Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Standings (as of 1/28):
- BYU 20-2 5-1
- New Mexico 19-3 5-2
- UNLV 17-4 5-2
- San Diego State 14-6 3-3
- Colorado State 12-8 3-3
- Utah 10-10 3-3
- TCU 10-11 2-4
- Wyoming 9-11 2-4
- Air Force 8-11 0-6
Team of the Week. New Mexico. For the second week in a row, it’s the Lobos who win this prize, with this week’s biggest scalp that of the number 12 team in the country, BYU. The Lobos have now won five games in a row and put themselves back in the thick of things in the MWC race, just a game back in the loss column, despite their recent shooting woes.
Player of the Week. Adam Waddell, Soph, Wyoming. There was plenty of competition here this week: Dairese Gary averaged 21 points and 4.5 assists in leading the team of the week to a win over previously-unbeaten-in-conference BYU, Tre’Von Willis went for 30 in a tough road win for UNLV, and Jimmer Fredette continued to be outstanding, averaging 30 PPG this week. But Waddell gets the nod, thanks to his big numbers on Wednesday night: 22 rebounds (a MWC record) while putting in 12 points, all despite leaving midway through the second half with a badly sprained ankle which may keep him out of the Cowboys’ next game.
Newcomer of the Week. Desmar Jackson, Fr, Wyoming. Jackson stepped up in the absence of Wyoming’s leading scorer, sophomore forward Afam Muojeke, who underwent season-ending surgery for a torn patellar tendon in his left knee this week. The freshman from Warren, Ohio scored 21 points in just 20 minutes, continuing what is becoming a bit of a trend for Jackson, stepping up when Muojeke can’t go, as Jackson had 22 points in Muojeke’s first game out after bruising the same knee in late November.
Game of the Week. New Mexico 76, BYU 72. It’s likely that the BYU/San Diego State game from Saturday was the better game. It featured long runs by both teams, and really came down to the last possession, but this game had a little something extra throughout which that one didn’t: atmosphere. While the Aztecs played with fire throughout their loss to the Cougars and proved themselves quite capable of being mentioned along with the other elites at the top of the conference, the Lobos were able to finish out in front of a wild and raucous Pit crowd. After the Lobos led for 20 straight minutes, the Cougs came back to tie the game at 46 early in the second half, but they weren’t able to grab the lead back until around the three-minute mark on a deep (26-feet or so) three by Fredette. Then, sophomore guard Philip McDonald hit a tough runner with the shot-clock running out, got fouled, and knocked down the free throw. Sophomore forward A.J. Hardeman followed that up with an offensive stick-back. Gary added a 45-foot drive in the halfcourt that led to a finger roll, then proceeded to knock down multiple clutch free throws down the stretch as the Lobos handed BYU their first conference loss.
Games of the Upcoming Week. Utah @ BYU, Saturday January 30th, The MTN. The MWC quiets down slightly this week, as both New Mexico and UNLV only play once, but the Marriott Center will be jumping on Saturday night for the Holy War. While the Utes probably don’t have the firepower or the consistency to be able to take down the Cougars, especially coming off their first loss, you can bet there will be plenty of intensity on display as they attempt it.
Next week at this time, the first half of the conference season will be in the books and the teams will turn the corner and start looking towards the conference tournament and postseason play. While BYU and New Mexico appear to be locks to get into the NCAA tournament (RPIs of 19 and 12, respectively and KenPom ratings of 4 and 41), and UNLV has positioned themselves well to get a third MWC bid (RPI 35, KenPom 53), San Diego State (RPI 43, KenPom 65) will need to make a run in the second half of their year, and likely add another quality win or two (over either BYU, New Mexico or UNLV) to be strongly considered. Even if they achieve that, it could be at the expense of UNLV. The Aztecs’ best non-conference win was over Arizona, and although they added a win over New Mexico in the MWC opener, their tight loss to BYU at the Viejas Center on Saturday night may come back to haunt them on Selection Sunday.
