RTC 2009-10 Impact Players – Mountain RegionPosted by rtmsf on October 27th, 2009
Ed. Note: the previous posts in this series (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Atlantic South, Deep South, Mid-South, Lower Midwest and Upper Midwest) are located here.
It’s time for the eighth installment of our RTC 2009-10 Impact Players series, the group of somewhat forgotten states that have lots of land but relatively few players that we’re calling the Mountain Region. Each week we’ll pick a geographic area of the country and break down the five players who we feel will have the most impact on their teams (and by the transitive property, college basketball) this season. Our criteria is once again subjective – there are so many good players in every region of the country that it’s difficult to narrow them down to only five in each – but we feel at the end of this exercise that we’ll have discussed nearly every player of major impact in the nation. Just to be fair and to make this not too high-major-centric, we’re also going to pick a mid-major impact player in each region as our sixth man. We welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments where we left players off. The only request is that you provide an argument – why will your choice be more influential this season than those we chose?
Mountain Region (CO, UT, WY, MT, ID)
(ed. note: since this region has a scarcity of BCS schools, we’re grouping all of its schools into the same pool)
- Jimmer Fredette – G, Jr – BYU. Blessed with the one of the most memorable first names in college basketball, Jimmer Fredette emerged as one of the steadiest and most productive point guards in the nation during a breakout sophomore campaign at BYU. Fredette’s scoring average jumped 9.2 PPG from 2007-08, finishing second on the team in scoring (16.2) three-point percentage (.382) and free throw percentage (.847) while leading the Cougars in APG (4.1) and steals (50). His ranks in the Mountain West are equally impressive: fifth in scoring, third in assists, second in free throw percentage and steals while finishing fourth in minutes played. Along with multi-dimensional wing Jonathan Tavernari (below), it’ll be Fredette taking the reins of a BYU team poised to win another regular season MWC title under head coach Dave Rose. With several teams on their heels, the consistent and reliable point guard play of Fredette could prove the difference, especially in important non-conference tests vs. Utah State, Arizona State, Arizona and Nevada and the always-competitive MWC slate. Fredette managed to earn himself a spot on both the all-MWC first team and the MWC all-tournament team, and it wouldn’t shock us one bit if Fredette makes both lists in 2009-10 as well. This tough, hard-nosed competitor is one of the top point guards not only west of the Mississippi, but in the entire landscape of college basketball and should only improve in an anticipated junior season manning the Cougar ship.
- Cory Higgins – G, Jr – Colorado. Frankly, the only bright spot on a depressing 2008-09 Colorado Buffaloes team was Cory Higgins. The 9-22 (1-15) rebuilding project in Boulder is embarrassing and downright inexcusable for a school with their resources and attractive campus (football isn’t exactly a prettier situation). Give Higgins credit for remaining loyal to the Colorado program when he easily could have bolted for better situations. The 6’5 California native whose father, Rod Higgins, is a longtime NBA veteran, does everything for Colorado, finishing his tremendous sophomore season at 17.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.9 SPG, 47% FG, 83% FT and 36% 3pt. With Higgins mired in obscurity at the bottom of the Big 12, many casual fans have no clue that his all-around game matches just about anyone in the conference. Rick Barnes knows – Higgins scored 34 points on 11/20 FG in Boulder last February in a 9-point loss to Texas. Mark Turgeon knows – Higgins went for 27 points on 10/18 FG at home in early March in a 6-point loss to Texas A&M. The all-Big 12 third team selection was one of 13 players in the nation ranked first or second on their team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks and the only sophomore to make that illustrious list. Sure, Colorado doesn’t provide much help in the way of talent for Higgins, but that’s not his fault. Higgins may be able to score 20-per-contest this season in Colorado. He hopes those epic performances also include a tally in the win column more often than nine times this season.
- Mac Hopson – G, Sr – Idaho. What’s this? Idaho basketball on the rise? Believe it. Last year the Vandals celebrated their first winning season in a decade and some of the preseason prognosticators have them as a sexy pick to knock off defending WAC champion Utah State. Such resurgences are usually borne from great leadership, and senior point guard Mac Hopson definitely fits that description. Hopson starts his second year at Idaho as the focal point of a program trying to achieve its first NCAA Tournament bid in twenty years. Arriving by way of North Idaho College and a year of Pac-10 experience at Washington State, Hopson introduced himself to the WAC last year by averaging 16.4 PPG and an impressive 5 RPG — not bad at all for a 6’2″ point guard. His 5.9 APG not only led his team, but also the entire WAC and ranked him 19th nationally. Idaho basketball supporters aren’t surprised to see the program elevated by a man named Hopson, of course; Mac — born Phillip, Jr. — is the son of Phil Hopson, an former Idaho star who was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1983 NBA draft. At this point, Mac is probably just glad to be actively playing basketball for the same team for a second consecutive year. After a year where he earned first-team All WAC honors, we can’t wait to see what he does now that the guy doesn’t have to worry about the pressures of moving and learning to play with a new team. The rest of the WAC is probably less excited.
