Cameron Bairstow

2014 Mountain West Tournament Preview: San Diego State, New Mexico clear favorites in Las Vegas

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After enjoying a very good season in which five teams reached the NCAA tournament, the Mountain West took a step back in 2013-14. Only two teams enter this week as locks to reach the field of 68, with regular season champion San Diego State and runner-up New Mexico being those squads. The Aztecs and Lobos have been the conference’s best all season long, with Steve Fisher’s team also picking up wins over Creighton and Kansas in non-conference play. With high-level stars and role players who understand what’s required of them, these are the two favorites in Las Vegas.

However there are teams capable of springing an upset along the way. Three-seed Nevada is led by explosive senior guard Deonte Burton, and the midseason addition of forward A.J. West made the Wolf Pack more formidable that some expected back in October. UNLV may get to play this event on its home floor but while talented the Runnin’ Rebels are no guarantee to take advantage of the familiar surroundings.

The plight of UNLV and six-seed Boise State is part of the appeal of conference tournaments, with teams who’ve failed to meet preseason expectations having one last chance to “catch lightning in a bottle” and make good on the early hype. Wyoming, Colorado State, Fresno State, Utah State and Air Force all have the ability to at the very least scare someone (if not win), and San Jose State is more than likely 40 minutes away from the end of a tough debut season in the conference.

There may not be the same number of tournament locks as there have been in prior editions of this event, but the combination of fan support (New Mexico and SDSU travel very well to this event), talented players and Las Vegas should make for an interesting Mountain West tournament.

The Bracket

When: March 12-15

Where: Las Vegas, Nev. (Thomas & Mack Center)

Final: March 15, 6:00 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: San Diego State

The Aztecs aren’t a great offensive team by most measurements, as they ranked last in the Mountain West in both three-point and free throw percentage during conference play. But this is a group that knows where its bread is buttered on that end of the floor. Good luck keeping SDSU out of the lane because they simply refuse to settle for too many perimeter shots, instead using dribble penetration (Thames, J.J. O’Brien and Winston Shepard II lead the way here) to get into the lane. And when shots are missed, SDSU is capable of making teams play via the second shot as they led the Mountain West in offensive rebounding percentage.

As for the defense, San Diego State’s length is one reason why this group led the conference in efficiency (94.5), turnover percentage (20.6%) and three-point percentage defense (30.6%). They challenge shots and get out in passing lanes, with the latter spurring fast break opportunities for some very good athletes capable of finishing above the rim. And an important developments of late has been the improved play of their role players, with Dwayne Polee II, Aqeel Quinn and Matt Shrigley all earning more minutes. The offense won’t set the world ablaze, but San Diego State’s good enough defensively to more than make up for that.

And if they lose? New Mexico

Led by the experienced triumvirate of Bairstow (20.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Williams (16.4, 5.0 apg) and Kirk (13.7, 8.7 rpg), UNM was the Mountain West’s most efficient offense in conference play. They take good care of the basketball, and with Bairstow and Kirk getting most of the shots inside the Lobos made 52.5% of their two-pointers in league play. And it also helps to have role players who understand what’s needed from them, with Hugh Greenwood doing what ever needs to be done on the floor and Deshawn Delaney, Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas and Cullen Neal also being valuable contributors. The combination of experience and skill makes this group 1A to SDSU’s 1 in regards to who the favorites are this week.

Other Contenders:

  • UNLV: There’s no denying that Dave Rice’s team has plenty of individual talent, with Birch winning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season and Smith being one of the league’s best rebounders. But the lack of a steady hand at the point has been one reason for UNLV’s maddening inconsistency, and there are times where the basketball IQ displayed leaves viewers scratching their heads. That talent is tough to overlook, and if the proverbial light bulb turns on (and just as importantly, stays on) the Runnin’ Rebels may have a run left in them.
  • Nevada: Simply put, Deonte Burton is one of the most electrifying players in college basketball. Period. Averaging 20.0 points and 4.5 assists per game, Burton’s led the way for a team that has four players averaging double digits. Fellow guards Jerry Evans Jr. and Michael Perez can also score, with forward Cole Huff averaging 12.3 points per game. If Nevada can hold its own on the glass, they’re capable of making a run.

Sleeper: Fresno State

Rodney Terry’s Bulldogs have won eight of their last ten games, and with Tyler Johnson and Marvelle Harris leading the way for a team with multiple scoring options the Bulldogs are a team to watch in Vegas. If this group, which also includes Mountain West Freshman of the Year Paul Watson and entertaining guard Cezar Guerrero, defends they can pull off a stunner.

