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)

De’Aaron Fox a ‘game-time decision’ for Saturday showdown

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 23:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Rupp Arena on November 23, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Kentucky star guard De’Aaron Fox is a game-time decision when the No. 11 Wildcats take on No. 13 Florida on Saturday afternoon.

He didn’t practice on Thursday and was limited on Friday due to a knee contusion he suffered on Wednesday night against Missouri.

“He hit his knee,” head coach John Calipari said, according to SEC Country. “It’s not sprained or anything like that. It’s a bruise.”

Fox is averaging 15.5 points and 5.3 assists on the season. He missed one game earlier in the year due to an illness.

Kentucky’s game against the Gators in Rupp Arema will be for first place in the SEC and, in all likelihood, the SEC regular season title.

Kansas star Josh Jackson charged with misdemeanor property damage

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 10: Josh Jackson #11 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks he ball against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Allen Field House on December 10, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas forward Josh Jackson has been charged with one count of misdemeanor property damage after allegedly damaging a car outside a Lawrence bar in December.

The incident happened on Dec. 9th, according to a statement released by the Douglas County district attorney, outside a bar called the Yacht Club. When Jackson left the Yacht Club, a man that he was with had a drink thrown in his face by a woman. Jackson proceeded to get into an argument with the woman, according to the statement, and witnesses claimed to see Jackson kick the driver’s side door and a real taillight, doing $1,127.45 worth of damage to the car.

Witnesses were not able to identify the other people involved, as there was more than $3,000 in damage done to the woman’s vehicle.

According to the Kansas City Star, the woman whose vehicle was damaged is the same woman that a Kansas University investigation determined was “likely” to have been hit “multiple times” by Vick, including kicking her in the face. Vick was also investigated

Weekend Preview: Here are the five story lines that you need to know about

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11:  Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats  reacts during a semifinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament against the Oregon Ducks at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 11, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Oregon won 95-89 in overtime.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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1. The Pac-12 title probably will be as well, but that’s not the most interesting part of UCLA-Arizona: Yes, if Arizona wins they are probably going to win the outright Pac-12 regular season title. If they lose, they are probably going to win a share of the Pac-12 regular season title. That race got significantly less exciting when Oregon ended up losing to UCLA in Pauley Pavilion.

But there still is a race in the Pac-12 that will have significant NCAA title implications: Who is going to be the highest-valued team from the conference by the Selection Committee?

Without getting into the nitty-gritty details too much, there is only going to be one team from that league that can be placed into the West Region due to some of the committee’s bracketing principles, and being in the west is a significant advantage for those Pac-12 teams. They’ll likely play in Sacramento and San Jose before heading to Phoenix, which means more fans, less travel and a friendly time zone. UCLA right now probably has the third-best résumé of the three teams at the top of the Pac-12, but that could change with a win at Arizona.

2. The SEC title is on the line on Saturday afternoon: We all thought Kentucky was going to roll through the SEC this season unchallenged, and man, did that not happen.

The Wildcats are still sitting in a tie for first place, but barely. They snuck past a bad Missouri team. They needed Yante Maten to get injured to be able to survive Georgia. It feels like this group hasn’t played well for somewhere in the neighborhood of six weeks.

And yet, if they can find a way to beat a Florida team that beat them by 22 points in Gainesville a month ago, they’ll very likely be able to call themselves the outright SEC regular season champions.

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3. Six bubble teams will have a chance to land huge wins over ranked teams at home: This is the time of year where teams that are sitting on or near the bubble’s cut line play the games that, in a way, seem to matter the most to their at-large profile. Why? Because adding a last-minute, quality win is the kind of difference-maker that can set one résumé apart from the rest of the hodge-podge that makes up the bubble every year.

This weekend, there are five teams that are squarely in the middle of that mess that host a top 25 opponent in a game that could be the make-or-break result in their quest to get to the NCAA tournament. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these six teams play a role in who will end up getting into the tournament:

No. 19 Florida State at Clemson, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACCN)
No. 8 North Carolina at Pitt, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACCN)
No. 12 West Virginia at TCU, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 14 Purdue at Michigan, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
No. 10 Duke at Miami, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)
No. 16 Wisconsin at Michigan, Sun. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)

4. There are 17 ranked teams playing on the road, period. This weekend will get weird: Playing on the road is not an easy thing to do in college basketball, and this week alone, there are 17 ranked teams that will be leaving home to play.

