Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on December 11th, 2009

checkinginon

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

Standings (as of 12/10)

  1. New Mexico      9-0
  2. UNLV     7-0         
  3. BYU        7-1
  4. San Diego State    7-2         
  5. Air Force      5-2         
  6. Colorado State     6-3
  7. Utah     5-4         
  8. TCU      5-4
  9. Wyoming   4-4         

Superlatives

Team of the Week. Utah – I’m not sure why, but I’m just fascinated with this team. There’s no real point guard here, but there are several different guys that can handle a little and make an amazing play, only to follow it up by turning it over on consecutive possessions. Their most athletically-gifted player (junior Carlon Brown) can do a ton of useful things, but unfortunately, shooting from the outside consistently is not one of them. They have a 7’3 monster in the middle in sophomore David Foster, and can run out a starting five that goes 6’4, 6’5, 6’7, 6’10, 7’3, and yet they get outrebounded by Idaho State. They can go through a whole game with only a handful of assists one night, then have senior guard Luka Drca run the offense like a dream the next. And here we are, almost a month into the season, and I still have no idea what to expect from this team. Head coach Jim Boylen could pull an Izzo and get this team together to compete for a conference title. Or more likely, they mix in a handful of wins over teams like BYU, New Mexico and UNLV with sleepy losses to Air Force, Wyoming and Colorado State on the way to a middle-of-the-pack finish. Either way, give credit to the Utes for pulling it together long enough to string together a couple wins this week, including a strong performance against slumping Michigan on Wednesday night.

Player of the Week. Roman Martinez, Sr, New Mexico – Three times we’ve caught up with the MWC, and three times a Lobo has taken home these honors. Martinez gets the nod this week after Darrington Hobson’s previous two wins, following a week in which nets from Albuquerque to San Diego have cowered in fear under Martinez’s gaze. In two games, Martinez knocked down 13 three pointers (on just 17 attempts) and racked up an average of 23.5 points a game.  Throw in eight rebounds and five steals against New Mexico State, and a couple more wins for his undefeated team and things are looking up down in The Pit.

Newcomer of the Week. Kawhi Leonard, Fr, San Diego State - Kawhi Leonard was the most highly regarded recruit to join a MWC team this season, and while he has been solid in the early portion of the season, he exploded this past week, lighting up two Big West schools to the tune of 18 point and 13.5 rebounds per game, even adding five assists in the Aztecs second game of the week, a 14-point win over Cal State Fullerton. Leonard is second in rebounding in the conference with just over nine rebounds per game.

Game of the Week. New Mexico vs. San Diego: A slow time around the conference, and around college basketball in general, but in honor of our player of the week, we’ll give the game of the week honors to this one, in which Martinez made the first seven three-pointers he attempted. In fact, Martinez didn’t attempt a single field goal inside the arc and wound up hitting eight of his nine attempts. The rest of the Lobos didn’t do too poorly from behind the arc either, as the whole squad wound up 12 of 18 from deep. And they needed just about all of them to fend off a San Diego team that shot 56% from the field, but came up just a bit short, with the Lobos winning 82-78. New Mexico improved their record to 9-0 for the first time since the 1995-96 season.

Games of the Upcoming Week. Kansas State vs. UNLV and New Mexico vs. Texas A&M – I can’t pick just one of these games, both are equally compelling. The two remaining undefeated teams in the MWC travel (in the case of UNLV, just down the street, but still) to neutral courts (again, no one really expects that the Orleans Arena on the Vegas Strip, the site of the KSU/UNLV game, will be “neutral”) on Saturday to face Big 12 opponents that have shown themselves worthy of being taken seriously in the early season. Expect both of these games to be tough, tooth-and-nail, down-to-the-wire battles between teams who are already looking to sharpen their tournament resumes. Between these four teams, there are a grand total of two losses on the young season, but that number will necessarily double on Saturday.

League Notes

It was a strong week for the conference, as the member schools combined to go 13-2 in the non-conference games this week, including wins over a Pac-10 school, a Big Twelve school, a Big Ten school and a 3-0 record against the WCC. The conference is now 5-4 against BCS conference schools, 7-1 against WCC schools and 8-2 against WAC schools. The slate of games doesn’t get any easier across the conference this week, as four Big 12 schools, two Pac-10 schools, and an SEC school, among others, line the schedule this week.

