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Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The Mountain West certainly had an interesting regular season. UNLV, expected to be a factor both within the league and nationally, took a nosedive early in conference play and arrives at the conference tournament (in their building, no less) with an undermanned rotation and an interim head coach. Fresno State and Boise State managed to finish second and third in the league, but a familiar face separated itself as the class of the Mountain West: San Diego State. The Aztecs still have their issues offensively, but Jeremy Hemsley has been one of the Mountain West’s best freshmen and they’ve got a veteran group that remains fully committed on the defensive end of the floor.

Steve Fisher’s team won the conference by three games, and they’ll be expected to handle their business in Las Vegas as well. But given how eventful this season has been for the Mountain West, with everything from blown calls that decided games (New Mexico/San Diego State and Boise State/Colorado State) to the conference presidents not telling the coaches of their decision to trim the field to eight teams beginning next season, this could end up being a basketball version of a Hunter S. Thompson book.

The Bracket 

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When: March 9-12

Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas

Final: March 12, 6:00 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: San Diego State

Having played in six of the last seven Mountain West tournament title games (winning in 2010 and 2011), the Aztecs are used to having success in Las Vegas. That being said, the fact that the program hasn’t won the event since 2011 should serve as extra motivation this week.

San Diego State can still have the occasional lull offensively, as they ranked fifth in the Mountain West (conference games only) in field goal percentage (42.9 percent) and seventh in three-point percentage (32.8), but they have players who can make plays on that end of the floor. Jeremy Hemsley runs the show, fellow guard Trey Kell averaged 16.2 points per game in league play and Winston Shepard dished out 3.3 assists per game from the wing. But what makes this team go is their defense, as they led the Mountain West in both field goal and three-point percentage defense.

And if they lose?: Fresno State

Rodney Terry’s Bulldogs finished second in the Mountain West this season, with one of the conference’s best players in senior guard Marvelle Harris leading the way. In total Fresno State has seven players averaging at least 7.9 points per game, and they take better care of the basketball than any other team in the conference. The Bulldogs arrive in Vegas playing their best basketball of the season too, as they won six straight and eight of their last nine to end the regular season. Rebounding is a concern, especially with leading rebounder Torren Jones having missed the last ten games, but with Harris leading the way the Bulldogs have a shot.

Other Contenders:

  • Boise State: James Webb III’s health will be key here. If he’s in good physical condition the Broncos can win the whole thing, with Mikey Thompson, Anthony Drmic and Nick Duncan among the veterans capable of putting points on the board.
  • New Mexico: The Lobos have struggled with turnover issues throughout conference play. But in guard Elijah Brown and forward Tim Williams they have one of the better tandems in the Mountain West.

Sleeper: Nevada

First-year head coach Eric Musselman’s done a very good job with this group, which includes one of the best freshmen in the Mountain West in forward Cameron Oliver. The Wolf Pack won ten conference games, even with the departure of A.J. West early in the season. What complicates this choice is the health of Marqueze Coleman, and a tough matchup with New Mexico in the quarterfinals.

The Bubble Dwellers

  • San Diego State: Virtually any scenario involving the Aztecs as an at-large team includes their making Saturday’s title game. They’ll need to win two games in Las Vegas to have a shot given the non-conference schedule, which includes losses to San Diego (bad), Little Rock and Grand Canyon (both good teams, but Little Rock isn’t a bubble team either; GCU’s a provisional Division I member). Their best bet: remove all doubt and win the automatic bid.

Mountain West Player of the Year: Josh Adams, Wyoming

Fresno State’s Marvelle Harris certainly has a good argument here, given his individual excellence and the fact that he led his team to 13 conference wins. But the pick here is Adams because of how productive he was despite playing with a young supporting cast that virtually guaranteed that defenses were geared towards shutting him down. The senior still averaged 23.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game in Mountain West play. He also ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, steals and assist-to-turnover ratio.