Looking back: The Cougars went on the road this week for a couple of tough conference games, and while they came away with their first conference loss, they probably feel okay about the week’s outcomes. The roadtrip started with a visit to San Diego State on Saturday, and the Cougars came out hot, building up a 22-10 lead early before the Aztecs came storming back. BYU responded with a 15-0 run midway through the second half to seemingly put the game away before the Aztecs came back again. But in the end, Fredette hit a great swooping scoop shot in the lane near the end of the shotclock with under 30 seconds to play, and sophomore swing Charles Abouo got a big block on the defensive end to seal the game for the Cougars. While things didn’t turn out that way in Albuquerque on Wednesday (detailed in the Game of the Week section above), the Cougars fought hard in likely the toughest environment they will encounter this season and were right there within three in the last minute. The youngest Cougs didn’t play very well against New Mexico (freshman Tyler Haws, for instance, was just three of eight from the field), and junior guard Jackson Emery remains mired in a slump (4-19 from the field and just 1-13 from behind the arc this week), but while a trip to Vegas looms on the not-too-distant horizon, the back-half of the conference schedule is a bit easier than the front.
Looking ahead: BYU hosts Utah and TCU this week before heading to UNLV on February 6th.
Looking back: The win against BYU was the big story of the week, but it wouldn’t have meant much had the Lobos slipped up against Colorado State last Saturday. Coach Steve Alford made sure his team didn’t look past the Rams, and the Lobos dominated on the glass (48-30), then went on a big 16-1 run before the end of the first half to get the Lobos most of the way to their 82-64 victory. The Lobos have had several players step up from week to week to take the reigns for this squad this year. It was McDonald in the first couple games, then junior swing Darington Hobson made his presence known; senior forward Roman Martinez led the team in scoring four straight games in early December, and Hardeman turned it on at the start of conference play. But this week was all Gary, not only leading the team in scoring and assists, but knocking down clutch free throws all over the place, hitting 22 of his whopping 27 free throw attempts this week, and harassing BYU’s Fredette and Haws into just 11-29 shooting.
Looking ahead: The Lobos wrap up their MWC front nine (er, um… eight?) with a visit to TCU on Saturday, then get a week to prepare for San Diego State on February 6th.
Looking back: The Rebels’ duo of Willis and Chace Stanback continue to lead the way, Willis contributing 21.5 PPG and Stanback averaging 15.5 PPG this week in wins at TCU and at home against Air Force. But the big news of the week was junior swing Derrick Jasper spraining his left MCL in the Air Force win, an injury likely to sideline Jasper all of February, pushing his return right up against the start of the MWC tournament. The Rebels responded well to the Jasper injury, outscoring the Falcons 39-26 in the second half on their way to a 10-point come-from-behind victory, sparked by junior guard Kendall Wallace hitting his first four threes of the second half. With the BYU loss on Wednesday, the Rebels move within a game (in the loss column) of first place.
Looking ahead: Short week for the Rebs, but a long trip to Wyoming awaits. Then they return home to host BYU in what figures to be a fight for first place.
San Diego State
Looking back: It was only a one-game week, but it was a tough one for the Aztecs. In an up-again, down-again battle against BYU on Saturday, the buzzer went off with the Aztecs on the down-again side. While the Aztecs dominated BYU inside (40-18 margin in points-in-the-paint), they were unable to get to the line — in fact, both teams combined for only 18 free throws, a stat that made for a very fun game to watch — and were unable to control Fredette, who went for 33 points on 11-19 shooting and 5-8 from behind the arc. While SDSU has gotten tons of production out of its front line, their backcourt play has been inconsistent. They haven’t had a guard notch more than five assists this month, junior point D.J. Gay is shooting just 37% from the field this season, and has only a 1.6-to-1 assist to turnover ratio thus far. While it seems certain that head coach Steve Fisher will stick with Gay at the point, freshman Chase Tapley may be the better option. Tapley shoots 48% from the field, has a 2.1 A/TO ratio, defends better, rebounds better, and has significantly better offensive efficiency numbers than Gay. If the Aztecs hope to make a serious run at the NCAA tournament, moving to Tapley as their primary point guard seems to be a necessary move. But don’t hold your breath waiting on that move.
Looking ahead: SDSU travels to Colorado State on Saturday before returning to the Mesa to host Air Force on Tuesday.
Looking back: This was the type of week that the Rams can expect most of the rest of the way. Face a team like New Mexico, expect a loss; face a team like TCU, gut out a win. Coach Tim Miles has done an excellent job of getting the most out of his group of players, a somewhat limited bunch. So, this week, after the Rams were shut down offensively and destroyed on the glass by a more talented and athletic New Mexico team, they rededicated themselves to working on the glass and getting some easy hoops against TCU. The results? Junior forward Andy Ogide grabbed ten boards to go with 14 points, junior forward Travis Franklin added nine boards and freshman forward Greg Smith got six more to go with a career-high 15 points as CSU controlled the game inside, outscoring TCU in the paint 32-14 and scoring 16 points off TCU turnovers.
