2014 Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview

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Updated: 3/10 9:23 am

(SportsNetwork.com) - Following up a thrilling game between New Mexico and San Diego State on Saturday night, which decided the regular-season champion and the top seed in the 15th annual Mountain West Conference Tournament, will be a challenge for sure but there is still quality basketball to be found at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas this week.

Schedulers had it right when they pitted a pair of nationally-ranked programs, UNM and SDSU, in the final game of the regular season on Saturday night as the 10th-ranked Aztecs came all the way back from a 16-point deficit in the second half to take down the 21st-ranked Lobos, 51-48. For San Diego State, a team which had won 20 in a row earlier in the campaign, it earned the squad a split of the series with New Mexico and also served to provide the group with the top spot in the standings.

As a result San Diego State, which owns the most MWC Tournament titles with four, earns a bye through the opening round of the tourney this year, as do New Mexico, Nevada, UNLV and Wyoming.

Action in this year's tournament begins on Wednesday with the first game featuring the ninth-seeded Colorado State Rams and the eighth-seeded Utah State Aggies, the winner there getting the Aztecs on Thursday.

The Rams (16-15, 7-11) were a tough bunch to get a read on this season as they finished just a game over .500 and were four games under in league action. The program has four players start all 31 games, with J.J. Avila being the leader in the scoring department when it was all said and done with 16.8 ppg, although Daniel Bejarano accounted for 16.7 ppg and it should be pointed out that in one game Bejarano played only a handful of minutes before heading to the bench due to his lack of enthusiasm.

Avila, who also led the group with 109 assists, was second on the glass with 7.5 rpg, while Bejarano contributed another 99 dishes and 8.4 rpg. The latter also knocked down a team-best 61 3-pointers, but that didn't exactly make up for the fact that he shot only 37.4 percent from the floor overall. As a unit, CSU posted 73.5 ppg, but in allowing opponents to connect on 36.8 percent beyond the arc, the highest in the league, the Rams lowered their scoring advantage to just 3.9 ppg.

As for the Aggies (17-13, 7-11), a team which swept CSU during the regular season, they got off on the right foot in 2013-14 with five straight wins and victories in 10 of the first 12 outings, but their consistency was questioned over the final couple of months as they came in under .500 in conference play. One of the most successful teams in college basketball over the last decade, USU managed to lead the league in 3-point shooting at 40.7 percent, but even that level of accuracy didn't always translate into wins.

Spencer Butterfield (13.3 ppg) and Preston Medlin (12.6 ppg) both connected on 67 shots from 3-point range, the former also finding opportunities to clear 6.2 rpg, while the latter handed out a team-best 125 assists. Jarred Shaw, who missed a handful of games due to suspension, finished as the top scorer in terms of average with 14.4 ppg and was also first with 8.5 rpg, but for someone who handles the ball as much as he does, even by accident Shaw should be averaging at least one assist per contest..

The second game of the opening round has the 10th-seeded Air Force Falcons tangling with the seventh-seeded Fresno State Bulldogs, the winner there be rewarded with a meeting against second-seeded New Mexico in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

The Falcons (12-17, 6-12), who missed having forward Kyle Broekhuis for the entire campaign, had a few surprise wins in conference against Utah State and UNLV early on, and then defeated Boise State in overtime in the regular-season finale on Saturday. Unfortunately for the Academy, it had a scoring margin of minus-3.2 ppg which was second-worst in the conference, ahead of only San Jose State (-8.4 ppg), so the Falcons were often fighting an uphill battle.

Tre' Coggins was responsible for a team-best 15.9 ppg for the Falcons, connecting on a team-high 69 3-pointers, but one has to wonder what his numbers would have looked like had he not been suspended for disciplinary issues during one brief stretch. Helping to shoulder some of the offensive load for Air Force was Max Yon with his 12.9 ppg, handing out a team-high 75 assists along the way. Providing the program with some punch along the front line, a rarity for several years, were Marek Olesinski (10.7 ppg) and Kamryn Williams (10.3 ppg) as they combined to clear more than 11 rebounds per contest.

Unfortunately, history is not on the side of the Falcons who have won just two games in 16 opportunities in this tournament all-time.

As for the Bulldogs (16-15, 9-9), one of several teams to have defected from the Western Athletic Conference to join the MWC recently, they appeared to be a lost cause for about six weeks in December/January when they won just two of 12 decisions, one of those victories coming against Air Force. But after dropping back-to-back overtime affairs versus Nevada and UNLV in late January, the squad turned the corner and closed with eight wins in 10 attempts.

