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Monday Morning Cup of Coffee – A Trip Around the Mountain West After Opening Week

November 15, 2021

Opening week has come and gone and most of the MWC programs have a pair of games under their collective belts. I thought I’d take the time to get you caught up on the goings-on. So grab your favorite roast and have a read. For me, it’ll be Folgers. You know what they say – “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup” (Its a bit of a lie. I prefer to wake up with other blends but we got caught short on coffee.)

But before I get started, I wanted to say thank you again to the very kind CSU Ram fan who introduced himself to me in Moby following the Peru State game and thanked me for my blog. As many of you know, I don’t do this for money. I do it for my love of the game, for my acquired love of the Colorado State Basketball program, and because it keeps my juices flowing. His words really meant a lot to me.

I’m not going to rank the MWC teams yet. It’ll be alphabetical order today.

Air Force, in their second year under Joe Scott, has decided to go young. Scott is starting three freshmen alongside solid returners AJ Walker and Joseph Octave. He is following the script for his first time at the Academy when he installed a group of freshmen into the lineup who grew into MWC regular season champion and NCAA At-Large team in 2004. The Falcons opened with a close loss ar South Dakota, then followed with a nice last-minute road win over Tulsa as they overcame a double-digit deficit. Scott has installed freshman Ethan Taylor as his point guard and played him for a remarkable 79 out of 80 minutes in those two games. Based on minutes, Taylor is positioned as the early favorite for MwC Freshman of the Year.

Boise State is expected to compete at the top of the Mountain West but the results of the first week are mixed. The Broncos scored an easy win at home over Utah Valley, then were tripped up in a road loss to a decent UC-Irvine side. While they lost all-MWC Derrick Alston, they returned 6 of their top 8 players from last season. Some cracks showed in Irvine. The Broncos are short a point guard who can initiate their offense. They rely on Emanuel Akot, who is a talented player wanting to play the position but he lacks the requisite ball distribution skills. 313th in the nation in Assist Rate is the result. The Broncos also look to be short on consistent perimeter shooters. 7-42 (16.7%) over the first two games is not good; good for 339th in the nation.

Colorado State has opened the season with three solid home wins over Oral Roberts, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and NAIA Peru State. They look deep and talented, especially on the offensive side of the court. 26th in the nation in 2pt field goal percentage, 11th in 3pt field goal percentage, and 13th in free throw percentage, Combine that with a turnover percentage low enough to stand at 26th in the nation and you have a high powered and efficient offense. On the defensive side, the Rams remarkably rank 4th in the nation in blocked shot percentage. There’s still work to do on the defensive side as the Rams are one of the worst teams in causing turnovers (341st!). Given their speed and effectiveness in transition, creating more live ball turnovers will lead to even better offensive results.

Fresno State has begun the season with two easy wins over NAIA Fresno Pacific (Im curious to know if theres a Fresno Atlantic) and Long Island University. Bulldogs’ big Orlando Robinson is off to a fantastic start after exploring his NBA possibilities in the off-season. Robinson had 17 points, 16 rebounds, and 3 assists against LIU. This team has a talented, deep, and athletic roster and will be an MWC dark horse if coach Justin Hutson can keep them on track.

Nevada has begun the season as a favorite to finish at or near the top of the MountainWest. They won their opener at home against a weak Eastern Washington team. Somehow they figured out a way to lose their next game at home to the University of San Diego. Steve Alford is trying to mold a team that mirrors his great New Mexico teams of a decade ago playing two bigs much of the time. He is asking his All-Everything point guard Grant Sherfield to become more of a leader and distributor to get the other talents on the roster involved. There looked to be some growing pains in the loss to USD. Sherfield and fellow All-MWC guard struggled as the Pack fell behind by as much as 19 points before mounting a furious second-half rally. They possess a loaded roster so they will be formidable if they can get things sorted out.

New Mexico opened the Rick Pitino Jr Era at 1-1 with a home win over Florida Atlantic followed by a loss in Boulder to the Mighty Buffs. Early returns are favorable compared to the most recent efforts during the Paul Weir Era. The Lobos has reworked their backcourt with a pair of talented youngsters, both of whom have NBA genes and transferred from bigger programs. Guard Jaelen House (son of Eddie) came from Arizona State and is a firecracker on the court; 30 points in the season opener followed by 22 against the Buffs. Guard Jamal Mashburn (son of Kentucky legend of the same name) followed Pitino from Minnesota and opened with 20 against FAU and 14 against the Buffs. Lobos look to be a little short in the frontcourt at the start of the season but the dynamic backcourt duo has things looking up in Alby-Q.

