Most of our brackets predicted New Mexico would be facing Gonzaga or Wisconsin on the first day of Elite Eight games in Indianapolis. Instead that became the day that Lobo coach Steve Alford became the former coach in Albuquerque.
The startling development that Alford was leaving New Mexico to take over at UCLA came just 10 days after the coach agreed to a 10-year contract extension to stay in Albuquerque, presumably until he retired. It looked like the perfect situation for everyone involved. Turned out it wasn't, at least from Alford's perspective. He got a moderate pay raise (around $600K/year) to move to Los Angeles - all or most of which could be eaten up by the significant rise in the cost of living in California - but the chance to coach at a place with a storied history and seemingly limitless potential was too much to turn down. A grateful Alford said he was surprised and flattered that UCLA called him; it was a dream job - and a compliment for New Mexico basketball - from his perspective, even if most of us don't see it as much of an upward step in the current college hoops landscape.
Whatever the case, Alford is now part of New Mexico's outstanding basketball history. Athletic director Paul Krebs and his staff must now look toward the future.
Opponents of the Lobos have been quick to jump on the "this will really weaken New Mexico" bandwagon. Make no mistake, Alford is a great coach who will be missed. Then again, a quick glance up Interstate 25 can offer a pretty good illustration of what could very well happen. All is certainly not lost in Lobo Nation.
About this time a year ago, head coach Tim Miles left Colorado State to take on the massive rebuilding job at Nebraska. CSU was coming off a terrific 20-win season and had a loaded roster returning for what promised to be an even better 2012-13. The timing of Miles' move puzzled many observers, given the shaky state of Nebraska basketball. Had the Rams and Huskers played this season for example, CSU would have likely boat-raced Miles' new team by a couple dozen points or more.
After Miles' departure, the CSU administration did not panic. They set about doing a thoughtful and complete coaching search, which finally led them to veteran Larry Eustachy at Southern Mississippi. The former National Coach of the Year accepted the CSU gig and relocated (again) to Fort Collins. You know the rest of the story: A school record for wins in a season, a second-place finish in the Mountain West, and a second-round NCAA tournament win over Missouri. Talk about your smooth transitions.
Coaching transitions are actually never easy. Even with a loaded roster, Eustachy had a difficult job in front of him, and he did it exceptionally well. The point here is, CSU found the right man to take its program to the next level without skipping a beat. Can there be any question that New Mexico is capable of doing the same thing?
The Lobos - like CSU last year - return a loaded roster for 2013-14, including Conference Player of the Year Kendall Williams (whom Alford recruited away from UCLA, ironically.)
"We return everybody," Alford said at the new conference announcing his departure, obviously still feeling connected to his former program. "We return the entire starting five of a 29-6 team. We've been one of the premier programs out west."
Of course, there could be more departures, via transfers or early exits for the pros, still to come. But the point is Alford, like Miles, does not leave a bare cupboard at UNM. Quite the opposite. He took over a decent program and elevated it to greater heights. He made serious upgrades on the academic side of things, and he won 155 games in six seasons, at least 22 per year every season. He won four Conference titles. UNM was in the postseason every single year. Whoever his replacement is comes into a situation even better than Eustachy inherited. There's no real reason for any sort of dropoff.
Alford has already endorsed his long-time assistant, Craig Neal, who was officially named the 20th head basketball coach at UNM. The Lobo players reportedly wanted Neal very much, and he should keep the Lobos moving upward.
Last weekend was a great time to be a Lobo, indeed. In more ways than one.
On Saturday, the country watched a classic battle on the hard court between New Mexico and UNLV, as the Cherry and Silver captured or the Mountain West's automatic NCAA tournament berth. The win jumped New Mexico to No. 10 in the country and earned them a No. 3 seed. UNLV earned a No. 5 seed with a favorable draw and equal opportunity to make a deep run.
But this is Las Vegas. There's always something more. Much more.
Less than a mile from the Thomas and Mack Center, Ray Birmingham's Lobos were trading hard knocks with Tim Chambers' Rebels in the second game of what had already become a key MW three-game baseball series. New Mexico had taken the first game on Friday to put a halt to UNLV's 10-game winning streak and give the landslide preseason Conference favorite a leg up very early in the Conference race. New Mexico was ranked in the Top 25 to start the season for the first time in school history, but a sluggish start to the season had dropped UNM out of the polls and they lugged a sub- .500 record with them to Vegas.
Meanwhile, the Rebels were flying high. The 10-game win streak included an impressive three-game sweep at nationally-ranked power Stanford, which propelled UNLV into the national rankings at No. 21 and to the top of the MW leader board heading into Conference play.
The stage had been set. It was step up time for the visitors, and a chance to make a big time early season statement for the home team.
Predictably, there's no quit in any Ray Birmingham team. Twice UNM came from behind on Friday night, and eventually a Josh Melendez double put the Lobos ahead for the first time in the top of the 10th inning, and New Mexico captured Game One, 3-2. That shifted the burden back to UNLV to step up and show some bounce back in Game Two, especially after the Lobos took a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning. The series - and an early jump on the conference race - appeared to be theirs.