Fresno State turned into one of the better offensive teams in the league seemingly overnight, finishing with an average of 73.6 ppg. Tyler Johnson led the way with 16.4 ppg, shooting 43.0 percent behind the 3-point line, not to mention leading the way on the glass (7.4 rpg) and coming in second with 85 assists. Marvelle Harris (15.1 ppg) also gave a strong effort on the glass with 5.6 rpg, but in the end the Bulldogs ranked last in the MWC with 37.0 rpg allowed.

Directing the FSU offense was Cezar Guerrero (13.2 ppg) with his 116 dishes, while Paul Watson (10.0 ppg) and Alex Davis tried to provide some support in the paint, but between the two they fouled out of 14 games.

All 11 member institutions were extended invitations to the tournament, although San Jose State has to wonder if it truly deserves to be in the Silver State this week. The 11th-seeded Spartans (7-23, 1-17), who will take on sixth-seeded Boise State (19-12, 9-9), won just a single game since the start of 2014, taking down Nevada by a 66-64 score in Reno back on Feb. 18. Of the program's seven total victories, two were lodged against Westminster and Pacifica in back-to-back efforts in late December.

It should not come as a surprise that the Spartans were the lowest-scoring team in the MWC with only 62.9 ppg, shooting a dismal 37.8 percent from the floor, when you consider the leading scorer for the program was reserve Rashad Muhammad (13.2 ppg). The only other double-digit scorer for the squad was Jaleel Williams (10.9 ppg), also one of the better rebounders for the floundering group with his 5.8 rpg. However, the knock against Williams was his 64.9 percent effort at the free-throw line where the Spartans were outscored by 102 points this season.

Boise State's demotion to first-day action is quite a shock given that the team was one of the top scoring programs in the nation early on and still finished tops in the conference with 76.3 ppg. Of all the teams in the MWC, the Broncos are probably the one that could use an extra day to rest after playing a pair of overtime games to close out the regular season, both defeats against Nevada and Air Force.

During their lone matchup this season, BSU crushed the Spartans at home by a 76-55 score, which at the time appeared to be par for the course for the Broncos, but the team simply could not translate that dominance to all other matchups in the MWC. The fact that the Broncos had a different leading scorer in each of the last four games doesn't really scream consistency on offense either.

Overall, Anthony Drmic accounted for 16.7 ppg, followed by Derrick Marks and his 14.6 ppg, to go along with a team-high 83 assists and 48 steals. However, while Drmic managed to connect on 61 3-pointers at a 36.1 percent clip, Marks wallowed at a mere 29.3 percent (17-of-58), which meant there were plenty of rebounds to be had for Ryan Watkins (11.9 ppg) who was one of a handful of performers this season to finish averaging a double-double, thanks to a team- best 10.9 rpg.

The good news for the survivor of the SJSU/BSU meeting is that the following day offers a matchup against third-seeded Nevada, the one team that the Spartans managed to defeat this season in conference play.

The Wolf Pack (15-16, 10-8) stumbled out of the block in November, losing to Pacific and then posting a non-conference mark of just 5-8. Luckily, Nevada was able to right the ship and close with two straight wins and three victories in the last four outings, with one of those triumphs being a double- overtime thriller against the Broncos (83-81) on the road last week.

It is not difficult to find the leader on the Wolf Pack this season, with Deonte Burton being a starter in every single game in which he has ever suited up for the program. While there were a few games in which he failed to show up from an offensive standpoint, he was the star in the spotlight more often than not with his 20.0 ppg. Of his 621 points through 31 games, 155 came at the free-throw line, accounting for roughly one-third of the school's scoring at the charity stripe. Burton also finished with team highs of 139 assists and 45 steals, not to mention 4.4 rpg.

Playing the loyal sidekick to Burton was Jerry Evans Jr. with his 12.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg, but for someone who was on the floor for close to 1,000 total minutes, logging just 19 assists was rather disappointing. Providing added offensive punch were Cole Huff and Michael Perez with 12.3 and 11.7 ppg, respectively. while AJ West also showed moments of strong play down the stretch for the Pack.

Although they finished fifth in the league standings, the Wyoming Cowboys were also given a free pass to the quarterfinals on Thursday where they will contend with host UNLV. The Pokes have lost twice as many games as they have won in this event over the years (7-14), while the Runnin' Rebels have the most wins of any program (23) and are tied with New Mexico for the second-most titles (three).

The Cowboys (18-13, 9-9) showed a lot of promise coming out of the chute this season, winning seven of the first nine decisions, losing only to Colorado and Ohio State on the road, but down the stretch they began to fall off the pace, mainly due to the fact that leading scorer and rebounder Larry Nance Jr. (15.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg) was lost to injury. With Nance Jr. and his team-best 55 blocked shots and 37 steals erased from the equation, the Pokes find themselves leaning more and more on Josh Adams (12.5 ppg) and Riley Grabau (10.7 ppg). Grabau paced the group with his 43.6 percent effort beyond the arc as they knocked down a collective 35.8 percent out on the perimeter.

