It was a lot more than Senior Night on Wednesday for Kansas center Tarik Black. In his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, the senior scored 19 points on 9-of-9 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and had two blocks in Kansas’ 82-57 blowout of Texas Tech. It was a huge effort from Black, who will also start in their regular season finale Saturday at West Virginia as Joel Embiid continues to rest his sore back. If Embiid returns for the NCAA Tournament and doesn’t play as many minutes as he was, having Black make this kind of impact would result in the Jayhawks becoming more dangerous than they already are.
I’m not sure what the allure is between NFL personalities and Kansas basketball, but Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers stopped by to watch the Jayhawks and gave a pep talk after practice in January. Yesterday San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh was there to do pretty much the same thing and then this happened. Harbaugh hit a half-court shot during practice because… why not? But I’m not so sure he would have made the shot if he wore anything other than his trademark sweater and khakis. I’m a little curious to see what kind of person Harbaugh is when he wears something else, if he wears something else. We may never know.
Oklahoma’s Je’lon Hornbeakhad a breakout game in the Sooners’ season home finale. In 22 bench minutes, Hornbeak contributed 11 points, five rebounds, three dimes and two steals in the team’s 72-62 win over West Virginia. The performance comes on the heels of his nine points and five dimes in 18 minutes against Texas on Saturday. A win Saturday at TCU would lock the Sooners into the No. 2 seed in next week’s Big 12 Tournament, and meanwhile, WVU’s road to an at-large bid appears to have reached a dead end. They’ll have to win the conference tournament to force their way into this season’s Dance.
It was Senior Night at the Frank Erwin Center as Texas hosted TCU on Wednesday. The problem was that the Horns don’t have any seniors… but they still had a good night anyway! Rick Barnes rested leading scorer Jonathan Holmesdue to a sore right knee, but his squad was able to get by the Horned Frogs, 66-54. Isaiah Taylor led the team with 21 points while Cameron Ridley (my vote for the Big 12 Most Improved Player award that I just made up in my head) posted 14 points and 10 rebounds. Texas needs to beat Texas Tech Saturday coupled with an Oklahoma loss at TCU to clinch the second seed in the Big 12 Tournament next week in Kansas City. Hang on, folks, the Madness draws nigh.
A difficult season for TCU basketball got worse with head coach Trent Johnson announcing Monday that Amric Fields is out for the rest of the year because of a recurring knee injury. According to TCU360, only four of 16 total players have suited up in every game this season, which just stinks. To make matters worse, a loss to Oklahoma Saturday would result in TCU becoming the first Big 12 team to go winless in conference play since Texas A&M in 2003-04. Stash the season away and never look at it again, TCU fans. Here’s to a better 2014-15.
Kyle Ringo of The Dagger writes that Kansas is rounding into form, and after Monday’s takedown of Iowa State despite 24 turnovers, it’s hard to deny that the Jayhawks are beginning to click. It feels like we’ve all seen this movie before: Kansas stumbles just enough in the early going for many among the media to ponder whether this will finally be the year that someone else takes the Big 12, only for Bill Self and company to knock some sense into all of us by MLK Day. We may be just two weeks into conference play, but the Jayhawks appear to be showing all the doubters why they continue to receive the benefit of the doubt when it comes to predicting the Big 12′s pecking order.
Tying up one final loose end from Monday’s marquee battle, Sports Illustrated‘s Brian Hamilton contends that Iowa State needs to improve its shooting if it wants to stay in contention. Based on the Cyclones’ 31.4 percent performance from the floor, it’s reasonable to come to that conclusion, but it also makes sense to simply chalk up their bad shooting night to a sterling defensive effort on the part of the Jayhawks. It would be helpful if ISU could challenge more shots in the paint, but since it isn’t realistic to expect Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang to sprout four inches overnight, Fred Hoiberg will have to rely on what he has it his disposal, which, as a reminder, isn’t so bad.