Not quite. Mark Shannon's two-run homer, just UNLV's second long ball of the season, in the bottom on the eighth capped a five-run outburst and led the Rebels to a critical 8-7 win, knotting the series at a game apiece.
Then came Sunday. And DJ Peterson time.
The Lobos' All-America third basemen picked a good time to have yet another of what have become semi-routine days at the office for him, clubbing a pair of home runs to move his season total to 10 in just the first month of the season. His three-run shot in the third inning and a grand slam in the sixth helped Peterson rack up eight more RBI and sent UNM to a 12-7 win and that key MW opening series victory.
The win moved the Lobos to 2-1 in the Conference, and improved their overall record to 8-10. Not where they wanted to be at this point, but well within striking distance of the 30+ wins this program is expected to gain now. UNLV - which bounced back again on Monday night to defeat BYU at home behind a great pitching effort from the versatile Shannon - now sits at 16-5 and just that single game behind the Lobos, Nevada and San Diego State. Don't sleep on the Aztecs. They took two of three at Fresno State and share the Conference lead after the first week. UNLV travels to San Diego State this coming weekend. The best news? UNLV and New Mexico will meet again on the diamond in Albuquerque on April 26-28 in what will probably be an even bigger series by that point in the season.
A nationally relevant rivalry between New Mexico and UNLV already exists on the basketball court. These two powerful programs are led by big time coaches and have aspirations that stretch far beyond conference championships. It certainly appears that the baseball rivalry may be heading in that same direction. Chambers' team is very young - the same way Birmingham's Lobos were in 2011 when they stunned the country and won the MW tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament. New Mexico has already arrived on the national stage. There's nothing standing in the way of a UNLV baseball resurgence that could take them there as well and help push MW baseball into the national spotlight as well.
A sell-out crowd filled the Thomas & Mack on Saturday to watch the UNM-UNLV hard court match-up. Let's hope most of them took the time to watch a little baseball as well. It's a great time to be a Lobo ... AND a Rebel.
In just its second year in the Mountain West, Boise State's men's basketball showed a marked improvement in 2012-13 and is closing in on an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
With less than 24 hours to go until the official 2013 NCAA Tournament bracket is announced, the Broncos are projected by ESPN's Joe Lunardi, SI.com's Andy Glockner and CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm to be in the field of 68.
If you take a look at the numbers, it's clear to see that the Broncos belong in the tournament.
Boise State currently holds a top 40 Ratings Percentage Index ranking (37), has won 21 games and finished MW play at 9-7 in the nation's top-rated RPI conference.
Before embarking on the Conference portion of this year's schedule, Boise State showed that it can play - and beat - some of the best teams in the nation. The Broncos lost by four points on the road to Michigan State (No. 8 RPI and Associated Press, No. 7 USA Today/Coaches) in late November. A week later, they took down Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament champion Creighton - also on the road - by 13 points, 83-70. The Blue Jays are currently ranked No. 23 by AP, No. 24 Coaches and No. 25 in the RPI.
With Conference victories over Colorado State (No. 15 RPI) - a win that ended the Rams' 27-game home win streak,- UNLV (No. 22), San Diego State (No. 32) and two close losses to MW regular-season and tournament champion New Mexico (No. 2 RPI, No. 15 AP, No. 14 Coaches), the Broncos have defeated four top-40 RPI teams.
Here's a look at other NCAA Tournament bubble teams and how they compare to Boise State:
Middle Tennessee State (28-5, No. 29 RPI)
The Blue Raiders do own a higher RPI than the Broncos (ranked No. 29), but do not own any wins against top 50 RPI opponents and played just four games against top 100 RPI opposition, compared to Boise State's 16 games and 8-8 record against comparable competition.
LaSalle (21-9, No. 41 RPI)
The Explorers are ranked No. 41 in RPI, but when compared with the Broncos, they have two fewer wins against RPI top 50 teams, and have played only seven games versus top 50 opponents - compared to 11 for Boise State. LaSalle has a .571 winning percentage against teams ranked No. 51-100 in RPI, while Boise State is 4-1 against similar opponents, good for an .800 winning percentage.
Kentucky (21-11, No. 50 RPI)
The 2012 national champion Wildcats are just 2-4 against RPI top 50 teams - two fewer than the Broncos - with both wins coming at home. They are 5-5 against RPI teams in the 51-100 range, contrasted to Boise State's 4-1 record.
Ole Miss (24-8, No. 56 RPI)
Like most teams on this list, Ole Miss has neither won as many games against top 50 opponents (two) or played in the number of contests (five) as Boise State. The Rebels are just 8-6 against teams in the RPI top 100.
Alabama (21-12, No. 62 RPI)
The Crimson Tide did not win a single game against a top 50 RPI opponent (0-4), while the Broncos defeated as many teams as the Crimson Tide played. Boise State played 11 games against top 50 RPI opponents. Alabama is 8-3 against RPI teams in the 51-100 range, but none of those wins came on the road; Boise State has two road wins against the RPI top 100.
