CIO… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on February 13th, 2013

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

Conference Round-up

Another week down the drain and we’re now officially four weeks away from the start of the Mountain West Tournament (well, three weeks and six days by the time this gets published). And, as time passes, some things are becoming more clear and some things are just as confusing as they were weeks ago. For instance: quick, who’s the best team in the conference?

New Mexico’s got a claim on first place as of now, but they’re coming off a season-series-evening loss to UNLV and they’ve already put up a horrendous 34-point offensive (in more than one way) output against San Diego State. The Rebels, for their part, have looked really good in their home win against New Mexico and their road win at San Diego State, but this is a team that just this week lost at Fresno State, the worst team in the conference. The Aztecs? Their backcourt is beat up and their still facing road trips to Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico and Boise State. Oh, and they’re entering that stretch already a game back of the Lobos and a half-game behind Colorado State. And as for the Rams, despite the fact that they made the AP Top 25 for the first time in just under 60 years, they’ve still got plenty to prove themselves, with a history of struggling away from home, especially against quality opponents. But, for now, I’m going to go out on a limb and put CSU at the top of the pack, based on a whim. But hey, give me credit at least for not taking the easy way out and declaring this a four-way tie for first atop my power rankings.

Who's The Best Team In The Mountain West? I Dunno, But Colorado State's As Good Of A Guess As Any (Dawn Madura, AP Photo)

Who’s The Best Team In The Mountain West? I Dunno, But Colorado State’s As Good Of A Guess As Any (Dawn Madura/AP Photo)

So, that’s the clear as mud part. What parts of this conference are starting to round into understandable shape? Well, that pipe dream back a few weeks ago about six teams making the NCAA Tournament? Yeah, well, that’s not gonna happen. Wyoming and head coach Larry Shyatt have done great things over the past two seasons in Laramie, but they’re getting eaten alive in conference play (2-7 so far) and it would take a complete 180 for them to have a prayer of NCAA consideration come March. Meanwhile, Air Force, which had been so hot the last time we talked, just got done dropping a couple of road games, most damningly to Nevada on Saturday. They needed a lot of stuff to break their way, and while they’re certainly not completely dead yet, I’ve got to see them make some serious noise, especially on the road, in order to think they belong even on the periphery of the conversation. And that leaves Boise State as the potential fifth Mountain West team. There isn’t a lot of room for error for the Broncos, but I, for one, have a hard time believing they won’t be among the field of 68 when the brackets get announced.

Elsewhere, you can start engraving Anthony Bennett’s name on the Freshman of the Year trophy, if you want to get a head start. And the list of serious Player of the Year candidates are limited as well; right now Jamaal Franklin has to be the odds on favorite to defend his title, with Bennett maybe his strongest competitor. As for Coach of the Year, that one is still wide open and will likely be determined in part by how the race at the top of the conference shakes out.

Reader’s Take

 

Team of the Week

San Diego State – The Aztecs didn’t leave Viejas Arena this week, but they also didn’t lose, something that only one other Mountain West team (Colorado State, who played just one game) can say. The Aztecs dodged a bullet against Boise State, but then came out and put away Fresno State with a dominating second-half performance. While still not back to full-strength (Xavier Thames, for one, remains limited, although Chase Tapley nears 100%), the Aztecs find themselves just a game back of first place with a chance this week to take a couple huge steps towards a conference title. Of course, those huge steps include going on the road to Colorado State and UNLV, but let’s put it this way: if SDSU wins these games, they’re in very good shape.

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CIO…the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on January 2nd, 2013

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

Looking Back

It’s been two weeks since we last caught up with the teams of the Mountain West, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on. All three of our favorites in the conference (San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico) have taken losses since we last did this, but at the same time, each of them has a quality win mixed in there as well. Meanwhile, the next tier of teams – Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State – have all been blemish-free over the past two weeks. It still appears there is a drop-off between the top three and the next three, but it remains to be seen just how far that drop is. We’ve got one more week of some pretty uninspiring non-conference games before conference play tips off and we start to get some answers to our outstanding questions.

