Mountain West Midseason Catchup: No. 24 Colorado State leads what will be an entertaining race

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J.J. Avila and the Rams are off to the best start in school history (Getty Images)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Mountain West.

MIDSEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: J.J. Avila, Colorado State

Avila (14.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.2 apg) currently leads CSU in points and rebounds and is second on the team in assists. He’s ranked in the top ten in the Mountain West in each of those categories while also shooting 54.8% from the field. There have been a lot of good performers in the conference thus far, but his all-around impact wins Avila this designation.

THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM

  • Avila
  • Derrick Marks, Boise State: Averaging 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, the senior guard is also shooting 52.3% from the field and 58.1% from beyond the arc.
  • Deshawn Delaney, New Mexico: Delaney (14.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) ranks in the top ten in both scoring and rebounding, and he’s also shooting nearly 54 percent from the field.
  • Christian Wood, UNLV: Vaughn may be the team’s leading scorer, but Wood (14.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.2 bpg) is the lone player in the Mountain West averaging a double-double.
  • Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming: The preseason pick to win league POY is averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the field.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Colorado State deserved more preseason respect than they received from many pundits. While some had a good idea of what Larry Eustachy’s transfer-laden group was capable of, they were picked to finish fifth in the preseason media poll (NBCSports.com picked them to finish second). Thus far it’s been thirteen up, thirteen down for the undefeated Rams who are off to the best start in school history. Seniors Daniel Bejarano and J.J. Avila have been good leaders for this group, and newcomers such as Gian Clavell, Stanton Kidd and John Gillon have contributed as well. The question now is whether or not this group can win the program’s first regular season conference title since 1990, and they’ve shown themselves capable of doing so in non-conference play.

2. San Diego State’s still searching for solutions offensively. While the focus of many has been the Aztecs’ struggles shooting the basketball, their issues on the offensive end of the floor begin with the caliber of shots they’re finding. Obviously accounting for the loss of Xavier Thames wasn’t going to be easy, but thus far the pick and roll game that was so successful last season hasn’t been as effective in 2014-15. What also hasn’t helped San Diego State are their health issues, with Dwayne Polee II now out of the lineup indefinitely and Aqeel Quinn, Matt Shrigley and Malik Pope all having missed time themselves (and Zylan Cheatham looking likely to redshirt). The good news for SDSU is that they still defend at a high level, and that will keep them in the Mountain West race.

3. Larry Nance Jr. is back to full strength for an entertaining Wyoming squad. Nance, who tore his ACL in mid-February, was the preseason pick to win Mountain West POY but there were questions as to whether or not he would hit the ground running for the Cowboys. Averaging 14.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game he’s been good and so have the Cowboys, who enter conference play with an 11-2 record. For too often people associate “entertaining” basketball with a high tempo, but Wyoming doesn’t run and with high-flyers Nance and Josh Adams they’re incredibly fun to watch. They’ve been more efficient on both ends of the floor than they were last season, and Wyoming also ranks fourth nationally in two-point field goal percentage (58.4%).

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. The growth of UNLV’s underclassmen. Freshman Rashad Vaughn and sophomore Christian Wood have played well for Dave Rice’s team, with Vaughn leading the Mountain West in scoring (18.1 ppg) and Wood (10.0) being the lone player in the league averaging double-digit rebounds per game. But they aren’t the only youngsters to keep an eye on in conference play, as freshmen Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish have also contributed. The growth of these players will determine just how well the Runnin’ Rebels finish in the Mountain West.

2. Anthony Drmic’s back and Derrick Marks’ production at Boise State. Drmic hasn’t played since Boise State’s win over Saint Mary’s on December 6 because of a back injury, but the Broncos are off to a 10-3 start thanks in large part to the play of Marks. Averaging 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, Marks is playing the most consistent (and efficient) basketball of his Boise State career. Both missed Boise State’s 48-45 loss to Loyola (IL) two days before Christmas, with Marks nursing a sprained ankle. When will Drmic return? And can he and Marks lead the way for a group expected to contend once back on the court?

UPDATE: Drmic will undergo season-ending surgery on his ankle according to Dave Southorn of the Idaho Statesman.

3. Will Cullen Neal be able to return for New Mexico? Neal suffered a badly sprained ankle during the Puerto Rico Tipoff in mid-November and hasn’t played since, with head coach Craig Neal (also his father for those who somehow didn’t know) stating that a medical redshirt was possible. Neal’s injury was one of many for the Lobos during non-conference play, but despite those personnel issues they went 8-4 thanks in large part to improved play on the defensive end. If Neal can’t return Hugh Greenwood, who was supposed to spend the majority of his time off the ball this season, runs the show and fellow senior Deshawn Delaney will need to continue to score as he has for most of non-conference play.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Colorado State will win the Mountain West. For as well as the Rams have played offensively, with the newcomers giving Avila and Bejarano the consistent help they didn’t have last season, there’s still room for growth defensively. Look for the Rams to get the job done and win their first regular season conference title in 25 years.

