Mountain West Wrap & Tourney PreviewPosted by Brian Goodman on March 9th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West conference. With the MWC tourney tipping off Wednesday, get set with RTC’s regular season wrap-up and tournament preview.
For the top four seeds, the MWC Tournament is of great importance, with Colorado State the team with the most on the line. The Rams sit firmly on the bubble for an NCAA at-large invitation, and while winning the whole thing and the automatic bid that goes along with it would be their best bet, prevailing wisdom indicates that if they can take care of New Mexico in the quarterfinals and then upset BYU in the semifinals, Tim Miles’ club will have gone a long way towards punching its ticket. Meanwhile, for the top-seeded Cougars, they’ve still got some things to prove. In the wake of last week’s dismissal of its best interior player, Brandon Davies, for a BYU honor code violation, the Cougars hopes of possibly earning a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament have disappeared. However, where they will wind up seeded remains a real question – a good showing in the MWC Tournament and a run to the championship could still earn them a #2 seed, while an early exit could confirm the doubts of the NCAA Selection Committee and relegate them to a #3 or even a #4 seed. For San Diego State, they’ve still got plenty to prove as well. Their best wins on the season are over Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and a season-sweep of UNLV – good wins, but certainly not great. However, if SDSU can add another win over UNLV and get the BYU monkey off of its back, it could prove its credentials as a possible #2 seed. And then there’s UNLV, a team that has had a roller coaster ride of an offseason. If they can defend their homecourt in the conference tournament and come away with an MWC title, they could wind up as high as a #6 seed (assuming they knock off SDSU and BYU along the way), while an earlier exit could relegate them to a #9 or so. For seeds five through nine in the MWC Tournament, the stakes are clear: win the title or consider your options for the “other” postseason tournaments. New Mexico has a good shot at an NIT bid, should they fail to win three games in Las Vegas, while the rest of the bottom five seeds will determine whether to call it quits or consider possible invitations from the CBI or CIT.
- BYU 28-3 14-2
- San Diego State 29-2 14-2
- UNLV 23-7 11-5
- Colorado State 19-11 9-7
- New Mexico 20-11 8-8
- Air Force 15-14 6-10
- Utah 13-17 6-10
- Wyoming 10-20 3-13
- TCU 10-21 1-15
- Player of the Year: Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU. Not much explanation is needed here. Fredette leads the nation in scoring (27.9 PPG) and has become a national star. Somewhere in between knocking down 30-foot bombs without batting an eyelash and scoring in a variety of amazing ways in the lane and around the rim, Fredette has expanded his fan base beyond just BYU fans and the Mountain West Conference and has become almost a household name. He’s never failed to score in double figures, he’s scored more than 20 points 27 times, more than 30 points 11 times and more than 40 three times. And on top of all that, he’s third in the conference in assists. While he’s got some fine complementary parts around him, this Cougar team would be a shadow of what it is without Fredette.
- Coach of the Year – Dave Rose, BYU. Aside from the fact that his Cougars have posted a 28-3 record, you’ve got to recognize that there are plenty of pitfalls that go along with being the head coach at BYU. If this week’s dismissal of starting forward Brandon Davies for engaging in premarital sex didn’t highlight that fact, then nothing will, but while the association with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints gives the school an edge with any Mormon recruits it wants, it also precludes Rose from having any chance at some kids. And then, once Rose does pull in some good recruits, he often has to dodge the bullet of either the kid not fitting into the program or of losing those LDS kids to a mission for a couple years right after their freshman season, a la Tyler Haws and Chris Collinsworth recently, and Shawn Bradley and Lee Cummard (among many others) previously. But all of that aside, Rose has been amazingly successful in Provo, and this year was just the latest example of that. In his six years at BYU, he has never failed to finish lower than second in the conference and he has now finished in first place in the conference four times over that span (twice, including this season, those titles were technically shared). And, he won a personal bout with pancreatic cancer in the middle of that span. Not only is Rose the MWC Coach of the Year, but he’s one of the best coaches in college basketball.
- Newcomer of the Year – Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico. Gordon missed the first nine games of the year for the Lobos after transferring over from UCLA last winter and having to sit out the first semester in Albuquerque this season. And, in mid-October, he underwent knee surgery after tearing the meniscus in his right knee. So, it was no surprise when it took him a few games to get comfortable in his new digs. But once he did, watch out. He’s averaged 12.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this season, but if you just look at his conference numbers, he is averaging 13.9 points and 11.8 rebounds. He set a MWC record in February with 23 rebounds (including nine offensive rebounds) against Utah, and he has posted nine double-doubles in conference play. Not only is he the best rebounder in the MWC, he has posted the third best defensive rebounding percentage and the 16th-best offensive rebounding percentage in the nation.
