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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

Four-star PG Jaylen Fisher de-commits from UNLV

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Coaching changes can wreak havoc on a program’s recruiting class, and that’s been the case for UNLV thanks to the tumultuous nature of their search for a new head coach. Thursday evening one prospect who remained committed to the Mountain West program throughout the process that ultimately led to Marvin Menzies landing the job announced that he’s decided to reopen his recruitment.

Four-star point guard Jaylen Fisher, ranked 55th in the Class of 2016 by Rivals.com, announced via social media that he’s decided to de-commit from UNLV.

“I was very much looking forward to the opportunity to be a Rebel this year,” Fisher wrote. “But there have been a lot of changes with the program since I committed to UNLV; changes that have made me reconsider whether UNLV is still a good fit for me. So with that in mind and after much consideration with my family, I have decided it’s best that I reopen my recruitment.”

Fisher’s decision leaves wing Justin Jackson as the lone member of UNLV’s 2016 class at this point, with Jackson telling Scout.com in early April that he was undecided as to whether or not he’d reopen his recruitment. The school’s search for a coach began in January when they parted ways with Dave Rice, promoting Todd Simon in an interim role.

After deciding not to retain Simon, who’s now the head coach at Southern Utah, UNLV hired former Little Rock head coach Chris Beard…who left for Texas Tech less than two weeks later. UNLV landed Menzies, who they passed over for Beard, and he’s got a lot of work to do to field a roster that will be competitive in the Mountain West next season.

As for Fisher, the Arlington, Tennessee native should be a popular prospect with his decision to reopen things. And with Memphis losing former commit Charlie Moore, the Tigers are in need of help at the point. The question now is whether or not new head coach Tubby Smith will look to reach out to Fisher.

h/t Memphis Commercial-Appeal

NCAA rule change that impacts Memphis coaching staff now official

Memphis forward Dedric Lawson (1) goes up for a shot between Connecticut forward Shonn Miller (32) and guard Daniel Hamilton, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the finals of the American Athletic Conference men's tournament in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
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One of the more popular topics in college basketball in recent weeks was the status of Memphis assistant coach Keelon Lawson and sons Dedric and K.J. in the aftermath of the school hiring Tubby Smith. Would Smith keep the elder Lawson on staff as an assistant, thus in all likelihood ensuring that Dedric and K.J. would return as well? Would he let go or attempt to reassign Keelon, and as a result risk losing two players from an already limited roster?

Ultimately Smith decided to reassign Keelon to a non-coaching position, making him director of player development. And with the NCAA having a rule that those with a connection to a prospective student-athlete had to serve in a coaching capacity for the player’s first two seasons, the question was whether or not Memphis would need a waiver to pull off the move.

Luckily for Memphis the NCAA was looking into an alteration of the rule, and on Thursday with the NCAA not taking action on Proposal 2015-30 the change became official.

Under the new rule a coach’s two years on staff would begin immediately upon his arrival. In the case of Lawson this is key as he spent a year on former Memphis head coach Josh Pastner’s staff before Dedric and K.J. enrolled. With the two-year requirement ruled to be served under the new proposal, Smith could reassign Keelon Lawson without having to ask the NCAA for a waiver.

The next step as far as Memphis is concerned is Dedric, who ultimately entered his name into the NBA Draft pool (without an agent), withdrawing and returning to school for his sophomore season. As a freshman Dedric was the best freshman in the American Athletic Conference, averaging 15.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for the Tigers. DraftExpress.com currently ranks him 28th amongst college freshmen, which makes him no sure thing to be drafted should he decide to stay in the draft.

At the very least the next month should result in Dedric receiving constructive feedback from NBA scouts and executives that he can use to improve next season.

K.J. played in just ten games last season due to a lingering Achilles tendon issue, averaging 8.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. The hope is that K.J. will be granted a medical redshirt for last season, thus preserving a year of eligibility.

Chattanooga men’s hoop coach McCall gets 2-year extension

Chattanooga head coach Matt McCall directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) Chattanooga men’s basketball coach Matt McCall has received a two-year contract extension after leading the Mocs to an NCAA Tournament appearance in his debut season.

The school announced the extension Thursday. McCall’s contract now runs through the 2021-22 season.

Chattanooga went 29-6 last season to set a school record for victories. The Mocs captured their first Southern Conference regular-season title since 1994 and also won the league’s postseason tournament to earn their first NCAA bid since 2009.

Indiana beat Chattanooga 99-74 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Athletic director David Blackburn said in a statement, “We had great confidence in who we hired a year ago, and that never wavered. This is in recognition of him and his staff’s great work in equipping our student-athletes for success.”

Jim Valvano’s title-winning N.C. State team to finally get White House visit

FILE - In this April 5, 1983, file photo, North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano embraces sophomore forward Lorenzo Charles moments after Charles had dunked a shot to give North Carolina State the win over Houston in the national championship game at the Final Four of the NCAA college basketball tournament in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Leonard Ignelzi, File)
(AP Photo/Leonard Ignelzi, File)
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The N.C. State men’s basketball team never got invited to the White House after they won the 1983 National Title.

It wasn’t a tradition in those days. They spoke with President Ronald Reagan, but they did so from the confines of a television studio in Raleigh. It’s commonplace now to see title winners from all sports making their way to the Oval Office to shake hands with our nation’s leader, but back then, the funding and invitation weren’t always available.

And that never say right with the guys on that team. Since Lorenzo Charles, whose memorable dunk was the title-winning bucket, passed away in 2011, that team has had a reunion every spring, and the topic of going to the White House to celebrate the win always came up. That inspired Thurl Bailey, who was the No. 7 pick of the 1983 NBA Draft, and his friend, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, to write letters to President Obama requesting that the ’83 iteration of the Wolfpack get their White House visit.

“As definitive as a National Championship sounds, as an athlete there always seems to be unfinished business,” Bailey told N.C. State’s website. “You’re always looking for the next challenge, the next opportunity. This was it for me.  If I could get this done, it would be yet another story for me and the other members of that team to be able to pass along to our kids, grandkids and generations after that.”

Bailey’s efforts proved successful.

On Thursday, N.C. State announced that President Obama had not only received the letters, but he has issued a May 9th invitation for that 1983 team to visit him in Washington, D.C., meaning that Bailey, Dereck Whittenburg and the rest of that 1983 title-winning team will finally get to meet the Commander-in-Chief.

“The joy and the euphoria of winning a national title against all odds, as well as the pain and devastation of losing members of that family, are important parts of who I am,” Bailey said. “Contacting President Obama was one piece of our incredible journey that had eluded us for far too long.”

Los Angeles to host new college basketball doubleheader

Arizona coach Sean Miller reacts to a foul call during the first half of Arizona's NCAA college basketball game against UCLA, Friday, Feb 12, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) A new men’s basketball doubleheader will be played in Los Angeles featuring Arizona, BYU, Gonzaga and Southern California.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Wednesday announced the one-day event, to be played at Staples Center on Dec. 3.

The Wildcats will play the Zags and the Cougars will face the Trojans.

Tickets will go on sale May 4. Game times and television broadcast information will be announced later.