, and if they can become more efficient offensively look out.
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Most Surprising Team: Colorado State

Not sure how many people were ruling out Larry Eustachy’s team before the season began, but the fact of the matter is that the Rams lost a lot of production from last season’s NCAA tournament team. But there they sit at 9-4, with the tandem of J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano leading the way. They’ll need to get better defensively in conference play, but all things considered this has been a good start for CSU.

Most Disappointing Team: UNLV

This pick is a product of their early struggles, but to be fair to this group loaded with newcomers you also have to look at who their losses came against. UCSB, for as disappointing as UNLV’s play in that game was, will contend in the Big West, Arizona State and Illinois have both proven to be solid teams and Arizona is…well, Arizona. The issue early for Dave Rice’s team was their lack of cohesion on the offensive end, but in the last five games the Runnin’ Rebels have made strides. Don’t expect them to be in this spot come March.

Most Important Player (in league play): Josh Davis, San Diego State

Davis has been productive on the glass for the Aztecs, as he ranks second in the conference in rebounding (10.2 rpg). But from a scoring standpoint it feels like he’s capable of doing more, especially when considering the fact that he averaged 17.6 points per game at Tulane last season. If he can move towards that level of production on the blocks, San Diego State becomes a tougher team to defend in the half court.

Who will slide?: Colorado State

Larry Eustachy’s Rams are off to a 9-4 start, with the forward tandem of J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano doing a lot of the heavy lifting (guard Jon Octeus has also played well). But this is a team that lost an awful lot of production from last year’s NCAA tournament team, and that could be an issue against some of the Mountain West’s premier teams. And they open up league play with San Diego State (home) and New Mexico (road), which makes for a difficult start.

Who is the sleeper?: Utah State

The loss of Jarred Shaw certainly doesn’t help matters, as he was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder prior to his suspension. But in Preston Medlin and Spencer Butterfield the Aggies have two players more than capable of producing offensively, and Kyle Davis has picked up the slack on the boards. Add in head coach Stew Morrill and the fact that he hasn’t failed to win at least 20 games since his first season in Logan and you’ve got your sleeper.

New Power Rankings

1. San Diego State
2. New Mexico
3. Boise State
4. UNLV
5. Utah State
6. Wyoming
7. Fresno State
8. Colorado State
9. Nevada
10. San Jose State
11. Air Force

No. 5 Xavier stumbles at Creighton, lose 70-54

Creighton's Cole Huff (13) and Toby Hegner, left, guard Xavier's Jalen Reynolds (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Mo Watson went for a career-high 32 points, seven boards and five assists as Creighton jumped out to an early 21-4 lead and never looked back, beating No. 5 Xavier, 70-54, in Omaha on Tuesday night.

 

It was a massive win for the Bluejays, who still have an outside shot at earning an at-large bid this season. (We wrote all about that here.)

As well as Creighton played, the bigger story here may actually be Xavier, who lost for just the third time this season; they had been the only top ten team with just two losses to their name.

The issue for the Musketeers tonight was two-fold, but they both are a symptom of what could be an issue down the road for this team: Xavier doesn’t really have a true point guard.

They certainly didn’t have anyone to stop Watson. By the second half, they had essentially asked Reynolds, who was playing the middle of their 1-3-1 zone to matchup with Watson. It was weird but was actually somewhat effective.

The Musketeers also started out ice cold from the floor, missing 11 of their first 13 shots, and those misses led to leak outs from Bluejays, who got layups and open threes in transition to build that 17 point lead. Once Xavier got behind, it turned into scramble mode for Xavier. They forced shots early in the clock and didn’t start pounding the ball into the paint until it was too late. What they needed was someone to be able to settle things, to ensure that offensive would get initiated and sets would get executed when they were able to get the lead down to single digits.

That 1-for-19 shooting performance from beyond the arc certainly didn’t help matters, and neither did the fact that they got just nine field goals all game from players not named James Farr or Jalen Reynolds. The most frustrating part for head coach Chris Mack? They had good shots. It wasn’t like Creighton took away everything that Xavier wanted to do.

The kids just had one of those nights where nothing went down.

Those happen.

And when you combine them with a total inability to contain the opposing team’s point guard, what you get is a 16 point loss on the road against a team that was desperate to get a good win.

Gill’s 16, ‘D’ lead No. 7 Virginia past Virginia Tech, 67-49

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Anthony Gill scored 16 points and No. 7 Virginia turned the tables on state rival Virginia Tech with a 67-49 victory Tuesday night, the Cavaliers’ seventh straight.

Isaiah Wilkins added a career-best 14 points and Malcolm Brogdon had 12 for the Cavaliers (20-4, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Virginia avenged a 70-68 loss to the Hokies in Blacksburg on Jan. 4 in what rates as their worst performance of the season, and extended their winning streak at John Paul Jones Arena to 17 games.

Freshman Justin Robinson scored 16 points and classmate Chris Clarke had 11 in his first action for the Hokies (13-12, 5-7) since breaking his right foot in late December. Virginia Tech’s top two scorers, Zach LeDay (16.0 ppg) and Seth Allen (14.5), were limited to seven and six points, respectively, in part because of foul trouble.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said his team wasn’t ready to play when it lost to the Hokies earlier, but they have been surging of late and were focused from the outset. They were credited with assists and 14 of their first 15 baskets and forced 10 turnovers in the first half; they forced just eight in the last meeting of the teams.

For most of the game, the Hokies had more turnovers than field goals.

The Cavaliers led 32-20 at halftime and extended their advantage to 47-29 on a three-point play by Mike Tobey with 12:11 remaining. It capped an 11-4 run for Virginia, during which LeDay was whistled for his fourth foul. On Virginia’s next trip down court, it got the ball to Gill inside and LeDay basically backed off and let him score, quickly earning a spot on the bench.

The Cavaliers’ lead never dipped into single digits again.

The Hokies had just eight turnovers and outscored Virginia 26-6 off turnovers in their first meeting. This time, Virginia Tech had 10 turnovers by halftime and the Cavaliers had already turned them into 15 points. Virginia Tech finished with 16 field goals and 15 turnovers.

Already leading 9-6, Virginia got scoring from eight players in a 23-8 run that spanned about 8 1/2 minutes.

Gill started it with a dunk, Brogdon hit a 3-pointer, London Perrantes had a four-point play and Wilkins finished it with two free throws, giving the Cavaliers a 32-14 lead with 2:06 left in the half. They didn’t score again, and the Hokies closed within 32-20 by halftime.

TIP-INS

Virginia Tech: The Hokies shot 57.1 percent (15 of 26) from the field in the second half of their 70-68 victory against Virginia on Jan. 4. … Virginia Tech’s starting five totaled four points in the first half.

Virginia: The Cavaliers have held four consecutive opponents to 50 points or fewer.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech plays at No. 12 Miami next Wednesday.

Virginia plays at Duke on Saturday.

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The AP’s college basketball page: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org