2013-2014 Mountain West Preview: Strong, will they perform better in March?

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The 2012-13 season for the Mountain West proved to be another solid campaign for the league with one notable problem: once again the conference struggled mightily in the NCAA tournament. Despite being ranked as the nation’s top conference in the RPI, none of the five Mountain West schools in the field reached the second weekend of the Big Dance. But hope springs eternal, and in 2013-14 the league and its fans are hopeful that another solid regular season will result in a more productive postseason.

Defending champion New Mexico welcomes back key performers in guard Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk, and with longtime assistant Craig Neal replacing the departed Steve Alford there should be no concerns about continuity. The Lobos won’t be without their challengers however, as Boise State, San Diego State and UNLV are all capable of contending for the Mountain West crown. Add in Colorado State and league newcomer Utah State, and this should be a fun season in the Mountain West.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: San Jose State (WAC), Utah State (WAC)
Out: None

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Two new programs have entered the conference: Two more schools have made the jump from the WAC to the Mountain West: San Jose State and Utah State. While the rebuilding Spartans will take their lumps this season, Stew Morrill’s Utah State program enters the Mountain West ready to compete. The key for the Aggies, who haven’t failed to win at least 20 games in a season since 1998, is to stay healthy. Multiple key players, most notably guard Preston Medlin, missed significant time last season due to injury.

2. “Noodles” grabs the reins at New Mexico: When Steve Alford made the move from Albuquerque to Los Angeles (UCLA) the calls for Craig Neal to be named the head coach were loud, and UNM ultimately promoted Alford’s longtime right-hand man. And he isn’t working with a bare cupboard either. Tony Snell was a first round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft but four starters return, including guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk.

(MORE: New Mexico’s bid for postseason success)

3. UNLV lost some key players but they’ve got plenty of talent as well: The Runnin’ Rebels saw one of their players from last season’s NCAA tournament team get drafted with the first overall pick in the NBA Draft (Anthony Bennett), another graduate (Anthony Marshall) and two more transfer (Mike Moser and Katin Reinhardt). But Dave Rice won’t lack for talent, with UConn transfer Roscoe Smith eligible and guard Bryce DeJean-Jones back for another run. And in Jelan Kendrick, they’ve got a transfer talented enough to have a major impact immediately.

4. San Diego State lost its top two scorers: Head coach Steve Fisher has some key contributors to replace as well, with leading scorers Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley out of eligibility. But Xavier Thames returns, as do Winston Shepard and Skyler Spencer. If SDSU’s newcomers, especially Dakarai Allen, are ready to contribute the Aztecs will once again contend.

5. Boise State returns all five starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team: Leon Rice’s Broncos are a trendy pick to contend for the Mountain West crown, and their experience has a lot to do with that. Both Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks return, as do guards Jeff Elorriaga and Mikey Thompson and forward Ryan Watkins. They may not have a playing surface as original as the football team, but the Broncos will definitely attract eyeballs this season.

PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: G Kendall Williams (New Mexico)

For three seasons Williams has been a steadying influence for the Lobos, and his ability to operate both on and off the ball make the senior guard a tough matchup for opponents. With Tony Snell in the NBA there may be more opportunities for Williams, the reigning Mountain West POY, to score and he’s more than capable of handling the additional responsibilities.

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THE REST OF THE MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM:

  • G Deonte Burton (Nevada): Burton (16.3 ppg, 3.6 apg) may be asked to do even more scoring this season with Malik Story out of eligibility
  • G Anthony Drmic (Boise State): Drmic (17.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) shot 46.4% from the field and 39.2% from beyond the arc in 2012-13
  • F Josh Davis (San Diego State): Davis averaged 17.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game at Tulane last season, earning first team All-Conference USA honors
  • C Alex Kirk (New Mexico): Averaged 12.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season, earning second team All-Mountain West honors

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • G Preston Medlin (Utah State)
  • G Derrick Marks (Boise State)
  • F Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming)
  • F Roscoe Smith (UNLV)
  • G Deshawn Delaney (New Mexico)

BREAKOUT STAR: G Daniel Bejarano (Colorado State)

This pick is as much about opportunity as it is talent. Bejarano won Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year honors last season, posting averages of 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. With the Rams losing all five starters from last season’s team the Arizona transfer will need to score early and often for Colorado State.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: David Carter (Nevada)

In four seasons as the head coach Carter’s posted an overall record of 74-58, winning a WAC regular season title and making two NIT appearances. But two of his last three seasons have been 19-loss campaigns, including last season’s 12-win campaign (3-13, last in the Mountain West). With a new athletic director as well, this could be an important season for Carter despite having a contract that won’t expire until 2017.

