Conference Catchups: Mountain West competitive at the top

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico

When the season began teammates Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk had the look of Lobos most likely to make a run at the league’s Player of the Year award. But at the “halfway” point it’s been the third member of New Mexico’s “big three” who’s stood out. Bairstow is currently ranked in the top ten in both scoring (2nd) and rebounding (9th), and he’s third in the Mountain West with a field goal percentage of 54.7%.

First Team All-Mountain West:

  • Xavier Thames, San Diego State
  • Deonte Burton, Nevada
  • Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
  • Roscoe Smith, UNLV
  • Alex Kirk, New Mexico

Midseason Coach of the Year: Steve Fisher, San Diego State

Fisher’s Aztecs are off to a 10-1 start, and while the overall strength of schedule has been noted in some circles SDSU does have wins over solid Creighton and Marquette squads thus far. And, their lone defeat came at the hands of an Arizona team that now sits atop the national polls. Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard III have led the way offensively with J.J. O’Brien and Josh Davis contributing in the front court, and as those youngsters mature this will be a tough team in Mountain West play.

Favorite: New Mexico Lobos

Sticking with the preseason favorites despite San Diego State’s start, with their senior trio being one reason why. But of note in New Mexico’s last two games has been the play of freshman Cullen Neal, who averaged 21.0 ppg and shot 13-for-22 from the field in wins over Marquette and Grand Canyon. With Hugh Greenwood due back for the team’s conference opener and Deshawn Delaney playing better basketball of late, New Mexico is well-positioned entering Mountain West play.

And three more contenders: 

  • San Diego State will certainly be a team to be reckoned with, and their ability to defend is a big reason why. According to kenpom.com the Aztecs rank 13th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they limit teams to 38.2% shooting inside of the arc.
  • With Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks leading a roster of capable scorers, Boise State will be a contender in the Mountain West. But if they’re to win the league the Broncos will need to get even stronger on the defensive end, as they rank 9th in the league in field goal percentage defense.
  • It didn’t look good early but UNLV’s taken advantage of its recent schedule and looks to be an improved group heading into conference play. With Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith inside this is a very difficult team to score on, and if they can become more efficient offensively look out.
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Most Surprising Team: Colorado State

Not sure how many people were ruling out Larry Eustachy’s team before the season began, but the fact of the matter is that the Rams lost a lot of production from last season’s NCAA tournament team. But there they sit at 9-4, with the tandem of J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano leading the way. They’ll need to get better defensively in conference play, but all things considered this has been a good start for CSU.

Most Disappointing Team: UNLV

This pick is a product of their early struggles, but to be fair to this group loaded with newcomers you also have to look at who their losses came against. UCSB, for as disappointing as UNLV’s play in that game was, will contend in the Big West, Arizona State and Illinois have both proven to be solid teams and Arizona is…well, Arizona. The issue early for Dave Rice’s team was their lack of cohesion on the offensive end, but in the last five games the Runnin’ Rebels have made strides. Don’t expect them to be in this spot come March.

Most Important Player (in league play): Josh Davis, San Diego State

Davis has been productive on the glass for the Aztecs, as he ranks second in the conference in rebounding (10.2 rpg). But from a scoring standpoint it feels like he’s capable of doing more, especially when considering the fact that he averaged 17.6 points per game at Tulane last season. If he can move towards that level of production on the blocks, San Diego State becomes a tougher team to defend in the half court.

Who will slide?: Colorado State

Larry Eustachy’s Rams are off to a 9-4 start, with the forward tandem of J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano doing a lot of the heavy lifting (guard Jon Octeus has also played well). But this is a team that lost an awful lot of production from last year’s NCAA tournament team, and that could be an issue against some of the Mountain West’s premier teams. And they open up league play with San Diego State (home) and New Mexico (road), which makes for a difficult start.

Who is the sleeper?: Utah State

The loss of Jarred Shaw certainly doesn’t help matters, as he was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder prior to his suspension. But in Preston Medlin and Spencer Butterfield the Aggies have two players more than capable of producing offensively, and Kyle Davis has picked up the slack on the boards. Add in head coach Stew Morrill and the fact that he hasn’t failed to win at least 20 games since his first season in Logan and you’ve got your sleeper.

New Power Rankings

1. San Diego State
2. New Mexico
3. Boise State
4. UNLV
5. Utah State
6. Wyoming
7. Fresno State
8. Colorado State
9. Nevada
10. San Jose State
11. Air Force

Vandy stuns No. 6 Tennessee on Lawrence’s buzzer-beating 3

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Vanderbilt Commodores and coach Jerry Stackhouse finally experienced the thrill of a big upset inside the Southeastern Conference’s oldest gym.

