Tag Archives: Mountain West Conference

Watching a national columnist slam UNLV…

I don’t usually play the role of a “homer” in my columns.  I try to write about what I know and what I’m passionate about.  Often times that ends up being the Mountain West Conference.  For the record, I live in Las Vegas, went to UNLV, have a wife who went to BYU and have a rooting interest in those two teams and the MWC.  Even in columns like ones where I stick up for the MWC getting squeezed by ESPN (see HERE), observe the Pac-10’s decline at the hands of the Mountain West (see HERE) or make predictions on the outcome of the NCAA tournament (see HERE), I keep the Rebels and UNLV out of it.  But one thing I will not do, is stand by and watch the Rebel basketball program and coach Lon Kruger get criticized by a national columnist at CBS, especially when the Mountain West and UNLV are two of the best stories of the year in NCAA basketball.  So, please allow me this one opportunity to act as a “homer” and defend the program I know best.

Last night, CBS Sportsline posted a column by Gregg Doyel, one of the network’s national columnists working NCAA basketball.  The article titled “UNLV’s choice not to call timeout ends its season” can be read HERE and I encourage all to do so.

In the column, Doyel rehashes the final minute of the UNLV-Northern Iowa game.  In a nutshell, here is what happened in that first round matchup’s final moments:

  • UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 66 with 37 seconds left.
  • Northern Iowa brings the ball up and runs clock with tight pressure and trapping defense from UNLV.
  • With about five seconds left, the ball makes it to Ali Farokhmanesh who hits a three to put UNI up 69-66.
  • Bellfield runs the ball up court and has it knocked out-of-bounds with about two seconds left.
  • UNLV’s Tre’von Willis misses a three-pointer at the buzzer that wasn’t even that close and UNI wins it to advance to round two against Kansas.

Doyel identifies the fatal flaw of the Rebels to be Kruger’s ignorance in not calling at timeout following Bellfield’s converted three-point field goal.  He proposes that had this been done, the Rebels would have been in better shape to win the game by setting up their defense.  The Rebels played frantic defense in those final seconds, sending double teams at point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, trying to force him to give up the ball (Ahelegbe had scored UNI’s last eight points).  Several passes went around the court, some good, some bad and some nearly forced into a turnover.  Eventually the ball swung to Farokhmanesh who made the improbable three with nary a defender in sight.

Was the ball rotation poor on UNLV’s part?  Yes.  Did the kid make an amazing shot.  Absolutely.  If you told Kruger that the shot to put UNI ahead would be from 35-feet away as opposed to a drive to the hoop where a foul could be called or a mid-range jumper, I’m sure the coach would have taken those odds.  And that’s what UNLV got.  A frantic scramble, that Doyel infers Northern Iowa intended to have happen, followed by a crazy deep shot that went in.

Doyel postulates that had a timeout been called where Kruger and staff could set up the team’s defense, they would have undoubtedly known to get a hand in Farokhmanesh’s face.  I contend that the team may have played a similar defense with or without a timeout.  If pressure wasn’t thrown in the face of Ahelegbe, he would have held his dribble at midcourt until the shot clock was exhausted to five or ten seconds and then drove the basket.  The Rebels’ defense got the ball moving, gave them a couple of opportunities at a turnover and forced Northern Iowa to take a shot from just inside the parking lot.  I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

Furthermore, UNI had no timeouts.  Had Kruger taken his final timeout it would have given him an opportunity to set up a defense but would also have given UNI the chance to design a play and get their offense ready for the final 37 seconds. 

Would Doyel have criticized Kruger and the Rebs if they called a timeout and that led to a great set of back picks and an open shot?  Would he declare that UNLV handed Northern Iowa the win because Kruger put the time in their hands to design a play?

Would Doyel praise UNLV for letting the flow of the game come to them had the shot from Farokhmanesh clanged off iron and been rebounded by the Rebels, leading to a game-winning shot from Willis or Bellfield? 

Basketball is a game of inches and the Rebels poured their heart into a game where the last few inches belonged to the other team.

