College Basketball Nation: Wyoming Cowboys

Look back, look ahead: Mountain West

April, 28, 2014
There is nothing mid-major about San Diego State, New Mexico, UNLV and at times a few others in the Mountain West Conference. The capacity of their arenas, the coaching salaries, the money put into the programs and the ability to buy nonconference games dispute any attempts to label some of the top teams in the conference.

Placing multiple teams in the NCAA tournament also discounts any second-tier status. Two seasons ago, five of the nine teams made the dance. Those aren't mid-major numbers.

But to maintain its status as an alternative to the traditional five, much like the Atlantic 10, the MWC has to get its bottom in gear and can ill afford to let the nonconference portion of the schedule pass without significant victories.

Getting a team in the Sweet 16, as San Diego State achieved last month, helps camouflage the problems. Having only one other team in the tournament that whiffed in the round of 64 for the second consecutive season -- New Mexico -- doesn't help the situation.

What we saw this season: The problem was that the MWC was only those two teams.

[+] EnlargeSan Diego State
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsSteve Fisher and San Diego State advanced to the Sweet 16, but the depth of the Mountain West didn't show in the postseason.
New Mexico and San Diego State played two tremendously competitive and high-level basketball games that would have matched any other conference's top two teams. Duke-Syracuse was better, but that game wasn't between the top two teams in the conference, considering Virginia won the ACC. New Mexico and San Diego State have fostered a healthy, and much-needed, rivalry.

UNLV shares a similar rivalry with both schools, but the Runnin' Rebels couldn't find any form of consistency.

Getting zero teams in the NIT is an indication of the lack of quality depth in the conference. Boise State was supposed to follow up a First Four appearance with another NCAA berth, only to miss several opportunities to impress.

"We didn't have the number of quality nonconference wins that we did the year before, and that's why we got two teams in the tournament,” said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher. "We played enough of them, but we didn't win enough of them.”

Fisher cited the opportunities UNLV and Boise State had, but neither was able to get the necessary wins.

"Sometimes luck is involved,” Fisher said. "Whatever it was, we didn't get enough of them. The best win might have been New Mexico beating Cincinnati. But the teams in our league were good.”

Of course, Fisher is being modest. The best win was San Diego State winning at Kansas. That victory silenced critics who have taken to knocking down the MWC's ability to compete at the highest level during the season. The victories in the NCAA tournament aren't always over top teams, as matchups and seeding can play a role.

"The bottom hurt us,” said Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt. "There were pretty good teams left out. But we didn't get the wins in November and December like we did the year before. You're only talking about four or five more wins against the BCS leagues.”

The MWC got what it deserved. SDSU and New Mexico were the two best teams and the ones that should have been in the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs lived up to their seeding and reached the Sweet 16 with strong performances before falling to new rival Arizona. New Mexico once again failed to get out of the first game, this time losing to a middling Stanford team that suddenly got hot enough to reach the Sweet 16.

"Our league was better than people thought,” Fisher said. "It was a difficult league to win on the road, but we didn't get enough nonconference games to enhance the RPI.”

That must change. The coaches are confident it will in 2014-15.

What we expect to see next season: The Aztecs are the only sure thing in 2014-15, and that's even with the departure of Xavier Thames and Josh Davis.

"That's a mouthful,” Fisher said. "X was so good last season, and Josh Davis was the missing ingredient. He was relentless on the boards. We'll miss them both. The question will be is how much better are the returnees? Can we play the two bigs Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol [a transfer from Arizona] together and how much? We've got the post players. And then how much can our new kids contribute right away?”

The Aztecs still have Dwayne Polee II and JJ O'Brien to give them even more experience.

"San Diego State will be the favorite,” said New Mexico coach Craig Neal. "Boise will be pretty good. The rest is up for grabs.”

The Broncos, who slid back after the NCAA tournament berth in 2013, kept their most valuable possession when coach Leon Rice decided against going to Washington State.

[+] EnlargeLarry Nance Jr
Troy Babbitt/USA TODAY SportsLarry Nance Jr. and Wyoming upset San Diego State in February, but Nance tore his ACL a week later, derailing his team's postseason hopes.
The core of the Broncos returns, led by Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic.

"We were a whisker away last season,” Rice said. "We were probably a little too small last year. Recruiting has filled that need. The Broncos will be a lot bigger and what could be our most talented team.”

Said Fisher: "I thought Boise would be really good, but they had a hard time winning close games. That Australian kid [Nick Duncan] is pretty good, and so is Drmic [also from Australia].”

The sleeper pick among the coaches is Wyoming, assuming Larry Nance Jr. is healthy from his torn ACL.

"He's as good a big guy as any in the league -- maybe the best -- and Larry Shyatt does a great job,” Fisher said. "They make you play at their place no matter what they've got.”

Shyatt agrees.

"We were right on the cusp,” he said. "We were never the same once Larry went down. But this is the first time in years we've got four starters back. I'm pretty optimistic.”

UNLV has always had talent, even with early-entry departures. Dave Rice, who flirted with South Florida, ended up getting a contract extension through 2018-19. Losing Bryce Dejean-Jones as a transfer and seeing Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith declare for the draft normally would mean a slip. But counting out the Rebels is never smart. Deville Smith will likely need to be the leader.

The Lobos have been the most consistent winner along with San Diego State the past six years. But this will be Neal's toughest test as an assistant or head coach. Gone are Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk. Cullen Neal and Hugh Greenwood will be the likely lead guards, with the need for big men to emerge fast.

"This is not an easy conference,” Neal said. "It is highly competitive, with great venues and great players.”

3-point shot: Fisher's future

April, 28, 2014

Andy Katz looks at San Diego State's schedule, Steve Fisher's future with the Aztecs, Wyoming's potential and Delon Wright's return to Utah.

Nonconference schedule analysis: MWC

September, 11, 2013
This week, is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation’s top leagues. Next up: the Mountain West.


Toughest: Colorado (Nov. 30)
Next toughest: Richmond (Nov. 27)
The rest: vs. Army (Nov. 8 in Lexington, Va.), vs. Citadel/WMI (Nov. 9 in Lexington, Va.), Jackson State (Nov. 14), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Nov. 17), Colorado Christian (Nov. 20), South Dakota (Dec. 5), Western State (Dec. 9), UC Riverside (Dec. 14), at UC Davis (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- As in the Falcons get two points for playing Colorado and Richmond at home. Those are nice home games for Air Force. The rest of the slate is weak, but that's OK considering that coach Dave Pilipovich has a rebuilding team. So this schedule matches the current team.


