Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 Conferences.
A Look Back
The Mountain West goes national – at least for a night. On Wednesday, the much-anticipated MWC clash between BYU and San Diego State took the nation by storm, and Jimmer Fredette and the Cougars certainly did not disappoint. After a pretty standard first eight minutes, during which Fredette “only” had five points, he exploded for BYU’s final 15 points of the first half, then picked up right where he left off after the break, scoring nine of the first 12 Cougar points on his way to a total of 43 on the night. And when the final buzzer sounded on a 71-58 BYU win, the fun was just beginning. Over the next 24 hours, Fredette’s name popped up all over, and not just among the typical college basketball dorks. ESPN couldn’t get enough of him, Kevin Durant called him the “best scorer in the world,” and Fredette, with his new horribly unimaginative update of his nickname (really, adding a “The” to “Jimmer”? come on…) was just about as close to a household name as a college basketball player can be. And so, our secret is out. Tucked away in our little corner of the college hoops world, we seemingly had Fredette all to our own for the last few years. To most of the rest of the average casual college basketball fan, Fredette was just that good shooter tucked away on The Mtn. and other backwoods channels who they might get a chance to watch a time or two a year. For us, we knew there was more. We’d seen him knock down the deep threes, but we’ve also seen him power by defenders to get into the lane and finish in absolutely ridiculous ways. We’ve been calling Fredette must-see TV for most of this season, and while there is maybe a bit of bittersweetness to losing that little secret that MWC hoops fans had, we’re far more apt to be happy that the rest of the college basketball world gets it now: Fredette is as fun of a player to watch as ever comes down the pike and hoops fans should be taking advantage of every opportunity to see him play in what is now his final nine games of his college career. And, for the MWC fan who still wants to be in on a secret that the rest of the country doesn’t know about yet, there’s still Kawhi Leonard who is somewhat undervalued nationwide. There’s Jackson Emery. There’s D.J. Gay, Dairese Gary, Andy Ogide, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and Tre’Von Willis. And you know what? We’ve likely got just over a month remaining in each of those players’ great college careers. MWC fans are very lucky right now.
Team of the Week: New Mexico – While BYU handing SDSU their first defeat of the season was the big national story of the week, the Lobos were the big winner this week as they got back on track in conference play. After destroying TCU on Wednesday night in the shadow of Jimmermania, the Lobos were able to perhaps take advantage of BYU’s ride back to earth and score a big nine-point win in The Pit. The Lobos are still a game below .500 in the conference, and I’ve been wrong before in saying that Steve Alford had this thing turned around, but New Mexico is now getting contributions from all over their roster. Dairese Gary has been the sure thing the last couple of years, but now there’s plenty more help. Drew Gordon is on a roll with double-figure scoring in his last six games and double-digit rebounding in five of those games. Philip McDonald has been inconsistent during his career, but he’s averaging over 14 points a game in the last six. While it looked for a while that Kendall Williams had hit the freshman wall, he’s scoring more than 12 a game over that stretch, while still adding four assists a night. And against BYU, freshman Tony Snell offered up by far his biggest contribution of the season, scoring a career-high 16, with five threes – including two big ones down the stretch – and a pretty solid performance while guarding Fredette. I’ve made the comparison before, but the Lobos have the potential to be this year’s San Diego State at the conference tournament. They’ve struggled on their way to building a cohesive team, but as the Lobos come barreling down the final stretch of highway in March, don’t be surprised if they’re playing their best basketball of the season at exactly the right time.
Player of the Week: Jimmer Fredette, Senior, BYU – With apologies to Andy Ogide, there is no way this can go to anyone else but Fredette this week. The loss on Saturday is a pretty major blemish on the resume, but really when we look back at the college basketball season when all is said and done, this will go down as The Week of Jimmer. When you average 37.5 points per game on 26-50 shooting and 11-17 from behind the arc, you’re very much on the short list for player of the week in any conference. When you do that in a week when your name is on the lips of sports fans across the country, when the mere mention of your name incites smiles, disbelieving head shakes and looks of wonder, when you vault yourself right up to the top of the leaderboard for potential National Player of the Year candidates, you’ve got the little old MWC POTW award in the bag.
Newcomer of the Week: Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico – A couple weeks back when we gave Gordon this award, it was on the heels of a spectacular week. (Seriously, have you checked this out yet?) This week was perhaps a more pedestrian week, but Gordon was still incredibly effective. Over the course of the week, he went for 27 points, 23 rebounds, four blocks and 65% shooting from the field. There are still plenty of places where Gordon needs to improve his game (um, he’s averaging one assist every 111 minutes this season), but if he can keep being a ferocious rebounder and a reliable post scorer for the Lobos, he can help turn this squad into a scary matchup for teams across the conference.
