Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by rtmsf on February 19th, 2010

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

Standings (as of 2/18)

  1. New Mexico                      24-3                       10-2
  2. BYU                                        24-3                       9-2
  3. San Diego State                19-7                       8-4
  4. UNLV                                     19-7                       7-5
  5. Colorado State                  15-10                     6-5
  6. Utah                                      12-13                     5-6
  7. TCU                                        12-15                     4-8
  8. Wyoming                            9-17                       2-10
  9. Air Force                              9-15                       1-10

Superlatives

Team of the Week. San Diego State. While New Mexico and BYU took care of business to keep themselves in line for a showdown on February 27th for the regular season title, it was the Aztecs who made the biggest waves this week, knocking off UNLV on Saturday and getting a win in Fort Worth on Tuesday to vault ahead of Vegas in the conference standings. In the process, for the first time this season, there is some question as to who would be the next team in line for an at-large NCAA bid after the two teams at the top of the leaderboard. The Aztecs still have a chance for another big win when they travel to Provo on Wednesday, and they may need that one to solidify their NCAA chances.

Player of the Week. Billy White, Jr, San Diego State. It was a wide open contest for this honor this week, with the usual suspects all turning in one excellent game and one lesser game. So, this is a perfect week to honor someone else, a guy who put together two very good games in leading his team to the TotW honors and third place in the conference. White averaged 18 points and seven rebounds this week and had some high-flying highlights in leading the Aztecs to an important win over UNLV. White has not had the kind of statistical improvement that many in the Aztec program expected this year, although he is averaging 11 points and five rebounds per game, perhaps in part due to his running mates in the SDSU front line, freshman Kawhi Leonard and junior transfer Malcolm Thomas. But, for the Aztecs to live up to their potential, they need White to be slashing to the basket, playing above the rim and defending athletic frontcourt players, exactly what he did this week.

Newcomer of the Week. Kawhi Leonard, Fr, San Diego State. Leonard wins this one on the strength of his play against the Rebels. Leonard scored 13 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in the Aztecs win on Saturday, but did so many other things to help his team win. He often brought the ball up against UNLV pressure and he spent much of the day hounding UNLV’s best player, junior guard Tre’Von Willis, into five-for-15 shooting. While New Mexico’s junior Darington Hobson is undoubtedly the MWC’s most versatile player, Leonard is growing into a legitimate threat to usurp that title.

Game of the Week. New Mexico 68, Utah 65 (OT). For much of New Mexico’s win over Utah on Saturday, it seemed like the Lobos were on the verge of pulling away. They led by as many as eight a couple times in the first half, only to have the Utes reel them back in. In the second half, the same pattern held: New Mexico jumping ahead, Utah slowly scraping back. In fact, between the 17 minute mark in the first half and the three minute mark in overtime, Utah never led, but the Utes did get back to even with under two minutes in regulation with six straight free throws, but still needed a corner three from junior guard Carlon Brown with two seconds left to send the game to overtime. Utah got the first points of the OT, about two minutes in on Brown layup, but a big three by senior forward Roman Martinez gave the Lobos back the lead for good, although they did have to survive a couple potentially game-tying threes in the waning moments by Brown and freshman guard Marshall Henderson.

Game of the Upcoming Week. San Diego State @ BYU, February 24th, CBS College Sports. Both teams have a lot to gain and a lot to lose in this matchup. If the Aztecs hope to feel somewhat comfortable with their at-large chances headed into the MWC tournament, they need to win this game (along with running the table against the rest of the lower-level MWC teams they face). If BYU wants to have a chance at winning the MWC regular season championship outright, they’ll need to win this game. While the Cougars will certainly be the favorite playing in front of a partisan Marriott Center crowd, the Aztecs have been hot lately and have enough athleticism to give BYU fits, as they showed a month ago in a close loss in front of SDSU’s home crowd.

League Notes

UNLV has now lost three games in a row and while those three games were all tough MWC battles (a loss at home to New Mexico, and road losses to San Diego State and Utah), it may be time to re-examine the Rebels’ tournament credentials. Currently sitting at 19-7 with an RPI of 44, the Rebels remaining regular season games are games that they absolutely must win:  home games against Colorado State, TCU and Wyoming wrapped around a road trip to Air Force. None of those wins is going to do a whole lot to help the UNLV resume, but a loss anywhere would kill them. Their best wins on the season are a win at New Mexico (RPI #10), home against BYU (19), Louisville (30) San Diego State (39), Nevada (68) and a road win at Arizona (89). There are no particularly bad non-conference losses (a neutral site loss to USC, RPI 82, being the worst), but the two conference losses to Utah are unhelpful, to say the least.

