Stevens: Will Mountain West Race Come Down To Big Four?
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  12/29/2013

New Mexico Lobos Men’s Basketball – Mountain West Preview

By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.

The vision of prognosticators looking in at the upcoming Mountain West race probably has changed – but only a bit.

There is still the “Big Four,” beginning with New Mexico followed by Boise State, San Diego State and UNLV.  But has the order changed from the preseason musings tossed out in October? And is 10-2 Utah State good enough to change it to a “Big Five?”

And don’t you think the rest of the MW teams are fired up to prove everyone wrong?

New Mexico was the almost-unanimous preseason pick to protect their MW title and return to the throne and there really is no reason to question that October pick. But are the No. 20 ranked San Diego State Aztecs now the favorites heading into January?

For sure, this is going to be a dog-eat-dog race and there doesn’t look to be too many MW cupcakes waiting to be pushed over – especially on their home courts.

New Mexico is 9-3 with three losses to quality teams and anytime you head into a conference race with maybe the best one-two inside game (Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow) and probably the best all-around guard (Kendall Williams), you know you are going to be a threat for that title.

But a few challengers for that throne have stepped up.  You start that list of wannabe champions with the SDSU Aztecs, a team that lost three starters from its 23-win team of 2012-13. The Aztecs were expected to take a little slide on the slippery slopes of college basketball without Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley on the edge.

However, the Aztecs have been beaten only once – by No. 1 Arizona 69-60. The Aztecs are the only MW team in the Top 25  heading into league play that begins Jan. 1 with UNLV at Fresno State, Utah State at Air Force, Nevada at San Jose State and the Aztecs at Colorado State.  

The Lobos open Saturday (Jan. 4) playing host to Colorado State at 4 p.m. (MT) in The Pit.

The Aztecs are a surprise only in the fact that they lost so much and have played with chemistry so early.  They average 77.2 points on offense and have a MW-leading defense allowing 52.6 points. Perspective: UNM allows 70.9 points.

The Aztecs are winning game by 24.5 points which often is a reflection of scheduling and some blowouts (SDSU 118, St. Katherine 35). The key stat is SDSU’s record:  10-1.  The Aztecs also are in the Top 50 (ESPN) in RPI rankings getting muscle points from their record and wins over Creighton and Marquette. They play at Kansas on Jan. 5.

The Aztecs have tossed out a mean mother bear defense, but an obvious key for SDSU was to replace some scoring.  They get 15.6 points from returning starter Xavier Thames and 12.9 points from Winston Shepard.  SDSU has five players scoring between 7.6 and 9.6 points. Another key for the Aztecs was to get defense and rebounding out of 6-8 Tulane transfer Josh Davis.  He is No. 2 in the MW with a 10.7 average and JJ O’Brien hauls down 5.2 boards a game.

The Aztecs’ key when they look ahead to the Lobos is whether or not they can contain UNM’s Twin Towers.  That question will be first answered Feb. 22 in The Pit and again on March 8 in San Diego. The Lobos will play several MW teams twice before they get a look at the Aztecs.

Maybe a few other things will have changed by then.

The Aztecs and the Rebels were somewhat of a mystery heading into the 2013-14 seasons simply because they had to once again reload.    Boise State was no surprise.

The Broncos were named by a few prognosticators to climb to the top of the Mountain ahead of New Mexico because Boise State returns five starters.  UNM returns four.

It’s easy to get high on the Broncos when you look at their guard combo of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks.   Drmic is scoring at a 19.5 clip and Marks has a 16.3 average. This is the top scoring guard combo in the league heading into MW play.  They also share the No. 1 spot in MW stats in steals.

The play of Drmic and Marks opens up the edge for Jeff Elorriaga, who tops the MW in 3-pointers made.  He is 39-of-68 for a .574 percentage and averages 11.4 points per game.

The Broncos were expected to be strong on the perimeter, but need to produce – and defend – inside in order to challenge for the 2014 MW title. Boise went 2-6 on the MW road last year and a lot of that had to do with modest inside play. 

Again, that’s the key.  The Broncos have shooters.  Do they have enough board pounders and paint defense?  The 6-foot-9 Ryan Watkins tops Boise in rebounding with a solid 8.6 average. He doesn’t have much help inside.

UNLV probably had the most raw talent in the MW a year ago, but never found enough team chemistry to challenge for the title.  The Rebels (9-4) battled to find that chemistry earlier this season, but ride a six-game win streak into MW play.

UNLV has four players in double figures: Roscoe Smith (13.1), Bryce Dejean-Jones (12.5), Khem Birch (11.8) and Kevin Olekaibe (10.6). The 6-8 Smith gives UNLV an inside presence and is the top MW board man with his 13.2 average. He has nine double-doubles and gets inside help from the 6-9 Birch.  Smith transferred in from Connecticut, Birch from Pittsburgh and Olekaibe from Fresno State.

The Rebels needed a scoring fix as they lost Katin Reinhardt, Anthony Marshall, Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser. That’s a foursome that could win a lot of games without a fifth starter. Another key for UNLV will be the play of Deville Smith, Kendall Smith and Jelan Kendrick. Vegas should be a good rebounding team and a good defensive team. They’ll need improved decision making and improved shot selection in their up-tempo game in order to charge to the MW throne.

If the so-called experts of college hoops are right, the 2014 MW title will go to one of the “Big Four.”  Utah State’s 10-2 record makes the Aggies the unofficial dark horse. Wyoming is 8-4 and trying to replace its top three scorers from last year but is getting 16.9 points from Larry Nance Jr., plus 9.9 rebounds a game.

Colorado State is 9-4 and has a tough MW opening with SDSU followed by New Mexico. The Rams, who lost all five starters from 2012-13, beat the NMSU Aggies by two points in Fort Collins.  CSU’s J.J. Avila is averaging 19.5 points and Daniel Bejarano averages 9.6 boards.

Nevada (5-8), Fresno State (7-6), Air Force (6-5) and San Jose State (6-6) have enough talent to make some noise, pull some upsets and maybe make a run at contention. Nevada, which went 3-13 in the MW last year, has the league’s top scorer in Deonte Burton with a 22.5 average, just ahead of UNM’s Cameron Bairstow at 20.1.