Yesterday, we talked about Kansas State needing to keep Cameron Clark from going off on Wednesday, and judging by Clark’s 1-of-9 evening at Bramlage Coliseum (and a 72-66 victory for the Wildcats), it’s safe to say that Bruce Weber’s team executed its game plan to perfection. The win was an important one for K-State, in need of a bounceback win over a fellow bubble team after the beating handed down by the Jayhawks on Saturday. Somewhat suddenly, the Wildcats find themselves at 3-1 in conference play with a pair of very winnable games (vs. West Virginia and at Texas) coming up next.
It may be hard to tell due to TCU‘s health problems, but the Horned Frogs are improving, according to the Star-Telegram’s Stefan Stevenson. While season-ending injuries to Devonta Abron and Aaron Durleyhave kept TCU from reaching its potential, they aren’t of much solace to headcoach Trent Johnson. Still, there are silver linings in Amric Fields and Jarvis Ray’s development, and Kyan Anderson is an under-the-radar point guard. While no one expects them to beat Oklahoma State tonight, it will be interesting to see whether the Horned Frogs can make it somewhat competitive.
Lastly, Baylor‘s athletic department will host a rally tomorrow in support of both its nationally-ranked basketball teams. As part of the festivities, the general public is encouraged to bring new or gently-used coats to donate to local homeless shelters, and Whataburger will provide nourishment to students. Hey, anytime we can plug a charity effort while buzz-marketing a regional fast food chain, we have to do it.
With the Big 12 season soon to be underway, conference foes will battle it out on the hardwood on nearly a nightly basis. Kansas and Iowa State will also go toe-to-toe in a recruiting battle for one of the top remaining prospects in the class of 2014 in 6’5″ shooting guard Rashad Vaughn. Vaughn is Rival’s 7th ranked recruit, and a teammate of Kansas commit Kelly Oubre, who attends Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, with Vaughn. Kentucky, North Carolina, and UNLV also made Vaughn’s final five schools, but many believe Iowa State will be the school to beat to earn his commitment.
Speaking of Iowa State, the school announced on Sunday that junior guard K.J. Bluford has decided to leave the program. Bluford was in his first season with the Cyclones after transferring from Northeast Nebraska Community College, and has averaged 2.7 points per game for Fred Hoiberg’s squad this year. Hoiberg’s strategy to comb the transfer market yearly for new additions to his squad has worked with tremendous success, and given how little impact Bluford has had this season, this loss shouldn’t have a huge impact on Iowa State moving forward.
It’s been obvious through the non-conference season that the top of the Big 12 – Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Iowa State – is perhaps better than anyone thought heading into the season, but lost in the shuffle is the quiet 11-1 start Lon Kruger and Oklahoma have gotten off to, with their lone loss coming at the hands of Michigan State. As Dick Vitale points out in his most recent column, Oklahoma will have a chance to quickly prove how viable that record is as they begin Big 12 play with a gauntlet of games out of the gate. Getting off to a good start will be key in strengthening a resume for post season play.
If history is any indicator, the Christmas break will pay dividends for Kansas as they push towards league play. Bill Self’s team used the break the last week to recover from a variety of injuries, including a bruised nerve suffered by forward Perry Ellis and a nagging hip pointer that has kept guard Andrew White III out of the last few contests. It’s not uncommon to see some Bill Self teams struggle before the break, but it will be important for this team to take a big step forward like many teams in the past.
TCU continued their improved play this season on Sunday with a 77-64 win over Texas Southern, and while the victory is nice, the play of junior forward Amric Fields may be the bigger story. Fields scored 17 points in the win as he continues his return after missing all but three games a season ago due to an ACL injury. Head coach Trent Johnson has been mindful of Fields’ minutes while Fields works to get back into playing shape.
After losing a majority of their scoring from a season ago, Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said in the preseason that the team would have to rely on major contributions from senior guard Cameron Clark. It appears Clark heard his head coach’s message, dropping 32 points in the Sooners’ loss to #1 Michigan State in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic final on Saturday night in Brooklyn. Oklahoma jumped out to 22-11 lead on the Spartans, providing some new optimism for Kruger’s squad leaving New York as it appears the Sooners might be poised to challenge for a finish in the upper half of the Big 12 this season.
