Cameron Bairstow

Cameron Bairstow

Cameron Bairstow, a Mountain West Player of the Year snub?

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There were signs before the start of the 2014 season that Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico’s senior forward, was primed for an all-Mountain West Conference, and possible MWC player of the year, performance. A native of Australia and an atypical graduate of the games Australia Institute of Sport — as he told Sports Illustrated’s Kelli Anderson, “I was fairly small, 6-7 or 6-8, 200 pounds, and I was a pretty terrible athlete to be honest” — Bairstow suited up for two Australian national teams this past summer, and his performance in the World University Games (Australia earned its first ever medal in international play) was a primer to what would eventually be a special season for Bairstow.

The 6-foot-9 Bairstow put on a considerable amount of muscle and has maintained it during the season, and after a considerable boost in percentage of minutes played, Bairstow is having a career year, converting 57 percent of his twos and posting the team’s second-best offensive efficiency rating. As good as Alex Kirk, Bairstow’s frontcourt mate, has been in the post, Bairstow had been better, and has transformed into the focal point of opposing defenses’ gameplan.

However, when the conference announced their player of the year selection earlier today, Bairstow was noticeably absent. The award went to San Diego State’s Xavier Thames, a worthy choice if the honor was handed out a few weeks ago: including the mid-February loss to Wyoming through the end of the Aztecs’ regular season, Thames has made just 37.5 percent of his twos and 20 percent of his threes. The only Aztec with the ability to consistently break his man off the dribble and create his own — and his teammates — offense, Thames has been blanked. Meanwhile, over a similar time span, Bairstow has converted nearly 60 percent of his twos and recorded just double-doubles. Thames had a great season, and he is one of the primary reasons that Steve Fisher’s club has spent most of the season atop the top 25 rankings, but I’m not the only one who believes Bairstow was robbed: according to Wyoming big Larry Nance Jr., “Thames had an incredible year! Congrats to him. But I just thought Bairstow was incredible this season.”

No. 21 New Mexico falls victim to unexpected defensive wrinkle

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An Alex Kirk shot with 12:05 remaining in No. 21 New Mexico’s game at No. 10 San Diego State gave the visiting Lobos a 41-25 lead, and it looked as if the Aztecs were in serious trouble. UNM big men Kirk and Cameron Bairstow were playing well, proving to problematic for the San Diego State front court. But then SDSU head coach Steve Fisher made a strategic move seldom seen since the Aztecs used this wrinkle in their win at Kansas in early January.

He went to an active 1-3-1 zone, and the Lobos were thoroughly confused by the new look. New Mexico (24-6, 15-3) would score just seven points in the final 12:05, losing 51-48 as San Diego State won the Mountain West regular season title.

Bairstow finished the game with 20 points and seven rebounds, with Kirk adding 14 to go along with 11 boards. But with San Diego State (27-3, 16-2) going to the 1-3-1 New Mexico’s two most effective offensive threats did not attempt a single shot in the final 12 minutes, with a Bairstow free throw with 7:27 remaining being the only point either would score during that decisive stretch. To say the least New Mexico was confused by the look, and they had no counter either.

MORE: Just how good is No. 10 San Diego State?

Kendall Williams having to sit out part of that 26-7 finish with four fouls didn’t help but he was ineffective for most of the night, finishing with seven points (3-for-10 FG), four assists and five turnovers. As a team New Mexico committed 11 turnovers in the second half, with San Diego State scoring 16 points off of those mistakes. So not only did the strategic move help the Aztecs neutralize the UNM big men, it also served as a spark for an offense that struggled to get anything going.

Could there be a rubber match of sorts in Las Vegas next Saturday night? Given how well these two teams have performed throughout conference play, that would be the expectation of many. But there are clearly things for New Mexico to work on in advance of the Mountain West tournament, particularly their zone offense. New Mexico was hit with a punch it didn’t see coming Saturday night, and they fell short of their goal as a result.

College Basketball Talk’s Player of the Year Power Rankings

Doug McDermott , Isaiah Philmore
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1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Remember when people were worried whether or not McDermott would be able to succeed outside the Missouri Valley? Well, he’s averaging 26.0 points and 7.2 boards while shooting 52.0% from the field, 44.1% from three and 88.7% from the line on a top ten team that still has a chance to win the Big East title. I think he’s done alright. With this being the last edition of the Player of the Year Power Rankings, I think that it’s safe to say that McDermott has got this in the bag.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: The biggest internal struggle that I have with putting Parker this high in the Player of the Year rankings is that he’s a terrible defender. But he can score, and he’s the player that allows Duke to be such a matchup nightmare with his ability to defend in the post and score on the perimeter. If he wasn’t cleaning the defensive glass as effectively as he has been, this may be a different conversation.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville: Every time I watch Louisville play, I am more impressed with the development of Russ Smith. He’s a playmaker on both ends of the floor, a guy that simply fits perfectly in what Rick Pitino wants his team to be able to do. Add in the fact that his leadership and ability to handle the point has improved dramatically, and what you get is the No. 3 player in our Player of the Year rankings.