Toughest: at Kentucky (Dec. 10)
Next toughest: Utah (Dec. 3), Saint Mary's (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25 in Honolulu)
The rest: UT-Arlington (Nov. 8), Simpson (Nov. 15), Seattle (Nov. 19), at New Orleans (Nov. 23), Portland State (Nov. 29), Carroll (Dec. 5)

Toughness scale: 5 -- Boise State has a one-way ticket to Kentucky, and that's enough to warrant a decent grade. The Broncos, likely picked second in the MWC, needed to test themselves. The home games against Saint Mary's and Utah will certainly push them as well. Boise State is the potential favorite in Hawaii but will have to get past the hometown Warriors, which is no easy task. Iowa State is a possible finalist on the other side of the bracket. But this tourney could be Boise's breakout heading into the MWC, short of upsetting Kentucky at Rupp.


Toughest: at Gonzaga (Nov. 11)
Next toughest: at UTEP (Nov. 19), New Mexico State (Nov. 30), Colorado (Dec. 3)
The rest: UCCS (Nov. 8), Weber State (Nov. 16), Northern Colorado (Nov. 22), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 25), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 27), Southwestern Oklahoma State (Dec. 7), Denver (Dec. 11), UIC (Dec. 23), Lamar (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The Rams will have quite a chore winning at Gonzaga and UTEP. These are two quality games for Larry Eustachy. Getting New Mexico State and Colorado at home is a huge plus for a team rebuilding after an NCAA tournament run last March. The rest of the slate is fine, considering the inexperience at a number of key positions.


Toughest: vs. Florida (Dec. 21 in Sunrise, Fla.)
Next toughest: at Pittsburgh (Nov. 12), at Utah (Dec. 7), at Cal (Dec. 14)
The rest: at UC Irvine (Nov. 8), Cal State Northridge (Nov. 16), Cal Poly (Nov. 20), San Diego Christian (Nov. 25), Drake (Nov. 29), CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 30), Northern Arizona (Dec. 1), UC Merced (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 6 -- The Bulldogs are still in rebuilding mode, but Rodney Terry put together a rough schedule to get to MWC play. Florida is an elite team. Going on the road to Pitt, Utah and Cal would be tough for most clubs, regardless of what rebuilding stage they were in. The pressure will be on the Bulldogs to clean up the rest at home to ensure there is some momentum going into the conference.


Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29)
Next toughest: at Cal (Dec. 10), Iona (Dec. 22)
The rest: Montana Tech (Nov. 4), Pacific (Nov. 8), at Cal Poly (Nov. 12), at San Francisco (Nov. 15), at CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 18), Chattanooga (Nov. 22), Morehead State (Nov. 24), at UC Davis (Dec. 7), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 14), Long Beach State (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The Wolf Pack were stuck at the bottom of the MWC last season, so this is a critical year for David Carter. Nevada has three high-level games, all away from Reno, with two of them in Vegas against Missouri and UCLA. No one would expect the Pack to win any of them, but Carter will test his team with those three. There are plenty of other potential hiccups -- even at home with games like Pacific, Iona and Long Beach State.


Toughest: vs. Kansas (Dec. 14 in Kansas City), vs. Marquette (Dec. 21 in Las Vegas)
Next toughest: Cincinnati (Dec. 7), Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at New Mexico State (Dec. 4), New Mexico State (Dec. 17)
The rest: Alabama A&M (Nov. 9), Charleston Southern (Nov. 17), San Diego (Nov. 30), Grand Canyon (Dec. 23)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The Lobos did an exceptional job of getting quality games away from home like Kansas, Marquette, Cincinnati and the rivalry home-and-home games with the Aggies. If the Mountain West favorites play up to expectations, the Lobos will be well-prepared for the MWC and for an NCAA tourney run. The Charleston Classic also offers a possible power-rating game with UMass in the semifinals, assuming they meet.


Toughest: Arizona (Nov. 14), at Kansas (Jan. 5)
Next toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.), Washington (Dec. 8)
The rest: UC Riverside (Nov. 8), San Diego Christian (Nov. 20), Southern Utah (Dec. 18), McNeese State (Dec. 21), St. Katherine College (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 8 -- This is a quality schedule for Steve Fisher's club. Going to Kansas is as tough a game as any team can get on the schedule. Arizona has become a rivalry game for the Aztecs, and the Wildcats will be one of the best teams in the country. The Wooden Legacy provides elite competition, too, with either Creighton or Arizona State -- two high-level teams -- on the second day. Washington has upper-level Pac-12 talent as well.


Toughest: at Santa Clara (Nov. 12)
Next toughest: at Houston (Dec. 7)
The rest: Milwaukee (Nov. 15 in DeKalb, Ill.), at Northern Illinois (Nov. 16), James Madison (Nov. 17 in DeKalb, Ill.), at Pepperdine (Nov. 20), Cal State Fullerton (Nov. 23), at Portland (Nov. 27), at Weber State (Nov. 30), UC Davis (Dec. 18), Westminster (Dec. 21), Pacifica (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 2 -- Going to Santa Clara, an upstart in the WCC, and Houston out of the American will be tall tasks for the Spartans. The first-time MWC member clearly tried to tone down the slate a bit in advance of conference play. But the chances of San Jose State getting high-profile home games is highly unlikely.


Toughest: at Arizona (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Arizona State (Nov. 19), Illinois (Nov. 26)
The rest: Portland State (Nov. 8), UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 12), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 15), Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 30), at Southern Utah (Dec. 14), Radford (Dec. 18), Sacred Heart (Dec. 20), vs. Santa Clara (Dec. 22 at Orleans Arena), vs. Mississippi State/South Florida (Dec. 23 at Orleans Arena)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The Runnin' Rebels probably made up this schedule before all of the attrition on the roster. Still, UNLV has a multitude of quality games, with only the Arizona game being away from home. If UNLV wants to make a run in the MWC, it needs to take care of business at home with a schedule that is overwhelmingly prejudiced toward the Thomas & Mack Center.


Toughest: BYU (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City)
Next toughest: USC (Nov. 8), Mississippi State (Nov. 23)
The rest: Southern Utah (Nov. 12), at UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 16), at Weber State (Nov. 26), Pacific (Dec. 7), Utah Valley (Dec. 14), Western Illinois (Dec. 19), UC Santa Barbara (Dec. 20), Troy (Dec. 21), San Diego Christian (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 4 -- The Aggies get loads of credit for making more of an effort to upgrade the schedule in their first year in the league. Coach Stew Morrill is usually not willing to go places, but he does have the rivalry game against BYU as well as USC at home. Mississippi State is the return of a home-and-home series.


Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 13), at Ohio State (Nov. 25)
Next toughest: at Denver (Dec. 15), SMU (Dec. 20)
The rest: Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 8), Western State (Nov. 10), Arkansas State (Nov. 16), Jackson State (Nov. 18), South Dakota (Nov. 22), Montana State (Nov. 30), Black Hills State (Dec. 2), Northern Colorado (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 4 -- The Cowboys are going on the road to Ohio State, something that is not the norm for Larry Shyatt, who has always worked the schedule to his advantage and not played a high number of upper-level games. The rivalry game with Colorado is always a difficult one. Going to Denver may be close, but the Pioneers have become one of the better squads out West. SMU returns on the back end of a home-and-home series, but this time the Mustangs are much more formidable.
In the first sentence of "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote wrote that Holcomb, Kan., the scene of that book's vicious crime, "... stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.'" That description could just as easily apply to most Americans' (even those from the Midwest, like yours truly) perceptions of Wyoming generally: flat, desolate, remote, imposing.

It could certainly apply to Laramie, Wyo., an old lawless frontier outpost nestled in the absolute out there-iest of out theres, the Wyoming plains. Fun fact: Until 1868, three brothers who owned a saloon called "Bucket of Blood" ran the show, forcing settlers to sign their property rights over at gunpoint, which would make surely make Al Swearengen proud. Laramie has, with extreme exception, mostly shaken off that restless past, evolving into a quiet, quaint town of around 30,000, home to the University of Wyoming and more than a few outdoorsy retirees.

The point is, at least from afar, Laramie is not the kind of place you'd expect to be a source of distraction or destruction in young people, college athletes in particular. When sportswriters talk about athletes falling victim to the dreaded "nightlife," downtown Laramie is probably not what they mean.

But that was exactly the case in January, when key senior guard Luke Martinez was charged with aggravated battery and assault stemming from a bar fight at the Buckhorn Bar in downtown Laramie. Martinez admitted he kicked a man in the head while that man was on the ground, but maintained he was acting in self-defense. The senior was suspended by Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt, and the Cowboys' surprisingly promising 13-0 start turned into a 5-12 collapse (and an NCAA tournament miss) during a challenging Mountain West campaign.

This season, in the hopes of avoiding the risks that apparently result when downtown Laramie nightlife meets with Wyoming's star athletes, two of the Cowboys have decided to do things differently. Roommates Derek Cooke Jr. and Charles Hankerson Jr. figured they would keep the fun in-house, and so they turned their apartment into something much more than an apartment. The Casper Star-Tribune brought the story:
After a 2012 season clouded by an off-the-court incident that derailed a sizzling start, Wyoming teammates and roommates Derek Cooke Jr. and Charles Hankerson Jr. decided that perhaps downtown Laramie was not the best place to spend weekend nights.

They wanted to be able to blow off steam with their teammates without risking the trouble that usually comes with bars, drinks and high-profile athletes. And so, like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, they transformed their apartment into something greater — a symbol. “624” was born.

As the author of the story, Mike Vorel, learned, calling "624" just another upperclassman's off-campus apartment earns no small amount of pushback from the "club's" operators. Instead, it serves as a (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) symbol of the Cowboys' desire to not only avoid late-night, alcohol-infused trouble but also foster team camaraderie, particularly among "regulars," i.e. freshmen. Vorel writes that "nothing remarkable" happens at "624" -- video games and music and general goofiness, mostly. The lights are always off by midnight.

It's a great idea, but it's also sort of a no-brainer. For example: Back when Dez Bryant was essentially grounded by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Grantland's Jalen Rose had a funny take on the matter, describing how professional athletes could arrange to have just as much fun at their own places without having to brave any of the madness that attends youth, money, and fame. When I heard Rose talk about this, a lightbulb popped over my head. You're rich and famous! (Or, in college basketball players' case, you're a college basketball player!) Folks of all stripes, male and female, would absolutely love to hang out with you at your house, where you can control the music and the guest list and the planned activities. No one wants to be a hermit, obviously, but when faced with the choice of public harassment or who-knows-what-else, why wouldn't you, the star athlete, bring the party on your terms? Clubs are overrated anyway.

And as Martinez found out in January, you don't have to be the star receiver on the Dallas Cowboys to fall prey to exposure and rowdiness. These things can happen in Laramie just as easily as anywhere else, and even if the establishment of "624" has zero effect on anything that happens on the floor for Wyoming this season (which seems unlikely), at the very least it gives the Wyoming kids a haven. Plus, it sounds like a pretty chill spot. If Hankerson and Cooke have a Nintendo 64 and Super Smash Bros., I honestly don't know why they'd ever need to leave. (Man, do I miss college.)
Coaches of Mountain West Conference schools have a recruiting tool that isn’t very common at other programs from non-BCS leagues.

NBA tradition.

UNLV’s Dave Rice can sell prospects on the possibility of becoming the next Larry Johnson or Shawn Marion. New Mexico’s Craig Neal and Fresno State’s Rodney Terry can brag about the accomplishments of first-round draft picks Danny Granger and Paul George.

Nevada has three players (Luke Babbitt, Ramon Sessions and JaVale McGee) in the NBA and Jason Smith has given folks a reason to hope at Colorado State.

Here’s a look at the 10 MWC products who have enjoyed the most successful pro careers since 1989, the year the NBA draft was whittled down to two rounds.

[Editor's note: The Mountain West didn't begin play until 1999-2000, but we are counting any draftee who has played at a current MWC school since 1989. The departed schools aren't totally forgotten, though. Any player who participated in Mountain West league play is eligible for this list, regardless of whether their alma mater has since departed the conference.]

1. Larry Johnson, UNLV -- The No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft had a solid pro career, but back problems kept Johnson from becoming the perennial All-Star as so many expected after he led UNLV to the 1990 NCAA title and 1991 Final Four. Johnson averaged 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in 10 NBA seasons. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1992, when he averaged 19.2 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. Johnson retired in 2001.

[+] EnlargeShawn Marion
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesShawn Marion only played one season at UNLV when the team was still a part of the WAC.
2. Shawn Marion, UNLV -- As a member of the Dallas Mavericks, Marion is still going strong after being drafted ninth overall by Phoenix in 1999. Marion -- who played just one season at UNLV -- has averaged 16.2 points and 9.1 rebounds over 13 NBA seasons. The four-time All-Star earned third-team All-NBA honors in 2005 and 2006. In 2011 he was the starting small forward for a Mavericks squad that won the NBA title.

3. Danny Granger, New Mexico -- A small forward, Granger was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player after averaging 25.8 points for Indiana in 2008-09. He averaged 21.2 points over the next three seasons before knee problems limited him to five games in 2012-13. The No. 17 pick in the 2005 draft is averaging 18.1 points in seven NBA seasons. Granger was a two-time All-MWC selection at New Mexico.