Virginia (21-11, No. 66 RPI)
The Cavaliers defeated Duke (27-5), but have also lost to the likes of Boston College (16-17), Florida State (18-15), Delaware (19-14) and Old Dominion (5-25). Their No. 66 RPI ranks 29 spots lower than Boise State.
Maryland (22-11, No. 86 RPI)
The Terrapins did beat Duke twice, but 18 of its 22 wins came against teams with an RPI over 100. Conversely, Boise State won eight of its 21 games against teams ranked in the RPI top 100. Maryland owns a 3-9 record against teams in the RPI top 100, where the Broncos are 8-8 against similar opponents.
Fourteen years ago, the Mountain West embarked on a quest with several goals, one of which was becoming a major player on the hardcourt.
Funny how visions have a way of becoming reality.
Unless something way off the charts happens during several conference tournaments this week, the Mountain West - the top-rated RPI college basketball conference in the country - will be sending five of its nine teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever. Two others (Air Force and Wyoming) may also play in the postseason.
It's been another stellar season for Mountain West basketball. Remember, we're just two seasons removed from the year that saw San Diego State and Kawhi Leonard (who finished the season 34-3) battling for conference supremacy against Jimmer Fredette's BYU Cougars (32-5) with America glued to the TV. The two powerhouse programs squared off three times that season, with neither really being clearly established as the better team. While fans around the country were entertained, most were also certain that Leonard and Fredette's departures to the NBA would mean the MW might take a step back.
Didn't really happen like that.
Instead, the MW landed four teams in the Big Dance the following season- twice as many as the Pac 12- with Colorado State rising up to establish itself as a national player, alongside the Aztecs, UNLV and New Mexico.
Media pundits would never have thought the Mountain West would have more than four teams in the NCAA tournament.
Don't look now, but that line of thinking is also about to go the way of the set shot. Remember the MW school best known for its blue football turf and nationally-relevant football program? That school is suddenly becoming a basketball power as well. With key wins over CSU and San Diego State in the final week of the season, to go with an early-season win at nationally-ranked Creighton, Boise State has now established itself as the fifth MW school worthy of hearing its name called on Selection Sunday.
So go ahead and mark it down: Five MW teams in the Big Dance.
If you spend any time looking at the RPI rankings and listening to the national pundits, you already know that New Mexico (RPI # 2), CSU (# 15), UNLV (# 22) and SDSU (# 32) are all virtual locks for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament (one MW team will gain an automatic bid after they win the conference tourney this weekend.). Now you can add the Broncos (# 37) to that list.
At-large bids are tricky. There are only 37 of those bids available nationally. If a conference regular season champ gets knocked off in the conference tournament and ends up with an at-large spot, it can end up bumping a team that was otherwise projected to get in. So anything can happen. Still, as things stand, the MW is poised to take four of those 37 at-large bids.
No matter how you stack it up, that's impressive.
Is the MW the best conference in the country? Just look at the numbers. You can obviously make a great case for the powerful Big Ten, with four teams ranked in the top 10.
For that reason alone, most would give them the nod as the best conference overall.
But the Big Ten (with 12 teams) is top-heavy. The teams at the bottom, Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern are not as good as say, Wyoming or Nevada or Fresno State. Nevada vs. Northwestern on a neutral court? I'm picking the Wolf Pack.
Top to bottom, the MW doesn't take a back seat to anyone.
With that in mind (along with Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference rising to the top of the polls) it's about time someone in a high-up place put a stop to the ridiculous use of the term "Power Conference" to describe the six conferences that have a Bowl Championship Series affiliation in football. (By the way, this would be a good time to remind everyone that the term "BCS" has nothing to do with college hoops - it only pertains to college football.)
Sorry, but the Almighty Southeastern Conference may rule the gridiron, but in hoops, the SEC is far from being a "power" conference. The Big 12 and Pac-12 are also not close to as good, top-to-bottom, as the MW. It's been a down season overall for the Atlantic Coast Conference (outside of Duke) so only what's left of the current/temporary Big East and the truly powerful Big Ten rank with the MW in terms of overall conference strength. It's the Mountain West that has proven over the last several years that it is a "power" conference.
When Kawhi and Jimmer were at the top of their games, most of us thought MW basketball was as good as it would ever get. How cool is it to be able to look back and be so wrong? The really exciting part is what lies ahead for the future. With another historically powerful program in Utah State joining the conference starting next season, could we be talking about, dare I say it, six bids in future seasons? Another reason to stay tuned.
A year ago at this time, expectations were sky high for the UNLV baseball program under then-second-year head coach Tim Chambers. The former coach of junior college powerhouse College of Southern Nevada (where he'd tutored among others, Bryce Harper, and won a JUCO national championship), Chambers came to UNLV after 11 highly successful years at CSN and turned heads during his first season in the Mountain West.