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4. Shabazz Napier, UConn: Shabazz has struggled with his shot a bit of late, but that doesn’t hurt his standing. Where would UConn be this season without him? He’s a facilitator, he’s their best scorer, their best playmaker, an excellent defender, their leading rebounder (at 6-foot-1!!), and the guy that takes and makes the big shots.

5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson has been going through a bit of a shooting slump lately, but Arizona’s offense has taken off with Sean Miller’s new uptempo approach. Johnson’s athleticism in transition and ability on the defensive end should allow him to thrive.

6. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: The Bearcats have lost three of their last five games, but that doesn’t change the fact that Kilpatrick is by far the best offensive weapon on a top 15 team that struggles to score.

7. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Ennis is still the same player that he has been all season despite his team’s struggles. It’s not his fault that Jerami Grant’s back is acting up and that Trevor Cooney, when you factor out the 9-for-12 that he shot against Notre Dame, is just a 28% long range shooter in ACC play. Ennis is a facilitator at the point. If the Orange need him to take over scoring the ball, they are going to be in some trouble.

8. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: The Lobos are back in the top 25 and are playing as well as anyone west of the Mississippi not named Arizona. So while Kendall Williams is having a better season than he did when he won Mountain West Player of the Year and Alex Kirk has been terrific, the reason why New Mexico is this good is because Cameron Bairstow has turned into one of the best low-post players in the country.

9. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: Anderson is still putting up just massive numbers on what is probably still the Pac-12’s second-best team. That said, he’s going to want to go ahead and make sure that he isn’t suspended for anymore games. If he plays against Oregon at home, the Bruins probably beat the Ducks in double overtime.

10. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: It’s been too long that I’ve kept Wiggins off of this list. He’s the leading scorer, third leading rebounder and best perimeter defender on a top five team that is currently up three games in what many believe to be the toughest conference in the country. And he’s a disappointment? We’ve got some high standards.

Others: Jordan Adams, Billy Baron, Malcolm Brogdon, Jabari Brown, Bryce Cotton, Cleanthony Early, Joel Embiid, C.J. Fair, Marcus Foster, Aaron Gordon, Gary Harris, Rodney Hood, Frank Kaminsky, Deandre Kane, Kevin Pangos, Lamar Patterson, Adreian Payne, Elfrid Payton, Marcus Smart, Juwan Staten, Nik Stauskas, Xavier Thames, Fred Van Vleet, T.J. Warren, Scottie Wilbekin, Chaz Williams

Improved offensive execution keeps No. 25 New Mexico tied atop Mountain West

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Fifteen days ago No. 25 New Mexico blew out Nevada in Albuquerque, shooting 55.2% from the field and assisting on 27 of their 32 made field goals in the 90-72 victory. And considering just how well Craig Neal’s team played for much of that game, it can be argued that the final margin was a bit deceiving.

That outcome served as motivation for Nevada, and for much of the first half the Wolf Pack controlled the rematch. But New Mexico would improve its execution and shot selection, erasing a 14-point first half deficit and winning 72-58 in Reno.

The Lobos settled for perimeter shots in the first half, making just one of the nine attempts from beyond the arc and not committing to going inside. It was clear what New Mexico needed to do in order to get back into the game and to their credit they passed up the jumpers in favor of attacking the basket, ripping off a 10-0 run to end the first half with eight of the points coming in the paint. The other two points came courtesy of two Cameron Bairstow free throws.

That would continue in the second half as the Lobos shot 57.7% from the field, and their improved shooting from deep (5-for-11) was a product of their commitment to getting the ball inside. Bairstow scored 14 of his 22 points in the second half to lead the way, with Alex Kirk (ten points, 11 rebounds) and Kendall Williams (11 points, ten assists) both posting double-doubles for the Lobos. And with those ten assists, Williams became the Mountain West’s all-time assists leader.

Those three veterans are expected to lead the way, and for much of this season they haven’t disappointed in that regard. However against Nevada reserves Cullen Neal and Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas were just as important, contributing 15 points in the second half. And with neither Deshawn Delaney nor Hugh Greenwood being consistent threats to score in double figures, the contributions of Neal and Thomas will be key moving forward for New Mexico.