4. J.R. Rider, UNLV -- His on-court success was often overshadowed by legal problems, but still, Rider’s NBA career certainly had its share of bright moments. He averaged 16.7 points in nine NBA seasons, including 19 or more points four times. He made the All-Rookie team in 1994 and posted a career-best scoring average of 20.4 points the following season. He was waived in November 2001 after playing 10 games for Denver.

5. Paul George, Fresno State -- The 6-foot-8 small forward just completed his breakout season, averaging 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Indiana Pacers in his third year as a pro. Even more impressive is that George averaged 19 points in the playoffs to lead his team within one game of the NBA Finals. No one will be surprised if the third-team All-NBA selection is an All-Star for years to come.

6. Andrew Bogut, Utah -- Bogut became the first Australian-born player to be selected No. 1 overall when Milwaukee made him the first pick in the 2005 draft. The 7-foot center now plays for Golden State. Bogut has averaged a double-double in three of his seven NBA seasons and is averaging 12.2 points and 9.2 rebounds for his career. He also swats an average of 1.7 shots. He was third-team All-NBA in 2010.

7. Rafer Alston, Fresno State -- A second-round draft pick in 1999, Alston struggled in his first four NBA seasons before finding his groove with the Miami Heat in 2003-04. He averaged 10.2 points and 4.5 assists that season and would average 30-plus minutes a game for the next five years. His best season came in 2003-04, when he averaged 14.2 points and 6.4 assists for Toronto. Alston played his final NBA game in 2010.

8. Kenny Thomas, New Mexico -- A first-round pick in 1999, Thomas averaged 9.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in 11 NBA seasons. He scored 14.1 points per game for Houston in 2001-02 and posted a career-high 10.1 rebounds in 2003-04 while playing for Philadelphia. That season he was one of 11 NBA players to average a double-double. Thomas played his last game in 2010.

9. Stacey Augmon, UNLV -- “Plastic Man” enjoyed a long NBA career after leading UNLV to the NCAA title. He played in 1,001 games in 15 NBA seasons but averaged only eight points. Augmon averaged five points or fewer in his final 10 seasons, but his defensive prowess kept him on NBA rosters. Augmon was a three-time winner of the NABC’s National Defensive Player of the Year award at UNLV.

10. Greg Anthony, UNLV -- The point guard for UNLV’s 1990 championship squad was an NBA journeyman who played for five teams in 11 professional seasons. An average outside shooter but an excellent assists man and defender, Anthony averaged four assists and 1.2 steals over the course of his career. His best season came in 1995-96, when he averaged 14 points and 6.9 assists for Vancouver.

Five more notables (names in alphabetical order):

Keon Clark, UNLV
Luc Longley, New Mexico
JaVale McGee, Nevada
Theo Ratliff, Wyoming
Ramon Sessions, Nevada

Too soon to tell: These guys haven’t been in the league long enough to make the top 10, but might get there soon enough (names in alphabetical order).

Jimmer Fredette, BYU
Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State
Greg Smith, Fresno State

Conference Power Rankings: MWC

March, 8, 2013
The Mountain West Conference is poised to send an unprecedented percentage of teams to the NCAA tournament. If Boise State can beat San Diego State and avoid a flop in the conference tournament next week in Las Vegas, it's hard to see the Broncos missing the cut. That would give the MWC five out of nine teams in the field, one of the best showings ever by a conference.

On to the final rankings before the selection committee has its say:

1. New Mexico. The Lobos have been the most consistent team from beginning to end. Steve Alford is a legitimate candidate for national coach of the year. UNM got pushed by Nevada in Wednesday's first half, only to find a second gear when it mattered most. The Lobos finish up on the road against pesky Air Force. This won't affect the Lobos' seeding in Vegas, but a loss to the Falcons would ruin any outside shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.

2. UNLV. I'm comfortable putting the Runnin' Rebels back near the top of the MWC, where they were projected in the preseason. UNLV seems to have finally found its rotation and might be peaking at the right time. The Rebels should beat Fresno State at home -- where they'll have the rare treat of remaining for two straight weeks, since UNLV hosts the conference tournament. But that doesn't always translate into a tournament title. UNLV is hardly a lock to cut down the nets.

3. San Diego State. The Aztecs should end up in the third spot. I'm not sold on San Diego State being able to win at Boise State on Saturday, but the Aztecs still have one of the best players in the league in Jamaal Franklin. I still consider San Diego State a tournament title contender and a tough out in the NCAAs. I'm putting a bit more faith in this team by keeping the Aztecs in the top three, where I projected them in the preseason.

4. Colorado State. The Rams have the experience, but have come up short in a few key games of late. CSU needs some momentum going into the NCAAs. The Rams should beat Nevada to close the season and be a tough out in Las Vegas. This team won't get rattled at all. If Colton Iverson can dominate his position, or at the very least hold his own, Colorado State has a chance.

5. Boise State. Last Saturday, Derrick Marks lit up Colorado State with 38 points. The Broncos then nearly beat UNLV on the road. Now they are on the verge of a program-changing win. If Boise State were to beat San Diego State Saturday afternoon, it should be in the NCAA field. If that happens, Leon Rice would have the Broncos way ahead of schedule.

6. Air Force. The Falcons are playing for a possible NIT berth when they host New Mexico on Saturday. Michael Lyons is also looking to secure his spot on the all-conference first team. Air Force should be proud of its efforts. This team overachieved and was in contention throughout the conference race.

7. Wyoming. Injuries and off-court issues have crushed the Cowboys' momentum. Wyoming, which finished its conference season Wednesday, has slid back into the pack, but can still play spoiler in the MWC tournament. Larry Shyatt had this team as one of the last four unbeatens in the country -- but the margin of error was always thin.

8. Fresno State. Rodney Terry has the Bulldogs heading in the right direction. Fresno State has been relevant this season in the conference race. I'll be surprised if this team isn't moving up in the standings in the next two seasons. The key will be for Terry to ensure Save Mart Center is a tough stop for every opponent.

9. Nevada. The Wolf Pack looked as though they were going to get a signature victory against New Mexico but lost 75-62. The problem this season for Nevada has been sustained effort, finding the 40 minutes to finish off games. This has to be addressed.

Conference Power Rankings: MWC

March, 1, 2013
The Mountain West Conference has been the most consistent and reliable league the past two seasons for predicting NCAA tournament bids.


That could change if Boise State makes a late run, but the lock seems to be that the MWC will have four bids yet again.