Mountain West Coach of the Year: Steve Fisher, San Diego State

Fisher’s Aztecs were the class of the Mountain West by a wide margin, winning the conference by three games. When a team wins the conference by a comfortable margin, as was the case here, the head coach deserves to be rewarded. San Diego State’s defense grabbed the headlines, but they were also able to do enough offensively to separate themselves from the pack.

First-Team All-Mountain West:

  • Josh Adams, Wyoming (POY)
  • Marvelle Harris, Fresno State: Harris averaged 22.7 points and 4.5 assists per game in Mountain West play, ranking third in scoring and first in assists while also leading the conference in steals (2.6 per game).
  • Elijah Brown, New Mexico: Brown finished second in the conference behind Adams in scoring (22.9 ppg in conference play), and he was also ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage, assists, free throw percentage and three-point percentage.
  • Trey Kell, San Diego State: The champs deserve to have someone on the first team, and while Shepard could have an argument because of his versatility the pick here is Kell. He gave SDSU a much-needed offensive spark in league play.
  • James Webb III, Boise State: The preseason pick for Mountain West POY, Webb averaged 16.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game in conference play.

Second Team All-Mountain West:

  • Marqueze Coleman, Nevada
  • Patrick McCaw, UNLV
  • Antwan Scott, Colorado State
  • Winston Shepard, San Diego State
  • Tim Williams, New Mexico

Defining moment of the season: Boise State ends “The Streak”

CBT Prediction: San Diego State takes care of business, winning the automatic bid and earning a seventh straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

Mountain West tournaments to remain at Thomas & Mack through 2019

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Friday afternoon the Mountain West Conference announced that it would continue to hold its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas through 2019. The Thomas & Mack Center, which is also UNLV’s home building, has hosted the event every year since 2007 and the new deal comes as no surprise.

What is interesting about the announcement is the change to the Mountain West tournament bracket beginning with the 2017 edition. Both the men’s and women’s tournaments will be eight-team affairs, meaning that the bottom three teams in the league standings will remain home.

“The decision by the Board to feature the top eight men’s and women’s teams in the MW Basketball Championships is consistent with a broader Mountain West Conference initiative emphasizing performance-based competitive excellence,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said in the release.

“Similar approaches are being implemented in other MW championships based upon the best interests of those particular sports. This most recent action will increase the importance of our regular-season basketball competition and is a vehicle to enhance the overall success of our basketball enterprise.”

In recent years the Mountain West has been joined in Las Vegas by the WCC (played the week prior), Pac-12 and WAC in Las Vegas for conference tournament action. The WCC and WAC use the Orleans Arena for their respective conference tournaments, with the Pac-12 tournament being played at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

With the Las Vegas Arena (expected to seat 20,000 people) due to open this spring, there will be another facility for conferences to look into if they so choose.

Report: Air Force superintendent orders investigation into athletic department

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Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson has called for an investigation into the academy’s athletic department, after the Colorado Springs Gazette inquired about misconduct from student-athletes on several different teams.

On Sunday morning, Tim Roeder of the Gazette published a detailed report following the publication’s investigation into the athletic department. The investigation found cases of sexual assault, drug use and academic fraud.

Roeder documented a wild, off-campus party where “cadet athletes used spice, a synthetic marijuana, and allegedly engaged in gang rape,” following the football team’s 45-21 win over Colorado State on Dec. 2, 2011. An investigation shortly after that night resulted in 32 cadets being questioned, three of whom were basketball players.

While the report focuses mainly on the football program, The Gazette also uncovered academic issues regarding the basketball program. Roeder reported that two star basketball players took special course by an economics professor, who taught the class around the team’s practice and game schedules.

[Dave] Mullin said he gave in to the request by his boss in 2005 and taught the course to the smallest class he’d seen – center Nick Welch and guard Antoine Hood, who had led the team to the 2004 NCAA Tournament, where they were knocked out in the first round.

Johnson called for a Inspector General’s investigation into Air Force’s athletics department late this week.

“These efforts will help in eliminating subcultures whose climates do not align with our institutional core values,” she told the Gazette through a statement. “Despite all of our efforts, I expect we’ll still have issues with a few young people who will make poor choices.”