With the win the Lobos remain in a first-place tie with San Diego State with two games remaining, the latter of which being a showdown at Viejas Arena on Saturday. And if New Mexico executes as they did over the final 24 minutes of Sunday’s win, there’s no doubt that Craig Neal’s team can win the Mountain West outright.

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

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.

College Basketball Talk’s Player of the Year Power Rankings

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1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: This is really all you need to know about McDermott: He averaged 27.5 points in wins at Marquette and over Seton Hall at home, and no one even batted an eye. How good do you have to be for 55 points over the course of two games in the Big East to barely move the needle?

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Ironically enough, Parker found his three-point stroke against in Saturday’s win over Syracuse in the same game that he proved why he is so much more valuable than simply being a jump-shooter. In three games, he averaged 17.3 points and 11.7 boards last week, but he also committed 13 turnovers.

3. Shabazz Napier, UConn: Napier struggled the last two games, shooting 8-for-27 from the floor, 1-for-6 from three and committing nine turnovers in a closer-than-it-should’ve-been win over Temple and a loss to SMU at home. He’ll have a chance to get back on track at South Florida, who the Huskies play next.

4. Russ Smith, Louisville: The difference between Russ Smith today and Russ Smith of a year ago can be seen in two minutes of basketball at the end of Louisville’s win over Cincinnati. He erased a three-point Cincinnati lead with back-to-back assists to Montrezl Harrell, passes he wouldn’t have made last season. On the final possession, he hit the game-winner, but it came after he gave the ball up to Terry Rozier instead of forcing the shot on his initial touch:

5. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Kilpatrick is still carrying a massive load offensively for a team that simply doesn’t have other scoring options. His offensive rating is 121.6, higher than anyone in the top ten not named Doug McDermott, and he’s doing in on a team that ranks 105th nationally in offensive efficiency with a usage rate of 28.9% and a shot percentage of 32.0%. For those that aren’t statistically-inclined, that means Kilpatrick is having a very efficient season despite playing a massive role offensively on a team that can’t score.

t-6. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse, and Nick Johnson, Arizona: Everyone goes through lulls. Jabari Parker had his in December. Julius Randle struggled a bit in January. Shabazz Napier had a couple of bad games at the start of AAC play. It’s part of being an athlete. Not every day is going to be your best day.

Both Ennis and Johnson hit their lulls in the last two weeks. Ennis was 2-for-13 from the floor in the loss at Duke and struggled in the loss to BC and the win over Maryland. Johnson had a four-game stretch where he shot 25.0% (15-60) from the floor and 1-for-18 from three, or 5.6%, after Brandon Ashley got injured.

The question now becomes how they will bounce back. Ennis had 20 points, five boards, three assists and two steals in Monday’s win over Maryland. Johnson had 20 points, five boards and six assists in Saturday’s blowout win over Colorado.

7. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle had 25 points and 13 boards in a win over Ole Miss on Tuesday and followed that up with eight points and 15 boards, including the game-winning bucket, in the overtime win over LSU. He’s not trying to be liked, he’s trying to win a championship.

8. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: It’s time to ride for Bairstow. He needs more attention nationally, and here’s the latest example: that San Diego State front line that shutdown Joel Embiid and PErry Ellis in the Aztec win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse? Bairstow went for 26 points and nine boards on 11-for-18 shooting against them. BEAR-stow.

9. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames is having a similar season to Kilpatrick in that he’s putting up ridiculous efficiency numbers for a Final Four contender that doesn’t score well. He’s dropped this week thanks to a couple of off-nights in a row and said rout at New Mexico.

10. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: Anderson struggled in UCLA’s loss at Stanford — the Bruins are generally awful in the second-game of their Pac-12 road weekends — but he’s still averaging 14.9 points, 8.6 boards and 6.9 assists while shooting 49.8% from the floor and 50.0% from three.

Others: Jordan Adams, Billy Baron, Jabari Brown, Bryce Cotton, Cleanthony Early, Joel Embiid, C.J. Fair, Marcus Foster, Aaron Gordon, Gary Harris, Rodney Hood, Frank Kaminsky, Deandre Kane, Kevin Pangos, Lamar Patterson, Adreian Payne, Elfrid Payton, Marcus Smart, Juwan Staten, Nik Stauskas, Fred Van Vleet, T.J. Warren, Andrew Wiggins, Scottie Wilbekin, Chaz Williams