On to the rankings:

1. New Mexico. The Lobos have answered every challenge. The losses to UNLV and San Diego State on the road didn't have any residual effect. UNM beat San Diego State and Colorado State in the past week as Kendall Williams likely cemented his spot as the Mountain West player of the year with his 46 points in the win at CSU. UNM finishes the regular season at Nevada and Air Force.

2. Colorado State. The Rams are still the most consistent team in the league, even though they hit a bit of a skid. They have the most experience and probably will be the least rattled once they get to the NCAA tournament. CSU has a tough go ahead with road games at Boise State, Wyoming and at home against Nevada.

3. UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels might be getting quality production from Khem Birch at the right time, as the Pitt transfer put up a double-double in Saturday's victory at Wyoming. UNLV has underachieved at times, but there is still plenty of talent and time for it to get back in gear and be a second-weekend NCAA tournament team. The Rebels finish with a game at Nevada, then head home for Boise State and Fresno State.

4. San Diego State. The Aztecs have been a bit of a tease this season. Jamaal Franklin has been productive and separated himself with his skills, but the rest of the team has largely been inconsistent. A nagging injury to Xavier Thames hasn't helped. The Aztecs finish with Air Force and at Boise State and could use some momentum.

5. Boise State. Boise State can control its destiny by winning games against Colorado State, at UNLV and at home against San Diego State. Take two of those three -- the home games -- and it would be tough to keep the Broncos out of the field.

6. Air Force. The Falcons are a legit postseason team. Air Force can improve its chances in its final games against Fresno State, San Diego State and New Mexico. Guard Michael Lyons will likely finish as a first-team all-MWC player.

7. Wyoming. The Pokes gave the league a valiant effort, but their conference-mates caught up to them. The Cowboys weren't able to get more than one signature victory (San Diego State) this season.

8. Nevada. The Wolf Pack has lost seven of eight games. Nevada can be a spoiler with games against UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State before the tournament in Las Vegas.

9. Fresno State. The Bulldogs have improved overall, but losing five of their past six keeps them at the bottom of the rankings.

Conference Power Rankings: Mountain West

February, 15, 2013
OK, so my prediction about the Mountain West having the highest projection of teams for the NCAA tournament is no longer valid. The league has started to fade a bit in terms of its depth, but not at the top. There are still legitimate teams that can win multiple games in the NCAA tournament, but it might be harder to believe now that more than four teams will make the tournament -- if that. Four is hardly a lock. On to the rankings:

1. New Mexico. The Lobos have done a tremendous job of not getting down after a disappointing loss. UNM bounced back from a nine-point loss at UNLV to grind out a win at Fresno State. The Lobos are tied with Colorado State in the loss column and have to go to Fort Collins next week. The winner of that game should have the inside track for the conference title. The danger game for the Lobos could be the final one of the season -- at Air Force.

2. Colorado State. I've said throughout the season that Larry Eustachy came into a great situation left by Tim Miles. The Rams have won five in a row, including beating San Diego State by six. The Rams are not going to wow anyone. But they've got an experienced starting five that should cause problems in the NCAA tournament. CSU has to get through a road trip to Air Force and UNLV before hosting New Mexico. The Lobos game could be for the title.

3. Air Force. I know the Falcons don't have the talent of UNLV or San Diego State, but these rankings are a snapshot of the current standings. And the Falcons are coming off a pounding of UNLV. Air Force will have a say in the league with games remaining versus Colorado State, at San Diego State and the season-ending game against New Mexico. If I'm running the NIT and Air Force is available, I'm looking long and hard at inviting the Falcons.

4. San Diego State. The Aztecs should be higher but have yet to find a consistent stretch. Every time you think the Aztecs are going to get on a roll, they hit a speed bump. The Aztecs won the home games against Boise State and Fresno State but then dropped a six-point game in Fort Collins. The Aztecs are hardly a lock for the tournament. They should be in -- and win at least a game -- but they must do well in their remaining road games at UNLV, New Mexico and Boise State.

5. UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels have no business being this low in the rankings. The loss at Air Force was their third in the past four games. The Rebels didn't score more than 56 points in two of those games. The guard play and the dominant power game inside have been inconsistent. The talent is in place, but something is amiss. If we're going to believe in the Rebels, they must show well in the homestand against San Diego State and Colorado State. Win those two home games, and the Rebels will suddenly be a player again for the final few weeks.

6. Boise State. I'm not giving up on the Broncos just yet. Boise State beat Wyoming and had a late-possession win over UNLV in the past two weeks. Boise State is one game in the loss column from being in third place, and has a legit shot to finish in the top three with a home schedule that includes Air Force, Colorado State and San Diego State. Boise State coach Leon Rice has done a nice job of rallying this team when there has been duress.

7. Wyoming. The Cowboys haven't been the same team since losing Luke Martinez to a broken hand. Wyoming has won two of the past three games with the last one being a 20-point win over Nevada. Wyoming has the toughest slate to go in the league, with games remaining at San Diego State, Air Force and New Mexico, and home games against UNLV and Colorado State.

8. Nevada. The Wolf Pack have struggled throughout the conference season but wedged in a win over Air Force. Nevada never found its stride in the league and now can only be the spoiler. The Wolf Pack are trying to nudge ahead of Wyoming to finish out of the 8-9 situation.

9. Fresno State. The Bulldogs have lost six of the past seven games but found a way to beat UNLV. Give Rodney Terry some time, and he will get this team going in the right direction in the new MWC, even when Utah State and San Jose State join the conference.

Conference Power Rankings: MWC

February, 1, 2013
The Mountain West Conference had the appearance of a six-bid league a month ago.

But the league has eaten its own. That was bound to happen. Separation has occurred and the numbers are more likely going to be a repeat of last year's four -- which is still quite a feat for a nine-team league.

On to the rankings:

1. New Mexico. Sorry for those MWC fans hoping I would dump the Lobos out of the top spot after a loss at San Diego State -- New Mexico then went to Wyoming and won a tough turnaround game. UNM should stay in the spot with a visit from Nevada up next.

2. Colorado State. The Rams have shot up my power rankings after their 20-point blowout of Boise State. CSU lost to New Mexico at the Pit, but really made a strong comeback. The only other league loss was at San Diego State in overtime. The Rams take on Wyoming next.

3. UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels are still figuring out how best to play. They have a tough chore ahead, going to Boise State, then a game they should win but won't walk through at Fresno State.

4. San Diego State. The Aztecs hammered New Mexico at home in a must-win game to stay in the chase. Now the task for San Diego State is to get past a tough Air Force team that is more than capable of knocking off anyone at home.

5. Air Force. Yes, the Falcons are now at No. 5 after winning four in a row and handling Wyoming in Laramie. Air Force can disrupt the league race with games upcoming against San Diego State and at New Mexico. I have said for weeks that the Falcons' experience will pay off later in the MWC season. This is a postseason team in some form.

