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.
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.