The full investigative report can be read here.

Former Air Force great Nick Welch joins Dave Pilipovich’s coaching staff

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Capt. Nick Welch played an important role in Air Force’s most successful run of basketball in the Mountain West, helping to lead the Falcons to a share of a regular season conference title in 2004 and winning Mountain West Co-Player of the Year honors. During Welch’s four seasons on the court for Air Force, the Falcons won 78 games and made appearances in both the NCAA tournament and the NIT.

On Friday it was announced that Welch will return to Colorado Springs, as he’s been assigned as an assistant to head coach Dave Pilipovich’s staff.

“We are thrilled that Nick is rejoining the Air Force basketball program,” said Pilipovich in the release announcing the move. “To have a player and officer of his caliber come back and work with our players will be a great benefit to our team as well as the athletic department.”

Since graduating from the Academy in 2007 Welch has worked on Air Force bases in Louisiana and California.

Welch joins the Falcon coaching staff after spending four years at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana as an aircraft maintenance officer and two at Los Angeles Air Force Base as an acquisition program manager for IIF GPS Satellites since his graduation from the Academy in 2007.

His resume doesn’t have the look that one would expect for a college basketball coach, but that isn’t a problem here.

Why? The service academy experience for a student-athlete isn’t similar to what a student athlete at a “conventional” college would have to navigate, and Welch’s past experiences as an athlete at the school will help current players (especially the freshmen) get acclimated to service academy life.

Will Welch’s return help Pilipovich return the Falcons to the status they enjoyed during the mid-2000s? That remains to be seen, with the Mountain West being a much stronger league now (adding Utah State gave the league another boost in competition) than it was when Welch was a player. But it certainly can’t hurt given his past experiences.

Raphielle can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Report: Air Force to give Dave Pilipovich a five-year extension

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Following a 18-14 season in 2012-2013, Air Force Academy head coach Dave Pilipovich will receive a five-year extension. It is expected to be officially announced sometime this week.

Dan Wolken of USA Today was the first to report this news, receiving information from someone with knowledge of the situation, though requested anonymity. Jeff Goodman of ESPN later reported the news after confirming it with a source.

Pilipovich took over the program in February 2012 under a interim basis after Jeff Reynolds was relieved of his duties. Less than a month later, Pilipovich the interim label was removed. He had served as an assistant coach for five years before the start of his first full season as head coach this past fall.

The Falcons finished 8-8 in the Mountain West Conference, which was good for sixth place, trailing five NCAA tournament teams. Pilipovich was able to lead Air Force to wins over Boise State, San Diego State (ranked 22nd at the time), UNLV and New Mexico — ranked 12th at the time) during the his first full season. He also got Air Force into a postseason tournament, making it to the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

Terrence is also the lead writer at NEHoopNews.com and can be followed on Twitter: @terrence_payne

Air Force guard Michael Lyons injured in loss to UNLV

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Once leading scorer Michael Lyons went down in the early minutes of Air Force’s game Wednesday against UNLV, there wasn’t much the Falcons could do. Lyons injured his knee less than two minutes into the game after turning the ball over, falling to the ground and not getting up for the remainder of the play.

Without Lyons in the lineup, Air Force lost his 18.3 points per game and was unable to contain the Anthony Bennett-led UNLV offense in a 72-56 loss at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev.

Air Force sports information director Jerry Cross said Lyons had sprained his knee, as reported by SI.com, which kept him out for the game.

The loss officially seals Air Force out of the NCAA tournament, but they will likely make an appearance in the NIT. According to Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com, it is possible that Lyons tore his meniscus, an injury that would keep him sidelined for any sort of postseason play if the injury is ultimately shown to be that severe.

If he is out for the rest of the season, the Falcons would be left with a massive offensive hole that would be difficult to fill. No other player on the team averages double figures in scoring and without Lyons in the lineup for the most part Wednesday, Air Force mustered just 53 points. That was well off its season average of 71 points per game.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_