The Other 26: Bracket-Busting, South and West Edition

Posted by IRenko on March 19th, 2013

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I. Renko is an RTC columnist and the author of the weekly column, The Other 26. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

Oh, well. What’s a royal ball? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and-and-and boring, and-and completely… Completely wonderful. – Cinderella

It’s time for college basketball’s annual ball, which means it’s time for America to fall in love with Cinderella all over again. There are 36 teams from the 26 non-power-conferences who have been invited to this year’s Big Dance, and while the slipper no longer fits for some of the more prominent of these schools, for the bulk of them, this is a rare opportunity to make a name for themselves on the grandest of stages.

This is the first of a two-part series taking a look at the NCAA Tournament prospects for all 36 teams hailing from The Other 26. We focus today on the TO26 teams in the South and West regions, grouping them into five rough categories, and, within each category, ordering them by their likelihood of advancing.

Regional Threats

These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.

Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?

Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?

  • Gonzaga (#1, West) — It’s been five years since a TO26 team reached the top seed line. In 2008, Memphis rode its #1 seed all the way to the brink of a national championship, and Zags fans are hoping for the same — and perhaps more — this year. Gonzaga has no glaring weaknesses. They are led by an athletic, skilled frontcourt, the centerpiece of which is NPOY candidate Kelly Olynyk. They get steady guard play from Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and David Stockton. If they’re to run into any trouble, it will likely be against a team that (1) sports a strong, athletic interior defense that can contain Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Sam Dower and pound the glass, and (2) can hit the three-point shot consistently, as Illinois did in beating them (Gonzaga’s defense allows a lot of three-point attempts). There are a fair number of teams that meet the first criteria in the West bracket, but not many with a lot offensive firepower from the three-point line or otherwise. In short, this is as good a shot as Gonzaga has ever had to make the Final Four. The eyes of the nation will be watching to see if they can make good on their promise.
  • Virginia Commonwealth (#5, South) – VCU is a popular sleeper pick for the Final Four, and there’s some merit to that notion, but here is the most important thing you need to know about them: They are 25-2 on the year (and 14-0 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate over 18 percent. And they are 1-6 (and 0-5 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate under 18 percent. The Rams’ first-round opponent, Akron, falls squarely in the former camp (20.8 percent), a problem for the Zips that will be exacerbated by the absence of their legally-troubled starting point guard, Alex Abreu. After that, things get a bit trickier for the Rams. Their two potential Third Round opponents, Michigan and South Dakota State, rank in the top 10 in the country in turnover rate. Those stats are perhaps somewhat inflated by the fact that both teams play in conferences that don’t feature a lot of pressure defenses, but if you’re looking for a point guard to lead you against such a defense, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than Trey Burke or Nate Wolters. It’s true that Michigan has struggled lately in general, and that if you look ahead to a potential match-up with Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, Havoc’s odds of success improve, but I’d caution against over-exuberance at the Rams’ chances given a potentially dicey Third Round contest.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West Conference

Posted by AMurawa on January 3rd, 2012


Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences.

Reader’s Take

 

A Look Back

  • This past week in the Mountain West wasn’t exactly jam-packed full of great match-ups. New Mexico had a couple of very important games against quality opponents and came through with wins in each, but elsewhere there were relatively uninspiring games everywhere you looked. Air Force and Colorado State each played a couple games in four-team tournaments against middling competition (CSU won its tourney – the Sun Bowl Invitational in El Paso), TCU hosted a decent Tulsa team, UNLV went halfway across the Pacific to face Hawai’i, and Boise State traveled all of 22 miles to face Idaho, but there were also whitewashes against Central Arkansas and Redlands.
  • And, the bad news is, with teams across the country already up to their ankles in conference play, Mountain West teams have the likes of Johnson & Wales, Houston Baptist, Utah Valley, San Diego Christian, Nebraska-Omaha, and Cal State Bakersfield on the schedule next week – truly only a schedule a mother could love.

Fun Fact of the Week

  • No Mountain West team has had a sub-.500 record at any point this season. Only New Mexico has been as low as .500 at any point on the year (twice) after alternating wins and losses in their first four games of the year.