That first year in 2011 was dynamic. UNLV began with the best start in program history through 21 games, going 17-4. They ended up being nationally-ranked for the next three weeks. Led by All-Conference pitcher Tanner Peters, UNLV posted 33 wins, including victories over ninth-ranked TCU, 11th-ranked UC Irvine and 14th-ranked Arizona. The accolades rolled in, including Peters being named a third team All-American and freshman closer Zack Hartman picking up Freshman All-America honors.
The bar had been officially raised. But expectations are a funny thing. You welcome the recognition, but the weight can be cumbersome if you're trying to grow. Growing was exactly what Chambers and his coaching staff knew they still had to do.
So when the 2012 season rolled around, and everyone was expecting bigger and better things, UNLV tiptoed into the fray with the coaches knowing that an encore was going to be much more difficult to pull off than the opening act.
Peters had left for professional baseball, and in his place was a group of peach fuzz-faced recruits. Chambers' second UNLV team was an uncomfortable mixture of his new recruits - many with ties to CSN - and upperclassmen who remained from the previous staff. They didn't always mesh on the field. There were occasional flashes, but nothing that was sustainable. It became a very young team that was reliant on numerous first- and second-year players. Not the exact recipe for success.
They were eliminated early from the conference tournament they were hosting, finishing the season with a 26-31 mark and very little momentum going into 2013.
Fast forward to February 2013. The Mountain West preseason coaches' poll came out and the Rebels were picked to finish fifth in the six-team conference.
"We understand why," said Rebels assistant coach Kevin Higgins. "The coaches remember the last thing they saw, and they didn't see much from us by the end last season."
It wasn't just momentum that was missing at the beginning of the season. Key contributors like Academic All-America performer Trevor Kirk were gone, along with shortstop Danny Higa and outfielder Trent Cook. And their replacements were going to be very young. Again.
The rebuilding job would have to center on young guys like sophomore Erick Fedde, who had finished his rookie season with a 6-5 record, 3.59 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 90.1 innings pitched - earning Freshman All-America honors. And Chambers got a lift when slugger Brandon Bayardi turned down an offer from the Minnesota Twins, who had drafted him in the 36th round, to come back for his senior year, trying to match or even improve on his stellar performance of .361 batting average, 7 home runs and 53 RBI last season. Hartman is also back hoping to post numbers even better than his 3-1 record and seven saves from 2012.
While the changes in the 2013 UNLV team aren't as dramatic, they are significant, and less than a month into the new season, very successful. The Rebels opened the season taking three of four games from SEC member Tennessee. After rolling through the Rebel Classic last week and beating Hawai'i on Monday night, UNLV has now won six games in a row as they prepare for a trip to nationally-ranked Stanford, packing a 10-3 overall record and a good deal of confidence. The Rebels played five games in five nights through the Classic and extra game with the Rainbows, a challenge that would tax every pitching staff in America. These Rebels were up to the challenge.
Fedde is already 2-0 with a stellar 2.00 ERA. Freshman pitcher Kenny Oakley has already picked up his first win along with his first MW Pitcher of the Week award after hurling seven shut-out innings against Gonzaga. He's also 2-0, with a 1.17 ERA. And so it goes...so far.
Sophomore Joey Swanner leads a group of youngsters that have been sensational, hitting .340. The Rebels boast a team batting average of .323 during their hot start, while holding opponents to a .236 mark. That's a recipe for long term success.
"We're very young and that's exciting and scary at the same time," Higgins said. "They're going to make mistakes, but we like that they are aggressive mistakes, things you can learn from. We may boot a few balls, but then they'll make a great play and turn things around.
"We're going to go as far as our seniors take us," Higgins continued. "Just like most teams. So far, those guys have been tremendous."
While Bayardi has started the season predictably, hitting .377 through 13 games, fellow senior Mark Shannon is pulling double duty. After going 3-for-5 against Hawai'i on Monday night, Shannon is hitting .382. And oh, by the way, he also pitched seven innings against the Rainbow, yielding just one run on three hits. Has a player ever been named MW Pitcher AND Player of the Week in the same week?
And oh, what about those pre-season prognostications about now?
"We have used it as something of a rallying cry," Higgins acknowledged. "But in the end, it doesn't matter a bit, because it's all about what you do on the field and especially what you do in the conference tournament. That's how we will be judged, so that's what really matters."
Steve Alford stood all alone at the hallway entrance where visiting teams walk onto the court at Moby Arena. He was pacing, still wearing his game face, even though the game had already ended. Alford's 16th-ranked Lobos, behind a record-setting 46-point performance from Kendall Williams, had just snapped No. 22 Colorado State's 27-game home win streak, beating the Rams, 91-82. Alford was waiting to greet his point guard, who was finishing up a postgame TV interview.
When Williams finally made his way to where Alford was waiting, the coach ushered him to a spot under the Moby bleachers where the two shared a private moment, an embrace and ear to ear smiles that the public doesn't often see from the veteran coach. It was one of those moments that make coaching special, a time when a guy like Alford, who has been there, done that, gets to see the true fruits of his labor.
