Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on January 8th, 2010

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

Standings (as of 1/7)

  1. BYU                                        15-1                       1-0
  2. San Diego State                12-3                       1-0
  3. Colorado State                  10-5                       1-0
  4. TCU                                        8-7                          1-0
  5. Utah                                      7-7                          0-0
  6. New Mexico                      14-2                       0-1
  7. UNLV                                     12-3                       0-1
  8. Air Force                              8-6                          0-1
  9. Wyoming                            7-8                          0-1

Superlatives

Team of the Week. BYU – The Cougars not only continued to prove they were a MWC title contender this week, but they did so in true team fashion, having bench players step up and make big contributions in the absence of some stars. With junior guard Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery both missing some time this week, BYU had guys like junior point Michael Loyd Jr and sophomore forward Noah Hartsock (not to mention a familiar name we’ll mention one paragraph down) step up and carry the team to a big win over UNLV in their conference opener, following a drubbing of overmatched Eastern New Mexico. With Fredette and Emery’s health issues considered to be minor (both played in the UNLV game, but were limited), the confidence gained by some of these role players will only strengthen BYU’s chances in the long run.

Player of the Week. Jonathan Tavernari, Sr, BYU. Tavernari has made the All-MWC Third Team for two years running, following his Freshman of the Year award three years back, and this season was a consensus First Team All-MWC selection. However, the Brazilian Bomber got off to a rough start and had his confidence shaken early, and by the end of December, he was coming off the bench, and even then only for spot minutes and to very little effect. Against UNLV, that all changed, for one night at least. With Fredette severely limited in the second half, and with the Rebels threatening to steal the conference opener at the Marriott Center, JT came through big with 14 of his 17 points in the second half, adding in nine rebounds and igniting the crowd and the rest of his team as the Cougars held off the visitors. Much credit to Tavernari for shrugging off his early struggles, remaining a team player despite his sagging minutes and showing great senior leadership in a key early-conference battle.

Newcomer of the Week. Malcolm Thomas, Jr, San Diego State – This transfer from Pepperdine was all set to take home the POTW honors until Tavernari’s performance late Wednesday night. But Thomas’ effort in defending the Aztec home court advantage against New Mexico in the conference opener should not be diminished. Thomas posted 18 points and 15 rebounds, and had a run of seven straight often spectacular points as SDSU pulled away from New Mexico late in the game on Tuesday. Thomas has teamed with freshman Kawhi Leonard to give the Aztecs a formidable interior presence in the paint, averaging 18 rebounds a game between the two newcomers.

Game of the Week. BYU 77, UNLV 73 – As the Cougars and Rebels come down the stretch on Wednesday night, reigning MWC POTW Fredette can do nothing more than watch, sidelined by strep throat and an allergic reaction to some medicine. The Rebs build up a bit of a lead, but the Cougars get back-to-back threes by Tavernari and freshman Tyler Haws to go back up by one. UNLV fights back and builds up a five point lead as junior guard Tre’Von Willis looks to be on the verge of taking over, but BYU comes back again, regains the lead on another Tavernari three, Loyd hits an acrobatic off-balance layup, Emery hits a tough jumper from the free-throw line at the end of a hectic possession and when all is said and done, the Cougars had put together an 11-2 run to wrest control of the game away and wrap up a tough victory in their conference opener.

Games of the Upcoming Week. UNLV @ New Mexico, January 9th,  Vs. – One of these two teams, both considered contenders for the MWC title and possible at-large NCAA tournament berths, will start out the MWC 0-2. While it wouldn’t be a death knell for either squad (and for the Rebels starting out the conference schedule with two road games against two of the four best teams in the conference never looked to be a picnic), nobody in either program wants to deal with that situation. This game will be as vicious as an early-January MWC game can be.