- Freshman of the Year – Kendall Williams, New Mexico. Williams made a name for himself early in the season as a hyper-efficient three-point shooter. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, he made 53.8% of his three-point shots and was a major reason for the Lobos 11-3 record over that span. While his three-point accuracy did cool a bit as the season wore on (he’s down to just 43.8% for the season now), Williams has proven himself to be more than just a shooter. He leads the Lobos in steals with 45 on the season, he’s second on the team in assists (4.3 per game) and he has done a good job getting on the glass from a wing position, grabbing 2.9 rebounds per night, all while posting offensive efficiency numbers just a shade behind all-MWC first-team guard Dairese Gary’s.
- Defensive Player of the Year – Jackson Emery, Senior, BYU. For the second consecutive season, Emery has led the MWC in steals, posting an average of 2.9 steals per game this season and a total of 235 in his career, breaking the all-time BYU record previously held by Danny Ainge. While largely overshadowed by Fredette’s heroics in the backcourt in Provo, Emery has gained plenty of fans around the conference, including CSU’s head coach Tim Miles who tweeted after BYU’s last win over CSU that “watching Emery chase down a loose ball is like watching a cheetah chase down a gazelle in the wild.” His quickness, anticipation and ability to get into passing lanes has given opposing teams fits and helped to spark the Cougars’ fearsome transition game on numerous occasions.
- Most Improved Player – Brandon Davies, Sophomore, BYU. While Davies is unfortunately known to most average college basketball fans as the kid that got kicked off the team for a minor indiscretion, he was a major cog in the Cougars’ run out to a sparking 27-2 record. Last year Davies averaged 5.4 PPG and 3.0 RPG in 13.5 minutes per night as a freshman, but this year he proved his ability early in the season, earned Rose’s trust and got almost 25 minutes a game, averaging 11.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG and a block. More importantly, his tempo-free numbers improved almost across the board: his offensive efficiency rating improved by almost 20 points, his offensive rebounding percentage went up, his assist rate skyrocketed, his turnover rate dropped and he committed less fouls as a sophomore. Every sign pointed to him improving throughout the season and providing the Cougars with a legitimate interior threat to pair perfectly with their perimeter players.
All MWC First Team:
- G Jimmer Fredette, Sr, BYU (27.5 PPG, 4.4 APG)
- G Dairese Gary, Sr, New Mexico (14.4 PPG, 5.4 APG)
- G Jackson Emery, Sr, BYU (12.6 PPG, 2.9 SPG)
- F Kawhi Leonard, So, San Diego State (15.2 PPG, 10.8 RPG)
- F Andy Ogide, Sr, Colorado State (17.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG)
All MWC Second Team:
- G D.J. Gay, Sr, San Diego State (11.9 PPG, 3.4 APG)
- G Tre’Von Willis, Sr, UNLV (13.0 PPG, 3.4 APG)
- F Malcolm Thomas, Sr, San Diego State (11.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG)
- F Drew Gordon, Jr, New Mexico (12.6 PPG, 10.6 RPG)
- F Will Clyburn, Jr, Utah (17.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG)
1. San Diego State (29-2, 14-2) Projected NCAA seed #2: The Aztecs have lost twice to BYU and yet they still remain the MWC’s best bet for a deep run in March. With a talented front line and a host of veterans, SDSU brings a lot to the table that plenty of power teams around the country cannot match. And yet, this is still a team with significant weaknesses. The Aztecs shoot under 34% from three-point territory as a team, they shoot 69% from the line and, worse yet, they only gets to the line about 18 times per game. While the Aztecs are likely good enough to get through their first game without having to worry about free throws, at some point along the road, their struggles at the line could cost them. They’ll get a first taste of the pressures of March this week in Las Vegas, where they’ll not only have to beat UNLV on their home court in the semifinals in order to advance to the championship game, but they’ll likely need to earn revenge on BYU to win the title. Regardless of what happens in Vegas, the Aztecs are in line for a strong seed in the NCAA Tournament, but if they can take down the MWC title, they could get rewarded with placement in the Tucson pod and the Anaheim regional for their troubles.
2. BYU (28-3, 14-2) Projected NCAA Seed #3: What a difference a day makes. Last Monday, BYU was in the conversation for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was a legitimate Final Four contender. On Tuesday afternoon, it was announced that sophomore forward Brandon Davies (11.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG) had been dismissed from the team for a violation of the BYU honor code. With him went the Cougars most talented interior player and their chances for a run to the final weekend of the college basketball season. While the loss of Davies doesn’t make the Cougars as bad as they looked in an 18-point home loss to New Mexico on Wednesday, it does effectively kill their chances at a truly special season. Look at it this way: last year’s Cougar team basically traded Tyler Haws, Jonathan Tavernari, Chris Miles, Michael Loyd Jr., Lamont Morgan Jr., and now Davies for, um, Kyle Collinsworth and Stephen Rogers? If the Cougars get out of the first weekend of the tournament, they’ll have done well. And really, the point of this team was to gain attention for the university and the Mormon Church. Thanks to Fredette’s heroics, mission accomplished. The Cougars still have a chance in Las Vegas to prove that the loss of Davies is not a crippling blow to their team, but they’ll likely need to win the league’s automatic bid in order to maintain a #2 seed.