San Diego State opened with a solid home win over a really undervalued UC-Riverside, then followed with a close road loss at BYU. The Aztecs are big, athletic and possess a deep roster and they look to be more like a traditional Steve Fisher squad of a few years ago. They make it difficult for opponents to score. They are led offensively by Cal transfer Matt Bradley and a pair of returnees in big Nathan Mensah and guard Trey Pulliam. Still very much a work in progress on the offensive side of the ball as they struggle to find a lineup that can score from the perimeter. 5-33 from beyond the arc in the first two games has then at 15% and 342nd in the nation. Figure that out and they will be really formidable at the season progresses.

Tim Miles on his way to dropping a buck to me many moons ago

Let it be known that the Tim Miles Era at San Jose State began with a loud band as the Spartans opened with a scintillating buzzer-beating home win over Cal State – Disneyland errr… Fullerton. Miles has assembled a decent collection of transfers and combined them with a few solid returnees and the first return is positive. They ran out to a nice double-digit lead by making shots from the perimeter, then gave it all back as they cooled off. Guard Trey Smith rebounded a missed three-ball in the paint and nailed a jumper that fell through the hoop as the horn sounded. The kind of play that brings the crowd rushing to the floor. That is if you have any kind of crowd. Miles has his hands full building a moribund program. Yet those of us that know him know that he is one of the few capable coaches that can bring life to such a dire situation.

In case you didnt believe me, here’s the buck I took off of Miles

Under new head coach Kevin Kruger, UNLV opened the season 2-0 with home wins over Gardner Webb and Cal. Kruger has assembled a roster of transfers to go with top returner Bryce Hamilton and they are big, strong, athletic, and can’t shoot. The best of the transfers looks to be Royce Hamm, a big from Texas who had 18 points and 17 rebounds against Gardner Webb. Offensively, the Rebels are operating at a very low .89 points per possession and are 12-54 from 3-point land. Defensively they are holding teams to 20% shooting from beyond the arc and an overall effective shooting percentage of a very low 40%. They look a lot like San Diego State Light. Great D, can’t score.

Utah State began the Ryan Odom Era (Craig Smith went to Utah) with a really poor home loss to UC-Davis. After three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the Aggie faithful were up in arms with such a weak effort. Not to worry. Odom took his team back east to play a very good Richmond team and the Aggies rolled to a double-digit win over the Spiders. 18-year senior Justin Bean is averaging 23 points and 15 rebounds so far. Obviously the Aggies are different without Neemias Queta clogging the middle but they have added a pair of transfers from UMBC (Odom’s old school) in Brandon Horvath and Rj Eytle-Rock. The Aggies are very mature with LDS mission years and redshirt years galore. What they lack in depth they make up in smarts and experience.

And finally we come to Wyoming. The Pokes have begun the season smartly with a pair of 40-point wins. 40-point wins! I don’t care who you’re playing. That is impressive. In his second year at the helm, Greg Linder looks to have shored up defensive weaknesses that held them back. The Pokes can really shoot the ball as evidenced by their effective field goal percentage of 63.8% which currently ranks them 9th in the nation. On the opposite side, they are holding teams to an effective field goal percentage of 35.7%. which ranks them 5th in the nation. Senior guard Hunter Maldonado and sophomore big Graham Ike are leading the way. Picked to finish 8th pre-season, you’re looking at the best MWC dark horse in Laramie.

So thats a simple look at the team performances. As an overall composite, the teams have opened the season with a combined record of 16-6. All teams have won games in the first week.

I thought I’d also highlight early moves up, down, and sideways in

The Gainers. The biggest jump belongs to Wyoming who have gone from a pre-season rank of 183 all the way to 147. New Mexico had jumped from 287 to 270. Fresno State has jumped from 131 to 119. Colorado State has jumped from 72 to 62. Air Force has jumped from 302 to 292. San Jose State from 336 to 331. Utah State from 94 to 90. Boise State from 80 to 76.

The Neutrals – San Diego State has gone from 33 to 34. UNLV is stuck at 129.

The Losers – Nevada has dropped from 49 to 63.

Overall, a positive start for the conference and the desire for multiple NCAA Tournament bids. San Diego State and Colorado State are best equipped right now. Nevadas, Boise, and Utah State have some work to do. The rise of programs like UNLV, Fresno State and Wyoming will be great for the overall conference strength. And last year’s bottom three – UNM, Air Force, and San Jose State are all looking improved which takes away bad losses for other programs come conference time.

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