Perhaps the worst part about Doyel’s attack on the Rebels yesterday were the words he had about the UNLV program in general. He wrote:

“[UNLV] does silly stuff like let Tre’Von Willis and Chace Stanback jack 3-pointers when they can’t make them. It has defensive lapses. It loses focus, and boom! Trouble. I don’t know who to blame for it. Maybe nobody. Maybe Kruger’s choice of personnel.

Kruger has made UNLV relevant again, but he has done it by turning UNLV into Transfer U. The best three or four players on roster are from somewhere else, including leading scorer Willis (from Memphis) and No. 2 scorer Stanback (UCLA) and versatile, but injured, wing Derrick Jasper (Kentucky). Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas will become eligible next season. Terrific. More people from elsewhere. It’s not the most stable way to run a program, and when games come down to a final play, a final second, building on such an unstable foundation might be a problem.”

Wow. An “unstable” program with unstable players. Does this guy not know Lon Kruger and his track record? Kruger has won Big 10 (with Illinois), SEC (Florida) and MWC (UNLV) conference championships and finished second in the Big 12 at Kansas State in a year where he took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. Kruger took Florida to the Final Four in 1994 and has revitalized a UNLV program where they were left for dead after Jerry Tarkanian left town, being coached by cast-offs like Rollie Massimino and Charlie Spoonhour. Kruger’s overall record at the collegiate level is 455-295.

The fact that UNLV takes transfers from other schools is both common in NCAA schools and a testimony to the type of program Kruger runs. Willis came from John Calipari’s Memphis program where he averaged 2.6 points a game as a freshman and wanted a fresh start where he could play more. He red-shirted one year and has started for the Rebels for the past two, putting him in the UNLV program for a total of three years. Stanback has a similar story. He was a freshman on the 2007-2008 UCLA Final Four team that lost to Memphis in the national semifinals. After his freshman year he too opted for a fresh start and landed in Vegas, red-shirting the 2008-09 season and playing his first year with UNLV this season. Jasper came from Kentucky the same year Stanback did, though he hadn’t played since a mid-season knee injury.

What did all these players have in common? They wanted to play basketball in a system they could excel in for a coach that has had success everywhere he’s been. The fact that they left top programs shows that the common denominator here is playing time. They wanted to be at a school where they got some run. How horrible is that?

As Doyel puts it, UNLV is now “Transfer U.” That connotation makes it a negative thing, but one could also see it as a positive since so many good players gravitate to a program where their talents can be used and they feel at home. Do we cheapen the draw of a New England Patriots squad because they get players through free agency that want to play for Bill Belichick? Do we downgrade a San Antonio Spurs team that attracts free agents for the chance to be on a contender where the players put team first? So why knock UNLV for accepting transfers that want to play ball?

An even more asinine comment is that the Rebels’ perceived erratic and “unstable” play at the end of the UNI game was a by-product of there being so many (two) transfers on the floor. Does Doyel really believe that the reason this miracle shot connected was because Chace Stanback and Tre’von Willis are transfers? Come on. Kruger runs a well-prepared team in which where you come from matters very little. Any team that makes the tournament plays smart enough and is well-coached enough to maintain a defensive set in a close game.  Can we really blame this on transfer players at this point in a season?  Besides, Stanback was on the bench in defensive sets because of foul trouble against UNI late in the game.  So the one transfer, Willis, cost his team the game because -wait for it- he’s a transfer?

What Doyel overlooks is that UNLV also recruits players out of high school. The other three starters in the first round game against Northern Iowa (Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and Brice Massamba) were all Kruger recruits. Bench players Justin Hawkins, Kendall Wallace and Matt Shaw were also recruits brought in by the UNLV program.

I challenge Doyel to find successful programs in NCAA basketball that don’t accept top transfers from other programs. Is it better to have players that come to your school for one year prior to jolting the NBA?

Ask UCLA, USC and North Carolina how they feel about that strategy.