2. Utah State manages to finish .500 (or better) in league play. With Fresno State performing as they have (and Cezar Guerrero proving to be even more valuable than imagined in his absence), there’s room for a team picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference to make a run at a 9-9 (or better) league record. Give me the Aggies, with Jalen Moore (15.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) being the Mountain West’s most improved player and freshman David Collette (58.8% FG) averaging 14.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

3. The Mountain West gets three NCAA tournament bids. Colorado State and, offensive struggles aside, San Diego State should hear their names called Selection Sunday. But who else gets in? Boise State, UNLV and Wyoming will all look to strengthen their respective cases in the next two-plus months, and it may come down to which team performs best in the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

POSTSEASON

  • NCAA: Colorado State, San Diego State, Wyoming
  • NIT: UNLV, New Mexico
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Boise State, Utah State, Air Force, Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State (Spartans are ineligible for postseason play)

Kansas transfer Grimes receives waiver, eligible immediately at Houston

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Maybe we now know why Houston was picked to win the AAC over Memphis.

On Tuesday, news broke that Quentin Grimes had won his appeal and received a waiver to gain immediate eligibility this season. Grimes was a top ten prospect in the Class of 2018, but after going for 21 points in the season opening Champions Classic, he struggled. In 36 games, Grimes averaged just 8.4 points and 2.0 assists while failing to prove himself a lead guard and struggling with consistency as a shooter.

Part of the reason why Grimes eventually was ruled eligible for this season was that Kansas did not have a scholarship available for him. The Jayhawks supported his eligibility throughout the process.

Grimes will get a chance at starting over with Houston, where Kelvin Sampson has proven to be exceptional at getting the most out of his backcourt. He’ll join DeJon Jarreau, one of this year’s breakout stars, and Nate Hinton in Houston’s perimeter.

With Grimes in the mix, Houston has the making of a top 20 team.

Grimes released the following statement on twitter:

Michigan State’s Langford out until January with ankle injury

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The joy of being named the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll lasted for a matter of hours for Michigan State.

Because that’s when the Spartans found out that Joshua Langford, who missed the second half of last season, would be out for another three months after suffering a setback in his attempt to return from that ankle injury.

“It breaks my heart,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters on Tuesday. “I love Josh Langford. He’s given me everything on the court, off the court, in the classroom.”

Langford started the first 13 games last season before the ankle injury kept him out, but he was cleared to practice in full in September. But Izzo said on Tuesday that Langford’s ankle had limited him of late and that he did not play when the Spartans scrimmaged Gonzaga in Denver on Saturday.

College Basketball’s Breakout Stars: Who will be this year’s most improved players?

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One of my favorite things to do heading into a season is to put together a list of the season’s Breakout Stars. 

Sometimes, the picks are just too obvious – think De’Andre Hunter, or P.J. Washington, or Nickeil Alexander-Walker. 

Sometimes, those obvious picks just don’t pan out – like Herb Jones, or M.J. Walker, or Cane Broome.

Sometimes, a guy needs to be on the list for a couple years before he actually reaches said breakout – hi Jermaine Samuels!

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not, beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here are the 17 players that will be household names by the end of the year:



JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova

There’s an argument to make that Samuels’ breakout already happened.

It happened on February 28th of last season. Samuels popped off for a career-high 29 points, hitting five threes, as Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak by knocking off Marquette at home. During that three-game losing streak, Samuels had gone scoreless while attempting just two shots. Over the final seven games of the season, he averaged 11.0 points, cracked double-figures five times and helped lead the Wildcats to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six years.

And now the Wildcats are entering a season without Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to carry the offense while Bryan Antoine, their five-star freshman guard, is out with a shoulder injury. Someone needs to provide Villanova with some scoring. Samuels is a former top 40 recruit that picked Villanova over Duke and Kansas, that has proven the ability to put up big numbers and is a perfect fit for what Villanova’s offense has been over the course of the last half-decade. He’s a junior now. This is the year that players make the leap on the Main Line, and I’ll be ready for it.

ANDREW NEMBHARD, Florida

Everyone wants to talk about Kerry Blackshear and what his arrival will mean for Florida. What people seem to be forgetting is that Andrew Nembhard is a former five-star recruits that averaged 8.0 points and 5.4 assists as a freshman for the Gators and will be helping to fill the “role” vacated by uber-inefficient gunners Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen. I think Blackshear ends up being the best player on the Gators this season, but Nembhard may end up being their MVP and their leader. On a team that projects to finish in the top ten and contend for SEC titles and the Final Four, that’s going to put him in the All-American conversation. That, to me, counts as a breakout star.