Game of the Week: BYU 71, San Diego State 58 – Usually here we detail a particularly close and dramatic game. This week, while Air Force did play in a couple of games decided by a total of four points, the game of the week was obvious. While there was no real drama in the last four minutes or so, this was the MWC’s turn in the national spotlight. And it was good. Sure, the Aztec team that we’ve seen all season was a shadow of its usual self, and sure there were stretches where the defenses seemed to be significantly ahead of the offenses, but this was a completely enjoyable way to spend a weeknight hour or two. Fredette gets all the publicity (and rightly so), but Leonard was amazing as well, despite playing with the flu, notching 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Maybe next time these two teams meet in San Diego, we’ll get the down-to-the-wire, white knuckle finish we were hoping for, but just because we didn’t get that on Wednesday night doesn’t mean we watched anything short of a completely compelling spectacle.
Game of the Upcoming Week: San Diego State (21-1, 6-1) at Colorado State (15-6, 5-2), 2/2, 6PM PST, CBS College Sports – While this won’t have the national panache that the game of a week earlier had, this battle could have just as big an effect on the conference title picture. The Aztecs and Cougars are tied atop the conference with just one loss, but just a game back looms CSU, a veteran team that still has to prove that they belong in the conversation with the big boys in this league. Against BYU a couple weeks back, they kept the game close for the better part of 40 minutes before letting the game slip away at the end, but they did score a win over UNLV. Right now the Rams sit on their own mini-tier in the conference, not quite having yet posted the credentials to earn them consideration alongside the two teams above them, but surprisingly ahead of the rest of the conference. However, in their quest to prove that they are deserving of NCAA Tournament consideration, a win over the Aztecs would be a huge feather in their cap. For their part, the Aztecs still have a bad taste in their mouth after their less than stellar performance against BYU, and even a 39-point win over Wyoming on Saturday hasn’t yet washed that away; they’ll be looking to re-establish their place in the conference.
1. San Diego State (21-1, 6-1): I’m leaving the Aztecs as my pick in the conference based on BYU’s loss to New Mexico and the fact that SDSU’s hosts the next matchup between the teams on February 26. But, beyond that, the loss on Wednesday night did reveal, or highlight, some flaws here. We’ve talked about it before, but as good as the Aztecs have been on the offensive glass all season long, they’re just average on the defensive glass. Some of that comes from their aggressiveness in trying to challenge shots on the defensive end, but a bit of it comes from the lack of effort at times. That portion of it is eminently fixable. More concerning was the complete absence of any positive effect on the game from D.J. Gay. Gay has been a rock for the Aztecs, knocking down big shots, playing solid defense and just generally willing his team to victories in tight games since the middle of last season. On Wednesday night, he was largely invisible, other than being in the frame when Fredette was knocking down jumpers. He wound up with two points on 0-7 shooting, and seemed to lose confidence as Fredette ascendance continued. For the Aztecs to live up to their potential, they’ll need Gay to be the tough-nosed bulldog that he has been over the past year.
A look ahead: The Aztecs travel to Fort Collins for our Game of the Week on Wednesday, then return home for a relative breather against TCU on Saturday.
2. BYU (20-2, 6-1): Believe it or not, there is more than one player on this Cougar team, and there are plenty of good ones. Among them, sophomore forward Brandon Davies has taken a huge leap forward this season, a very positive development for this squad, given that at the start of the year he was very much a question mark. There was no doubt about his talent, but his effort and basketball IQ were sometimes questioned, leaving him riding the pine for large portion of the Cougars first two games. However, of late he has earned a valuable spot in the rotation and has come through, scoring in double figures in the last seven games and in 13 of their last 14. While his best years are still ahead of him (I’ll put him on by 2011-12 Preseason All-MWC team right now), he’ll be a big factor for the Cougars down the stretch. Another intriguing frontcourt player is 6’10 junior James Anderson. Against the Aztecs he came out of nowhere to block five shots in the game, just one shy of his total in the other 146 minutes he’s been on the floor this year. His minutes have been up and down this year, and he’s most apt to get run only when there are injuries or foul problems up front, but he showed on Wednesday that when called upon, he’s capable of providing quality minutes.
A look ahead: The Cougars travel to Laramie for a win at Wyoming, then return home to welcome the Runnin’ Rebels as the second time around the conference begins.