We’ve also been keeping our eye on a situation off the court, as the conference realignment shuffle continues. On New Year’s Eve, it was reported that Boise State would wisely back out of its agreement to join the rapidly dwindling football Big East and remain in the Mountain West. With Boise sticking around, suddenly San Diego State, which had been steadfast in its intentions to stick with the move to the Big East, decided it too wanted to stick around, but the Mountain West, apparently fed up with SDSU’s foot-dragging prior to that, isn’t exactly jumping back into the relationship. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reports that the MW is poking around to see if there are other schools who would be a better fit with the conference. In the end, perhaps the only thing that would keep SDSU out of the conference would be if the MW is able to persuade BYU to rejoin. In an ideal world from a basketball perspective, both of those schools would rejoin, which would bring the conference up to 12 basketball teams next year, but that would also bring the football total to 13, probably one too many. If it is a choice between BYU and SDSU, though, the Cougars are the slam dunk choice.

After A Serious Fling With The Big East, The Mountain West Conference Has Acquiesced To Boise State's Demands (BSU Athletics)

After A Serious Fling With The Big East, The Mountain West Conference Has Acquiesced To Boise State’s Demands (BSU Athletics)

All of this was made possible when CBS allowed the conference to restructure its television agreement, allowing the conference to sell games to other national networks. It should be noted that the MW did have to cave to a pretty significant request wherein Boise State’s home football games will not be a part of the conference’s television rights contracts, allowing the school to sell those games themselves. Further, Boise will still owe some sort of buyout to the Big East for their change of heart (provided such an entity still exists to pay that buyout) and the Mountain West has agreed to chip in some amount to help Boise make that payment (rest assured that such an arrangement will not be made with SDSU). While this works out for the time being in keeping the conference together and perhaps even persuading BYU to rejoin, this sort of concession to one school at the exclusion of others is the exact type of thing that drove Nebraska and Texas A&M out of the Big 12. It remains to be seen if this type of move is sustainable, but, if everything works out for the best, we could be heading back to a MW basketball slate that still features SDSU, UNLV, BYU and New Mexico as its flagship programs. It the realm of unintended consequences, is quite possible that the Big East’s Catholic Seven defection could go a long ways towards rescuing another great basketball conference.

Reader’s Take

 

Team of the Week

Colorado State – The Rams swept to an impressive win in the Las Vegas Classic tournament just in advance of Christmas, winning four games in a week and capping that run off with a 36-point blowout of Virginia Tech in the championship game. They backed that up with a workmanlike 25-point win against Adams State this past weekend. We still don’t know just how good this team is after they’ve been completely remade from a guard-dominated team to one that relies on crashing the boards, and they still haven’t been tested much, but CSU fans have good reason to suspect that this iteration of the Rams is even better than last year’s tournament team.

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CIO… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on December 18th, 2012

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

Conference Round-Up

Much like everywhere else around the country, it was an exceedingly slow week in the Mountain West. Between last Tuesday and last night, just 10 games were played involving MW teams. Two teams in the conference haven’t played a game since we last did this. And, with the exception of the two games played by Fresno State, the MW teams have escaped unblemished against largely mediocre teams. As a result, your weekly MW rundown may be a little lighter than normal.