3. UNLV (23-7, 11-5) Projected NCAA Seed #7: The Rebels have now won eight of their last ten games (losses at BYU and home against SDSU) since Tre’Von Willis returned from missing a couple of games with a knee injury. Willis has now scored in double figures in six of the last seven games and has averaged over 16 points a game over that stretch, just a notch below the 17.2 he averaged all of last season. He’s also averaged four assists per game in those seven games, and the box scores will tell you that Willis is back. Then you watch a game and you see Willis dragging that left knee up and down the court. Every now and then, he surprises you and blows by a defender with an explosiveness that reminds you of what he was like at the top of his game last year, but for the most part, it is pretty clear that Willis is really just squeezing every last drop of goodness out of a knee that needs at the very least some rest and more likely needs some medical attention. Can the Rebels win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament with a gimpy Willis? It remains to be seen, but you can never count out a tough old veteran like him.
4. Colorado State (19-11, 9-7) (Projected NIT): It’s pretty simple for the Rams at this point: win. In order for CSU diehards to sleep well on Saturday night, the Rams will need to win the MWC Tournament this week. There is the chance that if CSU knocks off New Mexico and BYU in the first two rounds before losing to SDSU or UNLV in the final (which would put the Rams at 21-12 on the season with key wins over BYU, at UNLV, a pair of wins over New Mexico and a non-conference neutral-site win over Southern Miss), they could squeak into the First Four matchup, but that would be pinning an awful lot on a fairly weak resume. Odds are that unless Colorado State is dancing on the court at the Thomas & Mack on Saturday night around 6pm PST, they won’t be dancing next week either.
5. New Mexico (20-11, 8-8): Of the six teams in this conference not currently comfortable with their likely inclusion in the NCAA Tournament, the Lobos may be the biggest threat to take down the conference’s automatic bid this week. With rock-solid senior point guard Dairese Gary, physically dominant center Drew Gordon, smooth shooters like Kendall Williams and Phillip McDonald, and a host of helpful role players, the Lobos are a far more talented team than their .500 conference record suggests. But, the fact remains, the Lobos were ordinary in conference (aside from their inexplicable owning of BYU) and their two losses to Utah and a last-second loss to Wyoming are probably what leave them needing to win this tournament this week in order to get in.
6. Utah (13-17, 6-10): The Utes have beaten Wyoming, New Mexico and TCU twice each in conference play and they’ve lost twice to everybody else. While JuCo transfer Will Clyburn has been a revelation for head coach Jim Boylen, the team was never able to recover from the massive roster turnover in the offseason and the MWC Tournament will likely be little more than the Utes’ goodbye to a conference they were once a powerhouse in.
7. Air Force (15-14, 6-10) (Projected CBI or CIT): After consecutive seasons of 10-21, the Falcons enter the postseason with a winning record. As a result, they’ve got an outside chance at being invited to either of the ancillary pay-to-play tournaments and have indicated that they would be interested if invited. While those tournaments are not the primary goal for Jeff Reynolds’ program, they are an indication that he is making progress with the Falcons, and Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh seemed to acknowledge that with the announcement this week that Reynolds would be back as the team’s head coach in 2011-12.
8. Wyoming (10-20, 3-13): The Cowboys have been a nonentity in the MWC for the last couple years and are a loss in the 8/9 game away from posting consecutive 10-21 records the past two years. With Heath Schroyer already a month in the can and Fred Langley holding a tenuous at best interim position, the next step for Wyoming basketball is coming up with a new head coach. Billy Gillispie is a popular pick amongst Cowboy faithful, but there is no information forthcoming from the Wyoming athletic department.
9. TCU (10-20, 1-14): While things in Laramie aren’t exactly clear, there are even more questions surrounding their opponent in the 8/9 game this week. Jim Christian is still the head basketball coach in Fort Worth, but following a complete collapse in conference play and with a move to the Big East coming in 2012-13, there are some questions as to whether Christian has run out of time. As of today, the TCU athletic department hasn’t tipped its hand at all, but once the Frogs season officially ends, expect to get an answer rather quickly. If Christian does get a reprieve and another year, he’ll need to show progress next season.