Williams' Jimmer-like performance had just propelled the Lobos well into the front of the pack in terms of the MW regular season title and top seed in the conference tourney. It could also have earned Alford the league's Coach of the Year award, assuming UNM is able to hold its lead over CSU (a full two games plus the tiebreaker with four games left to play) and capture the regular season title they were not favored to win. Make no mistake: Winning coach of the year in the powerful Mountain West is no small feat. Not with the stellar group of coaches that occupy the first chair in this league.
Former NBA head coach Stan Van Gundy watched the game from courtside while doing color for the NBC Sports Network. When I mentioned to him afterwards what good coaches there are in this league, the coaching veteran quickly shot back.
"No, no, no," Van Gundy corrected me. "Not good coaches...this league has GREAT coaches. Not good. GREAT. Good players, lots of talent. But GREAT coaches."
He wasn't just referring to Alford, of course. In the same conversation, he mentioned San Diego State's Steve Fisher, with more than 460 career wins and the only MW coach with a National title on his coaching resume, and CSU's Larry Eustachy, who has won more than 420 games as a head coach and taken a team to the Final Four. You can add Wyoming's Larry Shyatt to the list of veteran head men who make the MW a true power conference.
Van Gundy smiled as he lamented what Eustachy was going through in his locker room in the aftermath of the Rams second straight loss. "It's tough for Larry right now," Van Gundy said. "But he will watch the tape, and see that a guy (Williams) just had the greatest game of his life and see that his team didn't play that bad. He probably won't yell at them tomorrow as much as he might want to right now."
It was an epic game, only the second between ranked teams ever played at Moby (a Feb. 13, 2013 matchup between then-No. 22 San Diego State and the then 24th-ranked Rams was the first). A good measure of credit for that also has to go to Eustachy, who took a well-stocked cupboard from his predecessor, Tim Miles, and took things up a notch, making CSU a legit contender in one of the toughest conferences in the country. Eustachy will lose all five starters off his first team after this season, but there is no doubt that CSU's basketball program is in great hands moving forward.
Alford's program is now among the best in the country - New Mexico has won six games in a row against ranked teams - and Fisher's Aztecs, who will now remain in the MW to help keep the conference among the elite - will remain a force to reckon with for many years to come. Shyatt's Cowboy's started the season 13-0 and have the look of a title contender in the very near future.
On the horizon, the future appears to be just as bright for the young up-and-comers among the league coaches, headlined by UNLV's Dave Rice, now in just his second season as a head coach. Rice has already become the winningest coach over his first two seasons in UNLV history and with a very young team, that trend figures to continue over the next few seasons.
There was a point during the season when Air Force was smack dab in the middle of the league race, placing second-year head coach Dave Pilipovich right in the middle of Coach of the Year talk. Add in Boise State's third-year head man Leon Rice - whose team is still on the NCAA bubble and will make a postseason appearance this season, Fresno State's Rodney Terry (second year) and Nevada's David Carter (fourth year) and you have a group of head coaches that don't take a back seat to any group in any conference in America.
It's enough to make MW fans smile from ear to ear.
It was during a post-practice interview a few years ago that I sat down with a defensive coordinator whose team was hovering somewhere between abominable and abysmal in offering resistance to opposing offenses.
A coach of some repute who had spent time in both the Big Ten and Big 12, his defense that season ranked 100th or worse in virtually every statistical category in college football. Curious as to how one group could so thoroughly coat itself in such ignominy, I asked if things could get any worse over the final third of the season.
Arching an eyebrow and looking less than enamored about the prospect of broaching the topic, he offered this:
"If you're going to judge us on statistics alone, then, no, we're not a very good defense."
It was one of the most remarkable responses I'd ever received from any coach in any sport I'd ever covered, and that covers more than a few. If not statistics, what was I to judge his defense on? The color of their eyes? The height of the sky? Unrefined oil prices in Qatar?
Now, numbers may not tell the whole story, but neither do they mask ineptitude. Ultimately, they define a team for what it is or is not, paring back the layers to unveil its core strengths or its abundance of blemishes.
So if you'd care to utilize statistics in sizing up the defense being played in Mountain West men's basketball this season, the data is not only a good place start, it's one of the foremost factors in how a league once erroneously referred to as a "mid-major" has ascended the ranks of the royals.
Consider: As of this writing, five of the MW's nine teams rank among the top 50 nationally in either field-goal percentage defense or scoring defense. Finding an open shooter is like discovering a sapphire at the bottom of a soup bowl. Lanes are clogged like midtown Manhattan. And for those who do get to the rim, the resultant pile-up often makes it difficult to distinguish whether teams should be awarded first downs or free throws.
Heading into this week's games, eight of the league's nine teams are allowing 67.5 points or fewer on the season, meaning 143 (41 percent) of the nation's 345 Division I teams are allowing more. Of the 61 teams in the country currently limiting opponents to a shooting percentage to 40 percent or less, four of those teams --- UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico and Colorado State --- reside in the MW.