The Commodores had struggled for so long with crowds dwindling that the old Memorial Gym magic seemed gone.

Not Wednesday night.

Tyrin Lawrence knocked down a 3-pointer from the right corner at the buzzer as the Commodores snapped an 11-game skid against its in-state rival by upsetting sixth-ranked Tennessee 66-65 Wednesday night.

Stackhouse called Lawrence’s shot the biggest of his tenure and maybe his favorite spanning both his own playing career in the NBA and now coaching career.

“We finally experienced it, the Memorial Magic we were looking for,” Stackhouse said. “Unbelievable game, unbelievable effort. Guys never quit. Didn’t look great there for a minute, but we just kept battling.”

Students rushed the court and joined the Commodores in celebrating easily the program’s biggest win in nearly 11 years. Then the Commodores (12-12, 5-6) celebrated by running along the courtside slapping high-fives.

Tennessee (19-5, 8-2) had every chance to finish off the win after Olivier Nkamhoua’s 15-foot jumper with 50 seconds left put the Vols up 65-63 lead. Liam Robbins missed a turnaround jumper with 27 seconds for Vanderbilt, and Zakai Zeigler grabbed the rebound.

Vols freshman Julian Phillips had a chance to dunk in the final seconds but kept dribbling to force another Vanderbilt foul.

“I am not sure what was going through his head there,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I don’t think he will ever make that mistake again.”

Vanderbilt had to foul five times to finally send Santiago Vescovi to the line with 8 seconds left.

He missed the first shot, and Lawrence grabbed the rebound. Stackhouse took a timeout with 4 seconds to go to set up the final play, and Ezra Manjon drove to the basket before passing out to Lawrence in the corner for the winning bucket.

“It felt great,” said Lawrence, who Stackhouse benched for an ugly loss to No. 4 Alabama last week. “It’s the stuff we dream about as kids just in the back yard counting down `3, 2, 1.’ Glad I was able to hit the game winner.”

Lawrence finished with a team-high 19 points. Robbins added 14 and nine rebounds, and Jordan Wright had 12.

Vescovi and Tyreke Key each had 14 to lead Tennessee. Olivier Nkamhoua and Julian Phillips added 10 apiece.

Tennessee led 34-32 at halftime setting up a thrilling finish in a game that featured 15 lead changes and nine ties.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee was shooting well over 55% before hitting the kind of scoring drought that usually plagues the Vols in their losses. The Vols went 4:27 without a bucket as Vandy scored six straight to stay close. The nation’s best 3-point defense, which had been holding opponents to 21.9% shooting outside the arc, also gave up a season-high 10 3s with Lawrence’s game-winner the last.

Vanderbilt improved to 100-259 all-time against Top 25 opponents, and the Commodores improved to 2-3 this season. They now are 4-16 against ranked opponents under Stackhouse. … Lawrence’s game-winning shot was Vandy’s first made bucket since the 3:44 mark.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The road is turning into a challenging issue for the Volunteers with a second straight loss away from home, and this won’t help them stay in the Top 10.

DID IT COUNT?

Stackhouse tapped a play used by Dwane Casey when the Vandy coach worked with him in the NBA in Toronto. Stackhouse added some wrinkles with Manjon driving toward the basket where the Vols collapsed on him before whipping the pass down the baseline to Lawrence.

While everyone celebrated the shot, Stackhouse asked the scorekeeper if it counted. They didn’t know.

“Then (official) Tony Greene came over and he said it was good. `We’re gonna look at it, but it was good.’ I can’t contain myself. I hugged Tony Greene,” Stackhouse said with a big smile.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts Missouri on Saturday night.

Vanderbilt visits Florida.

Hepburn scores 19, Wisconsin tops Penn State 79-74 in OT

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Chucky Hepburn scored 19 points and Connor Essegian added 18, the two combining for nine of Wisconsin’s 11 3-pointers in a 79-74 overtime victory over Penn State on Wednesday night.

After a layup by Max Klesmit gave Wisconsin a 76-72 lead with 44 seconds remaining in overtime, Penn State’s Camren Wynter missed a 3-pointer and the Badgers closed out the victory at the free-throw line.

Hepburn made 5 of 9 3-pointers and Essegian 4 of 7 for the Badgers, who were 11 of 24 from 3-point distance. Tyler Wahl had 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds for Wisconsin (14-9, 6-7 Big Ten) and Steven Crowl added 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

Jalen Pickett, who earlier this week was named one of 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award, had 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (14-10, 5-8). Seth Lundy added 14 points, nine rebounds and three steals, making 4 of 8 3-pointers. Camren Wynter scored 15 points and Andrew Funk 10.