Doyel surely knows that NCAA tournament time is tough and that games are decided in an instant and often by plays of supernatural legend.  UNLV was beaten by uch a play.  They didn’t lose because of a timeout that wasn’t called or for having too many transfer players on their roster.  The Rebels and the MWC are two of the biggest stories in the NCAA this year and Doyel would know that had he covered them for more than just a single game.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, Mountain West Conference, NCAA Tournament, UNLV

Watching the Pac-10 lose the West…

As the NCAA Selection Committee prepares to finalize their brackets on Sunday night, the scene will shift from the conference tournaments to the Big Dance, but we should all be reminded that this season -above any others in recent memory- has seen a shift in power out West, one that members of the Pacific-10 conference should be mindful.

The Mountain West Conference (MWC) and the West Coast Conference (WCC) currently stake more claims at NCAA berths than the Pac-10.  Those aren’t combined figures, individually the two conferences have better outlooks on Selection Sunday than the Pac-10. 

The MWC has four teams (New Mexico, BYU, UNLV, San Diego State) that have legitimate claims at the NCAA tournament.  The WCC will get two in the dance after Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga in the conference championship,

The Mountain West begins tournament play in Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday.  BYU and New Mexico are locks to make the tourney.  UNLV is close to a lock as long as there aren’t too many bubble busters this year.  If the Rebels can take down Utah in their first round game (something they haven’t done this year, losing in Vegas and in Salt Lake), they should all but punch their ticket.  SDSU probably has some more work to do, but a deep run into the MWC tourney should solidify their resumé for the selection committee.  Four teams in the dance is a real possibility for the Mountain West.

The West Coast Conference also played their tournament in Las Vegas, at The Orleans Arena.  Saint Mary’s blew Gonzaga out of the arena and into The Orleans’ casino, cruising to a 81-62 win.  The Gaels had been 0-2 against Gonzaga this year.  The Zags are sure to get an at-large bid and Saint Mary’s will not have to sweat it out as a bubble team this year, although their resumé would have been pretty impressive.

How about the Pac-10? Most experts believe that the University of California will be in after winning the conference’s regular season title, going 13-5. Washington and Arizona State are firmly on the bubble, making for great drama in the conference tournament this week. The conference had a down year and getting only one team (if Cal wins the Pac-10 tourney) is a real possibility, especially if at-large bids continue to be stolen by schools like Saint Mary’s.

The one thing the Pac-10 has going for it is that their top three teams have ended the regular season on streaks. Cal won seven of their last eight, UW has won four in a row and ASU was victorious in six of their last seven. It’s no secret that the selection committee likes schools that are playing their best ball in March, but the stage has been set to see a power conference get just their tournament champion in the dance like most mid-majors are used to every year.

However, one down year does not a crisis make, right?  Think again.  The MWC in particular has finally begun to steal the western showcase as the premier conference in the last few years.

This year’s edition of the Pac-10 went 4-5 against the MWC and 6-6 against the WCC.  Modest numbers for the lesser conferences and embarrassing for the Pac-10, one of the premier conferences in the country.  Many of these games were in Pac-10 arenas, as big schools continue to be weary when it comes to going into a rabid environment as a favorite against a potential giant killer.

Need more evidence to show that the Pac-10 is no longer the dominant force in Western college basketball?  Check the rankings.  Currently the MWC has two teams ranked: BYU (#15 in the AP Poll/#14 in ESPN’s Coaches Poll) and New Mexico (#8 in both polls).  UNLV is receiving votes in the Coaches Poll.  The WCC’s Gonzaga is ranked #18 in the AP Poll and #14 in the Coaches Poll.  Saint Mary’s is receiving votes in the Coaches Poll.

The Pac-10?  The conference has zero teams in the top 25 in both polls and only one team (Cal) is receiving votes.  Even the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) has Utah State receiving more votes in both polls than the Pac-10’s Cal Golden Bears.

Clearly, better basketball is being played in the lesser conferences out west than in the Pac-10.  ESPN’s bracketologist, Joe Lunardi has four MWC teams in the NCAA tournament, two in from the WCC and two in from the Pac-10 with Cal and ASU making the cut, though ASU is listed as one of the last squads in.  Washington is among Lunardi’s first four out of the dance.

