Cameron Bairstow

Most Improved Players lists cannot leave off New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow

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On Tuesday night, New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow went for 14 points and 11 boards for No. 25 New Mexico as they used a late-run in the second half to knock off Utah State and keep pace with San Diego State atop the Mountain West standings.

In the past, that would have been considered a great game for the 6-foot-9 Aussie. We’re talking about a guy that entered the 2013-2014 season, his senior year, with just two double-doubles to his name and career-highs of 17 points and 11 boards. Putting up 14 and 11 at this point last year might have been considered the best game of his career.

This season?

Bairstow is averaging 20.2 points to go along with 7.3 boards.

You read that right. A senior that started for a team that was a No. 3 seed in the 2013 NCAA tournament is averaging more points in his final season than his career-high was entering the season.

His improvement is even more striking when you watch him play. For his first two years, I remember cracking jokes about how shocked I was that Bairstow was able to dunk. As a junior he was better, especially late in the season, but he was still a slow-footed land-warrior at the power forward spot. His post moves looked mechanical. More than anything, he got by because he was bigger and stronger than most power forwards.

This season?

Bairstow is a monster. He went from being a plodding stiff, an afterthought on the Lobos, to being a hulking, long-haired version of Zach Randolph. Think about it like this: Kendall Williams, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year, is averaging 17.1 points, 4.9 assists and just 2.0 turnovers — numbers that are much better than what he posted a season ago — yet he’s not even up for consideration with it comes to repeating as the league’s MOP.

That’s thanks to Bairstow.

I say all that to say this: With all due respect to the five guys that made this list, if you’re naming the nation’s five most improved players and you’re not including Cameron Bairstow, your list is wrong.

He went from being the matchup that Harvard took advantage of in their upset of New Mexico in the 2013 NCAA tournament to being an all-american this season.

POSTERIZED: Wyoming’s Josh Adams takes flight

Josh Adams
Associated Press
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Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.

After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.

Video credit: Wyoming Athletics

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
Associated Press
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.