Deeper Sleeper: Boise State

The problem for the Broncos is a simple one: they arrive in Vegas having lost three of their last four games, the most recent being a two-point loss at Air Force on Saturday. Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks are the leading offensive options, and forward Ryan Watkins has been one of the league’s best big men. They’ll beat San Jose State, which would set up a winnable quarterfinal meeting with Nevada.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Tyler Johnson, Fresno State: Averaging 16.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, Johnson leads the Bulldogs in both scoring and rebounding.
  • Tre’ Coggins, Air Force: After averaging 2.4 points per game as a freshman, Coggins is up to 15.9 points per game as a sophomore.
  • Daniel Bejarano, Colorado State: The league’s best sixth man a season ago, Bejarano’s averaging 16.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.

CBT Prediction: Look for New Mexico to handle San Diego State’s 1-3-1 zone better than they did at Viejas Arena on Saturday night, winning what should be a classic title game.

Best Mountain West Tournament Memory: Nick Jacobson wins the 2004 title for Utah (apologies for the quality of the video)

POSTERIZED: Dennis Smith Jr. takes flight

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While Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz and the Kentucky stars are the freshmen getting all the publicity, Dennis Smith Jr. of N.C. State is quietly sitting as a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Why?

Because’s he’s a point guard that can do things like this:

Manu Lecomte’s 24 points leads No. 9 Baylor past No. 7 Xavier

KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 10:  Johnathan Motley #5 of the Baylor Bears shoots a free throw against the Texas Longhorns during the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament at Sprint Center on March 10, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Manu Lecomte finished with 24 points, hitting six threes and dishing out five assists as No. 9 Baylor added to what is unquestionably the best résumé in college basketball on Saturday with a 73-58 win over No. 7 Xavier in Waco.

The Bears have already beaten Louisville, VCU, Michigan State and Oregon this season, so it’s not like we needed anymore confirmation that the Bears were good this year.

But we got it.

Johnathon Motley finished with 17 points and eight boards and Jo Lual-Acuil chipped in with 12 points and six blocks, but it was Lecomte that was the star here. Entering the season, the question everyone had with this Baylor team was whether or not they had enough outside shooting and enough point guard, and it just so happens that Lecomte checks both those boxes.

And frankly, I don’t think anyone knew just how good Lecomte was going to be this season.

The Baylor coaching staff did. Word out of Waco during the preseason was that Lecomte looked great, that his redshirt season did wonders for him as a player, but then again, you hear that about every kid that’s ever sat out a season. With Lecomte, it turned out to be true. And on Saturday, we saw him at his best.

It’s also worth noting here just how important these non-conference wins will be not just for the Bears, but for the Big 12 as a whole. If Baylor can somehow find a way to win the Big 12 regular season title – or maybe even if they finish second in the league and win the Big 12 tournament – they’ll be in a great spot to earn a top four seed in the NCAA tournament. A No. 1 seed isn’t out of the question.

That’s great for the conference as a whole. These wins will significantly help the computer numbers for the league, and it also means that there are going to be more quality wins available for the other teams in the conference during league play.

Put another way, bubble teams won’t have to simply rely on trying to steal a win against Kansas at home if they need to inject some life into their at-large profile in February.

The most impressive part?

Baylor has done all of this despite not getting a single vote in the Preseason AP top 25 poll.

Jaysom Tatum to play tonight for Duke

Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics)
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Duke announced on Saturday afternoon that Jayson Tatum will return to action against Maine.

Tatum is a top five prospect and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He has been out since late October with a foot injury.

Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson are not expected to play. Allen has been battling a toe injury that has limited his explosiveness this season.

Marques Bolden is expected to return to the lineup soon, and on the pregame show, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said there’s a chance he could play tonight. He’s been out with a lower leg injury.

No. 15 Purdue uses 3-pointers to beat Morehead State 90-56

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Caleb Swanigan #50 of the Purdue Boilermakers celebrates during the game against the Villanova Wildcats at Mackey Arena on November 14, 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) Freshman guard Carsen Edwards scored 16 points, and No. 15 Purdue made 11 3-pointers in the first half Saturday on the way to a 90-56 victory over Morehead State.

The Boilermakers (6-2), coming off a Wednesday loss at No. 14 Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, used a 15-0 first-half run to stretch a 10-9 lead to 25-9, and Purdue continued to pull away.