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But the big news around the conference may be the ripples from the Big East breakdown that are reaching the Mountain West’s shores. While for now, San Diego State and Boise State are maintaining their intentions to follow through on their plans to join the Big East beginning next season, you just know that behind the scenes, both schools are seriously weighing their options. As the MW Connection details here, there are basically three options for these two schools: (1) head to the Big East as planned, regardless of the diminishing state of the conference, for football, with the rest of their sports in the Big West; (2) remain in the Mountain West and possibly bring other schools with them; or (3) go independent in football and keep other sports in the Big West. Obviously, the people involved in making these decisions know a lot more about the financials of these decisions than me, but for what it’s worth, while the Big East is in the middle of negotiating a new television contract, the MW remains locked into its current contract with CBS through 2016, and the network has an additional option to extend that contract to 2019. Of greater concern to the MW than whether they are able to keep BSU and SDSU around may be whether they are able to fend off advances from other conferences. For instance, the Big East, which may in the interest of self-preservation and establishing a western outpost to satiate the likes of BSU, SDSU, SMU and Houston, take a shot at teams from the conference. There may not be a lot of fat on the football bones of the teams remaining here, but if the Big East can poach, say, UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State they will (aside from really needing a re-branding) be able to cobble together a strong basketball conference. But, who am I kidding? Up until this week, basketball was rarely mentioned in this whole realignment fiasco, except to note that basketball doesn’t matter.

Reader’s Take

 

Team of the Week

Nevada – Yay! Home wins over Cal Poly and San Francisco! Rejoice! OK, so those wins aren’t suddenly going to turn the Wolf Pack into an NCAA Tournament contender, but given that this is a team with losses to UC Irvine, Marshall, Drake and Pacific on its record, not to mention several other near-misses, the fact that Nevada handled that level of competition by an average of double-figures is a sign of progress. As is the fact that they finally showed some semblance of aggressiveness on the glass, grabbing nearly 40% of offensive rebound opportunities this week, and better than 80% on the defensive end. Jerry Evans was particularly effective, grabbing 14 total rebounds against Cal Poly.

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CIO… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on November 20th, 2012

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

A Look Back

Let’s be honest. There hasn’t been a whole heck of a lot of worthwhile games on the Mountain West schedule thus far. New Mexico got a piece of Davidson during ESPN’s 24-Hour Marathon, then got three solid games in the Virgin Islands at the Paradise Jam (much more on that below), but beyond that, the only real primo television game was San Diego State and Syracuse playing in slightly better conditions than I play on most days during the summer. Still, we got our first look at some new freshmen (Anthony Bennett – good, Winston Shepard – interesting, Cameron Michael – surprising), some new transfers (Colton Iverson – good, Bryce Dejean-Jones – interesting, Allen Huddleston – surprising) and a couple of new teams (Fresno State and Nevada, who happen to have the only two losses in the conference aside from that immediately discounted SDSU game).

Reader’s Take

 

Team of the Week

New Mexico – While everybody nationally has been talking about UNLV and San Diego State, the Lobos – the defending regular season and tournament champions in the conference – have flown under the radar. Yet, here they are with a 4-0 record, a Paradise Jam championship and arguably the conference’s best wins in the bag. Replacing Drew Gordon is going to be a collective effort as the season goes on, but not only are big guys Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and freshman Nick Banyard ready to chip in any way possible, but perimeter guys like Hugh Greenwood and Kendall Williams will lend a hand on the glass as well. They certainly haven’t been pretty wins so far, but this is just a group of winners with a knack for getting things done, one way or another.

Hugh Greenwood, New Mexico

It Wasn’t Always Pretty, But Hugh Greenwood and New Mexico Earned The Paradise Jam Title Over Connecticut (Thomas Layer)

Player of the Week

Tony Snell, Junior, New Mexico – Last year, Tony Snell’s offensive game was little more than three-point attempts either in spot-up situations or running off of a screen. Almost 70% of his field goal attempts came from behind the arc. Thus far this year, Snell has shown a much more varied attack, even taking his man off the dribble from time to time. While he’s not exactly hitting shots at an exceptionally high rate early on (46.2 eFG% through four games), he’s leading the team with 17.5 points per game, has shown a good ability to find open teammates and continues to use his length to be a frustrating defensive opponent. Oh, and he’s hit a big shot or two, as we’ll get to shortly.

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RTC Summer School: Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on August 14th, 2012

Over the next couple of week’s we’ll be checking in with each of the high mid-major leagues as to their mid-summer offseason status. Up next: the Mountain West.

Drew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference. You can also find his musings on Twitter @amurawa.