The good news for the Rebels is they get to play their conference tournament at home in the Thomas & Mack, giving them a nice little nudge towards capturing the MWC’s automatic bid, but assuming they don’t win the title, what do they need to do to give themselves the best chance at an at-large bid? Four more conference wins will put them at 23-7 with an RPI still somewhere in the mid-to-low 40s. In the first round of the MWC tourney, they’ll likely play either Colorado State or Utah, and a loss in that first round will have them scouting Manhattan hotel rates for a potential NIT run. Assume they win and advance to the semis, and they’ll have either New Mexico or BYU waiting for them, where a win would be very good and a loss would not be horrific. Lose in those semis and they sit at 24-8; win there and lose in the finals and 25-8, plus the additional good win might be enough. Just enough. Especially considering the eventuality that the bubble will likely tighten up if teams like Butler or Old Dominion or maybe UTEP have missteps in their own conference tournaments.

Long story short, the Rebels still have a pretty strong resume, but they would certainly love to have a redo in those Utah games.

Team Roundups

New Mexico

Looking back: After last week’s two big wins, it would have been understandable if not entirely acceptable for the Lobos to be a little flat for their trip to underachieving Utah on Saturday. And while Steve Alford’s club was not as sharp as it had been the week prior, they were good enough to control the game and escape with a three-point overtime win against an improving Ute team. On Wednesday, the Lobos returned to Albuquerque for some home cooking and along the way they scored a big 22-point victory over a reeling Wyoming team. The win was Alford’s 300th Division I win in his career and was highlighted by another terrific Hobson performance: 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Martinez was also strong for the Lobos, filling the stat sheet with 13 points, seven rebounds, three blocks, three steals and three threes.

Looking ahead: New Mexico host Air Force on Saturday, then has a tricky roadie to Fort Collins to face Colorado State. Win both and the Lobos likely set up a one-game playoff for the MWC regular season championship against BYU in Provo on the final Saturday of February.

BYU

Looking back: BYU had a week to stew over their loss in Vegas, and when they finally got a chance to take their frustrations out on someone wearing a different jersey, it was Air Force on the receiving end. The Cougars were on fire early, shooting 67% from the field in the first half while knocking down 10 of their 14 three-point attempts and they built up a 53-20 first half lead before cruising to a 43-point victory. Senior forward Jonathan Tavernari led the team with five threes and 19 points, with junior guard Jackson Emery just behind him with four threes and 18 points.

The Cougs second game of the week was slightly more competitive, BYU winning by only 22 over Colorado State, but while the scoring was balanced against Air Force, the CSU game was a Jimmer Fredette special. The junior guard had 36 points, with six threes and six assists for good measure. Once again the Cougars were on fire from the field, shooting 52% from the field and hitting 12 of their 25 attempts from behind the arc. Sophomore forward Noah Hartsock added his first career double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds and he spearheaded a strong Cougar effort on the glass.

Looking ahead: One more tune-up for the Cougs when they travel to Laramie to face the Cowboys on Saturday, then into the fray with home games against San Diego State, a monster game against New Mexico and their trip to Salt Lake to face rival Utah.

San Diego State

Looking back: When the Aztecs hosted UNLV on Saturday, they knew it was a must-win game and they played like it. They outhustled the Rebels, played better defense, got contributions from up and down the roster and did it all with a calmness and confidence that belied their relative youth. They beat the Rebels on the glass (39-30), racked up all sorts of defensive gems (nine blocks, nine steals) and actually made their free throws (23/31 from the line, a vast improvement over their 60% season average. White led the team with 19 points, Leonard added his 13 points and 14 boards, but even those who didn’t rack up big numbers made contributions. Thomas had four blocks and four assists, freshman guard Chase Tapley had three steals to go along with 11 points and senior guard Kelvin Davis added a couple of threes, and in the end the Aztecs walked away with a 10-point victory. The Aztecs followed up that big win with a workmanlike effort against TCU by dominating the Horned Frogs inside. SDSU outrebounded TCU 34-24, and scored 59 of their 68 points either in the paint or at the free throw line. In the process, the Aztecs shot 61% from the field.

Looking ahead: At this point, they are all big games for the Aztecs. They host Utah on Saturday then travel to BYU on Wednesday. While the BYU game is certainly a very difficult game for SDSU, the Utes have been playing well lately, and if they get caught looking ahead to the Provo trip, the Aztecs could slip up at home.