Looking ahead: The Rams host San Diego State on Saturday, then travel to Salt Lake City to face the Utes on Wednesday.
Looking back: Yup. We said it here last week, just like we said it here a month or so back. Utah is as capable of beating a top-notch team (as they did when they beat UNLV on the road on January 16th) as they were of losing to a bottom-feeder. Well, they lost to their bottom feeder, losing to Wyoming on Wednesday, even though it was in Laramie. What’s more, they lost to Wyoming while the Cowboys’ best player watched with a knee injury. More and more, it looks like the Utes’ main problem (and clearly their problems are plural) is at the point. While they are not a great shooting team, they have players that can score (witness junior Carlon Brown’s 31 – including a strong 22 in the second half – against Wyoming, and freshman Marshall Henderson’s 22 earlier in the week in a win over Air Force), but they just don’t have a guy who is a born distributor. Brown and senior Luka Drca have made the effort, but they just aren’t capable of running the point at this level. Unfortunately for coach Jim Boylen, there isn’t a ready point who is going to walk through the door this season, so the Utes will have to make do with what they have.
Looking ahead: The Utes travel down the road to Provo for the basketball version of the Holy War on Saturday night, then return home to host Colorado State on Wednesday.
Looking back: The Horned Frogs opened their week by hosting UNLV on Saturday, and they gave the favored Rebels a bit of a scare. With just over a minute to play, senior forward Zvonko Buljan converted a three-point play to bring TCU within a bucket at 72-70. Unfortunately for the Frogs, UNLV scored the last seven points of the game (all on free throws) to seal the win. While TCU stayed in the game on the strength of their three-point shooting (11-27 from three), they were unable to stop the Rebels inside of the arc, allowing UNLV to shoot an amazing 74% on two-point field goals. Jim Christian’s squad then traveled from Fort Worth to Fort Collins to face CSU on Wednesday, but Buljan failed to make the trip due to “personal reasons.” TCU could have used him as they fell by six to the Rams and shot just 35% from the field along the way. Sophomore point guard Ronnie Moss had 21 in a losing cause, but only two of those 21 came in the second half.
Looking ahead: TCU hosts New Mexico on Saturday, and Buljan remains questionable to play in that game, although coach Christian reports that he is healthy. The Frogs will then wrap up a rough week with a road trip to BYU on Wednesday.
Looking back: Last week at this time, the extent of the injury was not known. Now, however, with Muojeke out for the season, it is time for the Cowboys to see who is going to step up and carry the team down the stretch as coach Heath Schroyer tries to find some players to build around for the future. Waddell and Jackson were the first to throw their hats in the ring, but junior forward Djibril Thiam (16 points), sophomore guard A.J. Davis (10 points) and sophomore guard JayDee Luster (five assists) all contributed strong games in Wyoming’s win over Utah on Wednesday. With only one senior on the team (forward Ryan Dermody), the Cowboys will have a chance to get some much needed experience for players up and down the roster in the second half of the conference season.
Looking ahead: Wyoming faces Air Force on Saturday before traveling to UNLV on Wednesday.
Looking back: After six long weeks watching, senior forward and leading scorer and rebounder Grant Parker finally returned from injury for the Falcons this week, and his impact was immediately felt. While Parker only played 15 minutes in a loss to Utah on Saturday, he returned to play 31 minutes at UNLV on Tuesday. Parker has not yet returned to form he showed early in the season, but he did contribute 11 points and seven rebounds in the what was the Falcons’ best performance of the conference season, a ten-point loss to UNLV. No one expects Parker’s presence to spark the Falcons to a wild second-half run to the .500 mark, but it will be interesting to see what this Falcon team looks like when healthy. The combination of Parker and junior guard Evan Washington was solid early in the season, and the addition of some now more seasoned younger players who got some run in Parker’s stead (such as freshman Mike Fitzgerald, junior Derek Brooks and junior Tom Fow) could give Air Force a chance to trip up some of the middle-of-the-pack teams.
Looking ahead: The Falcons get to test out that theory right-quick, as they host Wyoming on Saturday, before traveling to San Diego State on Tuedsay.