Dakota Mathias added 14 points, and Caleb Swanigan and P.J. Thompson had 13 each for Purdue.

Miguel Dicent had 11 points for Morehead State (2-5), which played without coach Sean Woods, who has been suspended with pay since Nov. 22, when the university launched an official investigation into Woods’ treatment of players.

Purdue made 11 of 20 from 3-point range during the first half when it built a 47-25 lead. Carsen Edwards, who made his first start in place of slumping Vince Edwards, and Mathias made four 3-pointers each in the first half.

The Boilermakers played without fifth-year graduate student transfer point guard Spike Albrecht, who suffered a back injury this week.

BIG PICTURE

Morehead State: With Woods suspended indefinitely, the Eagles are a distracted basketball team, and it shows as their losing streak reached five on Saturday, including 0-3 for acting coach Preston Spradlin.

Purdue: It’s a byproduct of opposing defenses centering their attention on Boilermaker big men Swanigan and Isaac Haas, but Purdue entered this game leading the Big Ten in 3-point field goal shooting percentage at 41.8 and made 55 percent from beyond the arc during the opening half on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Morehead State: The Eagles do not play until going to Lipscomb on Dec. 10.

Purdue: The Boilermakers travel to New York City for a Tuesday night game against Arizona State in the Jimmy V. Classic.

 

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: Big road wins for UCLA, West Virginia

MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 03:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers is defended by Kristian Doolittle #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners during the first half of a game at the Kohl Center on December 3, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 11 UCLA 97, No. 1 Kentucky 92

This one was a ton of fun to watch as UCLA shook off a sluggish start to run past Kentucky at Rupp Arena. CBT’s Rob Dauster has the story on this one and why it was important for both teams.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 25 West Virginia 66, No. 6 Virginia 57: Bob Huggins’ group has a potential signature victory as West Virginia won a big one on the road. I have more about why this one is particularly important for West Virginia here.

No. 9 Baylor 76, No. 7 Xavier 61: The Bears added to what is the best résumé in college basketball with an impressive win over a very good Xavier team. Manu Lecomte was the star of the show, finishing with 24 points and five assists. We went in depth on this game here.

STARRED

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: After just missing a triple-double in a big win over Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this week, Hayes dominated in a 90-70 win over Oklahoma with 28 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Hayes made both of his three-point attempts and also added six assists and two rebounds. Hayes is playing like an All-American lately.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Speaking of All-American caliber play, the senior guard put up a triple-double in the Wildcats’ 88-57 win over Saint Joseph’s as he finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Hart was 6-for-10 from the field and 3-for-6 from three-point territory as he had a tremendous outing.

Sebastian Saez, Ole Miss: Underrated nationally, the senior forward had his fourth double-double of the year with 20 points and 16 rebounds in a win over Memphis. Saez also added three blocks as he now has 12 or more rebounds in five games this season.

Anthony Livingston, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders needed three free throws from Livingston with under three seconds left for a one-point win over Rice as Livingston finished with 33 points and seven rebounds.

Collin Smith, George Washington: Also knocking in a huge go-ahead bucket was Smith as his three-pointer with three seconds left gave the Colonials a win over USF. Smith ended up with 22 points and eight rebounds.

STRUGGLED

E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: Matthews finished 3-for-13 from the floor with just nine points as No. 21 Rhode Island lost their second straight game, this time falling to Providence, 63-60, on the road.

JeQuan Lewis, VCU: Lewis had 23 points and 11 assists in a come-from-behind win over Princeton during the week, but he had just three points and one assists – and turned an ankle – in a 64-46 loss to Illinois in Miami on Saturday.

San Diego State: The Aztecs took a 65-59 loss to Loyola (IL) on Saturday, a loss that puts SDSU is an all-too-familiar hole: Bad losses on their résumé that they won’t be able to make up for in league play.

TOP 25

  • Using a balanced scoring effort, No. 15 Purdue picked up an easy home win over Morehead State. Freshman guard Carsen Edwards knocked down four triples to finish with a team-high 16 points while Caleb Swanigan and P.J. Thompson both finished with 13 points and six assists.
  • Kelan Martin went for 30 points as No. 18 Butler knocked off Central Arkansas, 82-58.
  • Andrew White hit seven threes and finished with 26 points while Franklin Howard chipped in with 13 assists for No. 22 Syracuse as they held on to beat North Florida, 77-71, in the Carrier Dome.

NOTABLE

  • Solid win for Wake Forest on the road at Richmond as John Collins had 16 points, 13 rebounds.