The news gets even worse when one starts talking about the Pac-10 and the Mountain West in college football.  In 2009, three MWC teams finished in the top 25 of the AP Poll.  Texas Christian University finished ranked #6, BYU earned a #12 ranking and Utah finished at #18.  The Pac-10 had only two teams in the final poll, with Oregon ranked #11 and USC finishing at #23.

In the last two years, the MWC has done exceptionally in head-to-head matchups against Pac-10 schools.  In 2008, the MWC dominated the Pac-10, going 6-1 in the regular season and losing in the only bowl game the conferences played against one another (an Arizona win over BYU).  In 2009, the MWC went 2-3 against the Pac-10 with both wins coming in bowl games. 

Combine the last two years and the MWC can boast a 8-5 record against the Pac-10 in football, including a 2-1 record in head-to-head matchups in bowl games.

Is it time for the Pac-10 to panic?  Probably not.  It’s unlikely that historically strong basketball programs like UCLA and Arizona won’t recover with strong recruiting and superior coaching.  In football, no one thinks USC will stay down for long and certainly programs like Oregon, Washington and Stanford are strong teams that are on the up-and-up.

However, the success of the Mountain West should not be ignored as the conference is making a bid to be the second major conference from the west.

Is it any wonder that the Pac-10 is talking about expansion?  Furthermore, if the conference does add more schools, some of the teams being mentioned include MWC members Utah, BYU, San Diego State, Colorado State and UNLV.

If you can beat ’em, join ’em (or in this case, invite them to join you).

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Filed under Basketball, Championship Week, College Basketball, College Football, Football, Mountain West Conference, MWC, NCAA Tournament, Pac-10, Pacific-10 Conference, West Coast Conference

Watching ESPN’s college basketball bias…

Last night I watched SportsCenter on ESPN at 8 PM as my pregnant wife snoozed away (I wrenched the remote away stealthily and changed it from some housewife show).  Midway through the show, Scott Van Pelt and Steve Levy were rattling through highlights of college basketball games.  Following a Maryland basketball package where Van Pelt showed how much of a homer he is, they transitioned to show 90 or so seconds of footage from last night’s University of North Carolina vs. North Carolina State game.  I immediately thought to myself, “Self, why is UNC getting this much press on SportsCenter?  Didn’t they just drop WAY out of the top 25 in both polls?”

So I did some research.  Carolina got a combined one vote in both poll.  That one vote came in the ESPN/Coaches Poll, meaning not a single Associated Press writer voted the Tar Heels into the top 25 this week.  I wonder what coach voted for UNC?  Do you think he collects paychecks from an ACC school?

North Carolina, a school that has unmistakable ties to ESPN seeing that the network broadcasts ACC games and the annual ACC tournament, happened to win their game over NC State, a team they usually pummel.  UNC has reeled since the turn of the new year, going 2-4 since 2009 passed.  They had been 11-3.  They’ve started 2-3 in the ACC and are 13-7 overall.  They don’t deserve a top 25 spot and seeing that ESPN rarely shows highlights of games that feature no top 25 teams, they don’t deserve the coverage they received on SportsCenter last night.

But what will Dick Vitale have to talk about if North Carolina isn’t in the top 25?  Who will he get to promote?

Well, let’s look at some other schools that Dickie V can take a look at.  There is a litany of schools that have received votes or are in the top 25 that get little to no press and certainly aren’t given two minutes of coverage on SportsCenter.

How about Northern Iowa?  That squad is currently 17-2 and ranked 25th in the ESPN poll.  

Or what about Baylor?  They are from a big conference where their up-tempo play has led them to a 15-3 record and a number 24 ranking in the AP poll.  

Looking for someone a little more stable?  How about BYU?  The Cougars have one loss this year and are ranked tenth in the ESPN poll out of the impressive Mountain West Conference (more on the MWC later).  

Or maybe UAB catches your fancy.  They’re number 25 in the AP poll, sporting a 17-2 record.