(MORE: Read about Deonte Burton’s push to bring Nevada more team success)

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …: That regular season was nice and all, but it won’t mean much if the league once again falters in the NCAA tournament.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing whether or not Boise State can build on last season’s NCAA tournament appearance.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • December 10, Boise State at Kentucky
  • December 14, New Mexico vs. Kansas (in Kansas City)
  • December 7, UNLV at Arizona
  • December 21, New Mexico vs. Marquette (in Las Vegas)
  • January 5, San Diego State at Kansas

PREDICTED FINISH

1. New Mexico: The shift from Alford to Neal isn’t your “standard” coaching change, and with Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk leading the way the Lobos have the pieces needed to remain on top.
2. UNLV: No more Bennett, Marshall or Moser, and Katin Reinhardt transferred, but the Rebels are still talented. Keep an eye on Khem Birch, who should build on his solid play a season ago.
3. Boise State: Drmic and Marks make up one of the best tandems in the conference. Whether or not the Broncos can win the league will depend on their front court.
4. San Diego State: How much has Winston Shepard improved? That’ll be one key for the Aztecs, who need to account for the loss of both Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley.
5. Utah State: The Aggies may be a newcomer but with Preston Medlin back (and healthy) they’ll give their new conference foes fits.
6. Wyoming: Leonard Washington and Derrious Gilmore are gone but Larry Nance Jr. returns for the Pokes, who look to match their 20 wins of a season ago.
7. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy lost a lot of talent from last year’s NCAA tournament team, but this is a solid program (tip of the cap to Tim Miles). The question: can Daniel Bejarano and Jonathan Octeus be the on-court leaders the Rams need with Jesse Carr (knee) unavailable?
8. Nevada: The Wolf Pack won just three league games last season, and that can change if they get more production from the front court. PG Deonte Burton is one of the nation’s best at the position.
9. Fresno State: The dismissal of Robert Upshaw wasn’t a crippling blow for the Bulldogs, who will be improved. But losing Braeden Anderson for the year definitely hurts.
10. Air Force: Falcons lost their top four scorers from a season ago, most notably guard Michael Lyons (17.7 ppg). Could be a tough year in Colorado Springs, but Dave Pilipovich’s team will compete every night.
11. San Jose State: Dave Wojcik takes over as head coach, and his young roster will take its share of lumps in the Spartans’ inaugural Mountain West campaign.

Cowan scores 19, No. 24 Maryland beats Ohio State 72-62

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 19 points, Bruno Fernando had 14 points and 10 rebounds and No. 24 Maryland defeated Ohio State 72-62 Saturday to remain unbeaten at home in the Big Ten.

The Terrapins (21-7, 12-5) used a 13-0 run to take a 52-36 lead. Although the margin dwindled to two points with 5:27 left, Maryland held on to improve to 14-2 at home, including 7-0 in the conference.

With three Big Ten games left, including two at home, the Terrapins are in fourth place and in position to secure a double bye in the conference tournament.

Fernando scored all of his points after halftime, and reserve freshman Serrel Smith Jr. contributed a career-high 14 points for Maryland. Despite a slow start, Fernando secured his ninth double-double in his last 10 games.

Duane Washington Jr. scored 15 and Andre Wesson had 13 for Ohio State (17-10, 7-9). The Buckeyes have lost three of four and nine of their last 14.

Maryland led 39-36 before Fernando scored six points and Cowan added five in the pivotal 13-0 spree.

Fernando started the surge with a three-point play, Smith hit a jumper and Cowan followed with a 3-pointer. After Ohio State missed its seventh straight shot, Cowan was fouled on an attempt from beyond the arc and sank two from the line.

Fernando capped the run with a foul shot and a short jumper.

The Buckeyes stormed back, getting points from five different players in a 19-5 spurt that made it 57-55.

Then it was Maryland’s turn. Smith was fouled on a shot from beyond the arc and made all three free throws. Darryl Morsell followed with a pair of foul shots, and Aaron Wiggins capped the 7-0 run with a dunk off a pass from Fernando, who had snagged the rebound of a miss by Morsell.

That was enough to assure the Terrapins of a series sweep of the Buckeyes. The Terps won at Ohio State 75-61 on Jan. 18.

Cowan scored 10 points to stake Maryland to a 33-28 halftime lead. The Terrapins missed five of their first six shots before going 12 for 18 with four 3-pointers.

Fernando missed both his shots and collected only four rebounds in nearly 18 minutes of play.

POOR ENCORE

Coming off a 22-point performance against Northwestern, Ohio State’s 6-foot-9 sophomore Kaleb Wesson was limited to seven points on 3 for 12 shooting. He came in averaging a team-high 14.7 points.

