The trudge towards conference play continues as teams wrap up their non-conference schedules over the next week. With conference play starting in less than a week, let’s reorganize the pecking order in the MW. The current ranking is bold and the preseason in italics.
- Nevada (Nevada)
Not a lot of doubt here. The Wolf Pack are the class of the conference, even with their slow starting habit. Nevada dispatched a veteran Akron team in Reno, 68-62, and are one of the five remaining undefeated teams in college basketball. Jordan Caroline picked up his seventh double-double in eleven games and only five other players in the country have more.
2. Utah State (San Diego State)
The Aggies are easily the biggest surprise in the conference. Most people thought that after the transfer of MW Freshman of the Year Koby McEwan and the transition to a new coach in Craig Smith that the Aggies would be destined for a rebuilding year. Instead, they hung tough with #20 Houston last week in a 60-50 loss and have sprinted out to a 9-3 start. Their defense has been outstanding, as they have held opponents to 36.5% shooting, good for fourth in the country.
3. Fresno State (New Mexico)
The Bulldogs were picked fifth in the preseason poll, which wasn’t an indictment of their talent, so much as it was the idea that the top tier had much more. Instead, behind the trio of Deshon Taylor, Braxton Huggins, and New Williams, the Bulldogs are 9-2 with an average margin of victory of fifteen points. Seven of their nine wins have been by at least eighteen points, including blasting UT-Martin 93-53 over the weekend. The Bulldogs have really gelled as a unit behind first year coach Justin Hutson and are going to make other teams miserable during conference play.
4. San Diego State (Boise State)
On Saturday, BYU shot 53 percent from the field, out rebounded the Aztecs 29-28, and scored 81 points. The Aztecs still won 90-81. Defense has been the calling card for this program for two decades. This season, the Aztecs are 53rd in field goal percentage defense, 196th in forced turnovers, and 111th in rebounding margin per game. Instead, they are 11th in the country in three-point percentage and have the second most efficient offense in the conference. They’re averaging almost eighty points a game, something they haven’t done since they were in the WAC.
5. Boise State (Fresno State)
The Broncos beat Pacific 83-71 on Saturday to improve to 5-7 this season. Coach Rice worked in a bit of zone defense to disrupt Pacific, and it seemed to work. The Tigers only shot 35% from three-point range. Secondly, they’re playing better with Alex Hobbs back in the lineup, going 3-2 with their only losses at Oregon and by one to Loyola Marymount. They get a second shot at Oregon this week when the Ducks travel to Boise before conference play begins.
6. UNLV (UNLV)
The Rebels have quite a tough team to peg so far. They’re currently 6-5 after losing to Indiana State 84-79 in the Diamond Head Classic. They’re 1-1 against the top 100 in KenPom, losing to Cincinnati by four and beating BYU at the buzzer. Their offense is a shade below average and the defense a shade above, according to advanced metrics. The eye test says they’re improving as well, especially as sophomore Amauri Hardy cracks the starting lineup more often.
7. New Mexico (Wyoming)
They have lost three of their last four at the Pit and are 5-6, which sounds really bad. Those three losses were to Colorado, North Texas, and Penn, who were all favored. The last two losses were this past week by nine points to UNT and ten to Penn. According to KenPom, the Lobos haven’t beaten a top 100 team yet. Despite all this, they’ve beaten everyone that they were supposed to beat. Their defense still isn’t great, but the effort is there. The only problem is that half of the offenses in the MW are performing with above average efficiency. Geoff Grammar and I both remain optimistic.
On the other hand...— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) December 23, 2018
The lowest the UNM Lobos have ever been ranked (end of season) in the KenPom era was 187 in the 2002-03 season under Ritchie McKay.
The Lobos are ranked at this moment 180th in KenPom. https://t.co/b7KyGTHftN
8. Colorado State (Colorado State)
The Rams dropped a 64-61 decision at the Walter Pyramid on Saturday to Long Beach State, 64-61. It’s another loss where the growing pains were apparent for Niko Medved’s squad. In his postgame comments, starting at 2:22 below, Medved praised his team’s defense effort. It’s been a season long slog for the Rams in that department, but the numbers do support Saturday as one of their best defensive games of the season. Junior Nico Carvacho has carried the load offensively, with eight double-doubles this season, while averaging fourteen points and thirteen rebounds per game.
9. San Jose State (Utah State)
Coach Jean Prioleau’s plucky crew keeps getting better. They’re probably the team in the MW that has shown the most steady growth throughout the season. Their Bay Area tour so far has seen them lose at Stanford and California by five and eight points, respectively. They trailed Stanford by one at halftime, led Cal at the break, and played well enough to stick around, falling to 3-8. If you look beyond their abysmal record, they’ve lost six games by less than ten points. Sophomore Noah Baumann is the sixth best three point shooter in the country, at an absurd 57.1% in fifty attempts.
10. Air Force (Air Force)
The Falcons stuck with Michigan for a half, before the Wolverines ran away with a 71-50 victory. Air Force fell to 4-7, and the problem for the Falcons seems to be their shooting and turning the ball over. They’ve used six different starting lineups in eleven games to try and jump start the offense, but it isn’t working. In his seventh season, coach Pilipovich is trying to make the Princeton offense work with the worst shooting team he’s ever had. He is consistently able to make more with less, and for the Falcons to improve, they have to cut down on the turnovers.
11. Wyoming (San Jose State)
From my rankings last week: “Looking ahead, they open the conference with a tough slate, but if they continue to get scoring from James, and shooting from Hendricks and Maldonado, they’ll contend.”
The Cowboys played East Tennessee State last Friday and did this:
Meanwhile, down in El Paso... pic.twitter.com/ft1f45EzmW— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) December 22, 2018
All season, the Pokes have struggled scoring the ball, especially inside the arc. They’re 305th out of 353 in two-point field goal percentage, despite being in the top third of teams from three point range. They lost in so many ways in the Sun Bowl Invitational. The two losses to ETSU and UTEP send their slide to three games, and they lost Hunter Maldonado and possibly Jake Hendricks to injury.