Team of the Week

  • New Mexico – Easy choice here, as the Lobos beefed up their NCAA Tournament credentials this week by knocking off Saint Louis (RPI #59) in Albuquerque on Saturday after having gained revenge on in-state rival New Mexico State earlier in the week. They still are only #50 in the nation in RPI, but should have a chance to bolster than number against a strong conference this season. And, more importantly, they are playing better as a team than they were early in the season. In recent weeks, Drew Gordon has been a monster on the glass, while he and Tony Snell, Kendall Williams, Jamal Fenton, Chad Adams, and Phillip McDonald have all scored in double figures at least once in their last four games. Read the rest of this entry »
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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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Checking in on… the MWC

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 12th, 2011

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

A Look Back

With the first week of conference play in the books, we’ve already had a big battle between a couple of the favorites, an upset of a team hoping to make its case for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field and quite a few other interesting battles around the conference. The big statement of the week was BYU’s trip to UNLV on Wednesday night, where the Cougars came away with their first win in their last nine games against UNLV in the Thomas & Mack behind a sparkling 39-point performance by Jimmer Fredette, who has now officially thrown his hat into the ring as a National Player of the Year candidate. Fredette threw in seven increasingly improbable threes in getting the big Running Rebels off of BYU’s collective back, with backcourt mate Jackson Emery adding six more for good measure, as BYU pulled away in the second half and then withstood a too-late UNLV run to hold on for the big win. Given BYU’s struggles at the Thomas & Mack, that win was something of a surprise, but Wyoming defending their homecourt and knocking off New Mexico on Saturday may be the big take-away from the weekend. The Cowboys limped through their non-conference schedule, but were able to deliver a big early blow to the Lobos at-large hopes when junior Francisco Cruz hit the buzzer-beating game winner following the Cowboys’ second offensive rebound of their final possession. Elsewhere, form more or less held true.