TRE JONES, Duke

This all hinges on what Jones becomes as a shooter this season. We’ve talked about this ad nauseum. I put together an entire video about it. Jones may just be the most influential player in all of college basketball this season.

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

I’m torn about having Haliburton on this list because I’m not exactly sure how much better he can play than he did over the first three months of last season. That said, Iowa State is going to be one of the better teams in the Big 12 this season, and after a terrific performance playing for Team USA in the U-19 World Cup, Haliburton returns to Ames to play for an Iowa State team that lost pretty much everyone in front of him in the offensive pecking order.

The thing to note here is that I am not expecting Haliburton to suddenly become a guy that averages 18 points. That’s not who he is or how he plays. But I do think that there is a chance that he puts up a stat line that is somewhere around 12 points, six boards, six assists and two steals while shooting better than 40 percent from three. Put another way, we’re going to know that he is a star without having to look at the counting numbers to confirm it.

JAY HUFF, Virginia

We have talked plenty about Jay Huff and Virginia’s big guys in this space, but I think that he is in line for a massive jump this season. On the one hand, he’s actually going to be playing. Huff was in the same recruiting class as Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. He redshirted his first year in Charlottesville, he played just twelve games as a freshman and managed to see the floor for roughly 10 minutes a night last year. With so much of Virginia’s frontcourt depth gone, he is going to be getting 30-35 minutes a night this year.

But as we talked about in the video below, it’s not just the added minutes that changes things. It’s how good Huff is as the big guy in ball-screen actions and the fact that Virginia ran a more ball-screen heavy offense last season. Huff is a 7-foot-1 rim-running, lob-catching, shot-blocking menace that also shoots threes at a 45 percent clip while being able to put the ball on the floor. He’s going to have a massive year.

ISAIAH LIVERS, Michigan

With Iggy Brazdeikis gone after his one-and-done season, Livers is going to be the guy that steps up for the Wolverines. A hyper-athletic, 6-foot-7 combo-forward, Livers is a good, versatile defensive weapon that shot 42.6 percent from three last year. Someone is going to have to step up and fill the scoring void that has been vacated by the departures, and Livers seems to be the obvious fit. I would not be shocked to see Livers showing up in NBA mock drafts at some point during this season.

DEJON JARREAU, Houston

This one is simple, really. Jarreau played just 18 minutes per game last season and still managed to put up 8.7 points and 3.3 assists despite sharing the backcourt with the likes of Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson. This year, those three are gone, which means that Jarreau is going to be the guy that the offense runs through. I think that he is up for the task, and considering Kelvin Sampson’s track record of finding a way to figure things out with his lead guards, all the dots connect.

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Matt Painter has been as good as anyone in the country at finding ways to get his best players into positions where they can succeed, and I think that this year is the year that he figures out how to take advantage of the things that Eastern does well. He’s a skilled passer that has terrific size at the point and has proven the ability to take smaller guards into the post. I think that Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams are candidates for this list as well, but I tend to lean towards the veterans when it comes to Painter working his magic.

OCHAI AGBAJI, Kansas

This pick is not actually as easy as it may seem, and that’s because Agbaji’s emergence last season came after Udoka Azubuike went down with his wrist injury. So while Kansas is losing Dedric Lawson, among other, Azubuike is coming back and is going to demand a very large market share of the Jayhawks offense. Throw in Devon Dotson’s continued development, and the added opportunities for Agbaji may not be there. That said, I think that he is clearly the most talented perimeter player on the Jayhawks roster this season, and given his size, athleticism and ability from the perimeter, I think there is a real chance that he ends up playing major minutes as the four in this Kansas system.

Put another way, he’s definitely going to be better than he was when his redshirt was pulled midway through his first season in Lawrence, and he is definitely going to be a useful weapon for Bill Self, I just don’t see him emerging as a guy that scores 15 points per game.

COREY KISPERT and FILIP PETRUSEV, Gonzaga

These decisions somewhat hinge on whether or not Killian Tillie is back and fully healthy this season. If he is, then I think that Kispert is the guy that takes the biggest step forward for the Zags. He’s an underrated talent that has been hidden by the likes of Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura, but he’s a guy that has the potential to be an all-WCC performer if given the opportunity. If Tillie ends up being banged up all season long, than Petrusev is the obvious pick. He’s a really talented big that will carry even more of the load without Tillie’s presence.

REGGIE PERRY, Mississippi State

After getting off to a relatively slow start to his freshman season, Perry was absolutely dominant for long stretches of SEC play. He averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 boards during conference play, posting eight double-doubles. After an offseason to develop, he should end up being the focal point of Ben Howland’s offense as a sophomore.

