Tournament banner is one to hang | RecordCourier.com

Tournament banner is one to hang

Joe Santoro

Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .

The Nevada Wolf Pack is holding the Mountain West's men's basketball regular season championship in the palm of its hand. All they have to do is squeeze it and not let it go. The Wolf Pack (9-4 in league play) are currently tied with Colorado State (10-4) and Boise State (9-4) with the fewest losses in conference play. The Pack play both Boise State and Colorado State at home in the next three weeks, therefore, victories in their last five regular season games will clinch their first Mountain West regular season title. All of the clichés are now in play. Focus on the next game on the schedule. Win one game at a time. Don't look past the next opponent. Just do it. Never be satisfied. No excuses.

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Regular season conference championships are nice. You get to hang a banner in your gym and celebrate for a day or two. But the real Mountain West champion this season will be the team that wins the conference tournament. That is the only team that will likely go to the NCAA tournament. Nevada (20-6 overall) is the only team in the conference that has even a remote chance of going to the NCAAs with an at large bid but nobody in silver and blue wants to rely on that taking place. The real Mountain West season will be March 8-11 in Las Vegas. That's the banner you want to hang.

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Does the Wolf Pack have a chance of going to the NCAA tournament without winning the conference tournament? Doubtful. And they better not lose more than one more game. In the perfect Pack world, a record of 27-7 (5-0 in regular season the rest of the way and 2-1 in the conference tournament) should get the Pack an at-large bid. But there are no guarantees. The Mountain West simply has no respect around the nation this year and deservedly so. This might be the first time in the league's history that the regular season champ lost more than four league games. Also don't forget that the Pack was 26-6 in 2011-12 and didn't get a bid out of the Western Athletic conference. And with BYU, Utah and TCU no longer around, the Mountain West is sort of the new WAC.

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It might be time for the Wolf Pack to start worrying about Marcus Marshall. The Wolf Pack's 3-point shooter was without a doubt the team's best player over the first 22 games of the season. He was averaging 21.1 points a game and was making nearly four threes (3.8) a game, shooting 44 percent from the floor overall and 40 percent on threes. The last four games he is averaging just 7.8 points a game and one 3-pointer. He is shooting 27 percent from the floor and 17 percent (4-of-24) on threes. Marshall led the Pack in scoring 13 times over the first 20 games and none in the last six. He's not shooting as much (14.6 field goal attempts, 9.3 threes over the first 22 games down to 10 field goals and six threes the last four games) and the Pack isn't as consistent overall. This is the time of year when consistency is the key to everything. The Wolf Pack need the Marcus Marshall of the first 22 games to make this a special season.

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Marshall's dropoff has seemed to coincide with the emergence of D.J. Fenner as a big-time scorer. Fenner has outscored Marshall 88-41 over the last four games, connecting on more field goals (31-11) and more threes (11-4) while taking far more shots (59-41). Fenner has led the Pack in scoring in three of the last four games after leading the team in scoring just twice over the first 22 games. Is Fenner's emergence as a more assertive offensive player good for the Pack at Marshall's expense? It could be that Fenner is merely picking up the slack for a slumping Marshall in the last four games. Or it could be that the team has found a new scoring leader. Stay tuned.

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Through the first 22 games it appeared that Marshall was the Pack's top choice as Mountain West Player of the Year. But now you can also add Cam Oliver to that short list. Oliver is seventh in the league in scoring (15.5), fifth in rebounding (8.4), sixth in field goal percentage (.466) and first in blocks (2.6). Marshall, despite his recent slump, is still first in scoring (with New Mexico's Elijah Brown at 19.1 a game), eighth in field goal percentage (.421), fourth in assists (3.2), sixth in free throw percentage (.824), sixth in 3-point shooting percentage (.380), first in total threes made (87) and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2). If the Pack win the regular season title, it would be fitting if Marshall and Oliver share the award.

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The San Francisco 49ers have their quarterback moving forward already on the roster. But it doesn't seem like they know it. Colin Kaepernick is a better quarterback than any of the quarterbacks that might be available in the coming months, be it Jay Cutler or Tony Romo by trade or DeShone Kizer, Deshaun Watson or Mitch Trubisky through the draft. Kaepernick quietly had a very solid season last year, passing for 2,241 yards and 16 touchdowns, rushing for 468 yards and throwing just four interceptions. His quarterback rating of 90.7 was better than Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Jameis Winston, Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Blake Bortles, Carson Wentz and Joe Flacco. But all reports have Kaepernick opting out of his contract by March 2 to become a free agent and the 49ers aren't spending a lot of time begging him to stay. It might be best for Kaepernick and the 49ers if they come to their senses and save the marriage.