Three Summer Storylines

  • Tectonic Movement Continues. For the second straight year, the landscape of the MW shifts. Last year it was BYU and Utah heading off to greener pastures with Boise State landing in their place. This year TCU is on its way out the door with Fresno State and Nevada on their way in. And next year Boise State and San Diego State will depart with San Jose State and Utah State coming in. All in all, this will still be a good basketball conference even after all these moving parts settle, but the loss of a rapidly improving Aztec program will be tough for MW fans to take. TCU and Boise State certainly aren’t major losses on the basketball side, but the strength of their football programs could have provided stability for the conference and the potential for improved programs on the hardwood. Between the four newcomers, each of Fresno State, Nevada and Utah State have had good runs over the course of a handful of years, but they’ll all need to prove their ability to compete with more established programs like UNLV and New Mexico, while SJSU figures to step directly into the basement of the conference.

  • The Mtn. Crumbles. On May 31, The Mtn., the Mountain West’s television network, went dark, ceasing all operations after six years. Now, say what you will about the network, a channel that eschewed HD programming, struggled with distribution and had issues with their on-air talent, but the shuttering of its doors leaves some questions for MW hoops fans. In the era of The Mtn., if you wanted to follow MW hoops, it was easy to do so. Now, it remains to be seen exactly how much exposure teams from this conference will get during the year. Sure, the MW still has deals in place to get games shown on NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, but what about that Air Force/Boise State game on some random February Wednesday? Should you want to watch that game and you’re not in Idaho or Colorado, odds are pretty good you’re going to be out of luck.
  • Continued Success? For all the uncertainty about the membership of the conference, the last three years have been something of the golden age of Mountain West basketball. In the past three seasons, the MW has received 11 NCAA Tournament berths. Two years ago there were dual Sweet Sixteen appearances by BYU and SDSU. We’ve had Jimmer and Kawhi grab national headlines, while other guys like Dairese Gary and Darington Hobson, Billy White and Drew Gordon, D.J. Gay and Hank Thorns, Andy Ogide and Malcolm Thomas have kept us all entertained. But, even with all of those players now gone, there is still plenty to be excited about in the conference. San Diego State and UNLV lead the way again, with both expected to start the season in the preseason Top 25. New Mexico and Colorado State, who joined the Aztecs and Rebels in the Big Dance last year, both should be in the hunt for another tourney bid, while Nevada could be a sleeper in its first season in the conference. And, as always, we could be in for another surprise or two.

Reader’s Take #1

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Mountain West Tournament Diary: Championship Saturday

Posted by AMurawa on March 10th, 2012

Saturday night’s Mountain West Championship game between San Diego State and New Mexico provided plenty of great storylines: the two regular season co-champions meeting in a rubber match; the two-time defending tournament champion Aztecs against a Lobo team that hadn’t won this tournament since 2005, when Ritchie McKay was still the head coach; and the battle between the top two candidates for the conference Player of the Year, the winner, Jamaal Franklin and the jilted, Drew Gordon.

Gordon had made no bones about the fact all week that he felt he deserved the individual honor and that other awards, such as Defensive Player of the Year and Sixth-Man of the Year, should have wound up in Lobo hands, and he played with a chip on his shoulder all weekend, averaging 15.3 points and 10.7 boards in the tournament on his way to the Most Outstanding Player award. But the win on Saturday night was a total team affair. Tony Snell got things off on the right track, scoring the first five points of the game and turning in his third straight double-digit scoring game after slumping through February. Freshman point guard Hugh Greenwood continued his do-whatever-it-takes style and contributed ten boards and a couple threes. And bench players Phillip McDonald, Demetrius Walker, and Cameron Bairstow all made major contributions. McDonald, who has lost minutes this season as Snell and Walker have stepped up, came off the pine and had a three, an assist, a rebound and drew a charge, all in his first couple minutes of action. Bairstow battled on the boards and at one point scored six straight points for the Lobos. And Walker, despite not making a field goal, provided energy and hit clutch free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory.