AYALA AILING

Maryland starting guard Eric Ayala left in the first half and did not return after scoring five points in 10 minutes. A team official said the freshman “was not feeling well.”

BIG PICTURE

Ohio State: The Buckeyes are sinking fast after losing only once before 2019. They shot 35 percent in the second half and 36.5 percent for the game.

Maryland: The Terrapins keep surprising foes in the Big Ten. Despite relying heavily on freshmen, Maryland remains in the upper tier of the conference and might be tough to beat in the Big Ten Tournament.

Noi, A-Rob double-doubles as TCU beats No. 19 Iowa St 75-72

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Kouat Noi had 20 points with 13 rebounds, Alex Robinson also had a double-double and TCU ended a three-game losing streak with a 75-72 win over No. 19 Iowa State on Saturday.

TCU, which had blown a 10-point lead it built before halftime, finally went ahead to stay when Desmond Bane hit a 3-pointer from the left wing with just under two minutes left to snap a 68-all tie. JD Miller later drove hard for a layup, knocking down one defender without a call and getting fouled by another to make it 73-70 in the final 41 seconds. He missed the free throw.

Iowa State (19-8, 8-6 Big 12) was within 73-72 when Marial Shayok found a gap and drove for a layup with 22 seconds left. Noi added two free throws before the Cyclones got to attempt two 3-pointers in the final three seconds, the last after a TCU turnover while the buzzer sounded before a lengthy review that added .4 seconds on the clock.

The Frogs (18-9, 6-8) hadn’t won since a 92-83 victory at Iowa State two weeks ago, which was their first road win over a ranked team in 21 years.

Miller finished with 17 points and nine rebounds, Bane had 16 points and Robinson tallied 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Michael Jacobsen led Iowa State with 17 points, while Lindell Wigginton had 15. Talen Horton-Tucker had 14 points and nine rebounds.

Shayok, who entered the game second in the Big 12 at 19.1 points per game, was held to four points on 2-of-5 shooting while playing only 16 minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Iowa St.: The Cyclones have lost three of their last four games, and likely ended any chance of winning the Big 12 regular season tournament.

TCU: The Horned Frogs also ended a three-game home losing streak, a needed boost for their hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row after two-decade absence. They have two road games left against teams that have already beaten this season (West Virginia and Texas) and consecutive home games against Top 25 teams Texas Tech and Kansas State.

John Calipari moves into 2nd on Kentucky all-time wins list after beating Auburn

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Coach John Calipari surpassed Joe B. Hall on the Kentucky Wildcats’ all-time wins list and is second behind Adolph Rupp after an 80-53 victory over Auburn on Saturday.

Calipari is 298-68 in 10 seasons with the Wildcats. Hall compiled a 297-100 record in 13 seasons and led the Wildcats to a national championship in 1978.

PJ Washington scored 24 points to lead No. 4 Kentucky. Washington led three players in double figures and helped lead the Wildcats to a regular-season sweep of the Tigers. The Wildcats (23-4, 12-2 Southeastern Conference) defeated Auburn 82-80 last month and made things easier the second time around. Tyler Herro followed Washington with 17 points and Ashton Hagans added 14.

Kentucky played without senior forward Reid Travis, who sprained his right ankle in a 66-58 win at Missouri last Tuesday. Travis is expected to miss the next two weeks. Freshman EJ Montgomery started in Travis’ absence and scored six points. Nick Richards split time with Montgomery in the post and added four points.

Washington scored 11 of Kentucky’s first 16 points and set the tone for the victory. Four of Kentucky’s first seven field goals were 3-pointers, including three by Washington. Washington and Herro combined for 27 points in the first half. Washington and Herro combined for eight of Kentucky’s 11 3-pointers in the contest.

The Wildcats built a 19-point lead on a 3-pointer by Herro before Auburn used a 14-2 run and closed to 38-31. Kentucky responded by scoring the final seven points of the half. Herro splashed a 3-pointer at the end of the half.

Kentucky put the game away by scoring 11 straight points to open the second half and led by as many as 33.

Chuma Okeke led Auburn (18-9, 7-7) with 14 points, followed by Jared Harper with 12 and Anfernee McLemore with 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats moved into a tie with Tennessee and LSU atop the conference standings. The Tigers defeated the fifth-ranked Volunteers 82-80 Saturday in Baton Rouge. There are two weeks remaining in the regular season. Kentucky plays at Tennessee next Saturday.