UNLV boasts the league's top field-goal shooting defense (38.5) after limiting Wyoming to just 28.8 percent last Saturday, the lowest shooting performance by a Runnin' Rebel opponent in Conference play this season. Overall, the Rebels have held teams to 34.5 percent or less from the field nine times this year and to 23.8 percent or less from 3-point range nine times as well.
San Diego State, which ranks second in the league in both field-goal percentage defense (38.7) and scoring defense (60.1 ppg), is threatening to erase school records in both categories. The record for field-goal percentage defense (39.6) and scoring defense (59.2) were both established during the team's NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 run in 2010-11.
New Mexico is limiting opponents to a shooting percentage of just 39.3 (39th nationally), a figure that would rank as the best in 46 years were it not for last season's effort of 38.4 percent. Providing the Lobos are able to hold opponents to under 40.0 percent the rest of the way, it would mark their first time accomplishing the feat in consecutive seasons since 1956-57 (38.6) and 1957-58 (37.2).
Colorado State, which entered last Saturday's meeting with the Lobos ranked ahead of them in field-goal percentage defense, saw that number dip slightly after UNM's Kendall Williams torched the nets for 46 points en route to a 52.9 team shooting percentage. The Rams are limiting opponents to 39.4 percent, a figure exceeded in the MW by only UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State.
Despite allowing a season-high 79 points at San Diego State last Tuesday, Wyoming leads the MW and is 11th in the NCAA in scoring defense, yielding just 56.5 points per game. And while better days are ahead for Coach Rodney Terry's young Fresno State squad, which currently occupies last place in the league, no one has questioned the Bulldogs' defensive tenacity. Fresno State is ranked 59th nationally, allowing 61.3 points per contest.
Impressive numbers all. Assuming, of course, that statistics have anything to do with performance.
Lost in the excitement of another thrilling Mountain West basketball season are the two words that echoed from Albuquerque to Fresno this past weekend: "Play Ball!"
A different kind of MW baseball season has now begun. It's out with the old - in the form of the dynasty that was TCU baseball, and in with the new, in the form of the 2008 College World Series Champion Fresno State Bulldogs who arrive for the 2013 season. And while the Bulldogs bring some pedigree with them to their new conference, they don't show up and instantly become the new sheriff in town. The reigning King of this Hill remains Ray Birmingham's New Mexico Lobos. The question that will be answered this season is how comfortably these Lobos will wear the crown as opposed to fighting to capture it in the first place.
For the first time since 2006, TCU does not enter the season as the pre-season favorite in the Mountain West. Now that they've move to the Big 12, the team that unseated the Frogs last season - and likely would have been this year's pre-season favorite even if TCU was still around - is New Mexico, ranked in the Top 25 at the start of the year for the first time ever.
There's ample reason for excitement around Lobo baseball, even after they dropped two of three to Oklahoma State to start the season. Birmingham returns Co-MW Players of the Year in Mitchell Garver and DJ Peterson (who won the league's Triple Crown last season.) Both are on national Player of the Year watch lists for this season. The Lobos also return All-Conference performers Alex Allbritton (SS), Josh Melendez (OF) and Josh Walker (P). They appear loaded and ready to pick up where they left off last season.
So what will Birmingham, a master of motivation and preparation, do now that he can't play the underdog card anymore? Ever since he took the UNM job in 2008, he's been able to plaster "TCU Horned Frogs, MW Champs" on his locker room wall and point to it when he needed to grab his team's attention. Ray's Lobos have always had the evil empire in Fort Worth to take aim at, the team they both loathed and wanted to be like at the same time. Now that the plaque on the wall notes that UNM is the defending champs, Ray needed a new ploy.
He didn't take long to ID one. A slightly doctored photo made the rounds on Twitter a couple weeks ago, one that featured the Lobos midfield dog pile after they won the 2011 MW tournament, taking place with the huge TD Ameritrade Park shot as the background. The pic was tweaked to create the illusion that the celebration had - or more directly, WILL - take place in Omaha next time around.
Omaha - sight of the College World Series - is Birmingham's one and only goal for his team. Conference titles are great. UNM has now won two in a row. But trips to the CWS are what make a program elite, and elite is all that Birmingham will settle for.
Come conference time, the Lobos will have to contend with a talented San Diego State squad that will have Head Coach Tony Gwynn for the full season, and has 11 experience arms on the staff to make things tough on opponents. Michael Cederoth, who won his first start against nationally-ranked University of San Diego on Friday, has the makings of the next Aztec superstar pitcher. Nevada - last season's WAC champs - are also entering the conference. Fresno State will be tough again, and UNLV will be much improved. No one can sleep on Air Force, as several teams learned last season. The Falcons made a big leap and nearly snuck into the conference tourney. If opening weekend is a true indicator, the MW race could be a tight one. The Aztecs swept the three-game series from No. 25 USD, while UNLV took their opening series from SEC power Tennessee.