Drew Gordon, New Mexico

Drew Gordon, The Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Is Mobbed By New Mexico Fans

But more than anything else, this win was about the New Mexico defense. They held San Diego State to 0.86 points per possession (the number was quite a bit lower than that until Chase Tapley went nuts late) and at times in the second half just completely froze the Aztecs out in the paint. Kendall Williams took San Diego State point Xavier Thames completely out of rhythm and Snell helped frustrate James Rahon into an 0-for-8 shooting night. Franklin, meanwhile, was hounded into six-of-14 shooting and six turnovers. And, despite wrapping up their semifinal game late in the evening on Friday night, the Lobos never showed fatigue and kept competing (and hard) right to the final whistle. They were consistently first to loose balls and always scrapping and making multiple attempts at rebounds.

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RTC Conference Primers: #7 – Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 31st, 2011

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

 

Top Storylines

  • 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.
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RTC Summer Updates: Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on August 2nd, 2011

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

Summer Storylines

  • 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)

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Mountain West Report Card

Posted 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.

It was clearly the year of the Jimmer in the Mountain West

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 25th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 conferences.

A Look Back

While the top of the conference was business as usual, with BYU and San Diego State both taking care of things on their way towards Wednesday’s collision, there was quite a bit of shakeup in the middle of the conference. Colorado State handled UNLV at the Thomas & Mack with ease on Wednesday, before falling in a fairly close battle with BYU on Saturday. UNLV bounced back from their loss to squeak one out over New Mexico on Saturday, while the Lobos struggled to a two loss week and sank to the back of the pack of teams hoping to contend for upper-division finishes. The other team that got over on New Mexico this week was Utah, who built on last week’s road win at Laramie with a home win against the Lobos and another road win on Saturday, this time at TCU. With the Ute roster rounding into relative health, Jim Boylen has his team ready to be a tough out the rest of the way in conference play. But as we head into fourth week of conference play, the big story is the two teams at the top of the conference getting ready to meet in Provo on Wednesday night. With just one loss on the season between the two teams, a National Player of the Year contender in Jimmer Fredette and a couple of top ten teams, the game sets up as not only the game of the year in the Mountain West, but one of the better regular season games of the entire college basketball season.

Team of the Week: Utah – In the middle of last week, the Utes were mired in the middle of a seven-game losing streak, with a loss to San Diego – one of the worst teams in Division I – mixed in with more explainable losses to teams like Butler, Portland, San Diego State and BYU. Now, they’re riding a three-game winning streak and are right in the conversation with a bunch of teams in the middle of the conference behind the front-runners. Junior center David Foster has come back strong from injury problems in the early season to average 8.7 rebounds and four blocks per game over the course of the winning streak, providing the Utes with a big dominant force in the middle. While junior Josh Watkins has struggled with turnovers all season, he has provided a scoring punch from the backcourt for the Utes, and he has averaged 17.3 PPG over the last three games. Junior Will Clyburn had his first game of the season in which he did not score in double figures when he was limited to 27 minutes (yes, limited – he averages over 36 minutes per game) against New Mexico, but he surrounded that game with a 24-point, 12-rebound monster at Wyoming and a 22-point, nine-rebound effort at TCU. In addition, freshman J.J. O’Brien and sophomore Shawn Glover have both stepped up as excellent role players. This isn’t going to magically turn into a classic Utah team overnight, but assuming everyone stays healthy, seeing Utah on the schedule means a tough game again.

Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – Last week, when Fredette scored 47 against Utah, I instead gave the Player of the Week to Kawhi Leonard, and deservedly so. This week, Fredette went for a quiet 21 against TCU before exploding again for 42 at Colorado State. I hear ya, Jimmer, I hear ya. In the CSU game, Fredette was unstoppably aggressive, getting to the line easily for 17 attempts (making 16), but also knocking down the typical deep Fredette threes. In the past week, he has seemingly extended his range, knocking down a couple of threes from about 30 feet out, both times within the normal flow and context of the game. Oh, there’s Jimmer dropping in a pull-up 30-foot three with 25 seconds left on the shot clock. Ho hum. He’s just ridiculous, guys. Once again, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that we’ve only 11 more opportunities in the regular season to watch Fredette play. Every one of those games is available on television. If you’re not taking advantage of the chance to get to watch this guy play every time out, you’re the one missing out.