6. Wyoming. The Cowboys are on a skid right now, having lost four of five. The defense hasn't been as much of an issue as struggling to score has been. A visit to Colorado State on Saturday won't make stopping this slide any easier.

7. Boise State. The Broncos still own one of the top nonconference road victories, at Creighton, but it's losing that importance during the MWC season. Boise State got pummeled by Colorado State and has lost four of five. UNLV at home and San Diego State on the road are up next for the Broncos, meaning this season could go in either direction.

8. Nevada. The Wolf Pack aren't going to make the turn into an NCAA tournament team. They are now solely in the spoiler role going forward.

9. Fresno State. The Bulldogs have dropped four consecutive games but can be disruptive, especially at home. No one should sleep on this squad just yet.

Conference Power Rankings: MWC

January, 25, 2013
The Mountain West continues to produce high-quality games on a weekly basis.

To the rankings:

1. New Mexico. The Lobos are the last remaining undefeated team in the Mountain West. UNM has struggled at times on the road but did win at Boise State in overtime. The schedule is difficult, with road trips still to come at the toughest stops in the league.

2. UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels have yet to go on a run this season. They looked solid in a victory over Wyoming on Thursday but stumbled at Colorado State earlier in the week. The potential of UNLV is still higher than that of any other team in the league.

3. Colorado State. The Rams had a massive comeback at New Mexico before losing, but did take care of UNLV. This Rams squad has the look of an NCAA tournament team, even if the résumé doesn't scream "NCAA bid" yet.

4. San Diego State. The Aztecs have dealt with injuries, notably to point guard Xavier Thames. San Diego State has been offensively challenged so far this season outside of Jamaal Franklin. There is still plenty of time to rectify that.

5. Boise State. The Broncos hit a bit of a skid, but I'm still confident this team will be right there for an NCAA bid. The overtime loss to New Mexico hurt.

6. Wyoming. The Pokes beat San Diego State at home and locked in on the Aztecs defensively as well as any team has against Steve Fisher. They put up a decent fight at UNLV. This team isn't through, and will be in the mix for a bid in late February.

7. Air Force. I love the fight in this crew. It overachieves and is in the thick of each game, save for one blowout. The Falcons will be a tough out throughout the season.

8. Nevada. The Wolf Pack are still underachieving and should have been higher in these rankings.

9. Fresno State. The Bulldogs moved back a notch after losing to Nevada. This is a young team still finding itself.
Five observations from Saturday’s evening games:

1. Hinkle Magic is real.

It had to end this way. We’d been spoiled with a wonderful day of college basketball -- treated to so many thrilling matchups that it was hard to keep up. Nevertheless, even with the hype surrounding Gonzaga and Butler, it was difficult to envision this game stealing the show. But that’s exactly what these two teams did. I mean, this is why we love this game. You can’t write a script that compares to the finish. Alex Barlow hits a big shot late, then commits a crucial turnover. Gonzaga commits a turnover on the inbounds, and then Roosevelt Jones charges toward the bucket for the game-winner. I couldn’t believe it. The Bulldogs played without standout Rotnei Clarke, who’d suffered a neck injury in last Saturday's victory over Dayton. Butler, however, didn’t back down from a Gonzaga team that is one of the most talented assemblies in America. The Zags shot 47.1 percent from the field. Elias Harris, Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk combined to score 54 points. Butler wasn’t rattled, though. With just seconds on the clock, the Bulldogs maintained their intensity. They also maintained their pressure, which led to a game-winning bucket and a court-storming that actually made sense. What a game. What a day.

2. Deshaun Thomas needs help.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Thomas
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDeshaun Thomas scored 28 points on 10-for-20 shooting; no other Buckeye had more than six.
So, if you watched the final seconds of Michigan State’s 59-56 victory over Ohio State, you’re probably still wondering what happened on Shannon Scott's 3-point attempt in the last seconds. Scott, who was trailed by Thomas, took an off-balance attempt that scraped the backboard on Ohio State’s final possession. But don’t blame him for the loss. Thomas (28 points) is the most dynamic offensive player in the Big Ten. He’s surrounded, however, by inconsistent offensive contributors. And that was the greatest component in the loss. Michigan State was led by Keith Appling (15 points) and Adreian Payne (14 points, five rebounds and a steal), who apparently has new life after a recent scuffle with teammate Branden Dawson. But three other Spartans recorded at least eight points. Thomas was alone. Aaron Craft (2-for-8) struggled. Lenzelle Smith Jr. (2-for-7) struggled. Scott (1-for-5) struggled. And while the Buckeyes proved that they possess the talent to contend for the Big Ten crown when they defeated Michigan last weekend, they revealed their offensive limitations in Saturday’s loss at Michigan State. Again.

3. The Mountain West is a beautiful mess.

You think your favorite league is wacky? Air Force scored 91 points in a win over Boise State. UNLV beat San Diego State on the road earlier this week but couldn’t handle Colorado State (Dorian Green scored a career-high 24 points). San Diego State scored nine points … in the first half of a loss to Wyoming. You figure it out. The Mountain West is Big Ten Lite. Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket features six MWC squads. And it’s a nine-team league. But Saturday was a good showcase for the conference. Wyoming held SDSU to a 2-for-18 clip from the 3-point line. Jamaal Franklin went 3-for-14 from the field. Colorado State is a gritty, rough team. Khem Birch, Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser combined to score just 18 points in UNLV’s loss to the Rams, who also forced 13 turnovers. This race is wide open, filled with quality programs -- six Mountain West squads ranked in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. And the other three -- Air Force, Nevada and Fresno State -- aren't what anyone would call terrible. Hell of a league.

4. Marquette and Cincinnati love drama.

Saturday was a great day for college basketball. And this game was one of its most exciting matchups. Cincinnati amassed a 29-13 halftime lead with a defensive attack that’s ranked eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. It was an impressive start for a Bearcats squad that had to go without Cashmere Wright, who missed the game due to a knee injury. But Cincy goes through scoring droughts. And Marquette loves drama. It was the perfect combination. The Golden Eagles lost to Butler on a Rotnei Clarke buzzer-beater in the Maui Invitational. They’re 2-1 in overtime games since Jan. 1. And they beat Georgetown by a point after fouling Greg Whittington on a 3-point attempt in the final seconds of an earlier Big East meeting. On Saturday, Marquette cut into Cincy’s deficit and ultimately forced overtime because UC eventually remembered that it rarely scores when necessary. The Bearcats were shorthanded due to foul trouble in a feisty extra session, but they sealed it on Sean Kilpatrick's layup with six seconds to play. It wasn’t pretty, but it was entertaining. Based on everything that had transpired in the final seconds, I figured Junior Cadougan would make his shot on the other end and send the 71-69 matchup into a second overtime. I think Cincinnati made a statement about its standing in the Big East, especially with Syracuse toppling Louisville on the same day. But Marquette also proved that it can contend with the league’s best teams. But it’s too hot-and-cold to trust as a true contender. Imagine if Buzz Williams’ squad were more consistent. At least it’s always interesting.