  • Team of the Week: BYU – It cannot be overstated how big of a win the Cougars pulled off against UNLV last Wednesday. In terms of this year’s regular season conference race, the win over the Running Rebels clearly establishes BYU as the “1-A” to San Diego State’s “1”. But on a bigger scale, it is a large mental hurdle that has been cleared by Dave Rose and his squad. Not only is it the first win by any player on this roster over UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center, it is also the first win of its kind of the Rose era at BYU. Including last year’s crushing 70-66 loss in the Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinals and two other losses to UNLV in MWC Tournament finals, BYU had lost at UNLV eight times in the last five seasons. And those losses came in all manner of ways, from the 75-74 battle in 2009 to the 70-41 shellacking in 2008. The Cougars found all sorts of different ways to leave Vegas on a losing skid – a feeling I’m sure plenty of us can relate to. But now, with a 16-1 record and a convincing win over their nemesis, perhaps BYU can leave their doubts behind in Vegas and use that win as a springboard for the rest of the season.
  • Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – Just a typical week for Fredette: 61 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, ten three-pointers in 21 attempts and a whole host of wow-inducing, TiVo-rewinding, and soul-crushing (for his defenders, at least) buckets. At this point, he’s taken down this award four times, and with his nearly 25 points per night, you can expect to see his name pop up here a few more times in his final couple months as one of the most exciting college basketball players in the land. And, if you’re not planning on doing so already, make it a point to watch this guy play at least once a week for the rest of the season. Every remaining BYU game is televised somewhere, and believe me, this guy is as close to must-see-TV as it gets in college hoops this season.
  • Newcomer of the Week: Francisco Cruz, Junior, Wyoming – There hasn’t been much to write home about coming out of Wyoming basketball these last couple years. On the heels of last year’s 10-21 eight-place finish, the Cowboys struggled to a .500 record in non-conference play this year. But in their home conference opener on Saturday night, “Paco” hit the game-winning shot that, at least temporarily, put smiles on the faces of concerned Wyoming players, coaches, and fans. His overall numbers this week won’t blow you away (10.5 PPG, 3-11 from three), but the JuCo transfer from Nogales, Mexico has thus far been the sole consistent shooter on a Cowboy team limited by injuries and inexperience, knocking down 42% of his three-pointers and 89% of his free throws. He won’t amaze you with his athleticism, but if you give this dead-eye shooter a clean look from deep – or even a contested look off a scramble for a loose rebound in the closing seconds, as in the case of the New Mexico game – odds are he’ll make you pay.
  • Game of the Week: Wyoming 67, New Mexico 66 – Let’s start here with just over a minute left, with the Cowboys up 64-61and New Mexico, who had been carried by senior point guard Dairese Gary all day long, coming out of a timeout. With everybody in the place thinking Gary would be the guy called on to make a play, the Lobos found freshman forward Alex Kirk popping out to the three-point line and stroking the jumper to tie the game. On the next possession, Cowboy sophomore Desmar Jackson drove wildly to the hoop and missed an out-of-control runner, but in shades of things to come, the Lobos were unable to secure the ball, allowed Jackson to retrieve it and draw a foul to get to the line, where he made one of two to give Wyoming the lead back. New Mexico came back, however, this time behind Gary, who drew a foul of his own and made both buckets to regain the lead for the Lobos, setting up Wyoming’s final possession. With about ten seconds left, Cruz launched a three from the corner, which bounced harmlessly away, but the Lobos, without the services of big men A.J. Hardeman and Drew Gordon who had both previously fouled out, were again unable to secure the rebound. Wyoming’s Daylen Harrison found the ball and put up his own attempt at a game winner, which again clanged off the rim. This time the ball found its way back to Cruz, who threw up an off-balance, desperation prayer at the buzzer which dropped in and wound up as the game-winner for the Cowboys.
  • Game of the Upcoming Week: UNLV @ San Diego State, 1/12, 7PM PST, CBS College Sports – A week ago, it was UNLV and BYU kicking off conference play, but this time around San Diego State gets the first of its two big tests this week, when the Running Rebels come calling to Viejas Arena for what is likely the Aztecs biggest test of the season so far. With Lon Kruger’s squad having already dropped a game at home, they’ll look to steal a road game against the conference favorite to get back into the mix of teams at the top of the conference. Two keys to this game will be rebounding and three-point shooting, a couple areas where both teams can struggle at times. While SDSU is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, grabbing 37.8% of their own misses, they have struggled at times this season cleaning their defensive glass. UNLV hasn’t been particularly good rebounding at either end, so the Aztecs’ big and athletic frontline could have a chance to gain a significant advantage on the glass. From behind the arc, both teams rank lower than 200th in the nation in three-point percentage, but each team has a player who can hit from deep as SDSU’s James Rahon and UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield are both shooting at a greater than 40% clip from three. In the end, if either team can establish significant advantages in either of those areas, that could be the difference in the game.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (17-0, 2-0): At this point, the Aztecs are going to get everybody’s best shot – and they might as well get used to it, so long as that unblemished record and lofty national ranking continues. This week, both TCU and Utah gave SDSU at least one good half, before fading a bit coming out of the locker room. But once again, the Aztecs struggled a bit on the glass. While they dominated on the offensive boards, grabbing 35% of all available offensive rebounds, they allowed their opponents to grab over 30% of their own offensive rebounds. Another running theme for Steve Fisher’s club is their inability to get to the line consistently. Against TCU, they only earned six free throw attempts, before getting there 18 times against Utah. To be fair, given the way the Aztecs shot against Utah (they made just eight of their 18 attempts), perhaps it is understandable that they avoid the charity stripe, but with their size and athleticism, this SDSU team should be earning drastically more free-throw attempts than they currently are. Yes, the undefeated streak continues, and yes, this team is right there with the most talented teams in the country, but if the Aztecs don’t do a better job controlling the glass and getting to the free throw line, that goose egg on the right side of their record is going to disappear very soon.

A look ahead: After hosting the Running Rebels on Wednesday, the Aztecs head to Albuquerque for one of the tougher road trips in the MWC. Two wins this week would be a mighty impressive result, while two losses is not an impossibility.

