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Wish lists during the holiday season do not stop with visits from Santa Claus. They extend into the college basketball world in a most major way, as conference play is just around the corner. Those wish lists in the Mountain West Conference go across the league from Boise to San Diego. With a conference-wide RPI of nine, Boise State and New Mexico in the Top 25 in RPI and revamped San Diego State at 9-1, there is cause for the “season to be jolly” as the Mountain West Conference could match the five-teams that were on the NCAA’s roll call a year ago.
Coaches are always looking for that extra option that can put them over the top, so maybe the following will accentuate the 11 teams going forward into league play which starts on New Year’s Day.
San Diego State (9-1) – Xavier Thames continues to be the most underrated guard, maybe in the nation. Steve Fisher has retooled SDSU with a nice chemistry infusion as the defense could be stronger than last season. Through 10 games, the Aztecs are up top on the defensive ratings in the MWC as they hold opponents to 54.4 ppg. and 35.4% from the floor. The Aztecs have multiple options inside, so maybe the offense could use one more threat on the perimeter as Matt Shrigley seems to be possibly the most viable option.
Boise State (9-2) - The Broncos look to challenge shots on the perimeter more than inside. No. 14 Iowa State was 8-of-24 in the Diamond Head Classic final as a key three by the Cyclones’ DeAndre Kane helped ISU edge the Broncos, who led for most of the game. This is a very efficient offensive team that needs more defensive presence inside. Coach Leon Rice needs Ryan Watkins and preferably anybody else to step up inside defensively when Boise State is forced into a half-court game. You can’t find fault with Watkins though — he averages nearly a double-double and is one of four Broncos averaging double figures at 10.1 points per game along with 9.2 rebounds per contest.
Utah State (9-2) - Schedule navigation in a much tougher conference might be the Aggies’ greatest gift. A 3-0 league start is possible with Air Force, San Jose State, and Nevada to start. However, it picks up immeasurably near the middle of the MWC campaign with back-to-back roadies at Boise State and what should be an improved UNLV. San Diego State visits Logan, Utah, immediately following. The back end of the sked sees Strew Morrill’s team host BSU and the Running Rebels before three of the last four are on the road.
New Mexico (8-3) - The Lobos wanted to improve their outside shooting this season, but so far it hasn’t happened as they are 10th in the league and shooting at a 43.6% clip and only 30.4% from behind the arc, last in the league. It could be a matter of getting used to the more engaging up-tempo offense as UNM took 91 field goal attempts, a MWC record, in their win over UAB. The Lobos’ top three leading scorers, Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams (right), and Alex Kirk combined to shoot 50.3% from the floor as the remaining 11 Lobos shoot only 33.4% from the field. Wyoming (8-4) - Larry Shyatt has the Cowboys buying in on the defensive end. That has been a staple of his career, no matter the stop. Wyoming might look for more scoring punch off the bench. Senior Jerron Granberry leads Wyoming off the bench with 6.5 points per game in 24.3 mpg. Charles Hankerson is the only other Cowboy averaging double digits in minutes of the bench at 18.3 mpg.
Colorado State (8-4) - The Rams were a top-notch three-point shooting team last season, but lost all that marksmanship and now have had to reinvent their three-point arsenal. Coach Larry Eustachy would probably ask for some guys to step up on that perimeter. Joe DeCiman and David Cohn have shared some starts and have combined for 27 of the Rams’ made triples. Daniel Bejarano leads the Rams in minutes and is CSU’s most efficient three-point threat as a consistent starter.
UNLV (8-4) - The Runnin’ Rebels are reshaping their roster after Anthony Bennett turned pro and glue-guy Anthony Marshall graduated. Coach David Rice hopes the chemistry is forming as Vegas has won four in a row and five out of six. He has given double figures in minutes to eight players while two more average between nine and 10 minutes per game. Freshman Roscoe Smith is averaging a double-double with 12.8 ppg. and 13.2 rpg. He already seems to be the focal point of what can be a tough out in March if that chemistry gels.
Air Force (6-5) - The Falcons are looking for some credible wins which will have to come against the rigors of the MWC schedule. Losses to VMI and Jackson State do not bode well for a team that will see a definite spike in opponents’ overall talent once the season begins. Three of the first five are against UNLV, Utah State, and San Diego State.
Fresno State (6-6) - Like Air Force, there are no impressive wins on the Bulldogs’ docket plus team defense and rebounding has been a problem up to this point. Fresno State dropped losses to Pitt, Utah, Cal, and Florida by an average of 15.5 ppg. and gave up 75 ppg. in the four. Offensively, FSU may not be able to hang either as they averaged only 59 ppg. in those four.
San Jose State (5-6) - The Spartans could be a lower division MWC squad capable of springing the upset. They picked up wins over improved Cal State-Fullerton and Pepperdine while winning at Houston. Interestingly, leading scorer Rashad Muhammad has started only one game, but paces SJSU in scoring at 17.2 ppg.
Nevada (5-7) - Like Fresno State, when the non-league schedule picked up, the Wolf Pack did not adjust. Deonte Burton has been every bit as scintillating as we knew he would be in averaging 22.8 ppg. and 3.6 apg. Jerry Evans has picked up his scoring in the last three outings to post a 22.5 ppg. ledger in those three. Team defense is maybe more of the problem here than anywhere in the MWC as opponents average 80.1 ppg. and shoot nearly 50% from the floor. Fans in Reno may like the shootouts, but not many of the outcomes.
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