The MWC/MVC Challenge resumed this week with Missouri State dispatching of Air Force to even the tally at two wins for each conference with five games remaining. TCU will travel to Wichita State this week, and the final four games of the series will be played the week before Christmas.

Team Roundups

New Mexico

Looking back: After an eventful week for the Lobos, their perfect record on the season remains intact. Steve Alford’s squad finished up their sweep of the season series with New Mexico State by jumping all over the Aggies in their first half, getting out to a 41-18 halftime lead on their way to forcing 31 New Mexico State turnovers during the course of the game. A visit to San Diego on Wednesday provided a bit more drama, however, as the Lobos had to rely on torrid outside shooting to withstand the Torreros. Roman Martinez led the Lobos with eight three-pointers as the team made 12 of their 18 attempts from downtown to overcome a poor defensive night during which they allowed San Diego to shoot 56% from the field. Juco transfer Darrington Hobson took a step back from the phenomenal statistics he had posted over the opening weeks of the season, but was still effective, while Martinez was on fire this week, knocking down 13 threes over the two games and averaging 23.5ppg.

Looking ahead: The Lobos will put their perfect record on the line in a tough neutral court contest against Texas A&M at the Toyota Center in Houston in what should be their toughest test of the season so far. The Lobos will then return home to host Northern Arizona before embarking on a tough stretch of games in the following weeks to finish up their non-conference schedule, with  home games against Creighton, Texas Tech and Dayton wrapped around a visit to Oral Roberts.

UNLV

Looking back: A slow week for the Rebels almost turned ugly as UNLV struggled in their sole game of the week, a road trip to Santa Clara on Saturday. The Rebels were a bit sluggish in the first half and were outrebounded 42-28 and beat at the free throw line 21-11, but forced 21 turnovers and were able to come back from an eight-point halftime deficit and survive a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer by Santa Clara’s Raymond Cowels to remain undefeated on the season. Guards Oscar Bellfield and Tre’Von Willis were the stars for the Rebels, scoring 15 and 14, respectively.

Looking ahead: A big Saturday game for the Rebels, meeting an 8-1 Kansas State squad that has been impressive in the early season at the Las Vegas Orleans Arena. UNLV will then make an odd trip to Cedar City on Tuesday for a matchup with Southern Utah.

BYU

Looking back: Coming into the season, the Cougars expected to count on preseason all-MWC players Jimmer Fredette and Jonathan Tavernari. While Fredette has been strong most of the season, Tavernari has struggled, averaging just 10ppg on 34% shooting. In BYU’s biggest game of the week, a Tuesday night tussle with Arizona State, Tavernari’s struggles continued (although he did become BYU’s all-time lead in threes earlier in the week when he hit his 214th of his career in a 69-43 win over San Francisco), and Fredette joined him as the two combined to go 3/21 from the field and 1/8 from behind the arc. However, all remained well in Cougar-land as junior guard Jackson Emery stepped up to hit five threes, while freshman Tyler Haws had his best game of his young career, adding 17 points and 11 rebounds, as BYU led by as much as 20 over the Sun Devils. ASU did make a run in the second half to get as close as four before the Cougars responded with a run to close the game out.

Looking ahead: BYU travels to Fresno State on Saturday night to face former Cougar head coach Steve Cleveland’s squad, then returns home to face Wagner on Thursday.

San Diego State

Looking back: Leonard’s explosion against Fullerton was the highlight of the week, but sophomore guard Tyrone Shelley was the Aztecs leading scorer in their previous game, an eight-point win at UC Santa Barbara on Saturday. However, the real story for Steve Fisher’s squad has been their depth, with seven combined players having scored in double figures in the two games. One concern for SDSU has to be their free-throw shooting though. The Aztecs were a dreadful 13/32 from the line against Fullerton and are shooting below 58% as a team for the season.

Looking ahead: The Aztecs host Arizona on Saturday, then get a week off before traveling to Tempe to face Arizona State next Saturday.