Non-conference scheduling - sometimes OVER scheduling - has always been a source of pride for Birmingham. He'd take his team anywhere at any time to play anyone. Two years ago, New Mexico played the toughest schedule in the country, and their regular-season record reflected the anticipated struggles. Then they up and took out TCU to win the conference tourney for the second of three straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
Playing good teams in the non-conference is helps good teams great, so it was no surprise when Birmingham began loading up the schedule. This season he set up a season opening series with Oklahoma State to test his team and his inexperienced pitching staff right out of the gate. A narrow 4-2 defeat (on two unearned runs late in the game) cost them on opening night, and the Pokes pulled out a gut-wrenching, 13-inning, 15-14 win in game two, when UNM blew a 14-6 lead. But the Lobos showed the fight we've come to expect from a Birmingham team in bouncing back to clobber the Cowboys 9-1 in the series finale to take some momentum into the second week's trip to south Texas to face Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Iowa and Oklahoma. Still on the docket are match-ups with Nebraska, Arizona State, UC Riverside and Texas Tech. Anyone, anytime, anywhere.
It's gonna be a fun ride this season.
The lead has virtually evaporated and so has the margin of error.
With less than a month remaining in the Mountain West men's basketball regular season, two teams --- New Mexico and Colorado State --- are separated by a half game atop the league standings.
The No. 19/18 Lobos and No. 24/24 Rams won't meet for a second time until Feb. 23, but given the myriad trapdoors existing in a league that has now had a record five of its nine teams ranked in the Top 25 this season, one false step can prove perilous.
Consider: Of the five teams currently sporting winning records in league play, four --- Air Force, CSU, San Diego State and UNLV --- will square off against each other this week. And while New Mexico may still hold at serve at week's end after facing Fresno State on the road and Boise State at home, no one need remind the Lobos that both the Bulldogs and Broncos have already beaten UNLV, a team that on Saturday led by as many as 16 points and never trailed in its 64-55 win over New Mexico.
Game of the week: No. 22 San Diego State at No. 24/24 Colorado State, Wednesday. These are heady times in Fort Collins, where the Rams this week cracked the Top 25 for the first time since the 1953-54 season. While the Rams have become virtually bulletproof at Moby Arena, boasting the nation's third-longest active home win streak at 26 games, they have also endured their share of struggles at home against the Aztecs. San Diego State, which needed overtime to beat CSU after building an 18-point lead in the teams' initial meeting of the season, has won six times in its last seven visits to Fort Collins. Though both teams possess ample firepower on the perimeter, the difference is in the paint, where Colorado State ranks No. 1 in the nation in rebounding with an average of 42.4 rebounds per game. Led by senior Pierce Hornung's game-high 14 boards, the Rams outrebounded SDSU, 54-38, in the teams' first meeting of the season.
Individual matchup to watch: Two of the league's elite guards take center stage Wednesday at Clune Arena when UNLV visits Air Force. Rebel senior Anthony Marshall, who has effectively silenced critics questioning his ability to transition to point guard this season, is averaging a league-high 6.0 assists per game. No other player in the MW is averaging more than five. Meanwhile, Falcon senior Michael Lyons, whose 37-point performance against Boise State on Jan. 19 ranks as the highest-scoring game by a MW player this season, is second in the league in points per game (17.6). Both rank among the top 10 in the MW in minutes played, with Marshall averaging 33.54 (third) and Lyons averaging 32.55 (eighth). Marshall had a career-high 12 assists in UNLV's 76-71 overtime victory over Air Force on Jan. 13, while Lyons recorded team-highs of 19 points and seven rebounds.
Must win: Air Force heads into its matchup with UNLV two games back in the league race and tied for fourth place with the Rebels. While all three teams ahead of Air Force in the league standings (along with UNLV) must take to the road this week, the Falcons will be at home both Wednesday and Saturday, when they face Colorado State. Not only would a win over the Rebels snap Air Force's current two-game skid, it would also provide a large measure of momentum heading into its meeting with a CSU team that is 3-3 in its last six visits to Colorado Springs. The Falcons have lost only once at home this season, that coming in a 72-69 decision against previously Top 25-ranked Wichita State.
Big week: San Diego State, the preseason favorite in the league's media poll, will either validate that vote or find itself in scramble mode following this week's road games at No. 24/24 Colorado State and UNLV. In addition to winning six of their last seven at Moby Arena, the No. 22 Aztecs have won five of their last eight at UNLV. SDSU desperately needs the presence of senior point guard Xavier Thames, who has missed four of the team's nine league games with a lower back strain. After missing two consecutive contests, Thames returned to action in Saturday's win over Fresno State, playing 13 minutes while finishing with five points, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks and no turnovers.
Stat of note: Colorado State is the only team in the nation with two players averaging more than nine rebounds this season. Colton Iverson leads the Rams with an average of 9.7 rebounds per contest, while Pierce Hornung is averaging 9.3.
Imagine a tennis match where both players were content to simply return serve - play it safe and wait for the other guy to slip up and make the first mistake. That's sort of what the Mountain West Men's Basketball race has been like so far. With a couple of exceptions, it's been all about holding serve. It's such a tight race that no one wants to be the first team to make a critical mistake - in the form of losing a game they're expected to win. The unexpected has already taken a bite out of a couple of conference favorites. The others continue to play it close to the vest.