- Anthony Johnson – G, Sr – Montana. Anthony Johnson stepped out of tiny Yakima (WA) Valley Community College into the bright lights and big cities of the Big Sky conference and promptly showed the league that he was not intimidated by the leap to D1. Why should he be? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that he was on the fast track to nowhere. That is, until his then-girlfriend/now-wife, Shaunte Nance-Johnson, saw the talent in him (he had “an amazing [jump]shot”) and brokered a tryout for her beau at YVCC as a condition for her joining the women’s team there. It took exactly one practice for Johnson to earn a scholarship offer, and he subsequently led his team to a regional championship while putting up 24.4 PPG in his second year at the school. After his JuCo eligibility was up, he was recruited to Montana, and this time he repaid the favor to the person who had originally encouraged him as Shaunte came along as part of a husband-wife package deal. She is now a senior backup PG for the Lady Grizzlies. As for AJ, he was the overwhelming choice for Newcomer of the Year in the Big Sky last season, taking the league by storm with 18 PPG, 3 RPG and 3 APG on 50% shooting from the field, 87% from the line, and 35% from three. In conference games alone, he was even better: 21 PPG, 3 RPG and 3 APG on 52%/89%/37%. Wow. His game is pure speed, quickness and finesse, as he has an uncanny ability to get in the lane and draw fouls (#24 nationally). And Grizzlies fans have a lot to be excited for, as Johnson leads a talented group including Jack McGillis, Ryan Staudacher and Brian Qvale that many are picking to win the Big Sky this year. The Lady Grizzlies are also getting some press as a potential winner on the women’s side of the conference. Wouldn’t it be an absolute Hollywood-style storybook ending if both Johnson and his wife were Dancing next March? I think we’ve found one of our feel-good stories to watch for the upcoming season, folks.
- Nate Rohnert – G, Sr – Denver. Nate Rohnert is the type of player coaches love because you pretty much have to cast a net over him to get him off of the basketball floor. Described by coach Joe Scott as “a relentless worker” who’s always in the gym trying to improve his skills, Rohnert, a 6’5 senior guard/forward, averaged 37 minutes per game last year, leading the entire Sun Belt and ranking 21st in the nation. To that end, he also led his team in points (15.3 PPG), rebounds (5.4 RPG), assists (4.7 APG), and steals (1.3 SPG). Certainly no surprise that Scott anointed him with the captaincy of the 2009-10 edition of the Pioneers. Denver lands somewhere in the 3rd to 5th range in terms of most preseason predictions for the Sun Belt overall, and they have never been to the NCAA Tournament. We’re willing to bet that this is something that bothers Mr. Rohnert and is something he’s thinking about during all that time in the gym on his own. Despite the fact that Denver returns its four other starters and most of the scoring from last year’s 9-9 Sun Belt team, it will be hard to get by the likes of Western Kentucky and North Texas. One thing of which we’re sure — it’ll be a pleasure to watch Nate Rohnert make a run at it.
- Jonathan Tavernari – F, Sr – BYU. It’s been a long road for Jonathan Tavernari to make it to BYU, hailing as he does from Sao Bernardo, Brazil, but after he completes his eligibility at the school next spring, it wouldn’t be out of line to say that he will have left one of the better legacies the school has seen in many years. His game is reminiscent of another crafty South American in Manu Ginobili, with his shooting touch from outside, clever maneuvers to the basket, nose for the ball in the paint (7.2 rebs per game for a 6’6 player is no joke), and a bit of that same fiery demeanor on the court. The 2007 Mountain West FrOY and two-time all-MWC third team member looks to take on a greater leadership role along with junior guard Jimmer Fredette and lead the Cougars to success in the NCAA Tournament, a goal that has eluded BYU since 1993. Thus far Tavernari has been a key cog in 77 wins (on pace to become the winningest player in BYU history, and has an outside shot at playing the most games in BYU history), three MWC regular season titles, three NCAA Tournaments and with 12 more threes in 09-10, he will obliterate the career record for made treys at the school (213). The two things missing, of course, are a Mountain West Tournament title and a win in the Big Dance. In 2007 and 2008, UNLV used its homecourt advantage to knock the Cougars off in the finals; last year it was San Diego St. in the semis. And BYU has played its first-round NCAA opponent tough (Xavier and Texas A&M twice) in all three appearances, but they have not been able to break through. Dave Rose believes this might their year to do so, and with the coach’s battle with pancreatic cancer as inspiration, Tavernari and his scoring (15.7 PPG), rebounding (7.2 RPG) and shooting (2.6 threes per game) will undoubtedly spur BYU on to another 25+ win season and other good fortunes along the way.
Honorable Mention. Davis Baker, Southern Utah. Jabril Banks, Northern Colorado. Carlon Brown, Utah. Will Bynum, Montana State. Kurt Cunningham, Boise State. Rob Lewis, Denver. Damian Lillard, Weber State. Amorrow Morgan, Idaho State. Afam Muojeke, Wyoming. Jared Quayle, Utah State. Tai Wesley, Utah State.