With 59 seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 65, Essegian forced a turnover by Wynter. Wisconsin called timeout with 44 seconds remaining, setting up a 3-pointer by Hepburn. Lundy hit a tying 3-pointer with 23 seconds left and Wisconsin played for the last shot but did not score.

In beating Penn State for the fifth consecutive time, Wisconsin swept the season series and handed the Nittany Lions their second home loss in 13 games. Wisconsin had lost seven of nine previous games coming in.

Wisconsin plays at Nebraska on Saturday, the same day that Penn State plays at Maryland.

UConn women lose 2nd straight game for 1st time since 1993

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MILWAUKEE – UConn coach Geno Auriemma could sense from the start of the night that something was off about his team.

By the time the evening ended, the Huskies were staring at their first losing streak in three decades, ending one of the most remarkable achievements in college basketball history.

Chloe Marotta had 19 points and Jordan King added 18 as Marquette defeated UConn 59-52 on Wednesday. The Huskies, who were playing three nights after an 81-77 home loss to No. 1 South Carolina, dropped consecutive games for the first time since March 1993.

“When people read that stat and they look back, that is a fairy-tale stat,” Auriemma said. “And all fairy tales – they don’t always come true – but everything has an end. So this ended here at Marquette.”

Marquette (16-8, 9-6 Big East) beat UConn (21-4, 13-1) for the first time in 17 meetings.

The Golden Eagles had led UConn early in the fourth quarter at home last season before fading down the stretch and losing 72-58.

This time, the Golden Eagles closed the deal, holding the Huskies to their lowest point total of the season.

“We came into a huddle and we were at the media timeout in the fourth quarter, and I was like, `We were here last year. I’m not watching film on how we lost in the last five minutes,’ ” King said. “You have to put 40 minutes of basketball together. For us, I felt we did that.”

Marquette coach Megan Duffy, who played at Notre Dame from 2002-06, became just the third person ever to beat an Auriemma-coached UConn team as both a player and a coach. The others are South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Villanova’s Denise Dillon.

“In some ways, I’m speechless,” Duffy said. “The next emotion is I’m just incredibly proud of these women and what they did tonight – a historic win for Marquette women’s basketball. We knew we were up against a buzzsaw with Connecticut losing on Sunday.”

Dorka Juhasz led UConn with 15 points. Aubrey Griffin and Lou Lopez Senechal added 12 points each.

After missing eight of its first nine shots, Marquette went on a 21-2 spurt over an eight-minute stretch to turn an 8-2 deficit into a 23-10 advantage. The Golden Eagles never trailed again, though UConn briefly tied the game in the third quarter.

King started the momentum shift by scoring 10 straight points on her own, including a pair of 3-pointers.

“I think that just completely and totally deflated us,” Auriemma said. “After the week that we’ve had – after the 10 days, two weeks, whatever – we just, I think mentally, all of us … I think we just checked out. It was a major struggle because they were so locked in, their team, in what they wanted to do.”

UConn tied the game at 31 on an Aaliyah Edwards basket with 6:10 left in the period. Marquette regained the lead 21 seconds later on Marotta’s 3-pointer and carried a 39-38 edge into the final quarter.

Marquette gradually built the lead in the final period and got ahead 51-44 on a Marotta jumper with 1:35 left. UConn made its last charge by cutting the margin to 51-47 on a Juhasz 3-pointer with 1:20 remaining.

After Marquette initially struggled to get the ball inbounds and had to call a timeout, the Golden Eagles beat the press and got the ball to Emily La Chapell for a layup with 1:15 remaining.

That started a 6-0 run that put the game out of reach.

“I said this to them in the locker room,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know if it was residue from Sunday, whether something in practice yesterday, something on the trip over, but there was a collective something different about today.”

BIG PICTURE

UConn: Even after the Huskies dug themselves such a deep hole in the first half, UConn had reason to believe it could put this game away by dominating the fourth quarter, just as it had in last season’s game at Marquette. It didn’t happen. Azzi Fudd, who scored 24 points and sparked that fourth-quarter surge in last season’s game at Marquette, hasn’t played since injuring her right knee Jan. 15 against Georgetown.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles are on the NCAA Tournament bubble, so this game was huge for their postseason hopes. Marquette now must make sure it doesn’t have any letdowns the rest of the season.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

UConn moved up a spot in the poll after losing a close game to South Carolina. The Huskies figure to fall out of the top five now.

HISTORIC LOSS

The Huskies had been 74-0 after losing games since they lost the consecutive games in 1993 to Providence in the Big East Tournament semifinals and Louisville in the NCAA Mideast Regional first-round game.

UP NEXT

UConn: At Georgetown on Saturday.

Marquette: At Providence on Feb. 15.