KIRA LEWIS, Alabama

The way that Nate Oats played at Buffalo, he gave his lead guards quite a bit of responsibility. Lewis is going to be his lead guard this season. As a 17-year old in the SEC, he averaged 13.5 points and 2.9 assists. He’s heading into his sophomore season at the same age as the kids in the Class of 2019 heading into their freshmen year.

JOE WIESKAMP, Iowa

As a freshman, Wieskamp was one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, averaging 11.1 points and shooting 42.4 percent from three. Then Iowa lost Tyler Cook to the draft and lost Isaiah Moss to transfer and look like they may have lost Jordan Bohannon for the season. Someone is going to have to score, and Wieskamp is certainly capable of that.

OSUN OSUNNIYI, St. Bonaventure

Osunniyi was one of the best defensive players in all of college basketball last season, averaging 2.7 blocks to go along with his 7.5 points and 7.6 boards. With three of the Bonnies’ top four scorers graduating, he is going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season.

NATE REUVERS, Wisconsin

There is always someone waiting in the wings in Wisconsin’s frontcourt, and this year it is Nate Reuvers. As a sophomore, playing on a team that ran their offense through Ethan Happ, Reuvers averaged 7.9 points, 3.9 boards and 1.8 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from three. If the Badgers are going to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Reuvers to have a monster junior season.

JALEN HILL, UCLA

Hill is a bit of a reach, but someone is going to have to step up and be Mick Cronin’s frontcourt anchor, and Hill makes sense. He’s long and athletic, he can rebound and he can block shots, he can do all of the things that Cronin got out of his big men for the last 13 years in Cincinnati. There is more talent in Westwood than people realize. Hill is the perfect example of that.

Michigan’s Franz Wagner out 4-6 weeks with fractured wrist

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan freshman Franz Wagner is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured right wrist.

The school said Monday a full recovery is anticipated. The 6-foot-8 Wagner is the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moe Wagner. He’s expected to be a key newcomer in the basketball team’s first season under new coach Juwan Howard.

The Wolverines open Nov. 5 against Appalachian State. They face Creighton on Nov. 12 and Louisville on Dec. 3, and play in a tournament in the Bahamas in late November. Those are all games Wagner could conceivably miss if he ends up on the long end of his recovery timeline.

Michigan opens Big Ten play Dec. 6 against Iowa.

Kansas-Missouri hoops series to resume next season in KC

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Border War is returning to college basketball.

The acrimonious rivalry between Kansas and Missouri, once the longest continually played series west of the Mississippi River, will resume next season in Kansas City. The schools have agreed to play six times, with four of those matchups taking place on their respective campuses.

“Having coached a lot of games versus Missouri in my time in Kansas, I could not be more excited to start this series up again,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who had been among the biggest reasons the teams never played, said in a statement announcing the series Monday night.

The series began in 1907 with a pair of wins by Missouri in Lawrence. The schools went on to play 269 times over 105 years. The last meeting was on Feb. 25, 2012, when the No. 4 Jayhawks rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit to beat the No. 3 Tigers in overtime at Allen Fieldhouse.

The reason the series ended can be traced to Missouri’s decision to depart its longtime home in the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. During a period of chaotic conference realignment, the Tigers moved to what they considered a more lucrative league — even though it made far less geographic sense — and in doing so left the Big 12 scrambling for its very survival.

Many coaches and administrators at Kansas not only took umbrage with their decision but held a grudge for years. Among them was Self, who was asked periodically over the years if he could envision playing the Tigers again, and was usually steadfast in his refusal to schedule them.

Tensions finally cooled enough that on Oct. 22, 2017, the schools agreed to play an exhibition game in Kansas City dubbed “The Showdown for Relief” to raise money for hurricane relief efforts.

Kansas won 93-87 in their first meeting in five years.

The thousands of fans who turned up for the game, coupled with the buzz it generated on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border, piqued the interest of new Kansas athletic director Jeff Long. He was not part of the conference realignment mess and harbored no ill will toward Missouri, making him the ideal figure to help patch up relationships and ultimately resume the rivalry.

“One of the best aspects of college athletics is rivalries,” Long said. “We have quietly sought input from fans and supporters on the renewal of this series and we believe the overriding sentiments are that this historic rivalry should resume.”

After the initial game scheduled for Dec. 12, 2020, at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, the schools will alternate between Allen Fieldhouse and Mizzou Arena for the next four games. The final scheduled matchup will return to Sprint Center, though it’s possible the series continues.

It’s also possible that the basketball matchups are just the beginning.

“Hopefully, this renewal on the hardwood will lead to more opportunities down the road in other sports,” Tigers athletic director Jim Sterk said. “Rivalries make college sports great, and there is no question that when Missouri and Kansas face off in any sport, it’s important to a lot of people.”