After two disappointing performances the first two rounds of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in losses to Charlotte (68-61) and Georgetown (90-63), Kansas State managed to bounce back with a 52-38 win on Sunday morning against Long Beach, avoiding a last place finish in the non-conference tournament. Perhaps one reason for the improved play was due to the contributions from forward Thomas Gipson, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds in his first start for the Wildcats this season. Scoring will certainly be difficult at times this season for Bruce Weber’s group, so any consistent play they can get from players like Gipson on the offensive end will be much needed.
After missing all of last season and the first three games of this season with a knee injury, TCU junior Amric Fields was determined to make an impact in his first game of the season for the Horned Frogs, scoring 16 points in a 64-62 win at Washington State on Sunday. After struggling to a last place finish in the Big 12 a season ago, this type of road non-conference win is huge for head coach Trent Johnson this early in the season.
In most seasons, field goal percentage defense is a statistic Kansas head coach Bill Self pays close attention to as a measurement for how his team is faring on the defensive end. Given the rule changes this season in college basketball, Kansas’ first four opponents have averaged 42.5% from the field, far greater than their average of 36% a season ago. The Jayhawk offense seems to be adjusting fine scoring 80, 94, 86, and 88 in their first four games this year, shooting 57% from the floor. Against Towson on Friday night, Kansas ran the floor better than they have all season scoring often in transition. While Self would normally prefer a lower scoring defensive type game, it will be interesting to see if he opts for a more up and down game given their athleticism and ability to draw fouls and trips to the foul line this year.
Nate Kotisso is aBig 12 writer for Rush The Court. You can follow him on Twitter @natekotisso.
We’re taking a look back on a team-by-team basis at the 2012-13 season. Next up: TCU.
Final Record: 11-21 (2-16)
The Expectations: What a confusing offseason it must have been for fans of TCU basketball. Granted, hoops on campus may not have had much of a fan base to begin with but the changes were intriguing. In 2011-12, the Horned Frogs enjoyed their first season above the .500 mark (18-15) since winning 21 games in 2004-05. They finished fifth in a Mountain West that sent the four teams in front of them to the NCAA Tournament. They also had the MW Freshman (Kyan Anderson) and Sixth Man of the Year (Amric Fields) coming back to school. This was easily looking like Jim Christian’s best year but sensing his time there was nearing due to his poorly performing teams before, he took the Ohio job when it was vacated by John Groce. TCU was of course entering its first year as a member of the Big 12 conference which, competition-wise, would be a step up from teams in the Mountain West. Trent Johnson, who pretty much did his best Jim Christian impression, left LSU to take the TCU job. Johnson has had experience coaching and succeeding at a private schools like TCU (see Stanford) but after losing standouts Hank Thorns Jr. and J.R. Cadot to graduation, 2012-13 was all about starting from scratch.
Trent Johnson couldn’t tear himself away from the color purple. (TCU360.com)
The Actual Result: TCU won its season opener against a Cal Poly team that would steal a win at UCLA just two weeks later. After taking care of Centenary, the Horned Frogs dropped their first game of the season to Larry Brown and crosstown rival SMU. One clear problem facing the team was scoring the basketball. They lost back-to-back games to Houston and Tulsa, posting 48 and 49 points, respectively. There was also the Northwestern game where TCU lost by 24 points and only managed to put only 31 on the board. Despite this, they finished off the non-conference portion of their schedule with three straight wins to enter conference play at 9-4.
Conference play felt like one nightmare after another. In those 16 losses, TCU’s average margin of defeat was 17.9 points per game but they did have their moment in the sun. The first came against Kansas on February 6. The Jayhawks’ confidence was shaken a bit. They had been able to get by Texas and West Virginia on the road in games that were closer than they should have been, but had gotten some comeuppance after Markel Brown and Oklahoma State marched into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and left with an 85-80 win. On that Wednesday night in the Metroplex, though, Kansas started slowly and allowed TCU to control the game wire-to-wire in what I consider to be the biggest upset in the Big 12 era (dating back to 1996). It was anything but a sparkling performance for the Horned Frogs. TCU shot better as a team than KU but it made the same number of field goal attempts (18) as the Jayhawks, missed 16 free throws and lost the battle of the boards by 10. It also marked the first and likely final time the Topeka YMCA will get name-checked by Bill Self at a press conference. That will be the safest bet in the history of safe bets.