So why don’t we hear about these great stories?  Who is reporting on these teams?  There are so many amazing seasons underway for schools that are impressing a lot more voting writers and coaches than UNC.  The following teams from big conferences are outside the top 25, but got more votes than Carolina in the most recent polls: Florida State, Clemson, Wake Forest, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia, Northwestern, Cal and Notre Dame.

And how about the little guys?  College basketball is built on the backs of the small schools that make March so exciting.  Where are their stories?  The following small conference schools are outside of the top 25 and have drawn more votes than the Heels: Butler (#18 in coaches poll, not ranked in AP), Cornell, Old Dominion, Xavier, UNLV, Siena, Saint Mary’s, Louisiana Tech, and Harvard.  Coastal Carolina has the same number of votes as UNC, which is one.

That’s right, Coastal Carolina has as many votes as UNC, and Cornell, Harvard and Old Dominion have significantly more ballots cast.  So where are the 90-second highlight packages on their seasons?  Oh that’s right, ESPN needs to make sure everyone knows the Tar Heel players so they are more recognizable when they have their first matchup with Duke on February 10th.  Duh.

ESPN’s alliance with the ACC and other big conferences runs deep.  Jay Bilas went to Duke.  Hubert Davis went to North Carolina.  So did Stuart Scott.  Dick Vitale praises anything that has to do with ACC basketball, especially if it takes place on Tobacco Road.  The network carries their games and the tournament, as previously mentioned.  Unfortunately, ESPN has such an effect on the landscape of college basketball that poll results may be swayed by their coverage.

Take the Mountain West Conference.  Home to the likes of BYU, Utah, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, the conference has continually made strides, but seems to stay out of the national conscience.  MWC teams consistently downed big conference powers in pre-conference play.  Arizona lost to three Mountain West teams (BYU, UNLV and SDSU).  BYU also beat Arizona State.  Louisville lost to UNLV.  Utah took down Illinois, Michigan and LSU.  New Mexico defeated Cal, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

The conference currently boasts two teams in the top 25 (BYU and New Mexico), with a third (UNLV) having spent time there and still receiving votes.  The MWC also boasts big name coaches like Steve Alford (UNM), Lon Kruger (UNLV) and Steve Fisher (SDSU).  So what’s keeping them from getting more attention?  Could it be partially because of ESPN’s lack of coverage while they are too busy giving time to ACC teams that are well out of the top 25?

UNLV only has four losses and two are to teams currently ranked in the top 15 (BYU and Kansas State).  The others are to USC in a Christmas tournament championship and Utah in a tough MWC matchup.  There are eight other teams currently in the top 25 that have four or more losses.  The Rebels have only two conference losses and one is at BYU.   The Cougars come to the Thomas & Mack center for the Vegas rematch on February 6th.

The MWC has television contracts with CBS College Sports and The Mountain, a network created by the conference.  ESPN has no vested interest to show their highlights, promote their games or make fans (and potential voters) aware of the brand of basketball being played in the conference.  One could laugh at ESPN for their fair and balanced coverage the way the general public does when someone talks about Fox News Channel.

The Mountain West is not the only conference being slighted as there is plenty of great basketball being played that the majority of the viewing (and voting) public knows little to nothing about.

The “Mothership” owes the legions of sports fans better than this.  Let’s drop the coverage of a floundering UNC team just a tad (you can still report on it and promote their games) and up the ante by talking up the big games in other conferences that have teams receiving significantly more top 25 votes, regardless of who their TV contract is with.

Let’s start with this: Cornell hosts Harvard on Saturday night.  Let’s cover that like you did the two unranked teams you gave pub to last night when UNC vs. NC State was pushed upon us.  At least Cornell and Harvard have more combined poll votes (18) than the Heels do (1).

Let’s all hope for a Big Red win over the Crimson to push them over the edge in the ESPN/Coaches Poll.  They are ranked number 27 now.  A top 25 berth would make ESPN cover them.  One can only wish…

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Filed under ACC, Basketball, BYU, College Basketball, ESPN, Journalism, Mountain West Conference, University of North Carolina, UNLV