Mountain West Report CardPosted by Brian Goodman on April 5th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 conferences. We will be publishing a series of conference report cards over the next week for conferences that got multiple NCAA bids to recap the conference, grade the teams, and look at the future for the conference.
Conference Recap: It was a banner year for the Mountain West despite the turbulence of the offseason that will see two of the standard-bearers of the conference (Utah and BYU) leave for arguably greener pastures this summer with TCU following them out the door the following summer. The two teams leading the conference this season, BYU and San Diego State, posted a combined 66-8 record this year and were constants in the national top ten making the Sweet 16 before bowing out in tight contests. In addition to having two of the country’s top teams the conference also had arguably the nation’s top player in BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, who led the country in scoring, regularly producing eye-popping, shake-your-head-in-disbelief moments and becoming a household name in Utah and beyond. UNLV joined the conference leaders in the NCAA Tournament, but tripped up in ugly fashion before losing head coach Lon Kruger to Oklahoma over the weekend. Colorado State and New Mexico had their hopes pinned on NCAA Tournament bids, but came up a little short. Nevertheless, this was undoubtedly the biggest collection of talent in the history of this conference and likely the high water mark. While there is not a whole lot of love lost between either followers of the conference or executives in the MWC and BYU, there is little doubt that the loss of both of the Utah schools from its ranks will leave a major hole.
Team-by-Team (teams are in order of finish, but grades are based on performance vs expectations):
- San Diego State (34-3, 14-2)– The Aztecs came into the season as the favorite, and despite a couple losses to BYU during the regular season round-robin, the Aztecs lived up to and exceeded those expectations. SDSU came into the season never having been ranked in a national poll and after entering the polls for the first time the first week of the season never left. It had never won an NCAA Tournament game and now has two under their belts. And yet, as things got away from them late in the West Regional Semifinal, you couldn’t help but feel that they let one get away from them. A couple of ill-timed technicals, poor free-throw shooting, and a major dose of Kemba Walker did them in, and now a major reworking of the Aztec roster looms. Gone are seniors D.J. Gay, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas, with sophomore Kawhi Leonard a likely first-round NBA draft pick should he decide to leave early. If Leonard makes the decision to stick around, the Aztecs will again be a favorite in the MWC, but if he declares as expected, Steve Fisher will have to come up with a way to win with a roster built around guys like juniors James Rahon and Chase Tapley and sophomore Jamaal Franklin as the nucleus. GRADE: A
- BYU (32-5, 14-2) – The Cougars came into this season with only senior guards Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery as known entities. Guys like Brandon Davies, Noah Hartsock, Charles Abouo, and Kyle Collinsworthwere going to need to play big roles for this team. And they did. While Fredette got the vast majority of the ink (and rightfully so – he was spectacular and a great teammate), the rest of the squad took care of business and as the last day of February rolled around, they stood at 27-2 and looked to be a team very capable of making a deep run in March. Then news broke that Davies, their leading scorer along the frontline and only legitimate post threat, was suspended for the remainder of the season for a violation of the BYU honor code. From there on out, it was just a matter of how far could Fredette take this team. He posted a spectacular 52 points in the MWC semifinal and was phenomenal down the stretch of the season, but a couple poor possessions at the end of regulation in their eventual overtime loss in the regional semifinal to Florida ended their season. And now head coach Dave Roselooks forward to life after Jimmer – a landscape so daunting you couldn’t blame the guy for exploring other head coaching opportunities as he has. Nevertheless, as of the writing of this, Rose is still the head coach at BYU, Davies is still enrolled at the school and the 2011-12 Cougars (of the West Coast Conference), based around Davies, Abouo, Collinsworth (and his brother Chris, who will took a medical redshirt due to a foot injury), and possibly the heir apparent to Jimmer, incoming freshman Demarcus Harrison. GRADE: A