Each day for the next two weeks, we’ll bring you the obligatory team preview here at the Big 12 microsite. First up, Danny Spewak (@dspewak) breaks down the league’s newbie: TCU. The Horned Frogs were not a unanimous choice among the Big 12 microsite writers to finish last in the conference, but we’re guessing we still won’t find much argument with this selection.
2011-12 record: 18-15 overall, 7-7 Mountain West
Key Contributors Lost: G Hank Thorns, G J.R. Cadot, F Craig Williams
Head Coach: Trent Johnson, 1st season
Projected Finish: 10th
Trent Johnson Takes on the Biggest Reclamation Project of His Career
Trent Johnson has problems. The team he inherits in Fort Worth finished in the lower third of Division I basketball in almost every defensive statistical category in 2011-12. He has no proven scorers, no proven shooters and only a handful of experienced upperclassmen. It will not be an easy season for the TCU Horned Frogs, but that has nothing to do with the change in conference affiliation or the mystical power of the Big 12. This squad played in a league with four NCAA Tournament teams a year ago, and it knocked off three of those teams — Colorado State, New Mexico and UNLV — on its home floor. The Horned Frogs won on a neutral floor against Virginia in November, defeated Texas Tech at home (hey, it’s a Big 12 school at least), and played a total of five power conference teams before entering Mountain West play. And remember, that league actually finished above the ACC in conference RPI rankings and sat just two slots below the Big 12. The sudden move to the Big 12 will not cause a mass panic among TCU’s players. They’ve seen good players and good teams before. They’ve played at The Pit and in front of hostile crowds. The problem is not the Big 12 — the problem is simply Trent Johnson’s lack of overall play-makers and proven leaders. He made a splash earlier this month by outbidding Bill Self, Scott Drew and Rick Barnes for Class of 2013 prep center Karviar Shepherd, but that’s the future. Before Johnson can channel the success he enjoyed at Nevada, Stanford and during the early part of his tenure at LSU, he’ll need to build this program very slowly.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Coming into the year, we thought we had a couple really good teams in New Mexico and UNLV, and six other teams with more questions marks than answers. Four months later, add San Diego State to the list of really good teams, but add the other five teams in the conference as, at a minimum, pretty good. Only Air Force and Boise State end the season with losing records, and each of those teams has risen up and played one of the top three tough at some point, with the Falcons even pulling off a win over San Diego State. There are four teams (so far) with 20 or more wins and it looks more and more like Colorado State, with home wins over each of the top three teams in the conference, will join them in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Wyoming and TCU both remain strong candidates for NIT inclusion. All told, this was an excellent encore performance for a conference that was coming off their best season on the national stage, especially given the turmoil surrounding the Mountain West’s hits and misses in the conference realignment game. In short, despite a few bumps and bruises along the way, the MW is still alive and well. At least for now.
San Diego State 24-6 10-4
New Mexico 24-6 10-4
UNLV 25-7 9-5
Colorado State 19-10 8-6
TCU 17-13 7-7
Wyoming 20-10 6-8
Air Force 13-15 3-11
Boise State 13-16 3-11
Player of the Year. Drew Gordon, Senior, New Mexico. This was a tight race, with Gordon, UNLV’s Mike Moser and San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin all neck and neck at the finish line. But, I’ll always hold true to the theory that when in doubt, a tie goes to the senior. And I’ll still gladly make the argument that Gordon edges out the other two on his own merits as well. The one thing that all three players do well is rebound the ball, but Gordon is the best of the three. Franklin is more capable of creating his own shot than Gordon, but Gordon generally plays within himself and is more efficient offensively; likewise, while Moser has a perimeter jumper that is missing from Gordon’s game, it doesn’t go far enough to make up for the other advantages that the Lobo star has. And, defensively, Gordon is significantly more polished than either of his younger competitors. The race is very close, and in no way am I denigrating either Moser or Franklin. But likewise, I don’t want to take the easy way out and just call it a three-way tie. Call Gordon the better of equals.