We've just begun the "second half" of the conference season, and the standings aren't exactly what they were forecasted to be, but it's very close. New Mexico remains on top, a half game ahead of Colorado State, with San Diego State third and UNLV tied for fourth with an Air Force squad that has defied the preseason prognosticators who picked the Falcons to finish dead last. Four of those five teams most likely will be in the NCAA tourney, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot at stake the rest of the way. There are conference titles - regular and postseason - to be won.
The Lobos have done the best job of holding serve to this point, capturing wins in all their home games (including victories over CSU and UNLV) while not losing any games they were favored to win. Their only losses are at SDSU and at UNLV Saturday night. No shame in those of course. Otherwise, the Lobos have done most everything right, with their Top 25 national ranking proof of that. For the Lobos to win it: UNM must win its three remaining home games, including the re-match with San Diego State, which whipped the Lobos in Cali. They need to win three of the four remaining road contests to finish a sparkling 13-3. The road games - at Fresno State, Nevada and Air Force - are all winnable, albeit not easily, as all three of those teams already boast a win at home against the top half of the league. A win in Fort Collins would probably seal the deal.
Colorado State also went through the first half of the regular season unbeaten at home while winning the road games they were favored to win. They also lost both road games they were picked to lose, at San Diego State and at New Mexico. So the Rams are exactly where most people thought they'd be at this moment, having held serve. Having beaten the Rebels in Fort Collins, what's left for CSU is a visit to UNLV and home games with the Aztecs and Lobos. If form holds true, and CSU wins its remaining home games and falls at UNLV, then the Rams' chances of winning the conference title come down to being able to win road games at Wyoming, Air Force and Boise State, which, again, won't be easy. It will take all of that to overtake the Lobos. For Colorado State to force the issue into at least a tiebreaker scenario, the Rams would have to break from the pattern and find a way to win at UNLV, and the Rebels looked outstanding at home in beating UNM. For the Rams to win it: CSU will have to beat SDSU and New Mexico (as well as Fresno State and Nevada) at home, and win three of the four remaining conference road games to also finish 13-3 in league play...and hope the tiebreaker tilts the Rams' way.
The Aztecs are in a decent place, but may look back at a home loss to UNLV and road losses at Air Force and Wyoming - three games they were favored to win - as key missteps in terms of the conference race. They get a shot at ending CSU's home winning streak on Wednesday, and have to also hope to get some help in the form of an unexpected loss or two from the teams ahead of them. For the Aztecs to win it: SDSU will have to win its three remaining home games of course, but to gain the top spot, the Aztecs would probably have to beat all three of the other contenders on the road...and win at Boise State. Winning all four of those road games would be miraculous.
At 5-4 in conference play, respectively, Air Force and UNLV have the most work to do. After last weekend's win over New Mexico, the Rebels might have the most preferred schedule down the stretch, with home games against Colorado State AND San Diego State...AND they already own a big road win at San Diego State. However, the Rebels have uncharacteristically already lost at Boise State AND Fresno State. The Falcons host both UNLV (who they took to overtime in Las Vegas) and Colorado State this week...AND they have a home win over San Diego State. BUT Air Force has to travel to Boise State and SDSU. It will take a clean run through the second half of the conference season for either team to claim the top seed in the conference tourney. For the Falcons or Rebels to win it: Air Force or UNLV will have to go 7-0 from here on out and hope that 12-4 is good enough.
The regular season title means a lot, but the conference tourney title means a little bit more, bringing that automatic NCAA bid and a higher seeding with it. Any of the four teams is capable of winning the tournament, but the team with that top seed does go in with a bit of an advantage.
Mick McGrane has covered the Mountain West since the league's inception in 1999. He spent 12 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where he served as the beat writer for San Diego State football and men's basketball. He currently represents the MW as a member of the Football Writers Association of America All-America Committee and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. McGrane serves as senior writer to the Mountain West, providing readers with exclusive, in-depth information about the Conference by highlighting its 10 member institutions and contributing feature stories on student-athletes that participate in the league's 18 sponsored sports.
Have a question for Mick? E-mail him at mick@TheMWC.com or check him out on Twitter @MWCMick.
Mark Knudson is a Colorado State journalism school graduate and a 12-year veteran of professional baseball. During his playing career, Mark pitched for three major league teams, including the Colorado Rockies, where he was the first Colorado native to play for the hometown team. He recorded wins over three of the four legendary pitchers who make up the 4,000 strikeout club: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. His win over Ryan came for the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day in 1991.
Since his retirement, Mark has been a feature writer and columnist for Mile High Sports, a radio talk show host and TV analyst for numerous sports media outlets. For the past six years, he was a columnist and baseball analyst for The Mtn., along with being one of Colorado's six Heisman Trophy voters.
Have a question for Mark? Visit him at ElevationSportsNetwork.com or check him out on Twitter @MarkKnudson41.