A month of college basketball is in the books and the Mountain West has more questions than answers. Heading into the season, San Diego State and Boise State stood atop conference previews. Just a few weeks later, the landscape of the MW is far more complex. UNLV stands alone thanks to a quick start (8-3), but a large chunk of the league is close behind. Besides San Jose State (4-6), the other nine teams have a winning record. Let's take a look at each team.
The Runnin' Rebels of UNLV stand out as the most impressive MW team thus far. UNLV has dropped two games to Sweet Sixteen teams of last year (Wichita State and UCLA) and an underrated Arizona State squad last night. Although the performance last night was a tough one for Rebs fans to swallow, UNLV still appears to be the strongest team in the conference right now.
The exclamation point on UNLV's first month was its convincing win at the MGM Grand against then-15th ranked Oregon. Five Rebels scored in double figures and poured in 10 triples en route to a 80-69 win. Although Stephen Zimmerman was the most-anticipated UNLV player heading into the season (and he hasn't disappointed), sophomore guard Patrick McCaw has taken center stage for Dave Rice's squad. McCaw has been terrific on both sides of the floor, as he currently stands second in the country in steals per game (3.4) and leads the conference in effective field goal percentage, an astounding 62.4%.
Last night's shocking loss to Arizona State may be a cause for concern or simply an off night for UNLV. As for right now, the Runnin' Rebels appear to be the top team in the Mountain West.
New Mexico, Boise State, and San Diego State are not far behind.
New Mexico has also impressed in non-conference play. The Lobos are currently the highest rated Mountain West team on Ken Pomeroy's rankings at 50th in the country. New Mexico has flashed potential in the early going. Cullen Neal and Elijah Brown gave Purdue all it could handle on December 5th, but #11 Purdue finished off New Mexico late. A week later New Mexico stomped Northern Iowa at home, which could pay RPI dividends later on in the year.
Boise State and San Diego State are very much alive in the conference, but have not performed to the level of their pre-season expectations.
The Broncos are enjoying a four-game winning streak and have improved to 7-4 on the year. Coach Leon Rice made a trying schedule for this year's team, already having played four games against ranked teams in the first month. Boise State has won one of these four games, holding on to defeat Oregon at home last week. Playing man-to-man defense without fouling has been the biggest issue for the Broncos. Another thing to watch through conference play is how Anthony Drmic battles through his knee injury that has been nagging him all season. Boise State has been challenged through non-conference play and it should help the Broncos through the conference season.
San Diego State shares the same win/loss record as Boise State, but have struggled at times in its first 11 games. The defensive-led Aztecs have had issues on offense, currently ranking 233rd in the country in points per game. The dismal offense has already cost the Aztecs three disappointing losses. SDSU failed to score 50 points in two of these games (defeats to undefeated Arkansas Little-Rock at home and San Diego at Petco Park) and a 22-point blowout to West Virginia. The Aztecs have continued to be dominant on defense, currently ranking second nationally in opponent two-point field goal percentage and 17th in opponent points per game. Even with this superb defense, San Diego State must find a way to score the basketball if it hopes to reach the NCAA tournament for the seventh consecutive season.
The rest of the Mountain West is wide open.
Colorado State (6-4) has been in a number of shootouts this season. The Rams are 13th in the country in scoring offense, but have been atrocious on defense, allowing 83.1 points a night. CSU has pulled together a few nice wins (Northern Iowa, Portland, UTEP) but have lost four of the last five.
As expected, Marvelle Harris (the MWC preseason player of the year pick) has been fantastic for Fresno State (8-3). A number of Harris' statistics have improved from last season, but he won't be able to make the NCAA Tournament on his own. Three other Bulldogs average more than 10 points per game and should help Rodney Terry's team through the conference season.
Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams is in a similar situation with his respective team. After losing Larry Nance to the NBA in the spring, coach Larry Shyatt handed the reins over to Adams who is single-handedly leading the Cowboys. Adams leads the conference in just about every major offensive statistic.
The Wolf Pack of Nevada are off to a strong start (7-3) but will need to overcome the loss of A.J. West. The senior center left the team this week for personal reasons, ending his college basketball career. Although West's production has dipped since last season, he still led Nevada in rebounding and added 9.6 points a night.
Utah State has performed to its expectations this season. As predicted, the Aggies dropped three games against Duke, BYU, and UC Irvine, but have taken care of business against the weaker opponents. A number of winnable games are ahead for Utah State, but the Aggies will be tested against San Diego State and Boise State in early January.
Air Force (6-4) and San Jose State (4-6) are expected to finish at the bottom of the Mountain West this season. Both teams are rebuilding.
It is shaping up to be a thrilling and competitive season in the Mountain West. Who do you see ending up on top in March?