Drew Gordon Earns Our MW Player Of The Year In A Close Race (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Coach of the Year. Steve Fisher, San Diego State. It has been a year of great coaching jobs in the Mountain West as well, but the race here is slightly less contentious. While we give Gordon the MW POY award by a nose, Fisher wins this by a full body length over guys like Jim Christian, Larry Shyatt, and Tim Miles. Christian and Shyatt took teams with basically the same personnel as last year and led a complete 180, while Miles took a team that lost three of its best players and has them a nose ahead of where they were last year. Meanwhile, Fisher took a team that lost its four leading scorers, including NBA First Round pick Kawhi Leonard, off a Sweet 16 team and led a ragtag bunch that included a undermanned frontline (Tim Shelton and his three knee surgeries, basketball novice Deshawn Stephens, and graduate transfer Garrett Green) to an unlikely Mountain West title. Along the way, he helped transform Chase Tapley from a role player into a team leader and a go-to scorer and Jamaal Franklin from a little-used reserve to a big-name player on the national scene. Oh, and then there’s the whole conference title and national top 25 ranking. That’s nice too.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
A week ago, we were all but ready to hand New Mexico the regular season title and the #1 seed in the Mountain West tournament. Two road losses later, the Lobos have given back their two-game lead and with two conference games remaining on everybody’s schedule, we have five teams within two games of the first place. But, primarily, we are back to where we were after the first run through the conference: three teams (New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV) tied atop the conference standings, each looking like a good team, but none looking great.
Still, despite the tumult at the top of the conference, all three of those teams look like absolute locks to earn an invitation to the NCAA Tournament (and pretty good seeds at that). UNLV leads the way with an RPI of 11, while SDSU and UNM are among a bunch of MW teams with RPIs in the late 20s or early 30s. The big question in the conference revolves around the third of those teams, Colorado State, which sits ahead of the other two with an RPI of 27 (SDSU is at 28, UNM at 34).
However, a closer look at the Rams find them sitting squarely on the bubble. They have a couple really good wins over SDSU and UNM, but those two games are the entirety of their positives. Beyond that they have some middling wins over RPI 51-100 teams and an unfortunate last second loss to Boise State (RPI 166) dragging them down. However, compare them to say, BYU, South Florida, Washington, or Arizona – all teams with whom the Rams are ostensibly competing for a spot, and CSU’s got a slightly better set of numbers going for them. See below, where we compare CSU to other bubble teams in record, RPI, strength of schedule, and record against various subsets of the RPI (with the best numbers in each column in bold). In RPI and SOS, the Rams have clearly better numbers than anybody else on this list, while their record against top-50 RPI teams is behind only Dayton and Saint Joseph’s here.
vs. RPI 1-25
vs. RPI 1-50
vs. RPI +100
As for TCU, the team that is almost the hottest team in the conference, having won four of five including wins over Colorado State, UNLV and New Mexico, with only a last-second loss to Boise State as a recent blemish … they’re a good story, but even with four wins against top-50 RPI teams, they need to win the Mountain West Tournament to have a chance to go dancing.
Team of the Week
TCU – As mentioned above, the Horned Frogs are 4-1 in their last five games, with only a heartbreaking last-second loss to Boise State a week ago as a strike against them. This week, Jim Christian’s club went to Colorado Springs and, using an Amric Fields three-pointer with 18 seconds left, knocked off Air Force at Clune Arena. They followed that up by welcoming New Mexico into Fort Worth on Saturday and outfighting and outshooting the Lobos. Six different Frogs hit three-pointers, J.R. Cadot outworked Drew Gordon on the offensive glass and Hank Thorns dished out nine assists as TCU battled New Mexico to a draw on the boards and outgunned them from the field (they had a true shooting percentage of 63.1%). As a result, TCU sits just a game back of the three leaders in the conference and with a visit from SDSU scheduled for Saturday, they have a fighting chance of moving up the leaderboard even further.