What’s that mean?

Don’t be surprised when this weekend gets wild.

5. Most of the mid-major conferences come to a close this weekend: For the most part, mid-major regular season basketball is going to come to an end this weekend, and as of next week, we will officially have our first conference tournament action kicking off. This year will be the first year that the Ivy League will have a conference tournament to determine their automatic bid, which also officially means that next week will be the first week that mid-major basketball actually means something.

Yes, they played for seeding. Yes, there are leagues where home-court is awarded for the league tournament. And yes, there is pride that comes with a conference regular season title. But pride does not equal an automatic bid. That comes with a tournament championship.

If the NCAA tournament ever does expand, I hope that instead of widening increasing the number of mediocre power conference schools that can get at-large bids, the NCAA will start rewarding the teams that win regular season league titles. We don’t even have to get rid of the conference tournament automatic bids. If there are two teams from, say, the MAAC in the NCAA tournament, all that means is that Monmouth was actually able to get in after dominating their league as opposed to letting in someone like Clemson, who, as of today, is on the bubble at 4-11 in the ACC.

Weekend Preview: UCLA-Arizona, Florida-Kentucky headline a wild weekend

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21: Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats drives to the basket against TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins during the second half of the game at Pauley Pavilion on January 21, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 5 UCLA at No. 4 Arizona, Sat. 8:15 p.m.: The way things currently stand, it’s very unlikely that the Bruins are going to be able to find a way to win even a share of the Pac-12 regular season title. They are two games behind Arizona in the league standings with just three games left to play. They play at Arizona this weekend, a building the Wildcats have yet to lose in this season, and even if they somehow manage to leave the McKale Center with a ‘W’, they will still need Arizona to lose to Arizona State, Oregon to lose to Oregon State and to sweep the Washington schools in the final week of the season just to be able to share the league title with those two teams.

This is Arizona’s Pac-12 title to lose, and if they can knock off UCLA on Saturday, all they have to do is beat Arizona State to win the title outright.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for UCLA to play for, because the secret here is that whichever of those three teams the NCAA tournament Selection Committee believes has the best overall résumé will very likely end up being the No. 2 seed out west. They’ll play in Sacramento or Salt Lake City the first weekend, followed by a short trip to San Jose for the second weekend before ending up in Phoenix for the Final Four.

That’s the plan at least, but given the committee’s bracketing rules, only one of those three teams can actually be in the West Region. UCLA is the one playing catchup right now, having split with Oregon and losing at home to Arizona. They need to get this one back — and, if all goes according to plan, beat both Oregon and Arizona en route to the Pac-12 tournament title — if they have any hope of poaching that top seed.

So yes, there is quite a bit to play for here.

But that’s not the best part about this game.

The best part is that both Sean Miller and Steve Alford have their programs rolling at the same time, which is not something that has been in the case in the Pac-12 in recent times. UCLA was going to Final Fours under Ben Howland as Arizona was in the midst of their regime change, going from Lute Olsen to Russ Pennell to Sean Miller. When Howland’s program took a dip near the end of his tenure, Arizona rose up to be the league’s resident power while Steve Alford tried to find his footing.

Now?

What we have is a top five matchup between two programs that target the same players — remember, T.J. Leaf was originally committed to Arizona, which prompted Sean Miller to once question in a press conference why anyone would want to go to a program that couldn’t fill Pauley Pavilion — and are battling for west coast supremacy that will be played in primetime with league title and major NCAA tournament implications on the line.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.

  • PREDICTION: UCLA’s been better defensively, but I find it hard to believe that below average defenders have suddenly gotten good. Arizona’s talented perimeter trio of Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier ate up UCLA in the first meeting, as Sean Miller repeatedly targeted and exposed Bryce Alford. I expect that he’ll do it again. Arizona (-3)

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No. 13 Florida at No. 11 Kentucky, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (CBS): This is the SEC title game.