3. Colorado State (15-6, 5-2): After a couple of good wins against some sneaky-tough middle-of-the-pack MWC teams this week, the Rams can look back at the first half of their conference schedule and feel good that they’ve at least beaten the teams that they should have beaten. Mix in a loss at New Mexico, a home loss to BYU and a road win at UNLV and Tim Miles has to feel pretty good about the fact that he’s got his CSU team in the conversation for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. There is still work to do, however, and as happens every year, the bubble is bound to shrink come March as teams steal bids, but the Rams are at least in a place where this is a doable thing. If senior forward Andy Ogide keeps playing the caliber of basketball that he currently is, not only will he have a spot saved for him on the first team All-MWC, but he should be able to get the Rams over the hump. In a tight win over Utah on Saturday, Ogide went for a career-high 28 points, ten rebounds and three three-pointers, the latter a jaw-dropping number given that he had made exactly four other threes in his entire collegiate career.
A look ahead: CSU travels to UNLV on Wednesday, then hosts BYU on Saturday. Good luck.
4. UNLV (16-5, 4-3): The Rebels just had one game this week, and given the way they played in the early-going of their game in Laramie, they seemed like that were interested in taking the whole week off. Luckily, their offense got going late in the first half and then the Rebels ripped through a 51-34 second half to ease away from the Cowboys late. Tre’Von Willis, Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback each went for 17 points in the game and Anthony Marshall led the team in both rebounds (11) and assists (5).
A look ahead: A tough week awaits the Rebels, with a visit from a vastly improved Utah squad preceding a visit to Provo for an attempt at paying back the Cougars for their conference-opening loss in Las Vegas.
5. New Mexico (15-7, 3-4): We talked about the Lobos above in our team of the week section, but to sum it up: Lobo fans are hoping that their team has turned the corner.
A look ahead: The Lobos have a winnable road game at Air Force tonight, but they’ll need to earn it with a good performance against an improved Falcon squad. They’ve got a bye on the weekend before beginning their second run through the conference with a visit from Wyoming next Wednesday.
6. Utah (10-11, 3-4): The Utes gave Colorado State all they could take on Saturday, but after scrapping back to tie the game late at 68, they gave up the final six points of the game and slid back below .500 in conference. Will Clyburn continued his strong play with 19 points and ten rebounds, but also turned the ball over six times, a weakness that has plagued the Utes all season long.
A look ahead: Utah wraps up the first half of conference play with a trip to Las Vegas, then start the flip side by hosting Air Force on Saturday.
7. Air Force (12-8, 3-4): The Falcons played two games they can be proud of this week; unfortunately, the record still reads 1-1 on the week. Against CSU on Wednesday, sophomore Mike Lyons did his best to bring the Academy back late, with seven points in the last 30 seconds, but every time his heroics brought the Falcons a step closer the Rams had an answer. Against TCU on Saturday, it was junior Taylor Stewart with a layup with 15 seconds left in overtime that provided the final margin in a 66-65 win.
A look ahead: The Falcons host New Mexico on Wednesday, then travel to Utah for what should be a very evenly matched game.
8. TCU (10-13, 1-7): TCU has wrapped up the first half of their conference schedule, given that they have a mid-week bye this week, and with just one win on the season, they are assured to be at least tied for last place in the conference. We knew coming in that this would be a tough year for the undersized and inexperienced Frogs, but this has been above and beyond what was expected. Aside from two additional losses last week, there was a third, big loss: the indefinite suspension of junior guard and leading scorer Ronnie Moss. Moss was suspended by head coach Jim Christian on Friday for “a failure to adhere to the standards of the program” and the feeling around Fort Worth is that he has played his last game for the team. Combined with the dismissal of junior college transfer Sammy Yeager at the beginning of this month, it has been a rough January for a program that seemed to be making some strides in the non-conference schedule. But now, the program seems to be back to square one, a proposition that has to have Christian, in his third year as the Horned Frog coach, questioning his future in Fort Worth with a move to the Big East imminent.
A look ahead: Things are going to get worse before they get better for the Frogs, with a visit to San Diego State due up on Saturday.
9. Wyoming (8-13, 1-6): While things are bad for TCU and Jim Christian, they can be thankful they are not Wyoming and Heath Schroyer. After playing UNLV pretty good for a half on Tuesday, SDSU took out their frustrations on the Cowboys in a big way on Saturday, scoring the first 14 points, 33 of the first 44 and building a 53-22 halftime lead. The only big question remaining for the Cowboy program this season is when they fire Schroyer and who they look to as a replacement.
A look ahead: Wyoming hosts BYU and Colorado State this week, at least giving the home crowd a chance to see what a good team looks like.