Player of the Week
Jamaal Franklin, Sophomore, San Diego State – With apologies to TCU’s J.R. Cadot (15.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG), we are going to reward Franklin for his transcendent game while willing his Aztecs over CSU on Saturday night. In that game, Franklin went off for 31 points and 16 rebounds (the latter a new career high, the former tying a career high) and scored 13 of his team’s last 16 points, including going 8-of-8 from the free-throw line after the final media timeout. Coupled with a solid game earlier in the week when coming back from an ankle injury against Wyoming, Franklin, who averaged 21.5 points and 10.5 rebounds, earned the honor.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
Coming into the week, three Mountain West teams appeared in the RTC Top 25, but it was New Mexico, who was ranked #25, that had the biggest chance to make a splash, getting a crack at the other two teams: San Diego State at home and UNLV on the road. Following an 0-2 week, however, there are more questions than answers in Albuquerque, as the once impressive Lobo defense took a huge step back, allowing 1.25 points per possession in their two games this week.
In the wake of UNM’s failures, for the time being, it is a two-team race at the top, with San Diego State holding a slim edge on UNLV based on their home win over the Rebels in the conference opener. But, with both teams firmly in the top 25, the Aztecs and the Rebels look like sure bets to go dancing come March.
Back of the lead pack, we have Wyoming and Colorado State each sitting at 2-1 after the Cowboys handing the Rams their first conference loss in their first conference road game. Air Force and TCU each sit at 1-2, while Boise State has settled into the role of basement dweller.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – In order for one team to separate itself from the pack atop the conference, contenders for the conference title needed to be able to defend their home court and steal a win on the road against the other contenders. So far, Steve Fisher and the Aztecs are off to a great start. Not only did they open the conference season with a home win over UNLV and follow that up this Saturday with a workmanlike win over Air Force, they bisected those wins with an impressive road win at New Mexico, an outcome that not only served to improve the Aztecs to 3-0, but to kick the Lobos down a notch. Enough cannot be said about the job that Fisher has done with not only this program, but this specific team.
After losing the bulk of last year’s record-setting team, this year’s Aztecs haven’t slowed down, as junior guard Chase Tapley has taken the leap from role player to lead guard, Jamaal Franklin has emerged as a star in the making after playing a bit part last year and Xavier Thames came back from his transfer year in exile to prove his tremendous abilities. Throw in gritty contributions from guys like Tim Shelton (he of the five knee surgeries), DeShawn Stephens (playing just his third season of organized basketball), Garrett Green (a graduate transfer from LSU) and James Rahon (who struggled early with a lingering ankle injury and is just now hitting with consistency), and Fisher’s got a good thing going down on Montezuma Mesa.
Player and Newcomer of the Week
Leonard Washington Was A One-Man Wrecking Crew On The Glass For Wyoming This Week (photo credit: Andy Carpenean/WyoSports)
Leonard Washington, Jr., Wyoming – With apologies to UNLV’s Anthony Marshall, who also just killed it this week, we’ve got to give this one to Washington, who was a one-man wrecking crew for the Cowboys last weekend. Things started out innocently enough on Wednesday night, when Washington had 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals in a road win at Air Force, but digging a little bit deeper into those numbers showed a sign of things to come, as Washington alone grabbed 46.4% of all the potential Cowboy defensive rebounds. Saturday night against an undersized Colorado State team, Washington upped that number to 55.9% and added a personal 22.3% offensive rebound percentage – a number some entire teams in the league would consider a fine effort. Washington wound up with 32 points and 14 rebounds (both career highs) in a performance dominant enough to allow us to completely forget about the two banked-in threes near the end of the Cowboys’ 19-point win.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
At long last, Mountain West conference play is finally here. And after the long wait, the opening weekend did not disappoint in the least.
The conference opener between San Diego State and UNLV was the sole matchup between ranked teams across the nation on Saturday, and it was everything that could be expected of it and more. But, we’ll get to that shortly.