- UNLV (24-9, 11-5): In a somewhat turbulent offseason in Las Vegas, the Runnin’ Rebels lost their two best three-point shooters – Kendall Wallace to a torn ACL and Matt Shaw to one failed drug test too many. Following that, the team’s leading returning scorer, Tre’Von Willis, was involved in a domestic violence arrest and was subsequently suspended. As a result, the expectations for UNLV coming into the season were somewhat measured – an NCAA Tournament berth, maybe a first-round win. Those expectations got tossed around a bit by a 9-0 start which featured a win against Wisconsin in Willis’ first game back and a run through the 76 Classic in which they looked very impressive. However, a trip to Louisville spoiled their perfect start and a visit from UC Santa Barbara a few nights later exposed the Rebels as a team that was very much susceptible to an ugly loss on a bad shooting night. And that pattern never went away as the season progressed. UNLV had some good stretches (and in fact, were playing as well as they had all season in the weeks just prior to the NCAA Tournament), but in the season-ending loss to Illinois, they were outclassed in almost every area of the game. Now Kruger is gone – Willis and Derrick Jasperare gone too – and it is a new beginning for the Rebs. Chace Stanback will be back for his senior year as the leading returning scorer (13.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG), with Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and Quintrell Thomas forming a solid nucleus. Another UCLA transfer, sophomore Mike Moser, will be eligible next season, and freshman forward Grandy Glazeis the key incoming recruit who could make an impact for the next coach, assuming he remains committed to the program now that Krueger has left. The big question that remains is who will replace Krueger on the sidelines. Regardless of the coach with the MWC taking a step back, the Rebels will again be tough to beat. GRADE: B+
- Colorado State (19-13, 9-7) – Okay, I’m grading tough here, but despite the fact that the Rams won the Cancun Governor’s Cup, made the NIT, finished fourth in the MWC, and were an entertaining bunch to watch, the goal for Tim Miles and his program this season was to make the Big Dance. And they failed to attain that goal. Senior Andy Ogide was terrific, averaging over 17 points and 7 rebounds per game, and putting the team on his back down the stretch on the way to a first team All-MWC selection, but with his graduation and with Travis Franklin and Adam Nigon joining him, the Rams lose their three most efficient offensive players and have to start over. Guard Wes Eikmeierwill be the team’s leading returning scorer, and while he is a nice player, he hasn’t shown the ability to be a centerpiece for a program. Sophomores Greg Smith and Dorian Green have showed flashes of intriguing talent, but both will need to become far more consistent as they take on much bigger roles next season. And speaking of “bigger”, that needs to be a major goal for Miles in recruiting as his tallest returning contributor is just 6’6″. GRADE: C+
- New Mexico (22-13, 8-8): For last year’s conference champion, expectations were high coming into the season. Sure, last year’s conference player of the year, Darington Hobson, was now drawing a paycheck in the NBA, and gritty sharpshooter Roman Martinez had moved on as well, but floor general Dairese Garywas back for his senior season, and he was surrounded by all manner of intriguing talent. While contending for another conference title would have been surprising, Lobo fans expected at least an NCAA Tournament berth. But conference play opened with a stunning buzzer-beater loss at Wyoming and three more losses followed as the youngsters surrounding Gary struggled to find their footing. Eventually junior center Drew Gordon grew into one of the most dominating interior players in the conference, averaging a double-double for the season and posting lines like the 17 points and 23 rebounds against Utah in February, but by then Steve Alford’s team had dug itself a hole too big to climb out of, and when Gary went down with a torn ACL in the second half of the Lobos MWC semifinal game with BYU any chance they had of an NCAA Tournament bid went down with him. However, the future is bright in Albuquerque, with Gordon returning for his senior season along with Kendall Williams (11.6 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.6 RPG) for his sophomore and Philip McDonald (10.9 PPG, 4.3RPG) for his senior. With other talented youngsters like Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Tony Snell ready to take on bigger roles and Jamal Fentonready to take over at the point, the Lobos could be the conference favorite next season. GRADE: C-
- Air Force (16-16, 6-10):A .500 record and a sixth place conference finish aren’t much to write home about, but for a Falcon team coming off consecutive 10-21 seasons and expected to be in strong contention for a last place finish, this wasn’t a terribly bad year in Colorado Springs. Aside from that, they were invited to the CollegeInsider.Com postseason tournament (CIT) and even won a game, a rare occurrence for a program that has only made the postseason six times in its history. Sophomore guard Michael Lyons took a big step forward and junior Tom Fow was the team’s second leading scorer and their most efficient offensive player, meaning the pieces are in place for Jeff Reynolds to continue the climb for the Falcons program. GRADE: B-