5. Iowa shakes up the Big Ten.

Thanks, Iowa. I thought I’d finally figured out the Big Ten until you beat Wisconsin 70-66 just four days after the Badgers upset the Hoosiers in Bloomington. It’s a cliché statement by now, but the Big Ten continues to prove that it’s the best conference in America. And this is why. A team such as Wisconsin can go on the road and beat one of the most talented squads in America (Indiana) and, less than a week later, suffer a loss at Iowa. Michigan beat the Hawkeyes by nearly 30 points. A few weeks later, Iowa takes Wisconsin down and re-enters the at-large conversation. The Hawkeyes committed just six turnovers in a game that featured a 20-point Iowa lead in the first half. Wisconsin shot poorly early but stormed back after halftime. It just wasn’t enough. Coaches around the league have talked about this for a few weeks now: The champion of this conference could have four or five losses. Maybe more. No squad has truly separated itself from the Big Ten pack. And it’s difficult to see how any team will when you have eight squads that could qualify for NCAA tournament berths. What a league.

A few more notes:

  • Alabama is 3-1 in the SEC after a 50-49 win over Texas A&M. Look, the SEC is not a strong conference. But Bama was in bad shape entering league play. Looks like Anthony Grant’s program is moving in the opposite direction now. Let’s see if the Crimson Tide can sustain it.
  • Detroit outscored Illinois-Chicago 53-14 in the first half of a 98-47 victory Saturday. I picked Illinois-Chicago to win the Horizon League at the start of league play. That was a great choice. Except it wasn’t.
  • So 4-0 Washington's first Pac-12 loss comes to 0-4 Utah at home in Seattle? Well OK then. Makes about as much sense as Oregon State dropping to 0-5 in the league after Saturday's loss to USC.

Conference Power Rankings: MWC

January, 18, 2013
The best news for the Mountain West came when San Diego State was brought back into the conference for next season. Now the MWC can settle back, celebrate that it is one of the best leagues in the country and focus on getting a record number of teams into the NCAA tournament.

To the rankings:

1. New Mexico. UNM is the only undefeated Mountain West team after winning in overtime Wednesday at Boise State. The Lobos might not be the most talented team in the league, but they still find ways to win and make winning plays late. They will get clipped here soon. But until then, New Mexico can't be knocked off the top perch.

2. UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels are a solid No. 2 after winning at San Diego State. Add Anthony Marshall to the host of options for the Rebels to lean on when the offense needs a spark. The win at Viejas will turn out to be one of the hardest to get this season for everyone else.

3. San Diego State. The Aztecs can't drop out of the top three with a home loss to UNLV. Jamaal Franklin was dominant with 27 points in the loss. Winston Shepard scored 18 off the bench. But SDSU was a brutal 3-of-19 from 3-point range -- and that's not going to cut it at home or on the road.

4. Colorado State. The Rams turned in the most dominating performance of the week with a 79-40 victory over Air Force. The Falcons were coming off a near-miss at UNLV, taking the Rebels to overtime before losing by five; the Rams had lost in overtime at San Diego State in their previous game. Coming into the season, the Rams represented the most experienced returning team in the MWC. To dismiss CSU as a real threat to win the league would be a mistake.

5. Boise State. The Broncos played the most important home game in years against the Lobos. Had Boise won, it could have made a play for a top-25 ranking. Still, BSU is a contender. Derrick Marks scored 27 points against UNM and will turn out to be one of the most prolific scorers in the league.

6. Wyoming. The Cowboys won at Nevada then lost at Fresno State in their two games last week. The national attention on the Luke Martinez fight didn't help the Pokes' image. Wyoming's offense was practically extinct in Fresno, going 5-of-27 on 3s, and shooting a brutal 24 percent against the Bulldogs. The free throw line wasn't much kinder, either, as the Pokes were 7-of-20.

7. Fresno State. Rodney Terry's club finally climbs out of the basement in the MWC rankings with the home victory over Wyoming. The win should help Terry get everyone on board in believing that he has this program going in the right direction. Fresno State's defense stifled Wyoming. The game was hardly an offensive display, but the Bulldogs dictated the outcome.

8. Air Force. The Falcons had a rough week, nearly upsetting UNLV before falling flat against Colorado State. Air Force's margin of error is so thin that when the Falcons go 3-of-19 from beyond the arc -- as they did against the Rams -- it's hard for them to win. Air Force can set Boise State back with a home win Saturday.

9. Nevada. The Wolf Pack simply cannot get into a groove. Nevada has lost three consecutive games, and its season really hinges on the next three. Nevada is at Fresno State, then hosts San Diego State and Boise State. If Nevada is ever going to make a move, the time is now.
Wyoming guard Luke Martinez, one of the key pieces in the Cowboys' sudden surge into NCAA tournament contention, has missed a few games in January with an undisclosed injury to his right ring finger. This week, Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt announced Martinez had been suspended indefinitely for the same reasons he injured that finger: He got into a bar fight.

Were that the entire story, we might expect Martinez back when he healed, or after a brief suspension and a lot of wind sprints, whichever came first. Unfortunately, that is not the entire story. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, which obtained a police affidavit of probable cause, Martinez admitted to causing "serious bodily injury to the man he kicked in the face during a Dec. 30 fight outside of the Buckhorn Bar in downtown Laramie." On Sunday, police arrested Martinez on a charge of aggravated battery and assault. From Ben Frederickson's report:
The affidavit cites multiple witnesses, including a male victim, who claim Martinez kicked the victim in the face after Wyoming sophomore forward Derek Cooke Jr. knocked the victim out with a punch. Police state that Martinez also "did verbally admit that he caused serious bodily injury to the victim knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life."
A witness told police that Cooke hit the victim with his fist and then Martinez kicked the victim in the head "like it was a football." A second witness, also according to the affidavit, said Martinez, who broke his hand in the altercation and hasn't played since, took "a running start" and kicked the unconscious victim in the head. The victim, the witness said, was "laying down in the street."
The victim's brother told officials the victim suffered "multiple fractures of the lower mandible" as a result of the fight and had to have his jaw wired shut.