Jamaal Franklin Was Outstandings Against UNLV (AP)
Elsewhere around the league, Colorado State knocked off TCU in a wild double overtime affair in Fort Collins, while New Mexico and Air Force came up with impressive road wins over Wyoming and Boise State, respectively. While those later two games may not have been all that competitive down the stretch, after one weekend we’re even more sure of the idea that this is going to be a fun season to watch in the MW. Not only do the three teams at the top – San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV – figure to be in for a stirring battle for the top spot in the league, but the five other teams in the conference feature good athletes, fun styles and some very solid teams. In past years, let’s be honest, there were teams in this conference that were almost unbearable to watch (Wyoming the last couple of years, TCU last season, Air Force a couple years back, even Utah last year). This year, I fully expect to be able to tune into any single Mountain West game on the schedule and be thoroughly entertained. Stay tuned, this is going to get fun.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – All of the winners this week deserve a mention here, what with New Mexico going on the road and getting past a game Wyoming team, Air Force handling Boise State in their opener despite still playing without their best player – Michael Lyons – down with an ankle injury, and Colorado State fighting through a blown lead late and a couple nail-biting overtimes to finally dispense with TCU. But, we’ve got to give the Aztecs this recognition this week if for no other reason than as a welcome back to the land of the living. You see, since December 4, SDSU has been stuck playing teams like Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and, most recently, coming back from a seven-point second-half deficit to winless Chicago State. But, after being off the radar for about a month and a half, Steve Fisher’s club came back to their first game against significant competition without missing a beat. Jamaal Franklin continued his breakout sophomore season with arguably his most important performance of his career, James Rahon broke out of his season-long slow-down with a sparkling 22-point performance, the backcourt of Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley fought the tough and athletic UNLV backcourt to a draw, and even Tim Shelton made significant contributions above and beyond what his relatively tame stat line would indicate. In short, if you had forgotten the Aztecs in recent months, you can hardly be blamed, but now it is time to make sure this team is on your radar again.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences; he is also a staffer on the Pac-12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @AMurawa.
Reader’s Take I
Tectonic Shifts in the MW: As the landscape of college sports continues to shift, the Mountain West continues to change. This year, the conference is without BYU and Utah for the first time in its history. Aside from the fact that the state of Utah was sort of the center of the conference for many years, the impact on the basketball side of things cannot be overstated. In the 12 years that the two schools were a part of the conference, they won five outright regular season titles between them and twice shared the regular season title. TCU will join the two Utah schools as ex-MW members after this year when it joins the Big 12.
Temporary Fixes? As old schools depart, new schools come in. Boise State joins the conference this season, although there are already rumors that its stay may be short-lived, as other conferences including the Big 12 and the Big East, woo the Broncos. Fresno State and Nevada are due to join the conference in 2012-13, but as the ground continues to move under the feet of college athletics, one never knows what changes will come next.
Scheduling: With just eight conference teams this year, each team will play just 14 conference games. So while the Pac-12 and Big Ten and other major conferences are kicking off games against their conference rivals on or before New Year’s, MW schools will wait until the middle of January to get into conference play, filling the interim with games against schools like Johnson & Wales, Texas-Pan American, Nebraska-Omaha, Houston Baptist, San Diego Christian and Utah Valley. This is not a good thing for a conference, not a good thing for the fans, and not a good thing for college basketball.
Changes On The Sidelines: Aside from having a new team in the conference, we’ve got a couple returning teams with new coaches. The most high profile coaching change comes at UNLV with Lon Kruger gone for Oklahoma, and Dave Rice, the former associate head coach under Dave Rose at BYU, returning to Vegas where he played and served as an assistant under Jerry Tarkanian. The other coaching change is at Wyoming, where Larry Shyatt returns to town after spending the last several years as the associate head coach at Florida.