2. BYU (16-1, 2-0): After knocking off UNLV in the conference opener, the Cougars were riding high. So it came as no particular surprise that BYU, while remaining in control throughout, looked uninspired and workmanlike in beating Air Force by ten on Saturday. Fredette followed up his 39-point performance in Vegas with a quiet 22-point effort, while junior scrapper Noah Hartsock double-doubled and added a couple three-pointers for good measure. Sophomore forward Brandon Davies completed a strong week as well, averaging 12.5 points and eight rebounds in the two wins.

A look ahead: The Cougars head to Salt Lake for their big intrastate battle with Utah before enjoying a bye on Saturday. San Diego State’s visit to the Marriott Center looms in the minds of MWC fans, but that matchup is still two weeks away.

3. UNLV (13-3, 1-1): The BYU loss is a bit concerning, but could be easily swept aside by Rebel fans with an under-the-breath muttering of “Fredette” and an eye-roll, but in reality, for about 20 minutes in the middle of that game, UNLV was getting whooped up and down the court by a significantly better team. Their vaunted defense did little to slow BYU’s guards during that run (the Cougars wound up with only one more turnover on the game than the Rebels) and their offense sputtered when they had to rely on their half-court offense. UNLV did bounce back to thrash TCU on Saturday, forcing 23 turnovers and getting plenty of easy looks in transition, but they’ll need to be able to do that against teams like BYU and SDSU in order to prove that they can be a threat come March.

A look ahead: Living on the road this week, with the big battle against SDSU on Wednesday preceding a sneaky matchup with Air Force on Saturday. If the Rebels can keep free and clean in these two, they’ll be right back in the conversation with SDSU and BYU at the top of the conference.

4. New Mexico (12-4, 0-1): Weird week for the Lobos. While all the rest of their MWC brethren were kicking off conference play on Tuesday and Wednesday, New Mexico was knocking CS Bakersfield around to the tune of a 40-point blowout. Alex Kirk broke Kenny Thomas’ New Mexico record for points scored in a game by a freshman with a 31-point explosion and Drew Gordon double-doubled, but given the overmatched opposition, the game meant little. When they did get around to opening conference play, they stumbled against Wyoming, turning the ball over 19 times. Dairese Gary kept the Lobos in the game with 24 points, and Chad Adams helped out by hitting all three of his three-point attempts, but aside from those two, the rest of the New Mexico players combined to make just 13 of their 34 field goal attempts. In the end, it is just one bad loss, eerily familiar to Wyoming’s upset of San Diego State at the start of conference play last season. The lesson here for Steve Alford to preach is that this is a loss that can be overcome, much like SDSU did last year, and you can never, ever, overlook anyone in conference play.

A look ahead: With the loss to Wyoming in their rearview mirror, the Lobos have a chance to make a big splash in the MWC this week, with Colorado State and San Diego State both visiting the Pit where New Mexico has gone 15-1 the last two seasons.

5. Colorado State (11-4, 1-0): At this point, the Rams have to be considered right there with New Mexico in a mini-tier of teams below the top three in the conference, teams who still have a ways to go before they can feel like they’ve made their case for at-large inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. While UNM has the loss to Wyoming under their belts, CSU started off conference play with a 13-point home win against those very same Cowboys. Senior Adam Nigon led the way in the opener with seven three-pointers for his 21 points and sophomore Pierce Hornung grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds as they bounced back from a 13-point first half deficit to run away in the second half. For the Rams to have any prayer at an at-large bid, they’ll need to continue to beat the teams at the bottom half of this conference while sneaking up on a couple teams above them. 

A look ahead: The road trip to New Mexico is a good chance for the Rams to separate themselves from the Lobos, with a TCU visit to Fort Collins following on Saturday.