League Notes

  • As has been noted since before the season began, this is a very young league with newcomers littering rosters around the conference. With conference play beginning, all those fresh faces are getting their first taste of what it means to play on the road in raucous unfriendly arenas. While some newcomers have taken to the challenge with relative ease (see Colorado State’s freshman guard Dorian Green going for 15 points and three threes in leading his Rams to a road win), others have yet to find their footing (see New Mexico’s JuCo transfer Darington Hobson hitting just four of his 17 shots and turning the ball over five times in a road loss at San Diego State). While a conference championship cannot be won this early in the season, a team that is unprepared to play on the road could lose one awful early.
  • With conference play underway for everyone except Utah, the MWC has just about wrapped up its non-conference slate, although BYU still has a trip to UTEP this weekend and TCU will host Texas-Pan American (1/20). The MWC has posted a 89-38 record thus far against the rest of the country and is 11-11 against BCS conference schools.

Team Roundups

BYU

Looking back: After mopping up the Marriott Center floor with Eastern New Mexico last Saturday, a game in which neither Fredette nor Emery played, the Cougars took care of UNLV in their conference opener in a game detailed in the Game of the Week section above. BYU has shown themselves to be a very deep team thus far, with eight players having scored in double figures thus far and five different players leading the team in rebounding for a game.

Looking ahead: BYU will wrap up their non-conference play this weekend with a tough road trip to El Paso to face the athletic Miners before continuing their MWC play with a trip to Air Force on Wednesday.

San Diego State

Looking back: The Aztecs got their MWC season underway in strong fashion, knocking off New Mexico in their opener behind a monster performance by Thomas who had 18 points and 15 rebounds, including seven straight points as the Aztecs pulled away from New Mexico late on Tuesday. While it was an impressive win, it didn’t come without some bad news, as junior forward and Aztec leading scorer Billy White went down with a high ankle sprain late in the first half. White’s status for the immediate future is not presently known. Earlier in the week, the Aztecs wrapped up their non-conference season with a standard-issue drubbing of Division II also-ran Pomona-Pitzer.

Looking ahead: The Aztecs will spend the next week on the road, visiting Wyoming on Saturday, then heading to UNLV on Wednesday before heading home to host TCU next Saturday.

Colorado State

Looking back: CSU opened its MWC season by going on the road to Wyoming and controlling the game from start to finish on the way to a ten point win. Four Rams scored in double figures, led by junior forward Andy Ogide who had 22 points, six rebounds and three steals. The Rams shot 60% from the field in the second half and got three three-pointers  each from Green and junior guard Adam Nigon. The Rams also added a 22-point victory over Yale last weekend, but got some bad news this week as sophomore guard Jesse Carr decided to petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt for this season due to a stress fracture in his pelvis that he suffered at the end of last season.

Looking ahead: The Rams host Air Force on Saturday, then get the week off to prepare for a trip to Provo to face the Cougars next Saturday.

TCU

Looking back: The Horned Frogs coasted through an easy first half in the conference opener against Air Force on Wednesday, taking a 13 point lead into the locker room, but needed an 11-0 run after the Falcons came back to tie the game at 44 just before the final television timeout in order to defend their home court. While the outcome looked pretty for coach Jim Christian’s squad, the game was anything but. TCU shot just 38% from the field on the night and hit just five of their 21 three-point attempts, but did manage to take care of the ball, turning the ball over just nine times. Senior Zvonko Buljan continues to lead the team, throwing up 14 points and 11 rebounds on Wednesday and adding another 12 points and nine rebounds in a 12-point non-conference victory over Rice last Saturday.

Looking ahead: TCU travels to Utah for the Utes’ conference opener on Saturday, then host Wyoming on Tuesday night.

Utah

Looking back: Utah wrapped up its nonconference schedule on Saturday with an exciting come-from-behind victory over the Bayou Bengals in Baton Rouge. The Utes were able to dodge great performances by senior forward Tasmin Mitchell (19pts, 12rebs) and junior forward Storm Warren (21pts, 9rebs) as they came from 12 back in the second half to take the lead from LSU for good on a Carlon Brown three with 1:11 remaining. Utah was led by senior guard Luka Drca, who had 14 points and five assists, sophomore center David Foster (seven blocks) and Brown, who added 12. There was some bad news for the Utes this week, however, as senior forward Kim Tillie (who went for ten points and seven rebounds against LSU), had knee surgery and is expected to be out about three weeks.

