Difficult as it may be to glean much from pre-Thanksgiving college basketball results, one team in the West Coast Wednesday footprint made a statement in opening week: the Nevada Wolf Pack.
Eric Musselman’s defending Mountain West Conference champions has played two games, and has gone 3-0 against teams picked to win their conferences in 2017-18. Allow me to explain.
Nevada opened on Friday with an 88-64 rout of Big Sky favorite Idaho, then knocked off Atlantic 10 Conference favorite Rhode Island on Monday, 88-81.
Those are the two victories that count for the Pack’s official docket, but Nevada also won a scrimmage last month against Western Athletic Conference favorite, Grand Canyon.
Beating GCU does not factor into Nevada’s NCAA Tournament resume, obviously, but the scrimmage win does serve notice about the Wolf Pack’s place in the national pecking order among mid-majors. That’s pretty important for the Mountain West as a whole, too, as the league has lost a considerable measure of prestige in recent years.
Rewind a half-decade ago, and the Mountain West occupied that gray area in college basketball separating power conferences from mid-major. While college football draws clear divisions between power and not, hoops has this debatable zone wherein conferences outside of the football Power Five reside away from one-or-two-bid leagues, but not necessarily on the same plane as the power brokers.
Mountain West was the forerunner for that unofficial group in the early part of the 2010s, and was considerably better than the Pac-12 during that stretch. The rapid decline of budding power San Diego State (more on that in a moment), coaching changes and sub-par recruiting rendered the Mountain West a league now below even the West Coast Conference in certain regards.
Nevada’s win over Rhode Island in particular was an important notch in the MWC’s favor. The Atlantic 10 has ascended to the level the Mountain West occupied not long ago with programs like VCU, Davidson (which Nevada faces on Tuesday) and recently, Rhode Island.
The Rams had Final Four participant Oregon on the ropes last March, and returned the bulk of the lineup for 2017-18.
“Rhode Island’s an unbelievably talented team, and they’re really well coached,” Musselman said in his post-game press conference. “Thought it was two great teams going at each other…A great win for our program on national TV.”
Jordan Caroline made his first real resounding impression as an All-America caliber player before that ESPNU audience with 28 points and 12 rebounds. Caroline’s been spotlighted here on #WCW before, and you can rest assured he will be again.
Malaise on Montezuma Mesa
Though the Mountain West has one great team in Nevada, the conference as a whole has a ways to go before approaching 2010-through-2013 levels — in part due to the aforementioned struggles of San Diego State.
Steve Fisher built the once-moribund program into a nationally relevant success story, using a stifling defensive style. In the latter years of Fisher’s run, the Aztecs remained excellent on defense, but became increasingly ineffective on offense. Last season, San Diego State was downright awful on the offensive end, ranking No. 183 in KenPom.com adjusted offensive efficiency and 296 in effective field-goal percentage.
Early into Brian Dutcher’s tenure, the Aztecs appear to have lost the defensive edge, too.
San Diego State surrendered an astounding 56 points in the second half at Arizona State Tuesday, as a 40-34 halftime lead became a 90-68 blowout loss.
“The strength of our program has always been our defense and it wasn’t there tonight,” Dutcher said in his post-game press conference. “We knew they were an attacking team, they have excellent guards that really get to the rim and they got there on us in the second half.”
San Diego State will need to find that defensive spark, and fast. The Aztecs play in the Wooden Legacy over Thanksgiving weekend, have a home date with Gonzaga before Christmas, then jump into Mountain West Conference play a week later.
As for the Aztecs’ Tuesday night opponent, Arizona State, the Sun Devils are suddenly intriguing.
Middle of the Pac
The Pac-12 opened 2017-18 with a pretty clear pecking order on top: Arizona and USC look most likely to jockey for championship contention, but one of either Oregon or UCLA has the talent to make noise.
In the middle of the Pac-12, opportunities to win a big game or two, create some championship upheaval and make the NCAA Tournament exists. The most likely candidate for that role heading into the season appeared to be Stanford, returning one of the best players in the conference (Reid Travis) and a veteran lineup.
But on the same night Arizona State picked apart San Diego State’s ballyhooed defense, Stanford lost at home to Eastern Washington — and that’s an Eastern Washington team readjusting its lineup after the departure of double-double machine Jacob Wiley, who is now balling for the Brooklyn Nets.
Now, to reiterate the above: Sweeping declarations should be avoided in the early going of college basketball; ESPECIALLY the pre-Thanksgiving happenings. Nevertheless, that’s a troubling loss for the Cardinal, juxtaposed against a promising win for the Sun Devils.
Expectations set for Bob Hurley in his first few seasons in Tempe were set too high; that much is evident from the Sun Devils’ 30-35 overall record, and lousy 12-24 conference mark.
Though Herb Sendek had Arizona State going at the program’s highest level since the days of Byron Scott and Fat Lever, Hurley had to build from the ground up to establish the identity he wanted. This season might start to bear fruit.
Tra Holder is an explosive scorer at the 1-spot in a vein similar to that of Sun Devil great, Eddie House. That’s not to say Holder will score 61 points in a game this season, as House did for ASU in 2000 — but I’m also not saying he won’t.
Animosity in the Land of Enchantment
A key figure in the notoriously corrupt Harding Administration, in particular key to the Teapot Dome Scandal, was Albert Fall. The former New Mexico senator was notoriously short-tempered, rumored to have threatened his various nemeses.
The hostile nature of Albert Fall lives on his home state this week, manifested on the basketball court in a matchup between New Mexico and New Mexico State.
— NM State MBB (@NMStateMBB) November 15, 2017
Animosity between these in-state rivals need not be manufactured. The schools and their fan bases do not particularly like one another. But the tensions take on a heightened level this season, with Friday’s game marking the return of coach Paul Weir to Las Cruces.
Weir spent all of one season at New Mexico State, taking over for Marvin Menzies following his exit to UNLV. Weir won 28 games and the Western Athletic Conference Tournament to send the Aggies to their seventh NCAA Tournament in the past decade.
While New Mexico State has had recent success, and has a surprisingly rich basketball history in general, the university’s athletic department ultimately has a lower ceiling. That became clear when New Mexico, which has struggled mightily since Steve Alford left for UCLA, pilfered Weir from NMSU.
Losing a coach after just one season is difficult. Losing a coach after one season for an in-state rival is next-level.
New Mexico’s a program with remarkable potential, last evidenced in some of the outstanding teams Alford had in his run. Albuquerque’s a basketball town, and The Pit is one of the most electric venues in the nation, even when the Lobos are mediocre. The right coach can turn that program into a powerhouse.
New Mexico State has proven successful amid change, however, from Lou Henson to Neil McCarthy, Reggie Theus to Marvin Menzies to Paul Weir. The 2017-18 Aggies showed some promise this week, playing Top 20-ranked and potential Final Four team Saint Mary’s tough for a half.
Friday’s matchup in the Pan American Center should be fun — and hostile.