Newcomer of the Week: Wes Eikmeier, Sophomore, Colorado State – The transfer from Iowa State came to Fort Collins with the reputation of being “just a shooter,” capable of knocking down the three, but not likely to be counted on for much else. While he’s lived up to the shooting expectations (having knocked down 33 threes at a 38% clip), he’s shown as a Ram that he’s also pretty good with the dribble, capable of creating shots for himself or teammates with a shot fake and a move. This past week he handed out nine assists in the Rams’ two games, while still very much making teams pay for leaving him free from deep, hitting seven of his 13 three-point attempts. Against BYU he went for a career-high 25 points, hitting five threes, handing out five assists and even grabbing five boards. As the Rams fight for NCAA Tournament consideration, Eikmeier is a key cog in their machine.

Game of the Week: UNLV 63, New Mexico 62 – Both teams came into this battle in Las Vegas off of underachieving losses. But while this was by no means a pretty game, it was a hard-fought battle to the finish. The Rebels seemingly had things in control with just under six minutes left, after seven straight points from Carlos Lopez put them up 56-50. But after a three by freshman Tony Snell, the Lobos held a 61-60 lead with 38 seconds left. From there, Tre’Von Willis, playing in his first game back from a knee injury, came up with a steal leading to a breakaway and Lobo senior guard Dairese Gary got called for a questionable intentional foul in trying to separate Willis from the ball. Willis made both shots, and after UNLV got possession back, Oscar Bellfield was fouled and made one of his shots, putting UNLV up 63-61. After Lobo freshman Kendall Williams turned the ball over on a bad pass, he almost made up for his mistake by coming up with a big steal on the Rebel inbound pass, drawing a foul and getting sent to the line with a chance to tie the game. But, after making the first of two, his second shot was long and the Rebels escaped with a much-needed victory while the Lobos were sent back to Albuquerque with a 1-4 record in conference play.

Game of the Upcoming Week: San Diego State (20-0, 5-0) at BYU (19-1, 5-0), 1/26, 7PM PST, CBS College Sports – The game of the year in the MWC, at least until February 26 when they do it all over in San Diego, should be a classic. With a combined 39 wins between these two teams, there is not even a doubt that these are the best two teams in the conference. There are plenty of interesting matchups here to talk about, but taking a look at the sole BYU loss (to UCLA a week before Christmas) may give us some insight as to what might happen. In that game, UCLA’s big and physical frontline gave the Cougars’ frontcourt all sorts of trouble, outscoring them 60-30 and controlling the boards. Given that SDSU’s frontline is among the best in the nation, BYU will again have their hands full. But the big question is what the Aztecs will do defensively to slow Fredette. In the UCLA game, it was long and athletic Malcolm Lee who slowed Fredette. The Aztecs don’t really have that type of player, but  D.J. Gay and Chase Tapley will each get their shots at guarding him. What this curious fan wants to see is if Steve Fisher maybe pegs Kawhi Leonard to take a couple runs at Fredette.  Leonard has taken on guards like Tre’Von Willis and Dairese Gary at times during his college career, and while he may not have the quickness of Fredette, his strength and length may be enough to give Fredette problems. In the end, whichever team wins the battle of the tempo (BYU wants to play fast, SDSU wouldn’t mind getting into a slugfest) may come out on top, but SDSU’s offensive rebounding prowess (they snatch 37.6% of all available offensive rebounds) and struggles from the free throw line (they shoot just 67.1% from the line) may be two competing areas to keep an eye on. If I had to guess, I’d take the Aztecs, 70-65.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (20-0, 5-0): The Aztecs had just one game this week, as they were fortunate enough to have a bye built into their schedule prior to each of their games with BYU this season. On the court, they needed a late run against Air Force to finally put the Falcons away. Leonard had ten points and ten rebounds for the 30th double-double of his career, while Gay followed up his career-high 30 against New Mexico last Saturday with 20 more, including six threes. He now has 13 three-pointers in his last two appearances. But it was Billy White who stepped up to finally put the game away, scoring ten of his 12 points in the middle of an 13-3 SDSU run down the stretch to expand what had been a four-point contest into a 14-point Aztec win.