UNLV

Looking back: A week ago at this time, the Rebels had just been whooped by New Mexico and were facing a fairly difficult week ahead with visits to San Diego and Salt Lake City. Everyone knew it would be a tough week, but not many suspected that at the end of it, the Rebs would be riding a three-game losing streak. Against the Aztecs, Vegas was exposed a bit compared to SDSU’s length and athleticism. While their quick guards like Willis and freshman Anthony Marshall kept them in it for awhile, UNLV couldn’t get a lot of good looks and wound up shooting just 35% from the field and only three of 17 from deep. The Rebels didn’t get a lot of time to recuperate from that loss before making the tough trip to the Huntsman Center on Wednesday. Once again, for the third game in a row, UNLV not only lost but was outplayed from start to finish. The Rebels never even led on Wednesday night, and beyond Willis’ 32 points, didn’t get much in the way of positive offensive contributions. UNLV stayed in the game by forcing 16 turnovers, which they converted to 22 points, but in the end Willis missed a tough challenged layup on a fast break and then a three with a guy in his face a possession later, and UNLV lost by five.

Looking ahead: The Rebels host Colorado State and TCU this week and need to get back on track immediately.

Colorado State

Looking back: The Rams played just once this week, and their 22-point home loss to BYU reaffirmed their position in the MWC pecking order: nowhere close to the top of the pack, but better than the dregs. In their two matchups with BYU this season, they have now lost by an average of 33, and have lost by over 20 points per game in their five matchups with the teams above them in the MWC standings. Junior forward Travis Franklin did have a nice performance against the Cougars, leading the team in points, rebounds and assists (14/7/5), and CSU did have five players score in double figures, but the Rams showed no ability to stop BYU and their struggles from behind the arc (4/17) doomed them to another blowout loss.

Looking ahead: The MWC gauntlet continues for the Rams: a roadie at an angry Vegas team on Saturday, then a chance to host New Mexico on Wednesday night.

Utah

Looking back: It has been a frustrating season for Jim Boylen and his Utes. This squad has struggled shooting the ball (just 43% from the field on the year), has yet to find a legitimate point guard (335 turnovers on the season, just 303 assists), and have had little injuries and other personnel issues bug them throughout the year. And yet, here in the middle of February, the Utes are playing their best ball of the season and have turned into a team that can rise up and bite the teams above them. UNLV has learned that lesson quite well, but even New Mexico had to consider itself fortunate to escape SLC with a win this week. Brown has struggled living up to the expectations of him as an offensive go-to guy, but this week he scored 18 points in each game and was the man down the stretch in both games. Henderson has also stepped up his game of late, averaging 15.5ppg this week, and with sophomore center David Foster able to clog up the middle defensively (he had seven blocks against a stubborn New Mexico team), the Utes are coming together on both ends of the court.

Looking ahead: Utah hits the road this week: first stop San Diego on Saturday, followed by a visit to the Air Force Academy on Wednesday.

TCU

Looking back: It’s the dog days of the season for the Horned Frogs. They’ve no chance at any type of post-season play, their coaches have started looking towards next season and their seniors only show up once a week at best (hey, sounds like my senior year… and my junior year… and… ). TCU was good enough to beat Wyoming in Laramie on Saturday. They got 21 points and seven rebounds from freshman forward Nick Cerina and senior swing Edvinas Ruzgas and junior guard Greg Hill both hit big threes down the stretch to tidy things up, but then got beat up and down the court by San Diego State on Tuesday in the most one-sided 17-point game you’d ever want to see.

Looking ahead: Just one loss for TCU this week, as they head to UNLV to get torched on Wednesday night.

Wyoming

Looking back: See above and increase exponentially. Players defecting from the program, the best player watching after knee surgery, the coach rapidly burning bridges. Good times in Laramie. This week saw the Cowboys drop to 2-10 in the conference (and just looking at that record reminds me that somehow this team beat San Diego State), and highlights for this team are few and far between. Freshman guard Desmar Jackson had 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in the loss to TCU, but followed that up with six turnovers and little else in the New Mexico loss. And junior forward Djibril Thiam had another solid week, averaging 10 points and seven rebounds this week, and has had a decent season, averaging 10 points and five rebounds over the year.

Looking ahead: BYU comes to town on Saturday. Oh boy!

Air Force

Looking back: Just another miserable team at the bottom of the standings, although you get the feeling this one might still be playing hard. Which is not necessarily good news considering they just lost by 43 in their only game this week,at BYU on Saturday. But the Falcons just couldn’t do much right in that game (22 turnovers), and BYU was rested, inspired and on fire. Freshman wing Mike Fitzgerald led the Falcons with 13 points and four threes.

Looking ahead: Things don’t get a whole lot easier for Jeff Reynolds and his team as they head to New Mexico before returning home to host Utah.

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