6. Air Force (10-5, 1-1): The Falcons start out conference play with a brutal stretch, with BYU, UNLV and San Diego State the opponents in successive games. That stretch made their opener with Utah all the more important, and the Falcons responded well, keeping things close throughout and then making big plays down the stretch. After a well-fought game, it looked like Air Force was on the verge of letting the Utes get away with a road victory, when junior Will Clyburn hit two straight threes to give Utah a 67-66 lead with under three minutes to play. But, sophomore guard Mike Lyons converted a three-point play opportunity –  perhaps the most important points of his game and career-high 26 – with just under two minutes left to give the Falcons a lead which they never again relinquished. The next time down the floor, senior Derek Brooks hit a three and the Falcons made their free-throws down the stretch and when the buzzer sounded, they had an eight-point win to start conference play. In their ten-point loss to BYU on Saturday, Lyons again led the way with 14 points, but despite a valiant effort, Air Force was simply outclassed by the Cougars.

A look ahead: Home against UNLV, then a road trip to San Diego State. The good news about this run of games is that once they get through these, they’ll have a series of far-more-manageable opponents.

7. TCU (9-8, 0-2): It’s a brutal start to conference play for the Horned Frogs, as they faced the conference favorite Aztecs to open and an angry UNLV team in game two. TCU hung around with SDSU for a half, trailing by just a 29-26 margin at the break, but a 13-0 Aztec run in the second half broke that game open. Their trip to Vegas went down the chutes much more quickly, however, as 14 first half turnovers doomed the Frogs to a 49-28 halftime deficit. All in all, it was a terrible week for junior guard Ronnie Moss, who had 16 turnovers this week – including ten in the UNLV game alone – and hit just seven of his 23 field goal attempts. Sophomore Garlon Green led TCU in scoring this week, averaging 12 points per game.

A look ahead: This week’s slate looks much more manageable, with a visit by Wyoming to the Daniel-Meyer Coliseum backed up by their trip to Colorado State on Saturday.

8. Utah (7-9, 0-2): Following the tough loss to Air Force, the Utes came out and battled the #6 team in the country, San Diego State, to a standstill for much of their meeting. At the half, Utah led 34-33, but four second-half threes by SDSU’s D.J. Gay – each part of a larger Aztec run – led to the Utes coming up nine-points short of an upset. While there is no such thing as a moral victory at this level of competition, head coach Jim Boylen had to be pleased with the way his team played. Junior center David Foster got just his third start of the season and freshman J.J. O’Brien his sixth after each has battle injuries in the early going, and they provided size up front to allow the Utes to compete with SDSU’s frontline. But it was juniors Josh Watkins and Will Clyburn who led the way on the stat sheet, with Watkins going for a game-high 24 points and Clyburn adding 17 points and ten rebounds in the loss.

A look ahead: The Utes host BYU in their last go-round at the Huntsman Center as conference foes on Wednesday night. On Saturday, they battle Wyoming for the right to be listed as the eight-best team in the conference in this space next week.

9.  Wyoming (8-8, 1-1): The win over New Mexico was such a good thing for this program that even Lobo fans had to smile for a split second at the celebration following the Cruz buzzer-beater. Given the depths to which this program has sunk over the course of last season and this year’s non-conference schedule, given the injuries to vital players, given the roster defections, you could almost see the weight lift off the shoulders of head coach Heath Schroyer as the shot fell through the net. And, aside from the win, there was more good news that Cowboy fans were able to take away from the game on Saturday, as junior center Adam Waddell, who has struggled with tendinitis in his Achilles’ Heel over this winter, had his most effective game of the season, playing 23 minutes (his second-highest total of the season), scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds (both season highs). It remains to be seen if this is the first step on his way back to regular action, or if this was an island of health in a sea of injury, but for now, Cowboy fans can have some hope for Waddell’s future. The same cannot be said for junior Afam Muojeke, who missed Saturday’s game with continued complications from his patellar tendon injury at the end of last season. Muojeke has played in ten of Wyoming’s 16 games, but has never been near 100% this season and his status going forward remains to be seen.

A look ahead: Wyoming travels to TCU, then returns home to host Utah in a couple of games that should show us where these teams near the bottom of the standings are in relation to one another.