A look ahead: At BYU on Wednesday night. And if the schedule-makers weren’t to be thanked enough already for the byes before the BYU game on the schedule, they certainly deserve one for scheduling Wyoming after the Cougar game.

2. BYU (19-1, 5-0): We’ve talked plenty about Fredette in these posts this year, and with good reason, but there are plenty of other big contributors to the BYU cause on this roster. Fellow senior Jackson Emery just passed Danny Ainge as the all-time leader in steals at the school and has been a perfect complement to Fredette in the backcourt. He’s knocked down 22 three-pointers in 44 attempts during conference play (after a slightly cool stretch during non-conference play) and his ability to get in passing lanes or pick the pockets of opposing players often fuels BYU’s dynamic transition game. Up front, sophomore Brandon Davies has turned into a consistent offensive threat, since earning Dave Rose’s trust early in the season. After scoring just two points in 15 minutes in the first two games of the season, Davies has scored in double figures in 14 of the last 18 games. In the Cougars wins over TCU and Colorado State this week, he averaged 12.5 points and nine rebounds per game. Then there’s freshman guard Kyle Collinsworth who is just now starting to look comfortable for the Cougs. In the past three games, he’s averaged 12.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and four assists and has turned into a solid offensive option for BYU.

A look ahead: While SDSU gets a feathery-soft landing following the big clash on Wednesday night, BYU has to follow up the game that everyone has been pointing to with a trip to Albuquerque to face an angry Lobo squad on Saturday.

3. Colorado State (13-6, 3-2): The Rams have the third-best record in the conference and they just got done beating UNLV at the Thomas & Mack. My eyes keep telling me that this CSU team isn’t any better than the fifth-best team in the conference; I’m going to an ophthalmologist this week. The Rams followed up their 15-point win at UNLV by keeping BYU within shouting distance for most of the game on Saturday, before finally succumbing, but there were plenty of good signs this week for Tim Miles’ and company. Senior Travis Franklin finally shook off a stretch of down-games following his success in Cancun, by going for 22.5 PPG this week and adding six rebounds a night. Fellow senior Andy Ogide was just as good, racking up 18-point and nine-rebound averages over the week. When those two guys are going strong, they open up a lot of good looks for perimeter players like Eikmeier and sophomore Dorian Green.

A look ahead: CSU travels to UNLV on Wednesday, then hosts BYU on Saturday. Good luck.

4. UNLV (15-5, 3-3): Rebel fans are in need of something of a wake-up call. Since looking great over Thanksgiving weekend en route to a 76 Classic championship, Vegas has looked very ordinary. Defensively, they are stellar. They force turnovers, they harass opposing ballhandlers, they clog up the lane – they are very hard to score against. The problem is on the other end. Sure, if those turnovers they force can get them out in transition, they have some good athletes who excel in the open court (I’m looking at you, Anthony Marshall). But in the halfcourt, there is no one really capable of breaking down a defender and getting his own shot, there is no one whose three-point ability really scares opposing teams, and there is no great offensive rebounder. In short, this is a very ordinary offensive team. And while Reb fans may hold out hope that Willis’ knee problems will disappear just in time for a big NCAA Tournament run, it is looking more and more likely that the Willis we see now is the Willis we’ll see come March. But even if a 09-10 Willis shows back up, is that really enough to turn this Rebel offense into anything more than ordinary? I’m not buying it.