Auburn: The Tigers are in the middle of the conference standings and will play Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and Tennessee during the final two weeks of the regular season. Auburn has a chance to finish as high as fourth depending on the team’s success down the stretch. The Tigers fell to 49-2 against Kentucky in games played in Lexington.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Kentucky figures to remain in its current spot in the Top 25 after winning a pair of games this week. The Wildcats responded to a 74-71 loss to LSU on Feb. 12 with three consecutive victories.

TEAM HONORED

Members of Kentucky’s 1958 NCAA national championship team, known as the “Fiddlin Five,” were honored prior to tipoff. The squad was the last of four national title teams Rupp coached during his 41-year tenure. The Wildcats defeated Seattle 84-72 to win the crown in Louisville that season.

S. Hauser, Anim lead No. 11 Marquette past Providence 76-58

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Sam Hauser had 18 points and 13 rebounds, Sacar Anim scored 18 and No. 11 Marquette raced past Providence 76-58 on Saturday.

The Golden Eagles (23-4, 12-2 in the Big East) led by 11 points at halftime and showed no signs of letting up, shooting 53.6 percent in the second half to finish at 54.9 percent for the game. Anim went 8 for 12 and Hauser 7 for 10 for Marquette, which got 14 points on 2-of-12 shooting from leading scorer Markus Howard.

Alpha Diallo had 19 points and six rebounds for the Friars (15-13, 5-10 Big East). Providence went from shooting 27.6 percent in the first half to 50 percent in the second half, yet Marquette proved too tough a cover on a day that the Golden Eagles had five players in double figures.

Joey Hauser had 15 points and Markus Howard added 14 for Marquette.

Marquette put the game away after Providence moved to within 40-33 early in the second half. On three straight trips to the basket, the Golden Eagles connected from deep, with a 3-pointer from Howard allowing the visitors to take a 58-37 lead with 10:54 remaining.

The Golden Eagles shot 10 of 21 from 3-point range while the Friars went 6 of 20.

TOUGH OUT NO MATTER WHERE

Marquette is 16-1 at Fiserv Forum, matching the most home wins in a single season since the 2012-13 team finished 16-0. Saturday saw the Golden Eagles pick up their sixth road win in league play versus one defeat. The six road wins against conference foes represents the most in a single season since Marquette joined the Big East in 2005.

TAKE A BOW

During halftime, Providence honored a dozen former student-athletes who were inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame. Included in the Class of 2019 was Jamel Thomas, who played a key role on the team that came close to reaching the Final Four in 1997. Thomas ranks sixth on Providence’s all-time scoring list (1,971 points).

STIFF COMPETITION

The Big East entered Saturday’s action as the only Division I conference in the nation with every team owning an overall winning record.

UP NEXT

Marquette travels to defending national champion Villanova on Wednesday. It will be a rematch of a game the Golden Eagles won 66-65 on Feb. 9 in Milwaukee.

Providence is at Butler on Tuesday. The Friars and Bulldogs have yet to play each other.

Without Tremont Waters, No. 13 LSU beats No. 5 Tennessee for first place in SEC

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Playing without their star sophomore point guard Tremont Waters, No. 13 LSU got 29 points, five boards, five assists and three steals from freshman Javonte Smart and 23 points from Skylar Mays as they outlasted No. 5 Tennessee, 82-80, in overtime.

The win did not come without some controversy, which only makes sense given that it is LSU that is involved. In the final seconds of overtime, after LSU tied the game at 80, Lamonte Turner missed a shot and in the ensuing battle for a rebound, Smart came up with the ball and was fouled by Tennessee’s all-american, Grant Williams with 0.6 seconds left on the clock. It was a tough call for Tennessee to take, but it was the right call. Smart made both free throws and the Tigers got the win.

And that is a win of significance, too.

LSU entered the day a game out of first place in the SEC standings behind Tennessee, and with No. 4 Kentucky’s blowout win over Auburn in Lexington on Saturday, there is now a three-way tie for first place in the conference title race. Next Saturday, the Wildcats make a return trip to Knoxville for a rematch with Tennessee.

The most impressive part of this win for LSU is that it not only came without Waters available, but with Naz Reid playing one of the worst games of his basketball career. He spent much of the first half in foul trouble and finished the afternoon 0-for-9 from the floor with just a single point.

Who saw that coming?

And it reinforces something I think that we all have figured out about this LSU team: There is not a team in college basketball that can combine a ceiling as high as their ceiling and a floor as low as their floor. The talent is, unquestionably, there. If you can win in Rupp Arena against this Kentucky team, if you can pick off a top five team and SEC title contender while getting essentially nothing out of your two most talented players, you are dangerous.

But we cannot overlook the fact that, in between those two wins, LSU very nearly lost at Georgia and then did take a loss at home to Florida.

That’s just who they are.

When they get up for a game, they are dangerous, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where they are not up for games in March.