Also giving the Pokes a lift in recent weeks was Nathan Sobey (9.5 ppg), a 26.7 percent shooter from distance who dropped in 33 points in the regular- season finale versus Colorado State on Saturday. Unfortunately, even with that late burst by Sobey, Wyoming still ranked next-to-last in scoring with just 65.2 ppg. Luckily the defense picked up the slack by allowing only 61.5 ppg, but much of that had to do with the presence of Nance Jr. in the paint.

Enjoying the spoils of playing this tournament at home in front of a favorable and energetic crowd, the Runnin' Rebels (19-12, 10-8) are rarely to be counted out, but this might be one of those years where little is expected of the program given recent developments.

One of the nation's top rebounders and the third-leading scorer on UNLV, Roscoe Smith (11.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg) has missed time recently due to a concussion and he is still listed as questionable for the tournament opener as of Sunday night. That was an issue that had been known for some time, but now comes word that leading scorer and assist man Bryce Dejean-Jones (13.4 ppg, 87 dishes) has been suspended for disciplinary reasons. Taking Dejean-Jones out of the mix is a huge blow for the Rebels because he was the one who ran the offense. Granted, Deville Smith (9.3 ppg, 84 assists) could fill the void to a degree, but it still won't be the same.

Perhaps the only real constant for UNLV is Khem Birch who has established himself as a beast in the paint. Like Roscoe Smith, Birch also averaged a double-double with 11.8 ppg and 10.1 rpg, but the big man brought another critical element to his game in the form of aggressive shot-blocking. Of the 205 rejections logged by the Runnin' Rebels, 118 were produced by Birch, ranking him among the nation's best in that department.

While there could be an upset anywhere along the line in this tournament, the championship game on Saturday seems destined to involve New Mexico and San Diego State. The second-seeded Lobos would love nothing more than to stick it to the Aztecs for the way in which the final game played out, but we'll have to wait and see if first-year head coach Craig Neal can get his guys to regroup in time.

Coach Neal does have the luxury of having a couple of the top performers in the MWC at his disposal in Kendall Williams and Cameron Bairstow, but even they were not enough to keep the Lobos from suffering the collapse on Saturday night at Viejas Arena. Williams, the MWC Preseason Player of the Year, finished his 30-game run with 16.4 ppg and 149 assists, against just 61 turnovers. Active at both ends of the floor Williams, who shot 40.7 percent from beyond the arc, also accounted for 49 steals on defense.

Williams had the spotlight squarely on him early in the campaign, but slowly attention started to turn to Bairstow who became a major threat in the paint. The big man led the team in scoring with 20.3 ppg and was second on the glass with 7.2 rpg as he connected on 56.5 percent from the floor and combined with Williams to convert 345 of the unit's 539 free throws. As a group, the Lobos outscored opponents at the charity stripe by close to five points per contest.

Not to be overlooked is center Alex Kirk who not only pitched in with 13.7 ppg, but he was first with 8.7 rpg and registered 81 of the program's 157 blocked shots along the way.

For as much success as San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher has had in his illustrious career, which includes a historic run with the Aztecs (27-3, 16-2), he had never been involved in such a comeback bid against a top-quality opponent as he did on Saturday. The effort showed a lot of character by SDSU players, refusing to allow a golden opportunity escape them.

The general consensus has UNM's Bairstow battling for player of the year honors against SDSU's Xavier Thames. The point guard wasn't very flashy as he shot just 40.6 percent from the field and 38.6 percent behind the 3-point line, but he did pace the Aztecs with 16.9 ppg and was tops with both 89 assists and 52 steals. For the most part, the Aztecs ran with an offense that was heavy along the front line, utilizing Thames as the lone guard more often than not, which might be why his numbers were so strong.

Winston Shepard turned out to be the only other double-digit scorer for the Aztecs with his 12.3 ppg and like Thames, he did little to draw attention to himself at the offensive end of the floor. Josh Davis (8.0 ppg) wasn't always looking to score for himself, but what he was focused on was pulling down rebounds within reach, to the tune of 9.9 per game. Because of the efforts of Davis the team beat opponents on the glass by an average of 5.3 rpg.

But more important than any offensive effort by SDSU this season was the team's attention to detail on defense. Not only did the squad rank first in the league in points allowed (57.2 ppg), it was also among the top-five in the country in that department. Opponents shot only 38.5 percent from the floor and a mere 28.8 percent behind the 3-point line against the pressing Aztecs.

Since 2009, either New Mexico or San Diego State has been involved in the championship game in this tournament, one of them taking the title each of the previous four years. Chances are one of both will be back to represent the MWC with the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, although both teams making the field for the Big Dance is still a possibility.

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