TCU

Looking back: The Horned Frogs are in the middle of a quiet portion of their schedule, and looked well-rested and ready to play when they tipped off against Texas Tech on Tuesday, only the second time in the history of Daniel-Meyer Coliseum that the Frogs would host a ranked opponent. And for a while, Fort Worth fans were treated to an excellent display as senior center Zvonko Buljan led TCU out to a 41-27 late in the first half. Unfortunately, there was another half to play, and the Red Raiders looked very different after the break and punished TCU on the glass (45-30 over the entire game). Sophomore point guard Tuffy Moss also struggled mightily, going just four of 17 from the field for the game, make just one of eight attempts from behind the arc. Buljan, however, did have his best game of the season, pouring in 24 points and grabbing ten rebounds.

Looking ahead: Another slow week for TCU as the Horned Frogs travel to Wichita State for their MWC/MVC Challenge matchup.

Air Force

Looking back: Air Force got the week off to a start with the resumption of the MWC/MVC Challenge and a trip to Springfield to face the undefeated Missouri State Bears. But the Falcons couldn’t control MSU’s sophomore forward Kyle Weems, who knocked down five threes while going for 19 points and eight rebounds. Air Force was able to bounce back nicely in their next game, a 34-point home win over Prairie View A&M. Senior forward Grant Parker continues to lead the Falcons, as he piled up another 29 points and 16 rebounds over the two games.

Looking ahead: Air Force travels to Washington State on Saturday, then spends the rest of their week dealing with schoolwork.

Colorado State

Looking back: The Rams bounced back from an ugly loss to Northern Colorado, to knock off two other Colorado rivals this week: Denver on Saturday and Colorado on Thursday. In the 64-59 victory over Denver, CSU shot only 38% from the field, but won the battle of the boards (33-23) and got to the free throw line an astounding 42 times (making 32 of them), a formula they replicated nicely against the Buffaloes when they won the rebounding battle 41-27 and made 30 of their 39 free throws. Junior guard Adam Nigon (14 points, five rebounds, three assists and three three-point field goals) and junior forward Andy Ogide (12 points and six rebounds) led the way for the Rams against Denver while it was junior forward Tony Franklin (22 points and ten rebounds) and freshman guard Dorian Green (21 points and five rebounds) who starred against the Buffaloes. And the Ram fans even got a Rush The Court out of it. Good news surrounds the CSU program, as coupled with the two wins this week, the Rams look forward to possibly getting sophomore guard Jesse Carr back from a groin injury in the near future, and senior guard Harvey Perry should be able to return from an academic suspension in the next couple of games.

Looking ahead: The Rams host Montana on Saturday before a week off to concentrate on their studies.

Utah

Looking back: After struggling with inconsistency in the early season, Utah got things headed in the right direction this week with a couple grind-it-out victories at the Huntsman Center.   The Utes handled Idaho State by 12 on Saturday, thanks to some strong perimeter defense (held ISU to 1/10 shooting from three-point territory) and their ability to get to the line 29 times as opposed to ISU’s nine attempts. However, coach Jim Boylen had to be a little concerned about Utah getting outrebounded despite sophomore center David Foster’s ten rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive end. Those concerns were addressed in the next game as Utah took advantage of John Beilein’s zone to outrebound Michigan 41-25. While junior guard Manny Harris was effective for the Wolverines with 25 points, the rest of the team combined for only 27 points, shooting just 28% from the field. The Utes had four players score in double figures, led by freshman guard Marshall Henderson, who had four three-pointers in each of the games this week.

Looking ahead: While it a quiet week in terms of volume, the one game on the Utah schedule is quite significant: a matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners at the Huntsman Center on Saturday night.

Wyoming

Looking back: One last MWC with a bit of a lull in the schedule, the Cowboys were fortunate to get out of the week with a 76-70 home victory against Loyola Marymount. Although the Lions dominated Wyoming on the glass (53-30), they were forced into 22 turnovers  by a harrying Wyoming defense that accounted for 12 steals and ten blocked shots. The Cowboys converted those turnovers into 23 points and outscored LMU 10-1 down the stretch to get back to .500 on the season with the second consecutive win.

Looking ahead: The Cowboys host Northern Colorado in Casper on Saturday before traveling to Knoxville, where they will be a big underdog against Tennessee. One big thing to look for this week will be the potential return of sophomore forward Afam Muojeke, who has missed the last four games with a bruised knee.

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