There’s really no question about it, is there?

Florida and Kentucky are clearly the two-best teams in the league. They face off on Saturday afternoon in a position where they are both sitting at 13-2 in the conference, tied for first place with a two-game lead on the rest of the field. Kentucky closes the season with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Florida closes the season with Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Those are games that both the Wildcats and the Gators should win.

Kentucky enters Saturday on a bit of a slide. They’ve regained their winning ways since an ugly run a couple of weeks ago. But they’re not exactly impressing in their wins. They barely beat a Georgia team playing without Yante Maten. They struggled to put away an awful Missouri team on the road. This Kentucky team has flaws, and those flaws can be exploited by the Gators.

Florida won the first matchup between these two teams by 22 points, as Malik Monk was never able to get going and Kasey Hill looked like the best player on the floor. Florida’s a tough, physical and aggressive defensive team that does all the things that we’ve waited all year to see Kentucky consistently do.

  • PREDICTION: Kentucky is a better team at home mainly because Monk is a better scorer at home. Kentucky (-3)
LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 9 Baylor at Iowa State, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN): These two teams couldn’t be more different. Until the last three weeks, Baylor has been one of the best and most consistent teams in the country, playing slowing, grinding out stops and pounding the ball into the paint. Iowa State? They’ve been inconsistent until the last four games, they like to run-and-gun, they have no interior depth and they are at their best when they’re banging threes. Will Hilton Magic win out? PREDICTION: Iowa State (-1)
  • No. 12 West Virginia at TCU, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): This is a win that TCU might have to win if they want to be in the NCAA tournament this season, and it’s a game that may be winnable. The Mountaineers have looked great against Kansas and Baylor this season, but they’ve looked beatable against some of the lesser teams in the conference. PREDICTION: West Virginia (-6)
  • No. 23 Creighton at No. 2 Villanova, Sat. 3:00 p.m. (FOX): For just the third time this season, Villanova will be playing a game coming off of a loss. Creighton has put together some promising performances since Mo Watson’s injury, but I think that they are going to run into the buzzsaw that is angry Villanova. PREDICTION: Villanova (-10)
  • Syracuse at No. 7 Louisville, Sun. 2:00 p.m. (CBS): The Orange are coming off of thrilling, buzzer-beating win over Duke on Wednesday night. That got them onto the right side of the bubble … for now. If they want to lock up a bid to the tournament, win this game. It won’t be easy, not when Rick Pitino was clearly upset about the way his team performed at North Carolina. PREDICTION: Syracuse (+13)
  • No. 22 Butler at Xavier, Sun. 3:30 p.m. (FS1): Butler just finished off their sweep of Villanova on Wednesday night, setting themselves up to make a run at a top three seed in the NCAA tournament if they can win out. Xavier has been reeling of late, as they’ve struggled to adjust to the loss of Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett. This is a win that the Musketeers badly need to get. PREDICTION: Butler (-1)

Report: Felony arrest warrant issued for Maurice Watson Jr.

OMAHA, NE - JANUARY 21: Maurice Watson Jr. #10 of the Creighton Bluejays receives and ovation before their game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at CenturyLink Center on January 21, 2017 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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A felony arrested warrant has been issued for Creighton senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr., according to the Omaha World-Hearld.

According to the outlet’s breaking news reporter Andrew J. Nelson, Watson will be charged with first-degree sexual assault. News came out earlier on Thursday that the star guard had been accused of sexual assault by a female student earlier this month.

The allegation is that Watson sexually assaulted a 19-year-old acquaintance in the bathroom of an Omaha residence around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4. She filed a report later that morning.

Watson, 23, began his career at Boston University before transferring to Creighton in 2015. He has been one of college basketball’s top floor generals during his time with the Bluejays. He was in the midst of an All-American season — and Creighton was a Final Four-caliber team — before he tore his ACL on Jan. 16 vs. Xavier.

Watson was suspended from the program on Feb. 13 for, “alleged actions that are contrary to university policies and core values.” He will not be involved in senior night festivities on Feb. 28.