Drew Gordon Looks to Lead New Mexico to a Mountain West Title
New Favorites. Last year, it was more or less a two-horse race for the conference title between BYU and San Diego State. This year, there is no BYU and SDSU has graduated its four most important players. As a result, it looks to be two new horses who head the pack in search of a conference title with UNLV and New Mexico far and away the favorites. In the MW preseason basketball poll, the Lobos got 22 of the 26 first place votes from the media, with the Rebels snagging the other four. Those two schools also dominated the all-conference team selections, each putting two players on the list.
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Mountain West correspondent, Andrew Murawa.
Reader’s Take I
A New Look League: In the aftermath of last summer’s conference shake-ups, the Mountain West is a slimmer volume this year than last, and will look even different next year. Last year’s regular season champion, BYU, is off to pursue football independence, with membership in the West Coast Conference for basketball and some other sports a byproduct of that decision. Secondly, Utah jumped at the opportunity to become a member of the new Pac-12 conference. In the 12 years in which the two Utah schools were a part of the MWC (okay, since its unveiling of their new logo in July, the league office wants the conference to be abbreviated as MW, rather than MWC, and we’ll try to do that from here on), they won a combined five outright regular season titles between them (BYU three, Utah two) and twice shared the regular season titles. However, the MW did not sit idly by and let its conference dissolve when the Utah schools left. It snapped up Boise State to give the Mountain West eight teams in the 2011-12 campaign, with Fresno State and Nevada due to join in 2012-13 just as TCU departs for the Big East. In the long run, the three losses are bigger than the three additions, but the newcomers are strong enough to keep the MW chugging along.
Coaching Shuffle: We knew heading into the offseason that there would be at least one new coach in the conference, as Wyoming pulled the trigger on firing Heath Schroyer during the middle of the conference season. In late March they announced the hiring of Larry Shyatt, an associate head coach at Florida, back for his second stint as the head man in Laramie. But when Lon Kruger announced a day later that he had accepted the head coaching job at Oklahoma, arguably the most attractive job in the conference opened up at UNLV. Ten days later, UNLV announced the hiring of Dave Rice, most recently the associate head coach to Dave Rose at BYU, but previously a player and assistant coach under Jerry Tarkanian in Vegas. With Rice’s brother, Grant Rice, the head coach at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High – not coincidentally the high school of 2012 top ten recruit Shabazz Muhammad – the hiring opens further inroads for the Rebels with local recruits. To tie everything up in a nice little bundle, Schroyer was hired by Rice as one of his new assistants, along with former Rebel star Stacey Augmon and former SDSU assistant Justin Hutson.
Transfer Hotbed: Every year, the Mountain West seems to be the landing spot for some big transfers, guys who have struggled in their first stop in a BCS conference and who are ready to start over a rung down the ladder. UCLA as a feeder school for the conference is a well-worn path, having sent Chace Stanback to UNLV and Drew Gordon to New Mexico in recent years. This year, another former Bruin will be active in the MW, with forward Mike Moser joining Stanback in Las Vegas for the Rebels. No less than five other former-Pac-10 players will show up on MW rosters this season, with Drew Wiley (formerly of Oregon) joining Boise State, Demetrius Walker (formerly of Arizona State) joining New Mexico, and Xavier Thames (formerly of Washington State) joining San Diego State, all of whom will be eligible this season. Arizona’s Daniel Bejarano and USC’s Bryce Jones also announced transfers to Colorado State and UNLV, respectively, but neither will be eligible until the 2012-13 season. UNLV also welcomes former Marquette point Reggie Smith to compete with incumbent point guard Oscar Bellfield this season, while CSU inked former Minnesota center Colton Iverson, eligible in 2012-13. Then there’s the Aztecs, who signed Utah transfer J.J. O’Brien and St. John’s transfer Dwayne Polee. While O’Brien will sit out a year, Polee, who attended Los Angeles’ Westchester High, has applied for a hardship waiver, given that his mom is suffering from an undisclosed medical condition. While these waivers aren’t often granted, if it happens in this case, Polee could be a big boost for the Aztecs’ 2011-12 hopes.
Steve Fisher maxed out an experienced team in 2011, but will need former role players to step up this season. (Kent Horner/Getty Images)