A look ahead: The Rebels travel to Wyoming tonight, then get the weekend off to patch their bones.

5. New Mexico (13-7, 1-4): I’m going to keep holding on to the idea that this Lobo team is a talented squad that is just about ready to turn the corner and cause problems. They’ve got to be, right? Led by senior point guard/bulldog Dairese Gary and with players like Drew Gordon, Philip McDonald, A.J Hardeman and the talented freshman class of Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Tony Snell, isn’t this team too good to be 1-4 in the MWC? Apparently not. Williams has come back to earth a bit after his fiery start, McDonald remains an up-and-down enigma and Gordon has yet to really establish himself as a post-man who demands the ball when things are going good. There is talent here, but it is up to Steve Alford and his senior point to fold the newcomers in with the returning talent, and to this point, that just hasn’t happened.

A look ahead: The Lobos are badly in need of some home cooking, and they’ll get it this week, welcoming TCU to The Pit on Wednesday, then entertaining BYU on Saturday. The Lobos had better handle the Frogs midweek or the home folks will be howling, while the Saturday game sets up pretty nicely for New Mexico.

6. Utah (10-10, 3-3): Back to .500 on the season and in the conference, the Utes are our MWC Team of the Week (see above).

A look ahead: Utah hosts Colorado State on Saturday, following a mid-week bye.

7. Air Force (11-7, 2-3): The Falcons actually gave San Diego State a good run for their money on Wednesday, pulling within 48-44 on consecutive threes by seniors Tom Fow and Derek Brooks. But from there, the Air Force offense went cold and SDSU went to the spurs, using a 13-3 run to propel them to a 13-point win. On Saturday, the Falcons bounced back nicely, however, using 17 first-half points by sophomore Mike Lyons to build up a big early lead and using balanced scoring on the way to an eventual 21-point win over Wyoming.

A look ahead: The Falcons are on the road this week, with trips to Colorado State and TCU ahead.

8. TCU (10-11, 1-5): There aren’t a ton of positives around the TCU basketball program, but we’ve found a couple worth mentioning. First, as Luke Winn points out, junior guard Ronnie Moss was actually incredibly effective against Fredette in the Frogs’ 16-point loss at Provo on Tuesday. Fredette wound up with 21 points, but aside from one of Fredette’s insane 30-foot threes, Moss held him to 0-of-8 shooting in the first half, and allowed just one layup-plus-foul in the second half. Throw in the fact that Moss had 27 points and six rebounds of his own, and that’s not a bad day at the office. Elsewhere on the TCU squad, I’ve just got to mention Hank Thorns this week. The guy is listed at 5’9, which means he’s maybe 5’7. Maybe. And yet he led the Frogs in rebounding in both of their games this week, grabbing a total of 13 boards on the week. He’s also had 40 assists in the past five games, but back to the rebounding thing. Now, TCU is not a massive team across the front line, but their starting frontcourt in their last game went 6’7, 6’9, 6’9. All told, those three guys (Garlon Green, Amric Fields and Nikola Cerina) grabbed 21 rebounds in their last 159 minutes of game time. And the 5’9 Thorns grabbed 13 by himself last week. Good on Thorns, but with that frontcourt production, the 1-5 record is not surprising.

A look ahead: The Frogs travel to New Mexico on Wednesday, and then host Air Force on Saturday.

9. Wyoming (8-11, 1-4): A 21-point loss to Air Force. Sure, the Falcons are an improved team this year, and the Cowboys have lost some players to injuries. But against TCU and Air Force, the two teams with whom the Cowboys could reasonably expect to compete, they have lost by an average of 19.5 points per contest. Now Heath Schroyer and company do get a chance to reprise those matchups in front of a home crowd later in the season, but things are not good in the Wyoming basketball program right now.

A look ahead: And as bad as things have been in Laramie, a visit from UNLV and then a trip to San Diego to face the Aztecs are not exactly the kinds of medicine you prescribe to an injured patient. Hello, 1-6.

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