- Utah (13-18, 6-10) – The Utes got off to a decent start on the season, winning seven of their first ten games, including a win over future MWC member, Boise State. But they looked absolutely awful in finishing last at the Diamond Head Classic, then struggled to a 6-10 MWC finish, sweeping Wyoming, TCU and New Mexico but losing all of their other conference games. Junior college transfer Will Clyburn was excellent throughout the season, averaging 17.1 points and 7.8 rebounds from the small forward position, but the Utes struggled with injuries and inconsistency all season. In particular, their guard play was atrocious, as only junior Josh Watkinshad more assists than turnovers, and he needed a strong couple of games in March in order to eke that out. With Utah bound for the Pac-12 next season, the administration decided it was time to part ways with head coach Jim Boylen and hired Larry Krystkowiak last weekend. While Clyburn, David Foster, and Jason Washburn will give him a nice starting place, he will need to drastically upgrade the situation at guard or the Utes can expect to be near the cellar in their new conference. GRADE: D+
- Wyoming (10-21, 3-13): The Cowboys get the plus attached to their grade simply because it was very obvious that they needed a change at the top of the program, and they made it. Head coach Heath Schroyer was fired in early February, Fred Langley finished out the season (2-6, mind you) and Larry Shyatt was announced last week as the new head man. Shyatt was the head coach in Laramie for one season (1997-98, when he went 19-10) before moving on to Clemson and eventually an assistant coaching position with Billy Donovan at Florida, but he has his work cut out for him in his new job. Wyoming was on the very short list of the worst shooting teams in college basketball this past season. There are some talented back court players (Desmar Jackson, Afam Muojeke, JayDee Luster) but each of them is flawed in their own way (Jackson too wild, Muojeke injury-prone, and Luster too short). But Langley did get sophomore forward Amath M’Baye to step up in a big way down the stretch, scoring in double figures in seven of eight games under the interim coach and averaging 16.9 points and 6.6 rebounds over that span. It will be important for Shyatt to try to continue M’Baye’s development while trying to add several pieces around him. GRADE: D+
- TCU (11-22, 1-15) – The Horned Frogs are saved from an F by a couple of factors. First, in the MWC Tournament, it was clear that head coach Jim Christian had not lost this team and still had them playing hard, even giving BYU a game for a full 40 minutes. Second, Christian made the hard decision in the middle of the season and suspended leading scorer Ronnie Moss indefinitely, although that indefinite time period turned out to be the remainder of the season and it remains unknown whether he will be a part of the program next season. However, despite those points, the fact remains that the team won exactly one regular season conference game, and there is not a lot to build on here. Pint-sized point guard Hank Thornswill return for his senior season, and he is a bona fide team leader. Athletic forward J.R. Cadot also figures to play a major role for the Frogs, but beyond that, Christian is still waiting for additional contributors to identify themselves. With a spot in the Big East looming in 2012-13, this program needs to up the talent level and do it quickly. GRADE: D-
Next season starts a new era of the Mountain West. Not only will there be no more BYU and no more Utah in the conference, there will also be no Jimmer Fredette, no Dairese Gary, no Tre’Von Willis, and no Andy Ogide. A host of key SDSU players graduate and Kawhi Leonard has an NBA roster spot waiting for him should he decide to declare. Lon Kruger has moved on and Wyoming welcomes a new coach as well. And then there are a couple new teams with Boise State and Fresno Statejoining the conference. The Broncos will be in full-fledged rebuilding mode, with their five leading scorers graduating this season, leaving former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice with quite a bit of work ahead of him. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are still a team without a head coach, as their quest to replace Steve Cleveland is still in progress. Fresno State will also be without 6’10″ center Greg Smith who declared for the NBA draft forgoing his final two seasons of eligibility. However, the team’s two leading scorers, guards Kevin Oleikabe and Tim Steed, should return for their sophomore and senior seasons, respectively. An early guess as to the top contenders in the conference would include New Mexico and UNLV as prominent candidates, with San Diego State, Colorado State, and even Fresno State as teams that could surprise if things break right for them. However, there is little doubt that the MWC should not be expected to be the major player on the national scene that it was this past season.