Gardner, Beekman lift No. 8 Virginia past No. 22 N.C. State

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Virginia coach Tony Bennett had a simple message for his team after a poor defensive performance in a loss at Virginia Tech.

“Talk is cheap. Do it. Show us, to our players, to us as a staff, show up, work in practice, step to between the lines and don’t lose yourself in anything but what your job is,” Bennett said he told his players and assistants in the two days of practice since the 74-68 loss.

The team clearly got the message.

Jayden Gardner scored 18 points, Reece Beekman added 15 and No. 8 Virginia cooled off red-hot No. 22 North Carolina State 63-50 on Tuesday night.

“We had a great two days before State, you know, preparation and just diving in,” Gardner said. “It’s just this is the time of the season we need to lock in and you know, we’re playing for something. … We’re trying to win a championship.”

The Cavaliers (18-4, 10-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) handed the Wolfpack (19-6, 9-5) their second loss in 10 games and moved into a share of first place in the conference with Clemson and Pittsburgh.

The Wolfpack arrived leading the ACC with an average of 79.6 points and were 19-2 when scoring at least 70, but became the 38th consecutive league opponent held below 70 points at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Obviously, as I watched the Virginia Tech game and knew that those guys dropped the game and, you know, any time you’re going to play a very good defensive team on their home floor, you know you’re going to get that energy,” North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts said.

Terquavion Smith led N.C. State with 19 points and Casey Morsell, who spent his first two seasons at Virginia and was jeered nearly every time he touched the ball in his first game back, had 18 points before fouling out in the final minute.

Jarkel Joiner, the Wolfpack’s No. 2 scorer at 16.2 points per game, missed 12 of his 14 shots and scored five points. D.J. Burns Jr. (eight points) was the only other Wolfpack player to score.

Reserve forward Kadin Shedrick, who did not play in Virginia’s loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday, had 10 points and six rebounds for the Cavaliers.

Virginia scored the first six points of the second half to open its largest lead at 40-20, but the Wolfpack began whittling away, fueled by a 12-6 burst in which Smith and Morsell each hit a pair of 3-pointers.

“In the past, we’ve been able to control the tempo and to get those guys to play a little bit faster and even turn them over,” said Keatts, whose team had won three of the last four meetings. “But we couldn’t.”

N.C. State twice closed within nine points but got no closer. Morsell’s 3 made it 55-46 with 3:46 to play, but Beekman made a free throw and then took a no-look pass from Kihei Clark for an easy backdoor layup.

Virginia closed the first half on an 8-2 run to lead 34-20 at the break. The Wolfpack missed 10 straight shots before Burns scored just before the half.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack got scoring from just three players – Smith with nine points, Morsell with seven and Burns with four – in the opening half. They shot 25.8% with Smith going 4 for 13 and Joiner 0 for 6. … Burns picked up his third personal foul less than a minute into the second half after getting the ball stolen by Beekman. He stayed in the game and drew his fourth foul on a drive by Clark with 16:03 left.

Virginia: Beekman started the game ranking first in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (3.0) and third in assists (5.1). He had four assists and one turnover. Clark started first in assists (6.0) and second in assist/turnover ratio (2.8). He had six assists and three turnovers.

UP NEXT

N.C. State: At Boston College on Saturday.

Virginia: Hosts Duke on Saturday.

Michigan St. rallies to win after giving up lead to Maryland

Maryland v Michigan State
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Joey Hauser scored 20 points and Tyson Walker had 17 and Michigan State rallied after scoring the game’s first 15 points to beat Maryland 63-58 on Tuesday.

A.J. Hoggard had 10 rebounds and eight assists for Michigan State.

Jahmir Young scored 17 points for Maryland, Hakim Hart 12, Julian Reese 11 and Donta Scott 10 for the Terrapins.

The Spartans (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) used an 8-0 run in which Walker made a layup and 3-pointer wrapped around a 3 from Jaden Akins for a 52-48 lead with 7:44 remaining and Michigan State led for the remainder.

The Terrapins erupted for a 12-0 run in less than three minutes in the second half turning a 38-26 deficit into a 38-all tie. Young and Hart posted back-to-back three-point plays, and Hart’s 3-pointer with 13:01 knotted it at 38. Prior to that 3, Hart was 3-for-last-27 shooting from beyond the arc. Maryland finished shooting 3 of 22 from distance.

Michigan State started the game with a 15-0 run and led 31-22 at halftime. Coming off an 81-46 win over Maryland (16-8, 7-6 Big Ten) on Saturday, the Terrapins have yet to win back-to-back contests in almost three years.

The Terrapins host Penn State on Saturday. Michigan State travels to play Ohio State on Sunday.