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RTC Conference Primers: #8 – Mountain West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 29th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. San Diego State (13-3)
  2. BYU (12-4)
  3. New Mexico (11-5)
  4. UNLV (11-5)
  5. Colorado State (9-7)
  6. Wyoming (6-10)
  7. Utah (6-10)
  8. TCU (3-13)
  9. Air Force (1-15)

All-Conference Team (key stats from last season in parentheses)

  • G: Jimmer Fredette, Sr, BYU (22.1 PPG, 4.7 APG)
  • G: Dairese Gary, Sr, New Mexico (13.1 PPG, 3.9 APG)
  • G: Tre’Von Willis, Sr, UNLV (17.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
  • F: Afam Muojeke, Jr, Wyoming (16.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
  • F: Kawhi Leonard, Soph, San Diego State (12.7 PPG, 9.9 RPG)

6th Man

Billy White, Sr, San Diego State (11.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG)

If you aren't already, get used to seeing and hearing about Jimmer Fredette.

Impact Newcomer

Drew Gordon, Jr, New Mexico – Gordon left UCLA midway through the Bruins awful season last year after never meshing with Ben Howland and his system, and as a result, he won’t be eligible for Steve Alford until after the first semester. But Gordon showed enough talent in his years in Westwood that he will be a welcome addition for what was an undersized Lobo team last season. However, Gordon did tear the meniscus in his right knee in mid-October and, although he is not expected to miss any game action, he may miss out on valuable practice time leading up to his expected December 17 debut.

What You Need to Know

  • Best In The West? Given the Mountain West’s history as a contender for the title of the top non-BCS conference in the nation, and given that the Pac-10 is at its lowest point in memory, it’s quite possible that, at least for 2010-11, the MWC may be the best conference in the West. Last season, four MWC teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament, and in just over a decade of existence, only once has the MWC failed to place more than one team to the Big Dance (2000-01). However, major changes are afoot in the conference, as Utah and BYU, both consistently strong basketball forces, will be leaving for the Pac-10 and WCC, respectively. Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada will join the conference, but while those teams are capable of putting together strong seasons (Nevada, in particular, has  recent success on the court), they’ll be hard-pressed to replace the production of the two Utah schools.
  • Familiar Faces: When you look around the conference this season, there will be a lot of veterans up and down the rosters, as 70% of the players that averaged more than five points per game last season return. Only Utah, of the nine conference teams, will look drastically different, as they lost two starters to graduation, a third starter to transfer, and five additional bench players to transfers as well. Bolstering the general experience around the league is a flood of incoming transfers: Drew Gordon and Emmanuel Negedu at New Mexico, Quintrell Thomas at UNLV, Hank Thorns at TCU, Wes Eikemeier at Colorado State and James Rahon at San Diego State. Not only will there be a lot of recognizable players on the court, there continues to be a lot of stability on the sidelines, as for the second consecutive year, every head coach in the MWC returns.
  • Non-conference Boost: Last season seemed to mark the first year of a new era in non-conference scheduling in the MWC. After earning a reputation as a conference whose teams would play consistently tough games, they slipped out of the top 20 in non-conference strength of schedule for a stretch from the 2006-07 season through the 2008-09 season. However, last year, the MWC addressed this in several ways. First and foremost, their teams were able to go out and get games against Pac-10 and Big 12 competition, but they were also able to get their teams in some good early-season tournaments, and they began the MWC/MVC Challenge, guaranteeing every team in the conference a matchup with a team from the Missouri Valley. That MWC/MVC Challenge will continue (the two conferences signed a four-year agreement), as will the involvement of conference teams in early-season tournaments (for instance, New Mexico plays in the Las Vegas Classic, UNLV in the 76 Classic, Colorado State in the Cancun Governor’s Cup, BYU in the South Padre Island Classic, Utah in the Diamondhead Classic, Wyoming in the Cancun Classic and San Diego State in the CBE Classic – and yes, the people that run these tournaments need to consult a thesaurus for an alternative to “Classic”). Additionally, the tougher non-conference scheduling continues, with conference schools making trips to places like Spokane, Berkeley, Logan, Ann Arbor, El Paso, Dayton, Tulsa, Louisville and Kansas City over the course of the non-conference slate.

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