As always, because someone is charged with something does not mean they are guilty, even if we tend to sometimes forget that when talking about athletes and misbehavior. If the details in the affidavit of probable cause are true, then it is hard to imagine how Wyoming could allow Martinez back onto the team this season.

I hate to say that, because it sounds judgmental. But a bar fight is one thing. Protecting your teammates is one thing. Popping someone in the nose for violating general human standards of decency is one thing (one thing our society should probably allow for more of, so as to prevent habitual line-steppers from stepping over said lines).

But violently kicking an unconscious man while he lays prone on the floor, to the point where he has to have his jaw wired shut? That's a level or two above good old fashioned hell-raising. That's just dangerous. Even if Shyatt -- who is having something like a dream season in his second year with the Pokes, and has allowed star forward Leonard Washington a couple of second chances of his own -- wants Martinez back, the optics may be too ugly to allow it.
1. Wyoming had no choice but to suspend Luke Martinez after charges were filed in a bar room fight on Dec. 30 that resulted in a broken hand. The coaching staff played coy with the nature of Martinez' injury initially. The staff, and according to the report Monday the police as well, weren't expecting charges in the case. Martinez was instrumental in the Pokes' 12-0 start. The Cowboys are 2-1 since Martinez got hurt, beating SMU and Nevada on the road, but losing to Boise State. Martinez is still three weeks away from being cleared to play. Still, with the pending charges and the Cowboys playing well, they have time to make a decision. Ultimately, the Pokes likely would need Martinez to finish higher in the MWC and make a run at an NCAA berth. But nothing may be done until he's healthy and the case has some sort of resolution.

2. Teams in some of the lower-level conferences don't have the luxury of home nonconference games or even neutral-site affairs. That's why it's always impressive to see which teams have won true road games at this point in the season. The list won't have a single power-six type school on it since they hardly play any real road games. Our ESPN research crew has produced the current list: Stony Brook has seven. Albany, Bryant, Bucknell, Louisiana Tech, Murray State, Stephen F. Austin and Texas-Arlington have six. If you're looking for a few predictions on who on this list will make the NCAA tournament, I'll go with Stony Brook out of the America East, Bucknell from the Patriot, Murray State from the OVC and Stephen F. Austin out of the Southland. Bucknell is the one school on this list that I will blindly predict wins at least one game.

3. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy is no fool when it comes to making the NCAA tournament. He knows the deal. The Rebels just won one game at home against Missouri and one on the road against Tennessee. That doesn't equate to an NCAA tourney berth. So Kennedy knows, "we've got to win games.'' The Rebels have been on too many bubbles and in NITs (five of six years under Kennedy) for Kennedy to be too confident. It's hard not to be a little optimistic, though, with the play of JC transfer (originally at Utah) Marshall Henderson. He's averaging 18.6 points a game and is one of the toughest matchups in the SEC. "He's a good shooter, a scorer and a competitor,'' said Kennedy. He's all of the above, for sure.
More observations from Saturday’s evening slate:

  1. Welcome to the SEC title conversation, Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy’s program was an enigma as SEC play began. The Rebels’ numbers have been impressive (83.7 points per game, top 40 in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings) all season. But their nonconference strength of schedule was so mediocre (242nd, per’s RPI) that it was difficult to know if those stats were valid indicators of their potential. Losses to Middle Tennessee State and Indiana State only complicated the assessment process. But Saturday’s 64-49 home victory over No. 10 Missouri was a statement victory for the program. The Rebels are legit. Yes, Laurence Bowers’ absence (knee injury) affected the Tigers, but they lost because Ole Miss’ defense pressured them into costly mistakes (19 turnovers, 2-for-18 from beyond the arc and a season-low 49 points). And they couldn’t stop Murphy Holloway (22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and a block). Ole Miss is officially an SEC contender.
  2. Colorado State overcomes 18-point halftime deficit in overtime thriller: I know No. 16 San Diego State’s 79-72 overtime victory over Colorado State says a lot about its standing in the Mountain West. It’s tough to argue that the Aztecs aren’t the best team in this deep league. They have one of the best defenses in the country (22nd in Pomeroy’s ratings). Plus, Jamaal Franklin leads SDSU’s talented and versatile offense. But I loved this game because of the heart that the Rams showcased. Colorado State was down 41-23 at halftime in this matchup. Colton Iverson (18 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks), however, helped his team close the gap in the second half. He sent this one into overtime with a putback in the final seconds. CSU’s surge was more evidence of the depth in the MWC. And I actually thought this was the game of the day. So much action. Such an amazing comeback.
  3. [+] EnlargeChase Tapley
    Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsChase Tapley scored 12 of his 19 in overtime as San Diego State beat back Colorado State's charge.
  4. Arizona bounces back: I’m not saying this would have changed the outcome, but I’m disappointed that Oregon State’s Eric Moreland (10.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 2.7 bpg) did not participate due to a suspension. But I still give the No. 4 Wildcats credit for their 80-70 win in Corvallis, two days after they’d suffered their first loss of the year at Oregon on Thursday. Arizona was not flawless (16 turnovers), but it was too good (47.5 percent from the field) for Craig Robinson’s program, an average Pac-12 team at best. Mark Lyons (16 points) helped the Wildcats put together a performance that should help them put the Oregon loss behind them. Next up: Arizona State and then UCLA, two of the Pac-12's top teams.
  5. Temple wins, but Atlantic 10 still confusing: Before suffering a 64-54 loss at Temple, Saint Louis had won nine consecutive games. The Billikens were rolling entering the matchup, but Temple was aggressive in this crucial victory. Khalif Wyatt (24 points) led an Owls squad that shot 47.9 percent from the floor. Temple, however, lost to Xavier in its A-10 opener. And Saint Louis defeated UMass. So there’s still some confusion about the hierarchy in the Atlantic 10. I think Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are the two best teams in the conference, but what’s the order from there? I believe there are multiple teams in the league that could compete for the league title (VCU, Butler, Temple, Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s). At this point, though, the sample size is too small to establish a true pecking order. The Owls certainly proved that they’re one of the best teams in the league with the win over the Billikens.
Other notes:

  • Leonard Washington (16 points, 13 rebounds) helped Wyoming rebound from its first loss of the season with a 59-48 victory at Nevada. The Cowboys were coming off a 63-61 loss to Boise State by way of a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Wednesday.
  • I feel for Buffalo. The Bulls were down 54-33 to Miami (Ohio) before they launched a 24-2 run to take a 57-56 lead, but Allen Roberts’ free throws in the final seconds gave the Redhawks the 58-57 win. Heartbreaking for Buffalo.
  • Need more proof that the Mountain West is legit? Air Force nearly upset No. 24 UNLV in a 76-71 overtime loss in Las Vegas. This league is potent top to bottom.