Looking ahead: Utah will be the last MWC to kick off conference play when it hosts TCU on Saturday. They will then travel to New Mexico on Wednesday and UNLV next Saturday for a couple serious conference litmus tests.

New Mexico

Looking back: The Lobos kicked off their conference play with a trip to the Mesa to face San Diego State on Tuesday, and looked every bit the young team playing its first conference road game. Hobson was particularly terrible, playing out of control at times and hitting only four of his 17 field goal attempts while turning the ball over five times. While the Lobos stuck around for the better part of 35 minutes, they never got their offense on track and were left behind when Aztec forward Malcolm Thomas took over. Earlier in the week, the Lobos wrapped up their non-conference play with a tight home victory over a tough Dayton team when Hobson went for 15/8/7.

Looking ahead: New Mexico gets to return to the friendly confines of The Pit for the next couple games (UNLV on Saturday and Utah on Wednesday), before traveling to face some of the lower levels of the MWC the following week.

UNLV

Looking back: The Rebels played their first game in almost two weeks when they lost at BYU on Wednesday night. And while they faded down the stretch, not scoring a field goal in the last 5:55, they certainly looked sharp early, holding BYU to just 27% shooting in the first half. However, the Rebels were outrebounded by the Cougars on both ends of the floor and failed to get much offensively from anyone but Willis, who had 24 points despite seven turnovers.  Sophomore point Oscar Bellfield was strong as well, handing out nine assists, but Vegas failed to get any consistent offensive production from the rest of their roster.

Looking ahead: The Rebels travel to the Pit on Saturday in a pretty huge game for this early in the conference schedule against New Mexico. They’ll then host San Diego State on Wednesday and Utah next Saturday, wrapping up a brutal start to their MWC schedule.

Air Force

Looking back: While every team in the country has injuries at this point in the season, things are starting to get ridiculous in Colorado Springs. Senior forward Mike McLain took an elbow to the head late in their conference-opening loss to TCU on Wednesday night, and came away with a concussion for his troubles, likely keeping him out of the Falcons next game, making him the fourth Falcon currently on the injured list. Leading scorer and rebounder Grant Parker has missed the last seven games (and remains doubtful). Sophomore center Sammy Schafer hasn’t played since late November due to complications with a concussion. Senior guard Avery Merriex is just another Falcon starter with a concussion, but throw in a broken nose for a raise. And sophomore swing and part-time starter Taylor Stewart will be out for the next six weeks after having surgery on a broken wrist this week.

Looking ahead: Things don’t figure to get a whole lot easier for the Air Force MASH squad, as they travel to Colorado State on Saturday then return home to face BYU on Wednesday. If any of the injured Falcons is likely to play in either of those games, it is Merriex, who at least traveled with the team to the TCU game, unlike Parker, Schafer and Stewart.

Wyoming

Looking back: Four games into the MWC season, and the Cowboys are the only team to lose a home game. In fact, they are the only team in the conference (aside from Utah, who has yet to play) that have never led in a conference game as TCU led from post to pole on Wednesday (although the Cowboys kept within shouting distance much of the night). The Cowboys did get a bit of an influx of talent as redshirt freshman guard Arthur Buoedo played his first game in a Cowboy uniform against TCU (after being suspended by the NCAA for the first 14 games of the season) and contributed 15 points. Buoedo will be counted on to contribute some offense in the place of sophomore forward Afam Muojeke, who has seen his minutes decline in the wake of poor decision-making and cold shooting, getting just 18 minutes on Wednesday and making just one of his six shots.

Looking ahead: The Cowboys host San Diego State on Saturday in what becomes a very important game for a team not wanting to fall to 0-2 in the league after two home games. The Cowboys will then travel to TCU on Tuesday before returning home to host another tough home game against New Mexico.

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